Ion Antonescu, both murderer and savior of Jews

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Ion Antonescu, both murderer and savior of Jews: Review of Hitler’s Forgotten Ally: Ion Antonescu and His Regime, Romania 1940-1944 by Dennis Deletant

Ion Antonescu is probably the most controversial political figure in recent Romanian history. He was Romania’s authoritarian military ruler from September 1940 to August 1944. He was also Adolf Hitler’s unwavering ally—and friend—during WWII. Described by many as one of the biggest mass murderers of the Holocaust and hailed by others as a national hero, it is difficult to reach consensus regarding Ion Antonescu. Dennis Deletant’s well-documented and marvelously written political history, Hitler’s Forgotten Ally: Ion Antonescu and His Regime, Romania 1940-1944, sheds light upon the darkest period of Romania’s past by focusing upon the views and policies of this mystifying political figure.

First and foremost, Deletant establishes the historical facts. Ion Antonescu was responsible for the death of “between 250,000 and 290,000 Jews and between 10,000 and 20,000 Romas” in the Romanian-occupied regions of Bukovina and Bessarabia. Because the Soviet Communist army took over these regions between June 28 and July 1940, their inhabitants—particularly the Jews in the area–were regarded by Romanians with suspicion. The Antonescu regime considered them to be disloyal to Romania and sympathetic to “the Bolsheviks” (whether or not they actually were Communist sympathizers). Antonescu’s racial policies, closely allied to those of the Nazi regime, caused unbelievable suffering and the death of tens of thousands of innocent people living in Bessarabia and Bukovina, who perished in death trains or in forced marches; were shot by German Einsatzgruppen (Task Forces) and Romanian troops; died of starvation, cold and diseases once deported to concentration and refugee camps in Transnistria (the strip of land between the river Dniester and the Eastern Moldavian border with Ukraine), which lacked sufficient food, clothing, potable water or sanitary living conditions.

At the same time as Romania under the Antonescu regime distinguished itself as the country with one of the most devastating Holocausts in Europe, it also distinguished itself as the country with the greatest number of Jewish survivors in Nazi-dominated Europe. According to Deletant, “up to 375,000 Romanian Jews” living in what is called “Regat” or “Old Kingdom” Romania (Wallachia, Moldavia and Southern Transylvania) were saved from deportation to concentration camps in Poland—which the Germans, including Adolf Eichmann, repeatedly demanded–by Antonescu’s ambivalent ethnic policies. Deletant’s riveting book explores this seeming paradox by analyzing the complex and contradictory figure of Ion Antonescu and his policies.

One thing is pretty clear, however (and one of the main reasons why, despite his murderous ethnic policies, many Romanians continue to see Ion Antonescu as a national hero): the Marshal’s pragmatic policies were always primarily guided by prioritizing Romania’s national and territorial interests and national security. His decisions changed with changing political and military circumstances. Antonescu sided with Hitler once he saw that remaining allied with France and England could not guarantee Romania’s security. As Deletant explains, this became particularly obvious to the Romanian leader after the Anglo-French capitulation to Hitler over Czechoslovakia in September 1938.

Although closely allied with Nazi Germany, Antonescu was no Hitler. Deletant plausibly describes the Romanian Fascist regime as an authoritarian military dictatorship rather than a totalitarian state. Antonescu allowed some degree of “democratic opposition”, debate and even critique of his policies (70). More remarkably, he corresponded and even had several meetings with Wilhelm Filderman, the President of the Federation of the Union of Jewish Communities in Romania, a courageous and dedicated man who fought relentlessly for Jewish civil rights in his country. After several exchanges with Filderman, Antonescu even relented on not enforcing many of the Nuremberg-inspired racial laws: something that would have been inconceivable for Hitler or any of the Nazi leaders.

In a much-cited note to Filderman (particularly by those who want to exonerate Antonescu), the Marshal promises the Jewish leader that he will not harm the Jews if they, in turn, do not sabotage his regime. In September 1940, Antonescu writes: “I assure Mr. Filderman of this and I also assure him that if his co-religionists neither sabotage the regime openly nor behind the scene, nor politically, nor economically, the Jewish population will have nothing to suffer” (104).

Filderman responds by thanking Antonescu on behalf of his co-religionists for his reassurances and assuring him of the loyalty of Jewish Romanians. He states: “Moved by the most sincere sentiments towards the throne and the country, the Jewish population of Romania wishes you a fruitful and peaceful rule and assures you that it will fulfill its duties faithfully and loyally” (59). Filderman’s response is also sometimes cited by those who want to prove that the Jewish community was grateful for Antonescu’s rule. Those who want to protect Antonescu’s image, of course, omit their fruitless exchanges regarding the mass deportation, shootings and internment in concentration camps of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Bukovina and Bessarabia, among many other human rights violations. Although Filderman tried to persuade Antonescu not to enact these murderous racial policies, he didn’t succeed. “Under Antonescu,” Deletant goes on to state, “Transnistria was the graveyard of an estimated figure of 220,000-260,000 Jews, and up to 20,000 Romas. Most of these deaths resulted from inhumane treatment and a callous disregard for live rather than industrialized killing… The toll increased dramatically with the murder by shooting of thousands of Jews in Transnistria in December 1941 and January 1942 on the orders of the Romanian authorities there” (171).

So what led Antonescu-the-killer-of-Jews to become Antonescu-the-savior- of-Jews by the end of the war? And why did the Romanian Fascist leader refuse to give in to Nazi pressure to deport all Romanian Jews to concentration camps in Poland, where most would have perished? Although the Marshal’s reversal of policy cannot be fully understood, Deletant explores several factors: 1) the tide of the war changing, after the battle of Stalingrad (August 1942-February 1943), in favor of the Allies; 2) pressure from the U.S. on behalf of the Romanian Jews; 3) the fact that Antonescu regarded Jews from mainland Romania as more assimilated and thus more “authentically Romanian” than the Jews in the regions of Bukovina and Bessarabia; 4) the warranted fear that Romania would be conquered by the Soviet Union and turned into a Communist satellite; 5) Filderman’s repeated interventions on behalf of Romanian Jews; 6) the argument (applicable up to the Spring of 1944) that the Hungarian Jews hadn’t been deported and that Romanian Jews shouldn’t be treated any worse than them; 7) the need to make independent, autonomous decisions as well as 8) the humanitarian pleas of the exiled Queen Helen of Romania on behalf of the Jewish community in her country.  Ultimately, what the Marshal feared most came true anyway. Following a coup d’état, Antonescu was tried and executed on June 1, 1946 (along with several top members of his regime) by a new Soviet-led Communist leadership, which many Romanians detest far more than they do the nationalist Antonescu dictatorship. This too plays a role in the perception of those who want to “rehabilitate” the ambivalent figure of Antonescu as a national hero.

So what is Deletant’s historical verdict about Ion Antonescu? Judged by nationalist standards, there’s no question that he attempted to defend and even increase Romania’s boundaries and uphold its perceived best interests. Judged by moral standards, however, Antonescu is both a murderer and a savior of Jews. Without a doubt, the Marshal’s earlier policies caused the suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Romas in Bessarabia and Bukovina. But the virulently anti-Semitic leaders of the Iron Guard would have been far worse than him. So, from a consequentialist ethical perspective, there’s no doubt that Antonescu’s ethnic policies also saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews from “Old Kingdom” Romania. Moreover, Antonescu’s friendship with Hitler—and Hitler’s trust in him– ironically contributed to saving Romanian Jews at a time (in the spring and summer of 1944) when nearly 500,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to die in concentration camps in Poland once the Nazis invaded Hungary. In fact, I probably wouldn’t be writing this book review–because my family wouldn’t have survived the Holocaust in Romania–if it weren’t for the contradictory historical role played by Ion Antonescu, the murderer and the savior of Jews.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Dennis Deletant, Hitler's Forgotten Ally, Holocaust in Bukovina and Bessarabia, Holocaust Memory, Ion Antonescu, Ion Antonescu and Adolf Hitler, Romania 1940-1944 by Dennis Deletant, the Holocaust, the Romanian Holocaust, Transnistria

Double standards for the United States and Israel?

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Daniel Cristea-Enache, the Director of Romania’s premier culture blog, Literatura de Azi, didn’t mince words in describing the double standards the European media (and, it seems, the public at large) tend to have towards the United States and Israel: “We criticize Israel but not the terrorists that decapitate journalists and put the decapitation videos on the net. We criticize the United States under the Obama administration but not Russia led by Putin. In general, based upon these very “courageous” criticisms, we are led to the conclusion that democracies are guilty of everything bad while totalitarianism, authoritarianism and terrorism are…. What are they, dear critics of the decaying Western culture? Ah, I know: Americans and the Jews are to be blamed for everything!”
My thoughts exactly! Daniel Cristea-Enache hit the nail on the head: there are double standards when it comes to judging Israel and the United States. At least this is my impression too, in reading the media coverage of the anti-Semitic backlash throughout Europe fanned by the recent conflict in Gaza, a subject that I addressed in a previous article on Literatura de Azi:

http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/anti-semitism-today-and-assault-democratic-values

The question is why: Why are Israel and the United States being criticized for human rights violations far more than the authoritarian and fundamentalist leaders and groups that ruthlessly, and very publically, trample upon human rights and life?
I think that, for the most part, the reasons for these double standards differ for different agencies that launch the critiques. The extreme right (racist and neo-Nazi parties) and fundamentalist groups launch this critique based on power politics, rage and openly anti-Semitic and anti-American sentiments. The sanctity of human life in general doesn’t play much of a role in their rhetoric or actions.
On the other hand, the mainstream and leftwing media have more complex reasons for holding the United States and Israel accountable to higher moral standards than, let’s say, autocratic leaders like Putin or terrorist organizations such as ISIS. Some of these reasons I find valid, others I believe have an element of bad faith.

1. A smaller evil is often criticized far more than enormous crimes against humanity. As the French philosopher and biologist Jean Rostand once said, “Kill one man and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men and you are a conqueror. Kill them all and you are a God” (Thoughts of a Biologist, 1938). Stalin succinctly explained the logic of mass murder with impunity in the famous quote: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Like Hitler, he practiced what he preached. Those who do the most harm are often also the ones held to the lowest standards of ethics. At times they’re even glorfied as idols who lived and sacrificed others to create a better society or world.

2. Anti-Semitism is sometimes the spoken or unspoken reason for the unilateral attack on Israel for human rights violations that Arab nations or groups commit as well, often on a larger scale.

3. We judge democracies by higher moral standards than autocracies, totalitarian regimes and terrorist groups. I find a lot of validity in this. The United States has long been describing itself as the bastion of Western democracy in the world. Israel describes itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. These nations should be held to a high standard in their respect for human rights and democratic values. But that doesn’t mean that we should focus exclusively on their faults and violations of their own priciples. We should judge every nation and group by the same universal human rights and ethical standards.

4. We tend to focus on the most visible democratic nations. When I did some research for an earlier article about the Western response to the genocide by the Hutus of the Tutsi population in Rwanda, I was appalled to read that the Western media (and governments) largely ignored or downplayed what was happening. A million people were hacked to death and, during the worst period of mass murder, the world did next to nothing about it. France even supported the murderous Hutu faction (see http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/genocide-rwanda-me-against-my-brother-scott-peterson).

How much does the media and the public at large really care about human rights when one African group tramples upon the human rights of another African group (as was the case in the genocide in Rwanda) or when one Arab group or nation violates the human rights of another? The answer is: not much, and certainly not as much as when Israel or the United States happen to be the culprits. We tend to hold the most visible democratic nations responsible for their human rights violations while turning a blind eye to—or at least not caring as much about–what happens in countries ruled by dictatorships, radical extremists or totalitarian regimes. If we truly care about human rights, we should indict any country or group that violates them, not just the United States and Israel.

Claudia Moscovici
Holocaust Memory

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Filed under anti-Semitism, Claudia Moscovici, Daniel Cristea-Enache, Double Standards for the U.S. and Israel, Holocaust Memory, human rights, Literatura de Azi, Rwanda genocide, the conflict in the Middle East

Anti-Semitism today and the assault on democratic values

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Anti-Semitism today and the assault on democratic values

by Claudia Moscovici 

In a recent article published in The Guardian on August 7, 2014, Jon Henley begins with an ominous headline: “Anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe ‘in worst times since the Nazis’”. He cites several sources for this alarming conclusion, including Crif, France’s collective Jewish organizations, which reported that in the last month seven synagogues were attacked, a kosher supermarket looted and crowds gathered to chant with banners “Death to Jews” and “Slit Jews’ throats’”. In Germany, Henley pursues, people threw Molotov cocktails into the Bergische synagogue in Wuppertal, the same building that a mob led by the SS attacked during Kristallnacht. Henley goes on to cite that a Berlin imam called on Allah to destroy the Zionist Jews… Count them and kill them, to the very last one”.

These recurring incidents are reminiscent of Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”), angry crowds, led by SA paramilitary forces, attacked Jews in Germany and Austria on November 9-10 of 1938, destroying and looting Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues. This anti-Semitic rampage ushered Hitler’s even more drastic economic and racial persecution of the Jews, paving the way for the Final Solution.

Such violent incidents led Dieter Graumann, the President of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, to state “These are the worst times since the Nazi era”. In France, Roger Cukierman, the President of France’s Crif, similarly expressed his concern that the severe anti-Semitic backlash goes far beyond opposition to Israel’s current policies in Gaza or even against the state of Israel: “They are not screaming ‘Death to the Israelis’ on the streets of Paris. They are screaming’ Death to the Jews’”. As Henley explains, it’s not only the Jewish communities in Europe that have serious reasons for concern. These hateful anti-Semitic outcries signal a danger for human rights and democratic institutions in general. Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, rightly declared the current wave of anti-Semitism as “an attack on freedom and tolerance and our democratic state”.

As much as these hate-filled actions and demonstrations against European Jews are cause for concern, it’s worth noting that the situation can’t really be compared—at least not yet—to Europe during the reign of Fascism. For one, it’s somewhat reassuring that European heads of government don’t endorse these hate messages and assaults. Second, I’d be interested in finding out more about who is expressing such anti-Semitic violence: if it’s mostly Islamic extremists, sadly, that’s to be expected. It’s not only Jews, but also the United States and Western civilization in general, that are often the target of their rage.

We face a grave danger, I believe, when such attitudes gain ground with the mainstream public: that is to say, when the general population of European countries becomes used to the anti-Semitic rage and remains indifferent to it or, even worse, begins to support it. This can easily happen when legitimate humanitarian concern–for the welfare of the Palestinian population in Gaza, for instance—turns into anti-humanitarian hatred against the Jews. I have described briefly the nature of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza in an article about Yariv Horowitz’s film on the subject, Rock the Casbah:

 

http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/impossible-conflict-gaza-strip-rock-casbah-directed-yariv-horowitz

 

I mention this article here because the most recent outburst of anti-Semitism in Europe was fanned by recent Israeli air strikes in Gaza, in July 2014, which killed over 200 Palestinians (according to Palestinian sources). These strikes were launched in retaliation to over one thousand rockets fired against Israel from Gaza (according to Israeli reports). Most of us have opinions, and many of us have strong feelings, about the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. It’s perfectly defensible to disagree on this subject or to disapprove, from a humanitarian perspective, of the violations of human rights that occur on both sides. For as long as our standards of value remain humanitarian—to defend the lives and human rights of all people—I think we will be safe, as civilizations, from the ravages of another Holocaust.

The greatest danger, I believe, occurs when the mainstream public loses sight of democratic and humanitarian values and asks for the annihilation of one people (in this case, the Jews) in the name of defending the human rights of another (in this case, the Palestinians). This violation of the humanitarian standards they claim to support risks destroying not only the Jewish population once again, but also the democratic values which underpin Western societies. It happened to the Weimar Republic and other governments during WWII and it could, indeed, happen again.

Those who protest Israel’s policies in Gaza on universal humanitarian grounds while engaging in Anti-Semitic actions or speech are showing that they don’t really care about humanitarian values or causes in general. They defend only the rights of one group and are prepared to trample upon the rights of another. In my opinion, defending human rights in general—and disagreeing openly yet respectfully about how governments, political parties or individuals violate them—is far more important than being either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. If we don’t want to witness another genocide, first and foremost, let us all be pro-human.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Filed under Angela Markel, anti-Semitism, Anti-Semitism today and the assault on democratic values, Claudia Moscovici, conflict in Gaza, Crif, Dieter Graumann, Holocaust Memory, Jon Henley, Kristallnacht, Rock the Casbah, Roger Cukierman, The Guardian, Yariv Horowitz

The gas chambers: Filip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz

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Philip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1979) is one of the most disturbing and valuable books about the Holocaust I’ve read. This testimony offers in gruesome detail an eyewitness account of what actually happened in the gas chambers: from the moment hundreds of thousands of Auschwitz prisoners arrived hungry, thirsty and terrified on cattle trains; to the separation of families and the selection process; to the brutal beatings and threats by SS officers; to the lies intended to induce prisoners to think that they were about to be “disinfected” in public showers rather than killed; to the sadistic torture of some; to the gassing of the terrified victims and the desecration and pillaging of corpses, and finally to their cremation by fellow prisoners condemned to the Sonderkommandos: prisoners like Filip Muller.

The members of Sonderkommando, composed almost entirely of Jewish inmates, were forced under threat of death to do the most disturbing work for the SS: dispose of the countless corpses of the victims killed in the gas chambers. They did not themselves commit the murders. That task was left to the SS soldiers, who often did their job zealously. Mass murder was daily business at Auschwitz, but it was also “top secret”.

Although information had leaked about the mass gassing of prisoners, the Nazis tried to cover up their massacres. They kept the members of the Sonderkommando isolated from other prisoners, to reduce the chances of reports about the mass gassing of prisoners with Zyklon B reaching other Auschwitz inmates and the outside world. Usually, after having removed and incinerated the bodies of the victims, the members of the Sonderkommando were themselves killed in the gas chambers, so that there would be no prisoner eyewitnesses to the Nazi atrocities.

The author, Filip Muller, is one of the rare survivors among those condemned to work in the Sonderkommando. Born in 1922 in a small town (Sered) in Slovakia, Muller was only twenty years old when he was brought to Auschwitz in April 1942. After a short while, as punishment, he was assigned to dispose of the corpses of the victims. Many of them had wasted away to skin and bones in Auschwitz or in Polish ghettos; others had died of typhus and other diseases in the concentration camp; some had been brutally beaten and shot by the SS, others were hung to set an example for other prisoners, but by far most—hundreds of thousands of men, women, children and babies–were collectively massacred in the gas chambers. As Muller recalls, the sadism and brutality of the SS soldiers knew no bounds: “Shouting and wielding their truncheons, like beaters at a hunt, the remaining SS men chased the naked men, women and children into the large room inside the crematorium. All that was left in the yard were the pathetic heaps of clothing which we had to gather together to clear the yard for the second half of the transport” (33).

Although vicious and violent, the SS officers would sometimes pretend courtesy towards incoming Jewish inmates to persuade the victims to cooperate and expedite the extermination process. The Nazis adapted their behavior to the circumstances. In some cases, when the prisoners already knew they were doomed to death—as was the case with many of the groups arriving from nearby ghettos in Poland—the SS soldiers would beat them into submission in order to force them into the gas chambers. At other times, when prisoners arriving from far away locations falsely believed that they would live, the SS would set up an elaborate ruse to cultivate false hopes. They even went so far as to place hooks with numbers inside the gas chambers, to suggest that the prisoners would retrieve their clothes after the “showers” and be sent off elsewhere to work.

This was the case, for instance, with the “Family Camp”, made up of prisoners from Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. They were the only Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz who were allowed to wear civilian clothes, whose hair was not shaved off and who, as the name of their group suggests, were not separated from their family members. The Family Camp was subject to less abuse not out of any Nazi kindness, of course, but to provide to the outside world a false model of what life in Auschwitz was like for Jewish inmates. Although Muller and other prisoners from the Sondercommando tried to warn some of the leaders of the Family Camp that they’d be soon exterminated and encouraged them to rebel, by the time the victims believed these dire warnings it was too late. In the end, every last man, woman and child from the group was gassed by the SS, many of them after having been beaten by soldiers or bitten by dogs to the point of disfiguration: “The people,” Muller recounts, “crowded together on one side of the room, were shaking with terror. Almost all of them were now sobbing: their weeping sounded like a heart-breaking dirge. Most of them were badly hurt from truncheon blows as well as from the sharp teeth of the dogs” (109).

Muller heard countless times the heart wrenching attempts of the doomed prisoners to escape, once the SS officers pushed them into the gas chambers, bolted shut the door and dropped in from above the canisters of poison gas: “The prelude to death was repeated with equal brutality and with the same ending. Finally there were about 600 desperate people crammed into the crematorium. A few SS men were leaving the building and the last one locked the entrance door from the outside. Before long the increasing sound of coughing, screaming and shouting for help could be heard from behind the door. I was unable to make out individual words, for the shouts were drowned by knocking and banging against the door, intermingled with sobbing and crying. Only now and then there was a moan, a rattle, or the sound of muffled knocking against the door. But soon even that ceased and in the sudden silence each of us felt the horror of this terrible mass death” (33-34).

The horrific spectacle of death, repeated several times a week, and at times several times a day—particularly during the deportation of almost 440,000 Jews from Hungary in the spring and summer of 1944–did not destroy Muller’s humanity. It only strengthened his resolve to survive the Nazi nightmare in order to provide testimony about this unprecedented genocide, which the Nazis tried to erase from history and which some so-called “revisionist historians” continue to deny today.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

 

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, Eyewitness Auschwitz, Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers, gas chambers, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Nazi regime, Philip Muller, The gas chambers: Filip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz, the Holocaust, the Sonderkommando

Would you forgive the Nazi perpetrator? The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal

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The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness is a philosophical narrative by Simon Wiesenthal about moral responsibility for crimes against humanity that raises the possibility of forgiveness of genocide. In this parable, the narrator describes his hellish daily existence in the Lemberg concentration camp.  The story reflects, in some respects, Wiesenthal’s own experience in several Nazi concentration camps during WWII: including Janowska, Plaszow and Mauthausen. Although the narrative shies away from graphic descriptions of violence, it alludes to the sadistic mistreatment of Jewish inmates by SS officers as well as to the starvation, disease and constant threat of being shot or selected for the crematorium that were part and parcel of the daily horrors experienced by inmates. The book, originally published by Schocken Books in 1976, has been taught for decades in schools as an introduction to the Holocaust. Written in simple yet elegant prose, The Sunflower has been especially popular because it raises the important questions about moral responsibility for national crimes and explores the victims’ capacity for forgiveness. The latter point was particularly relevant to Wiesenthal, who spent years of his life tracking down Nazi fugitives and bringing them to trial for their crimes against humanity.

In a moment of rare beauty in his somber existence in the concentration camp, the narrator, a Jewish prisoner on his way to forced labor, sees a row of sunflowers planted on Christian soldiers’ graves. In a poetic scene, the narrator describes how he’s initially enthralled by the flowers’ beauty, only to be later struck by its implications: “I stared spellbound. The flower heads seemed to absorb the sun’s rays like mirrors and draw them down into the darkness of the ground as my gaze wandered from the sunflower to the grave… It was gaily colored and butterflies fluttered from flower to flower. … Were they whispering something to each flower to pass on to the soldier below? Yes, this was just what they were doing; the dead were receiving light and messages” (The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal, New York: Schocken Books, 1998, 14). As he overcomes his awe, he realizes that, as a Jewish prisoner, he’ll be deprived of dignity not only in life, but also in death. He’ll be shot and tossed into a mass grave or gassed and incinerated. For him, as for millions of other Jewish prisoners, “No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb” (15).

When the narrator arrives at work, where he’s charged with throwing away medical waste, a nurse signals him to follow her to a hospital bed. There the narrator sees a man enveloped in bandages, pale and rail thin. As this man addresses him with great difficulty, the narrator realizes that the dying man is a young German SS officer: a mortal enemy. Astonishingly enough, the officer begs for his forgiveness for what he’s done to other Jewish people. He doesn’t excuse his behavior, but he describes some of its causes. He tells him about the Nazi indoctrination when he was in Hitler Youth. He speaks of the manuscripts and speeches that depicted Jews as a “subhuman race” and called for their annihilation, which he later encountered in his training as an SS officer. He also speaks of being subjected to tremendous peer pressure from fellow soldiers as well yielding to the pressure of following orders from his superiors.

And yet, now that he’s about to die, he feels a sense of responsibility and guilt for his murderous acts against defenseless civilians. He confesses that he was part of an SS brigade that hunted Jews down, forced dozens of them—defenseless men, women and children–into a house, then tossed hand grenades into the windows to kill all of them. Some people jumped, while on fire, from the broken windows. Still haunted by this vivid memory, the SS soldier can’t expire in peace without some kind of atonement from a Jew: from a member of the group he and other soldiers victimized. The narrator is surprised by the request and paralyzed by indecision. He doesn’t know how to respond.

When he returns to the camp that evening, he tells his friends about this strange encounter. Adam, an architect, finds the SS soldier’s request preposterous—and trivial—given that the Nazis were murdering millions of Jews. One less Nazi, he states cynically. Josek, a deeply religious Jew, maintains that he’d have refused the pardon with a clear conscience. How could his friend have forgiven atrocities of such a magnitude? And who was he to speak for millions of other victims? Both friends remain suspicious: Why would the “Aryan Superman” need the forgiveness of an “inferior” Jew? The narrator, however, sees the dying SS soldier as a fellow human being. “The SS man’s attitude toward me was not that of an arrogant superman. Probably I hadn’t successfully conveyed all my feelings: a subhuman condemned to death at the bedside of an SS man condemned to death…” (67). Of course, their circumstances were far from symmetrical. In fact, they were diametrically opposed. Still unsure of his own ethical stance, the narrator asks each of us, readers, to ask ourselves: If faced with the Nazi soldier’s dying request for forgiveness, “What would I have done?” (98)

If we read the transcripts of the Nazi leaders put on trial, we see that the question of forgiveness doesn’t come up often for the perpetrators: at least not in the public trials. Adolf Eichmann or Rudolf Hoss, for instance, express no regret or compunction for their crimes. They deny all sense of personal responsibility and blame only the Nazi system and their superiors for their murderous deeds. Yet for the victims, the question is extremely relevant because it asks them to consider at least some of the perpetrators as human: as men capable of guilt and regret for their crimes.

Wiesenthal’s simple moral parable shows the Nazis as a diverse group who nevertheless behaved similarly. Not every SS soldier hated Jews. Not every SS soldier was a ruthless sadist. Not every SS soldier gladly followed orders to butcher innocent people. Yet almost every SS soldier chose, like the man in The Sunflower, to follow such orders, to commit such crimes. Almost every SS soldier killed countless innocent Jews. How could this happen? Understanding what forces were at play to make genocide possible doesn’t mean forgiving perpetrators or exonerating them of blame. But without a sociological, and historical, understanding of how tens of thousands of German citizens—some of whom were ordinary men, like the soldier in this story–were capable of such atrocities, we are likely to overlook the vulnerability of our own times.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under ethics, Holocaust Memory, Simon Wiesenthal

Genocide in Rwanda: Me against my brother, by Scott Peterson

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Unfortunately, the question of whether humanity as a whole learned a valuable moral lesson from the Holocaust was dramatically answered in the negative during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Not only did history repeat itself, but so did world indifference to the misfortune of a million victims. In Me against my brother (New York: Routledge, 2000), journalist Scott Peterson vividly describes, based on personal observations and extensive research, the ethnic tension and the genocide in Rwanda. In the chapter “Genocide Denied” he also covers world reactions, including, unforgivably, France’s defense of the Hutu aggressors and the isolationist policies of the United States. He argues that these were important international factors that made the mass killings possible. Above all, the author persuades us that, unlike other ethnic tensions in Africa and the Middle East, the Rwandan genocide could have been averted by effective U.N. involvement: “In Rwanda Hutu extremists were often just young men with machetes or ill-disciplined soldiers” he states. (292) As the title of the book suggests, neighbors, former friends and even family members killed many of the victims in Rwanda using rudimentary weapons: most often machetes that had been previously employed for everyday household purposes and agriculture. Why then did the U.S. refuse to intervene?
Peterson points out that a few months after giving the inaugural lecture at the United States Holocaust Museum in April 1993 and expressing his commitment to fight the evil of genocide throughout the world—“But as we are its [evil’s] witness, so we must remain its adversary in the world in which we live”—President Clinton, having just pulled humiliated American troops from Somalia, urged the United Nations not to intervene in the ethnic conflict in Rwanda (289). Peterson elaborates: “Genocide must be organized to be effective, and in Rwanda that took time and left many traces. But Washington feared ‘another Somalia’, and so the first instinct was denial that genocide was even occurring—that would have legally required action to stop it. The second instinct was to disengage entirely, as the US sought to slash UN troop numbers. The third move—at least from the part of American policy-makers—was to bully any other nation from acting” (290). In hindsight, Bill Clinton would later declare that not interfering in the Rwandan genocide was the biggest regret of his presidency.
Between April and September 1994, the Hutu majority in Rwanda ruthlessly massacred almost 1 million men, women and children of the Tutsi minority. Tensions between the two ethnic groups rose during the early 1990’s over control of the country. The Hutu government of Rwanda, backed by Belgium and France, had more or less ruled the country since their revolution against the Tutsi elite in 1959. However, the Tutsi minority in exile, led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) under the leadership of Paul Kagame, was attempting to reaffirm power in Rwanda. The Hutu extremists, who called for a “final solution” to the “Tutsi problem”, gained political momentum during the 1990’s.
The Hutu Power movement galvanized the support of part of the army and of powerful politicians. The assassination of Juvenal Habyarimana (1937-1994), the third president of the Republic of Rwanda, on April 6, 1994, only stocked the Hutu extremists’ hatred and their suspicion that the Tutsis were out to destroy them. They blamed the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front for the crime, using the assassination of the president as a pretext for mass murder. Transmitting their message mostly via radio stations, they urged vendetta against Tutsis as well as against moderate Hutus.
The result was atrocities that are almost beyond description. Nonetheless, Peterson attempts to give readers an impression of the sheer volume and violent nature of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. “In the next weeks, the death toll began to merge into a statistical mass. In this village one Tutsi survived from a population of 400; in that town some 2,800 were slaughtered; dozens of parish churches were turned into abattoirs. To fully appreciate the nature of Rwanda’s mass killing, however, requires extracting the terrific agony particular to each death. That is now an impossible task. But an extermination rate of 45,000 each day means little, unless you explore and taste the charnel house yourself” (263).
The Hutu Power movement reinforced one simple, hateful message: in the power struggle with the Tutsis, it’s us versus them. Either we kill them or they’ll kill us. We’ve seen over and over again throughout history how this “us versus them” mentality can lead to the dehumanization of members of another ethnic or religious group. This makes genocide not only possible, but also–in a dramatic inversion of ethical standards of right and wrong–a moral duty. Scott Peterson’s well-documented book, Me against my brother, shows the danger of this dualist mentality and, perhaps even more so, the danger of lack of intervention by the rest of the world when genocide occurs. Genocide, he points out, is not just a “humanitarian crisis”–as the international news conveyed the Rwandan disaster–any more than mass rape in Bosnia was a “gynecological crisis”. Genocide is a massive crime against humanity that reveals the moral breakdown of our civilizations in general: particularly when the world refuses to intervene and help the victims. As the UNAMIR commander in Kigali, General Romeo Dallaire, notes with great regret about the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda: “The biggest crime of all is that we weren’t able to keep it from happening” (290).

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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An incredible tale of survival: Alicia, my story

Alicia My Storyamazon

Raul Hilberg estimates that over a million Jews living under German occupation survived the Holocaust and were still alive at the end of WWII. (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 186). Each of their stories constitutes a minor miracle: a combination of fortitude and luck, which was relatively rare. Most of the million Jewish survivors were those living in Romania (in the Old Kingdom regions) and Bulgaria. In both of these countries, the leaders of the government, for various complex reasons, changed their minds about sending all Jews to concentration camps.

A second group of survivors made it against all odds, despite the dehumanizing conditions of the concentration camps. They were either liberated by the Allies from Auschwitz and other concentration camps or escaped the grueling death marches, once the Germans evacuated the concentration camps.

A third group of survivors attempted the near impossible: they hid, resisted or fled the Nazis. Many had to adopt more than one disguise or alias. They ran the risk of being shot or sent to concentration camps as soon as the Nazis and their collaborators discovered their real identities. These survivors, Hilberg observes, tended to be young, in good physical condition, and usually had a particular psychological profile that set them apart from most victims: “The contrast may be glimpsed in three important traits: realism, rapid decision making, and tenacious holding to life” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders 188). Because they tended to be not only incredibly lucky but also exceptionally resourceful and resilient, their stories sound the most “fictional” and even implausible, particularly to readers today, which are far removed from the hardships of the Holocaust.

If any survivor story shows that truth can be stranger than fiction, it’s Alicia Appleman-Jurman’s Alicia: My Story (New York: Bantam, 1988). In a glowing review, The Pittsburgh Press called the book “As exciting as it is inspirational. In fact, a good bit of Alicia: My Story reads as if it were written by one of our better writers of fiction”. This book reads like fiction, indeed. In an autobiographical narrative the author describes her survival against all odds in Nazi-occupied Poland. While Alicia lost one of her brothers under the Soviet occupation of Poland (when he disappeared without a trace after having been recruited for training by the Red Army), once Germany invaded Poland the situation for Jewish families became far worse. The Gestapo systematically went from house to house hunting for Jews, often aided by the Ukrainian police and the Ukrainian Nationalist guerillas (Banderovcy). The Nazis and their collaborators searched every nook and cranny of Jewish homes, even in basements and attics. Often crying babies would inadvertedly betray entire families trying to escape capture and an almost certain death. Jews were rounded up to be placed in ghettos, or shot on the spot, or sent to concentration camps. Alicia was not yet a teenager when she was compelled to leave her home and go into hiding with her mother, after the Gestapo murdered her father and brothers. Over the course of the next few years, she adopted various disguises and provided not only for herself and her mother, but also helped others. She disguised herself as a peasant, worked hard labor on several farms, and even aided some of the Soviet partisans who took refuge in nearby forests.

Once the war ended, Alicia’s incredible story did not stop. She began working as a guide for the Brecha, the Zionist Underground Railroad that smuggled Jews into Palestine. She made it her life mission to share her survival story in order to inform and inspire generations to come. Talking about her painful past became a therapeutic, not only educational, experience: “As I continued talking I realized that if I were to survive at all and escape from the swamp of anguish and despair, I would have to reach out to people, to those who survived like myself, and perhaps sometime in the future, to all people. I would not be able to continue to hate, because I knew in my young heart that hate could eventually destroy me. But I would always remember what had happened to my family and to my people and would never be able to forgive those who committed the crimes” (Alicia: My Story, 272). To this day she describes her experiences during the Holocaust in schools, at conferences and on her website, http://aliciamystory.com/.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under Alicia Appleman-Jurman, Alicia My story, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, history, Holocaust Memoir, Holocaust Memory, memoir, my story, Poland during WWII