Review of “The Holocaust in Romania” by Radu Ioanid

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Radu Ioanid’s The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies Under the Antonescu Regime, 1940-1944 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 2000), has received well-deserved high praise from Elie Wiesel. Wiesel writes in the Foreword: “I do not hesitate to say it: Radu Ioanid merits the recognition of all those who are interested in that history which has so lamely become known as the Holocaust. His work treats an unfortunately little-known subject: the tragic fate of the Jewish communities in Romania. Only a few historians, such as the great Raul Hilberg or Dora Litani, among others, have addressed it in their works. In fact, Radu Ioanid often leans upon them, but his work explores more fully the Evil that reined in Transnistria, between the Bug and Dnister, the two great rivers in Ukraine. His work, based as it is on material from unpublished archives, thus constitutes a new contribution to this field” (vii).

Ioanid is one of the first scholars to address the thorny subject of the Holocaust in Romania. Aside from Raul Hilberg, who covers the destruction of Jews throughout Europe including Romania, Jean Ancel (The History of the Holocaust in Romania, University of Nebraska Press, 2012) and Denis Deletant (Hitler’s Forgotten Ally, Palgrave MacMillan Publishing, 2006) also subsequently covered this topic at length. Radu Ioanid, however, paved the way for research focusing on the Holocaust in Romania.

His book is very important, not least of all because the Holocaust is denied or minimized by many in Romania: strangely enough, not only by the fringe political elements–Nazi or neo-Nazi sympathizers—but also by many conservative and even mainstream Romanians.

The main reasons for Holocaust denial in the country are complex, however, three key factors come to mind: 1) Ion Antonescu, Romania’s authoritarian, pro-Fascist leader, has been rehabilitated as a nationalist hero, 2) some consider the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina who perished in the Holocaust not Romanian, but Ukranian (even though they were under Romanian occupation during the Holocaust) and perhaps most importantly 3) Romania has a unique and ambivalent history towards its Jewish population during the Fascist era. It is the country that collaborated with Germany and doomed to death between 250,000 to 290,000 Jews (mostly those living in Bukovina and Bessarabia) while at the same time being one of the European countries with most Jewish survivors: about 375,000 Jews living in Wallachia, Moldavia and Southern Transylvania made it alive through the end of WWII.

Those who want to absolve Ion Antonescu and the country in general of responsibility for the massacre of Jews in Romania have to contend with Radu Ioanid’s thoroughly researched and compelling evidence to the contrary. Ioanid describes the pogrom in Iasi that occurred in June 1941 as “one of the most savage pogroms of WWII” (The Holocaust in Romania, 63). Iasi was a divided city: half of its population was Jewish (about 50,000 out of 100,000 people), yet at the same time it was also the center of anti-Semitic, Fascist political activity (the Iron Guard headquarters). During the Iasi pogrom over 10,000 Jews were beaten, shot, robbed, raped and/or murdered. Hundreds of people were stuffed into boarded up “death trains”(about 100 persons to each car) that traveled aimlessly for days on end without food or water provisions. Most of them died of suffocation, thirst or starvation. The degradation of the Jews’ humanity is almost indescribable. As Ioanid points out, “At one stop the inmates were permitted to drink from a pond where pigs wallowed; several fainted and drowned right there, others perished later from the ensuing gastrointestinal infections” (85). Antonescu not only allowed this to happen, but, according to Ioanid, he sent an order requiring that Jewish women and children be included in this “Action”.

Moreover, unlike the German crimes against humanity, which were largely hidden by Hitler from the native population, the violence in Iasi was perpetrated in plain sight of the Romanian people, many of whom participated, alongside the goons from the Iron Guard and government officials, in the lootings, beatings and murders of Jews. As Ioanid elaborates, “The mob’s cruelty and greed too the form of truly shocking torture, rape, killing and robbery, all continuing earlier precedents but achieving spectacular new heights of barbarism” (62).

The pogrom in Iasi, however, pales by comparison—at least in magnitude—to the Holocaust in Bessarabia and Bukovina, which began in June 1941 and resulted in over 300,000 deaths from forced deportations (to Transnistria), beatings, shootings, starvation and disease. Antonescu used the fact that Northern Bukovina had been briefly controlled by the Soviet Union (in June 1940) to charge the Jewish inhabitants of both Bukovina and Bessarabia with collaboration with the Red Army and target them for mass deportation and murder.

Although most of the Jews of Regat (Moldavia, Walachia and Southern Transylvania), being considered “Romanian Jews”, were spared from the Holocaust, Ioanid reminds us of significant exceptions: “about thirteen thousand Jews were murdered during the pogrom in Iasi, then the Moldavian capital… During deportations from Dorohioi about twelve thousand Jewish inhabitants were sent to Transnistria, at least one half of which perished” (111). Furthermore, the Iron Guard killed 125 Jews in the Bucharest pogrom.

Will those who do not wish to believe that the Holocaust occurred in Romania, or that Ion Antonescu’s policies were largely responsible for it, be persuaded by Ioanid’s careful study of the subject? Probably not. Historical evidence rarely sways ideological beliefs. But that is not the book’s main purpose. This history of the Holocaust in Romania establishes the facts, to commemorate the victims and allow the survivors who want to know what happened access to the truth.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under 1940-1944, Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory, Ion Antonescu, Iron Guard, Radu Ioanid, Review of "The Holocaust in Romania", the Holocaust, the Holocaust in Bessarabia and Bukovina, the Holocaust in Romania, the Iasi pogrom, Transnistria

The Legacy of Serge Moscovici: The Holocaust and Social Psychology

 

Jurnalul.roSergeMoscovici

Recently, on the day of his death (November 16, 2014), Le Monde published a tribute article about Serge Moscovici, considered by many to be “the father of social psychology”. (see Julie Clarini’s article, http://www.lemonde.fr/disparitions/article/2014/11/16/serge-moscovici-figure-de-la-psychologie-sociale-est-mort_4524344_3382.html) I first encountered his name during my first years of graduate school, in 1994-95, when I studied with the historians Genevieve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot at the Collège international de philosophie and the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. Some of my colleagues inquired if I was related to Serge Moscovici, the well-known social psychologist of Romanian origins whose last name I shared. I didn’t know what to answer them, since I had never researched our genealogy. But the question itself aroused my curiosity. Once I began reading his books and learning more about his background, I found Serge Moscovici to be a remarkable person and intellectual.

Born in Braila, Romania on June 14, 1925 under the name of Srul Hers Moscovici, he overcame incredible hardship and rose to intellectual fame against all odds. Being Jewish, his youth was marred by the anti-Semitic legislation passed by Romania’s Fascist regimes, which reflected the tone set by Nazi Germany throughout most of Europe. He was expelled from high school. Since some vocational schools remained open to Jews, he trained as a mechanic at Ciocanul, in Bucharest. While living in the capital, he observed with dismay some of Romania’s leading intellectual figures—particularly Mircea Eliade and Emil Cioran—express pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic points of view. He took refuge in what he felt would be the opposite route by joining the Romanian Communist Party, which was one of the few political parties that remained open to Jews. Moscovici witnessed the Bucharest Pogrom (in January 1941) and was sent to a forced labor camp, where he worked in construction. He was fortunate enough to be freed by the Red Army in 1944. Thereafter he made up for lost time and became the worldly intellectual he wanted to be, an ambition that couldn’t be realized in a Romania ruled by a Fascist regime. He taught himself French and philosophy.

Growing disenchanted with the Communist party, Moscovici moved to Paris, where he began studying psychology at the Sorbonne. His 1961 thesis, which would be published as a book in 1976, La psychanalyse, son image, son public, covered the relatively new field—group or social psychology–that would eventually gain him world renown. Having lived through both Nazi and Communist regimes—oppressed by one for being Jewish, disillusioned with the other—his research covered the psychological factors behind conformity (and mass movements) and the role of minorities in influencing larger group dynamics. Through a series of psychological experiments, he arrived at the scientific conclusion, which he had already witnessed in his life, that minorities can, indeed, influence the actions of the majority, even when what they say is counterintuitive or just plain false. These psychological experiments can be used to explain, in part, the manner in which totalitarian movements—Fascism and Communism alike—began as minority views and ended up ruling the majority throughout European and Eastern Block countries.

Later in life, in 1997, Serge Moscovici published an autobiographical book, Chronique des années égarées (Editions Stock), where he expresses some disappointment with the fact that his son, Pierre Moscovici–who would become famous in his own right as French Minister of the Economy, Finance and Industry–had to experiment in his youth with Communism and find out the hard way the lessons about totalitarianism learned years earlier by his father. Wisdom may be passed on from generation to generation, but rarely only through books or anecdotes. It also requires some personal experience: an experience of lived history that Serge Moscovici translated, in his research and books, into an elegant psychological theory. For those interested in social psychology, the role of the masses and the dynamics of totalitarian movements, Serge Moscovici’s death represents a great loss.

 

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

 

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, crowd psychology, Holocaust Memory, Pierre Moscovici, Serge Moscovici, social psychology, the Holocaust in Romania

Privilege and Persecution: Review of The Diary of Mary Berg, Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto

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The Diary of Mary Berg, a Polish survivor of American origins of the Warsaw Ghetto, has recently been in the news, a feature story in The New York Times. The journal contains entries from October 1939 to March 1944, offering first-hand details about the Nazi occupation of Poland, the establishment and destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, where nearly 400,000 Polish Jews lost their lives. Published in 1945 by L. B. Fisher, the diary initially received a lot of media coverage but went out of print in 1950. Thereafter the author declined opportunities to discuss her experiences of the Holocaust and even sometimes denied the diary’s existence. Nonetheless, the book resurfaced in 2006, published by Oneworld Publications under the title The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto and edited by S. L. Shneiderman, with an introduction by Susan Pentlin. Shneiderman had also translated the original diary from Polish into Yiddish and hired Norbert Guterman and Sylvia Glass to translate the Polish edition into English.

The diary took the spotlight again in a New York Times Books article by Jennifer Schuessler entitled “Survivor Who Hated the Spotlight” (published on November 10, 2014), which covered the recent auction of Mary Berg’s private photographs due to be sold at Doyle New York, a Manhattan auction house. How did these photographs resurface? Ms. Berg herself passed away in 2013. A Pennsylvania antique dealer bought her photographs, which had an estimated value of thousands of dollars, at an estate sale for only ten dollars. After relatives heard the news of the planned auction, they contacted Doyle and the auction house cancelled the auction, which had been scheduled for November 24, 2014. Schuessler cites Rachel B. Goldman, Assistant Professor of History at the College of New Jersey and a Judaic Studies expert, who maintains that the auction provoked a sense of outrage. She explains why: “This could set a tragic precedent of less Holocaust material being put in archives and instead ending up in private hands—including the wrong private hands, I might add.”

 

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These photographs, like the diary itself, offer an invaluable glimpse into the horrific lives even of the privileged inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto. Coming from an affluent family (her father was a successful art dealer and collector of the European masters such as Poussin and Delacroix), Mary Berg was especially fortunate to have a mother who was an American citizen. The Nazis generally treated American citizens differently from Polish captives, in the effort to launch a propaganda campaign that hid from the American press details about the persecution and massacre of European Jews. Mary Berg’s diary was one of the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust in Poland. It describes the tremendous duress of the hundreds of thousands of Jews trapped by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto and provides anecdotal accounts of the heroic and tragic Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which Mary received news about from survivor friends.

Originally from Lodz, where the Nazis had already set up a Jewish Ghetto, Mary moved to Warsaw with her family, hoping that life would be better there. In November 1940, however, the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto, where Mary was trapped with her family until a few days before the mass deportations to concentration camps, in the summer of 1942. She saw with her own eyes the brutality, the beatings, the random shootings of innocent civilians. She witnessed from her window countless people being forcibly deported to the Treblinka death camp and to Auschwitz. She saw, helplessly, thousands of children reduced to skin and bones. She barely escaped death herself. Due to her mother’s American citizenship, Mary, her parents, and her sister were sent to a camp in Vittel, France, which, as she states in her journal, seemed like “paradise” compared to the hardship and horror of life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Mary Berg’s diary offers a unique testimony about privilege and persecution in the Warsaw Ghetto. Originally the wealthier, well-connected members of the community could buy privileges, including jobs, exemptions from forced labor or deportation and, perhaps most importantly, the contraband food needed to ward off starvation. As members of the wealthier class, Mary and her friends helped organize charity talent shows, which not only gathered donations to feed the orphaned children and the starving poor in the ghetto, but also raised the public morale. Eventually, however, as the Nazis began implementing the Final Solution, even the wealthy faced the dangers of starvation, deportation and death.

Although privileged and young, Mary Berg is not only an incredibly astute observer of historical events, but also a highly compassionate person. Even when she and her family has enough to eat, she feels guilty for those who are starving in the Ghetto and does what she can to help them. After her family manages to escape the Ghetto, she is haunted by frequent nightmares about the hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who lost their lives in that living hell. In the one of the most moving scenes of her journal, Mary describes a scene that she will often relive: the day the orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto, led by their beloved teacher Dr. Janusz Korczak, went with dignity to their deaths:

 

“Dr. Janusz Korczak’s children home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. … They walked in ranks of two, calm, and even smiling. They had not the slightest foreboding of their fate. At the end of the procession marched Dr. Korczak, who saw to it that the children did not walk on the sidewalk. Now and then, with fatherly solicitude, he stroked a child on the head or arm, and straightened out the ranks” (169).

 

This sad procession walked to the cemetery. “At the cemetery all the children were shot” (169). Janusz Korczak was forced to watch their murder, then was executed by the Nazis himself. If there any episode in history can be said to capture the horror and brutality of the Holocaust, the massacre of the orphaned children of the Warsaw Ghetto would be it. Civilization—or rather the lack thereof—cannot sink any lower than this.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Doyle Auction House, Holocaust Memory, Janusz Korczak, Mary Berg, massacre of the orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto, Nazi occupation of Poland, The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Final Solution, Warsaw Ghetto

A Cataclysmic War: Review of Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt

CecilBeaton, portrait of EileenDunne1940LondonBlitzJudt

Tony Judt’s monumental history of the (post) WWII era ranks up there with Robert Conquest’s study of the Soviet Union, Alan Bullock’s biographical history of Hitler and Richard Pipes’ account of the Russian Revolution. Rare in its depth, breadth and scope, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2005) examines the devastating ripple effects of a cataclysmic war—WWII—throughout Europe during the entirety of the twentieth century. Publishers Weekly rightly hails the book as “the best history we have of Europe in the postwar period and not likely to be surpassed for many years…. One of its great virtues is that it covers the small countries as well as the large and powerful ones.” Postwar covers the history of the entire Cold War, dwelling on the spread and dismantlement of Communism. However, the book’s most staggering information—replete with statistics—focuses on the devastation of WWII and its immediate aftermath.

Although Judt covers the material damage done to European cities, he observes that this damage “was insignificant when set against the human losses. It is estimated that about thirty-six and a half million Europeans died between 1939 and 1945 from war-related causes(…)—a number that does not include deaths from natural causes in those years, nor any estimate of the numbers of children not conceived or born then or later because of the war” (Postwar, 17-18).

This is what I’d like to focus upon in this review, since one of the book’s main strengths is to quantify and explain the ravages of totalitarianism and war. Tens of millions of civilians and soldiers died from mass extermination, disease, malnutrition, forced marches, deportations, labor and concentration camps. We’ve already seen that the Holocaust alone claimed ten million victims, about 6 million of whom were Jewish.

Military losses assumed staggering proportions. Judt documents that the Soviet Union alone lost 8.6 million fighters, Germany 4 million, Romania about 300,000. Countless Soviet soldiers died as prisoners of war, as the Germans captured 5.5 million Soviet soldiers. Many of those that managed to survive against all odds the Nazi imprisonment were deported by Stalin to Siberia once they arrived home. (18-19)

Women suffered from the ravages of war both as human beings and specifically as women. Many were raped and tortured as part of the atrocities of war and, later, the spoils of victory. Germany paid a heavy price for having succumbed to Nazi rule. As the German saying went, “Better enjoy the war—the peace will be terrible.” According to Judt, “87,000 women in Vienna were reported by clinics and doctors to have been raped by Soviet soldiers in the three weeks following the Red Army’s arrival in the city” (20).

With the farmland, electrical plants, infrastructure and even industry of so many European countries nearly destroyed, people continued to suffer from hunger, polluted water supplies and diseases, of which typhoid and diphtheria were widespread. Hospitals had insufficient supplies, staff and resources to take care of the ill and dying. As Judt describes the situation in Poland, “for the 90,000 children of liberated Warsaw there was just one hospital, with fifty beds” (22).

One of the biggest Diasporas in history, WWII led to the expulsion, deportation and migration of 30 million people between 1939-1942. (23) Germany, who ignited the war, lay in ruins by its end. Judt cites William Byford-Jones, a British officer in Germany, who observed the country’s dire situation in 1945:

“Flotsam and Jetsam! Women who had lost husbands and children, men who had lost their wives; men and women who had lost their homes and children; families who had lost vast farms and estates, shops, distilleries, factories, flour-mills, mansions. There were also little children who were alone, carrying some small bundle, with a pathetic label attached to them” (23).

The Jews of Europe suffered the worst. Targeted for slave labor and extermination just for being born Jewish, over 6 million Jews lost their lives during the war. Even among the fortunate few who got to see the day of liberation from the Nazis, 4 out of 6 died within a few weeks afterwards. Their condition, Judt explains, “was beyond the experience of Western medicine” (24).

After describing the chaos and suffering of war, as the title suggests, Postwar depicts the rebirth of parts of Europe. Indeed, part of the book’s message is one of hope. Given the human devastation and the material destruction caused by WWII, it is a miracle that Western Europe managed to rebound and emerge like a phoenix from the ashes of war to flourish in first part of the twentieth century. Still under the grips of totalitarianism (Communism), it would take Eastern Europe another half a century to recover from WWII and the dangerous ideologies that led to the near destruction of an entire continent and its people.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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The controversial journal of Mihai Sebastian (1935-1944)

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The journal of the Romanian Jewish essayist, playwright and novelist Mihai Sebastian is still seeped in historical controversy in his native country. In fact, this journal, which the author kept for nearly ten years (from 1935 to 1944), was such a taboo subject that it wasn’t published until 1998 (in French) by Editions Stock. The Ivan R. Dee English edition appeared in 2000, increasing the diary’s international exposure–as well as the controversy that surrounded it. The Journal of Mihai Sebastian is particularly problematic for the Romanian community, both in the country and abroad. It depicts the regimes that allied themselves with the Nazis as well as some of Romania’s most notable writers and philosophers—Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Camil Petrescu–whom the playwright Eugene Ionesco characterized, due to their Fascist political affinities, as part of the “Iron Guard generation”–in a rather negative light. Sebastian’s frank and lucid picture of the Fascist influence in Romania can offend on several levels.

Many Romanians with strong nationalist sentiments still view Ion Antonescu as a national hero that protected the country’s interests in an impossible political context. Furthermore, even Romanians without strong nationalist feelings take great pride in Romania’s leading 20th century intellectuals, particularly Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Camil Petrescu. Some of them do not take kindly to a frank discussion of these authors’ pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic views in so far as bringing this subject up can cast doubt on their merit as writers and on their character.

I don’t think these are good reasons to shy away from reading this journal, however. The fact that Mihai Sebastian was himself a leading intellectual figure in the country and accepted as a friend by these authors gives us a more personal—and unique–glimpse into the cultural and political atmosphere of the times. This journal is interesting from both a historical and a philosophical perspective. It raises questions about Romania’s alliance with the Nazis and simultaneously explores the relation between morality and intellectuality (in the same way as discussions of Heidegger’s role in anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi discourse does). (See Philip Oltermann’s excellent article on this subject, published in The Guardian on March 12, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/13/martin-heidegger-black-notebooks-reveal-nazi-ideology-antisemitism).

Mihai Sebastian was born Iosif Mendel Hechter in 1907 in a Jewish family in Braila. He managed to survive Fascism, the war years and the Holocaust, only to die, absurdly, in a car accident in 1945. Sebastian studied law in Bucharest and mingled with Romania’s leading intellectual figures. His journal discusses his relatively close relationships with Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade, Camil Petrescu and Eugene Ionesco. Of these authors, only Eugene Ionesco was critical of Fascism. Years later, in 1959, he even published a political drama about totalitarianism, Rhinocéros, in which he described his friends’ strange transformations under the pressure—and lure–of history’s dark forces, Communism, Fascism and Nazism.

Being Jewish in an epoch when Judaism was equivalent to a crime punishable by imprisonment, deportation and even death, Sebastian had ambivalent relations with Cioran, Eliade and Petrescu, all of whom expressed anti-Semitic views and were seduced by a combination of Nazi and nationalist ideology. At one point, Sebastian expresses shock in reading an article by Mircea Eliade in support of the Legionary Movement: “Friday, 17 (December). In yesterday’s Buna Vestire (year I, no. 244, dated Friday, 17 December 1937): “Why I Believe in the Victory of the Legionary Movement,” by Mircea Eliade” 133). Numerous times, Sebastian hopes that personal bonds of friendship can shift his friends’ anti-Semitic views. He tries to persuade Camil Petrescu–to no avail–that his anti-Semitism is irrational:

“Thursday, 25 [June] 1936. When we left Capsa we went a few steps down the street and he repeated what he thought of the latest anti-Semitic attacks… He went on to say: ‘My dear man, the Jews provoke things: they have a dubious attitude and get mixed up in things that don’t concern them. They are too nationalistic.’ ‘You should make up your mind, Camil. Are they nationalists or are they Communists?’ ‘Wow, you’re really something, you know?… What else is communism but the imperialism of Jews?’ (60) Disappointed that Petrescu won’t listen to reason, Sebastian notes, perplexed: “That is Camil Petrescu speaking. Camil Petrescu is one of the finest minds in Romania. Camil Petrescu is one of the most sensitive creatures in Romania” (60).

Facing prejudice from one’s peers is one thing; facing the prospect of imprisonment or even death is quite another. Between 1935 and 1941, the political situation deteriorates significantly for Jews in Romania (and most of Europe as well) . In August of 1941, Sebastian finds himself in grave danger of being sent to labor camp for the simple fact of being Jewish. He’s aware of the probable link between deportation and extermination: “The alarm I felt at first is returning. Are we again facing a mass roundup of Jews? Internment camps? Extermination?” (389) Like most Jews from Old Kingdom Romania, however, Sebastian escapes due to a series of unpredictable shifts in government policies. (See my article on the subject of Ion Antonescu’s regime, http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/review-ion-antonescu).

Despite its trenchant critiques, however, Mihai Sebastian’s journal shouldn’t be judged only as an indictment of the political ideology of some of Romania’s leading intellectuals and of the country at large. Written in a lyrical and contemplative style reminiscent of an author Sebastian greatly admired–Marcel Proust–the journal also captures the author’s great appreciation of classical music, the cultural activities of the times, as well as his intriguing and often tumultuous love affairs, whom he compares to the vicissitudes of passion described by Proust in A la recherché du temps perdu.

As a memoir with political and ethical implications, Mihai Sebastian’s journal reminds us of the fact that political morality and intellectual merit aren’t necessarily linked. Great intellectuals can and do sometimes espouse immoral or chauvinist views. Does it follow that they they be judged only—or even mostly–in terms of those views? Absolutely not. Just like we shouldn’t judge Aristotle’s great contributions to philosophy only in terms of his “sexist” and incomplete views of women or Thomas Jefferson’s notable contributions to government, political theory and even architecture only in terms of having owned slaves and thus supported slavery, we shouldn’t judge Eliade, Cioran and Petrescu only (or mostly) in terms of their anti-Semitism or Fascist tendencies. Those of us who respect these writers need not fear that the truths expressed by Mihai Sebastian’s journal will diminish the intellectual worth of Romania’s leading authors. This book is important because it offers us a deeper understanding of Romania’s controversial, pro-Fascist years, from the perspective of a Jewish writer caught in the middle of cataclysmic events that he had the opportunity, lucidity and talent to describe exceptionally well.

Claudia Moscovici,

Literature Salon

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Filed under anti-Semitism, Camil Petrescu, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Emil Cioran, Eugene Ionesco, Holocaust Memory, Ion Antonescu, Mihai Sebastian, Mircea Eliade, The controversial journal of Mihai Sebastian (1935-1944), the Holocaust, The Journal of Mihai Sebastian

Dare to Live: Abrashe Sabrin’s Memoir from Vilna

JewishpartisangroupVilnaWikipedia

A few weeks after his daughter’s wedding, on September 23, 2001, Joe Sabrin’s father, Abrashe Sabrin, passed away. He was one of the few Holocaust survivors of Vilnius (Vilna). As he was going through his dad’s belongings, Joe discovered an attaché case. Inside it he found a war memoir written in Yiddish, a language that he didn’t understand. Filled with curiosity about his dad’s Holocaust experiences, which the latter rarely discussed with his family, Joe had it translated into English by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Once he could read his father’s memoir, Joe discovered an incredible tale of survival and courage. As Joe recounts, Abrashe Sabrin “came to Vilna in July of 1943 and by September 1943 was crawling through the sewers with 80 members of the FPO. They were headed to the forest on the day of the ghetto’s liquidation. In the forests this Jewish band fought among and with the Russians. Anti-Semitism was ever present. But they fought on, and my father, known by the code name ‘Razel’ was with them” (1). A few of those who, like Abrashe Sabrin, joined the Jewish Partisan movement in the fight against the Nazis, destroying train tracks and cars with mines, attacking SS convoys and guards—in and around the Forest of Rudnicki–managed to survive.

To put this remarkable memoir in historical context, the chances of escaping alive from the Vilnius Jewish Ghetto were almost nil. Nearly a quarter of a million Jews lived in Lithuania, which included the newly acquired city of Vilnius (Vilna). During the German invasion in June 1941, many Lithuanian deserters joined the pro-Fascist Lithuanian National Front and helped the Nazi Sonderkommando units (Einsatzgruppe A death squads) round up and shoot the Jews in the area. Vilna (or Vilnius) was a predominantly Jewish and Lithuanian city that Stalin had transferred back from Poland to Lithuania when he invaded Poland in September 1939. After the Nazi invasion of Poland two years later, the Lithuanian government attempted to recapture Vilnius and “nationalize” it. During the Nazi era, this meant an “ethnic cleansing” of about 60,000 Jews that lived in the area. Even before the establishment of the Jewish Ghetto in the city, the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators captured and murdered over 20,000 victims. (see Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims Bystanders, pp. 98-99)

Between September 6, 1941, when the Vilna Ghetto was forcibly established by the Nazis, and September 24, 1943, when the Ghetto was liquidated, the Jews of Vilna endured extremely trying conditions, similar to those inhabiting the Lodz and Warsaw Ghettos. They suffered from overcrowding, disease, starvation, forced labor and the constant fear of mass deportations to concentration and death camps in the East, as well as shootings and beatings by the Nazis and local Lithuanian collaborators. The Nazis organized the Ghetto to better control the victims and facilitate their ultimate extermination plan. They divided it into two parts, separated by a corridor of streets that they and the Lithuanians patrolled. The “small ghetto” was made up mostly of the elderly, women, children and those deemed incapable of work. The “large ghetto” included the Jewish leadership as well as many able-bodied men and women that they could exploit for slave labor. The Nazis murdered the inhabitants of the small ghetto first, whom they perceived as less useful. About 20,000 Jews remained in the larger community until September 1943, when Bruno Kittel, acting on orders received from Heinrich Himmler, liquidated the Vilna Ghetto.

Only a handful of young people survived: about two hundred fifty Jews employed for slave labor in a German military automobile plant and those who belonged to the resistance movements and hid, along with the Partisans, in nearby forests. One of those few survivors was Abrashe Sabrin, who would become one of the leaders of the Jewish Resistance in the area. As Abrashe Szabrinski writes in the memoir’s introduction, “These Jews in Vilna were ready to fight to their last breath, as did the Jews of Warsaw. One the last day of Vilna’s existence, the fighters were poised for war… But rather than take on the Germans inside the ghetto and face immediate annihilation, orders were given to escape by means of the city’s canals into the forest. There they could fight on” (3).

Unlike in the Warsaw Ghetto, where resistance was mostly a last ditch effort at the end when all hope for survival was lost, resistance in the Vilnius Ghetto began early on, under the leadership of Yitzak Wittenberg, Josef Glazman and Abba Kovner (the leaders of the FPO, or United Partisan Organization, formed in January 1942). Kovner, who would become a famous Israeli poet, urged the Vilna Jews to support the Resistance. “We will not go like sheep to the slaughter” was his motto. The Resistance opposed the appeasing attitude of Jacob Gens, the Judenrat and Jewish Police leader, who opted for cooperating with the Nazis in their regular deportations in the hope of saving the Jewish leadership, their families and those deemed capable of work. Gens viewed Jewish resistance as a dangerous provocation to the Germans and feared that the Resistance movement would spread panic among the remaining inhabitants of the Ghetto. Kovner, Wittenberg, Sabrin and other members of the Resistance, however, maintained that the Jews couldn’t trust the Nazis. They realized early on that their ultimate plan was to exterminate the Jewish people, not only exploit them for slave labor.

When the Gestapo asked Jacob Gens to surrender Yitzhak Wittenberg or else they would graze the ghetto to the ground and kill everyone in it, Wittenberg, at Gens’ request, turned himself in. But he took a poison pill rather than allow himself to be tortured and killed by the Gestapo. Despite his acquiescence, the Gestapo summoned Gens to their headquarters on September 14, 1943 and shot him, suspecting him of collaboration with the Resistance movement he had tried so hard to ward off. Soon thereafter they liquidated the entire ghetto despite their earlier reassurances to the Jewish Council.

Abrashe Sabrin’s memoir, Dare to Live, fills in the details about the slaughter of Vilna’s Jews by the Nazis and describes the heroic and risky actions of the Jewish Resistance and its sometimes uneasy alliance with the Communist partisans. Alongside a handful of other members of the resistance, Abrashe Sabrin managed to survive the Holocaust and helped free Vilna of the Nazi occupation. However, as Joe remarks at the conclusion of his father’s narrative, this was a bittersweet victory for the Jewish Partisans. “When they finally joined with the Russian army and took the city, they found it totally devoid of Jews. The ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’ had been wiped from the face of the earth” (89). We can find some solace in the fact that, thanks to this memoir and others, at least its memory survives.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Filed under Abba Kovner, Abrashe Sabrin, Claudia Moscovici, Dare to Live: Abrashe Sabrin's Memoir from Vilna, Holocaust Memory, Joe Sabrin, Lithuania under Nazi regime, Nazi Occupation, Partisan Movement, the Holocaust, the Jews of Vilna, United Partisan Organization, Vilna Jewish Ghetto, Vilnius Jewish Ghetto

The Real Story of the Terezin (Theresienstadt): I am a Star by Inge Auerbacher

IamStarJewishVirtualLibrary

In some respects, Terezin (Theresienstadt), a concentration camp set up by the Nazis in November 1941 in Prague, was presented to the world as a “model community” of Jews. Hitler used Terezin in a propaganda campaign, to show the international community that the deported Jews were treated well, and sent to their own city, supposedly in order to protect them from aggression and from the dangers of war. The Terezin Jewish Ghetto was known as the “old people’s” camp. It was also a place where the relatively privileged were sent: Jewish artists, writers and community leaders. Inge Auerbacher’s Holocaust memoir, I am a Star: Child of the Holocaust, (New York: Puffin Books, 1986) reveals that this “model Jewish city”, though perhaps not as lethal as the death camps, was a far cry from the idyllic community depicted by Nazi propaganda.

Nearly one hundred fifty thousand men, women and children were sent to this fortress town in Czechoslovakia. The Jewish Virtual Library documents that nearly a hundred thousand of them died there, out of which 15,000 were children. Only about 240 children younger than the age of 15 survived. Inge Auerbacher was one of those fortunate few young adults, who lived to reveal the truth about a walled-in prison where inmates suffered from hunger, disease and the constant, rational, fear that they’d be deported to Auschwitz or Treblinka in the next wave of deportations.

Inge’s memoir consists of a unique combination of her childhood memories of the camp, her poetry, and drawings of day-to-day life, sketched from a child’s perspective. The poetry is particularly evocative, as well as informative. It describes daily life in this prison camp as well as her—and her family’s—state of mind. For Terezin was unique among the Jewish camps in keeping families together—at least for a period of time, before its members were deported to a death or concentration camp—and in not killing Jewish children right away. To offer just one example among many of the heart wrenching poems in the book, “Deportation” describes the family’s fear and sense of rootlessness once the deportations began: “It was a morning like no other, The deadly letter was opened by Mother. She screamed out with a loud cry: “It is true, we can no more deny, We are no longer citizens with a name, Now a transport number replaces the same” (30).

The town of Terezin was once a fortress built in 1780 by Joseph II to ward off invasions. He named the city after his mother, Maria Teresa. Hitler subsequently transformed it into a prison for Jews, which he would use as a false cover for his murderous campaign against Europe’s Jewish communities. The author describes the distance between the Nazi propaganda campaign and reality. One of the drawings in the book features a group of rail thin, starving children sleeping head to toe, sometimes four to a narrow bed with soiled sheets. She recalls, “People died like flies in Terezin” from starvation, overwork and disease. “Papa became a scavenger, rummaging every day in the garbage dump in search of potato peelings and rotten turnips” (51). Nonetheless, because conditions in Terezin were not as severe as in the death camps, when the international Red Cross requested permission to visit a concentration camp following rumors of deportations of Jews to the East towards the end of 1943, the Nazis chose this fortress as their model example. Inge recounts how part of the camp underwent a rapid makeover, in preparation for the Red Cross visit, which took place on June 23, 1944:

“Certain parts of the camp were cleaned up. Some people were given new clothing and good food to eat. A few children received chocolates and sardine sandwiches just as the commission walked past them…. The areas filled with the things that had been stolen from us were carefully locked up. Blind, crippled, and sick people were warned to stay out of sight. Even the most brutal SS officer, Rudolf Haindl, acted friendly on that day” (56-57).

The ruse worked. The Red Cross officials left believing Terezin was a model city for Jews. Little by little, however, all of the inmates were boarded up in cattle trains and sent to instant death in Treblinka or to Auschwitz. As Inge puts it, “Terezin was the antechamber to Auschwitz” (58). Eichmann took charge personally of planning these deportations. In Auschwitz, the inmates lived for a while in another so-called “model” camp, established on September 8, 1943, known as the “Family Camp”.

Men and boys occupied even-numbered barracks, women and children odd ones. Unlike in most of Auschwitz (excluding the Gypsy Camp), the inmates could keep their regular clothes and didn’t have their heads shaven. They could therefore also preserve the semblance of normal life: “normal” only by comparison to the worse conditions that pervaded Auschwitz. But even they weren’t spared mass murder. Between July 10-12, 1944, 7000 members of the Family Camp were savagely beaten by the SS and pushed into the gas chambers. Only a few protected Jews, mostly German WWI veterans and their families—which included Inge’s family–were spared this horrible fate. But Ruth, the author’s best friend, perished along with almost everyone else. Inge Auerbacher’s memoir tells the real story of Terezin, the Jewish Ghetto created to serve Nazi propaganda, and pays a moving homage to Ruth and “so many other children as they marched with their mothers to the gas chambers in Auschwitz and the other extermination camps” (64).

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Family Camp in Auschwitz, Holocaust Memoir, Holocaust Memory, I am a Star by Inge Auerbacher, Terezin Jewish Ghetto, Theresienstadt