Sophie’s Choice: Holocaust Literature as Psychological Fiction

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Sophie’s Choice (New York: Vintage International, 1976) was a best seller in both of its incarnations: as the 1976 novel, written by William Styron, and as the 1982 film, directed by Alan J. Pakula. The movie starred Meryl Streep in her breakthrough role as Sophie. Streep’s performance won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. To Styron’s credit, Streep, as well as Pakula, had a great novel to work with. Written in a literary style filled with irony and highly sensual, lyrical passages reminiscent of Nabokov’s Lolita, Sophie’s Choice broaches somber themes: the Holocaust; the Nazi occupation of Poland (1949-1945); imprisonment in Auschwitz; tangled, pathological love affairs; post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia and, last but not least, the excruciating choice alluded to in the title.

During the war, Sophie Zawistowska is a well-educated young woman from an upper-middle class Polish family. She’s not Jewish. In fact, her father is a professor with Nazi sympathies famous in Poland for his anti-Semitic treatises; her mother is a mild-mannered musician. When her country is occupied by Nazi Germany, Sophie becomes involved, but only peripherally, with the Polish resistance. She rebels against her father’s patronizing and paternalistic attitude towards her and becomes critical of his anti-Semitic beliefs. Despite his Nazi loyalties, however, Sophie’s father is shot by the occupying German regime for being a Polish intellectual. Soon she loses her husband as well. All she has left is two children: a boy and a girl. Eventually the SS arrests her and sends her, along with her children, to Auschwitz once they discover that she is hiding meat—food rations illegal for Poles and reserved for the German occupiers—under her coat.

Sophie’s choice pertains, first of all, to the selection process—determining prolonged life or instant death–performed by Nazi doctors and SS officers that prisoners commonly underwent once they exited the cattle trains at Auschwitz. Which is to say, the title is ironic because Sophie is deprived of any real power of choice or desirable options. But a sadistic SS officer puts a cruel spin on the usual concentration camp selection process, in which a prisoner has no say. He spares Sophie’s life, despite being a mother of young children, only to make her make confront a fate worse than death: he forces her to choose which one of her kids will live and which one will die. Under the threat that both would be sent to the gas chambers if she doesn’t make up her mind on the spot, Sophie makes a choice that no parent should ever have to make: she chooses to save her son and dooms her daughter.

This choice forms the main theme of the movie, but, despite the book’s title, it’s not the crux of the novel. The novel focuses instead on the recurrent traumas that Sophie experiences, related not only to her difficult life in the concentration camp and the painful choice she had to make but also to her problematic relationship with her father: something that haunts her all her life. Time and time again, Sophie chooses the wrong kind of man.

In Auschwitz, through a combination of skill and luck, she manages to get work in the Kommandant’s mansion. She even has several furtive, one-on-one, meetings with the infamous Rudolf Höss. Depicting Sophie’s ambiguous relationship with Höss, and the manner in which the pretty blonde manages to gain his trust and persuade him to see her son, constitutes one of the most subtle and intriguing aspects of this psychological thriller. In real life, Höss was rumored to have had an affair with a Polish inmate, whom he later sent to die rather than risk scandal. In the novel, however, Sophie’s relationship with Höss could be described, at most, as an emotional affair. It’s really nothing more than a brief exchange of confidences that carried enormous risks under the circumstances. The Auschwitz Commander never fulfills his promise to Sophie to facilitate a meeting with her son. She never even finds out if her son lives or died. But the trauma of being drawn to the wrong men repeats itself.

Years later, in Brooklyn, Sophie falls in love with her neighbor, Nathan Landau, a Jewish American man who makes up tall tales about his extraordinary life. She’s drawn to his energy, to his sexual hunger, to his romantic gifts and overtures, to his intensity and even to his lies. When the narrator, Stingo, a novelist and their neighbor, becomes both of their friend, the three of them embark on an exciting but ambiguous friendship fraught with jealousy and triangulation. Nathan’s torrid passion for Sophie gradually turns to abuse, as he insults and even beats her in recurring fits of jealous rage. As Nathan’s brother later reveals, the young man suffers from schizophrenia. Although it’s not certain that he’s a genius, as he claims, he’s clearly delusional, confusing his paranoid fantasies with reality and mistaking lust for love. Their pathological bond is doomed from the start, much like Sophie’s family life was during the Nazi occupation.

Sophie’s Choice is a marvelously narrated historical novel that succeeds, above all, as psychological fiction. Which is only fitting. For how can any novel about the Holocaust—a historical trauma of a depth beyond measure—capture the devastation of that period without delving into the personal trauma of its individual victims?

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, historical fiction, Holocaust Memory, Nazi occupation of Poland, Sophie's Choice, Sophie's Choice Alan J. Pakula, Sophie's Choice Meryl Streep, the Holocaust, William Styron

The Auschwitz Kommandant: a daughter’s memoirs about Arthur Wilhelm Liebehenschel

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Arthur Wilhelm Liebehenschel is often contrasted to Rudolf Höss, to indicate that he was the “good” or “more humane” Commandant of Auschwitz, who ruled the notorious concentration camp from December 1943 to May 1944. His daughter from his first marriage, Barbara Cherish, does everything to exonerate her father’s tarnished image and to confirm a rosier picture of his deeds in her memoir, The Auschwitz Kommandant: A Daughter’s Search for the Father She Never Knew (United Kingdom: The History Press, 2009). There is no doubt that Liebehenschel was widely regarded as less brutal than Höss. Once he took over Auschwitz concentration camp from Höss, he eliminated the notorious “standing cells”, where prisoners were punished by standing for days without food and water in rooms smaller than a closet. He also put a stop to the selections for regular prisoners who were already in the concentration camp. While the sadistic punishment of inmates, particularly of Jews, was (at the very least) tolerated by Höss, Liebehenschel took steps to discourage the severe punishments and forms of torture of camp inmates. According to Hermann Langbein, a prisoner in the Auschwitz infirmary, “in general one could establish that even those SS members who were very bloodthirsty before became a bit more reserved because they realized that their fanaticism would not necessarily be tolerated anymore”.

Perhaps Liebehenschel’s reputation for relative “leniency” played a role in his transfer from Auschwitz in the spring of 1944 and replacement with the previous commandant, Rudolf Höss. Known for his callousness and efficiency, Höss was called back to Auschwitz to facilitate the extermination of nearly 500,000 Hungarian Jews deported to the concentration camp during the spring and summer of 1944. Liebehenschel was put in charge of the Majdanek extermination camp (outside Lublin) in May of 1944. Although initially a labor rather than a death camp, Majdanek was transformed into an extermination camp of enormous proportions once Operation Reinhard (October 1941-November 1943), which stipulated the mass murder of all Jews in occupied (General Government) Poland, was put into effect. At the end of WWII, Liebehenschel was arrested by the American Army and imprisoned for a short while in Dachau (under conditions he himself described as humane). He was then extradited to Krakow to stand trial for crimes against humanity. Like Höss, the other Auschwitz Commandant, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging on January 28, 1948. Evidently, the law didn’t distinguish between his crimes and those of Höss. Should we?

For me, reading the obviously biased memoirs of a daughter in search of her own identity by exploring her father’s dark past, raises the following question: is there a real difference between men like Rudolf Höss and men like Arthur Liebehenschel; between “harsh” and “more humane” SS leaders? Although this memoir is meant to raise such a question in its readers’ minds, in my opinion, the answers it provides won’t be that satisfying. Exonerating her father, making apologies for his murderous deeds and, to some extent, even covering up the outright lies he tells the court in Krakow—testifying during the trial that he didn’t know about the crematoria in either Auschwitz or Majdanek and wasn’t in any way involved in either–this memoir offers an extremely partial version of the facts and a deeply flawed moral perspective. There really was no way one could be a so-called “humane” Auschwitz commander. This is a contradiction in terms. There was nothing humane about life in a Nazi concentration camp.

However, I do believe that just as there were differences in attitude and behavior among the SS officers at the camp—some of whom did their “job” with relish and sadism in punishing the prisoners, others who tried to avoid or minimize the punishments—the same can be said about the differences between Höss and Liebehenschel. This doesn’t in any way excuse the mass murders committed by either man. If we draw a distinction between the two Auschwitz commandants it’s to better understand Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil,” which plays a big role in our attempts to understand Nazi behavior. Unlike Arendt, however, I believe that there was nothing commonplace or “banal” about the evil of men like Eichmann, whom she uses as her main example of this concept in Eichmann in Jerusalem, or of men like Höss. These two Nazi leaders exemplified extraordinary evil, going far and beyond the call of duty. Both, in fact, played a big role in masterminding the deportation and extermination of almost half a million of Hungarian Jews during a time when it was evident Germany had already lost the war.

In my estimation, the concept of “the banality of evil” as elaborated by Arendt applies much better to ordinary men such as Arthur Liebehenschel. His daughter’s claims that Liebehenschel didn’t like to see death and violence, learned mostly second-hand from her correspondence with Anneliesse, her father’s second wife, are corroborated to some extent by Auschwitz survivors’ testimonies. At the same time, the Auschwitz Kommandant still oversaw the deaths of thousands of innocent human beings, who spent their last days in conditions that were, in themselves, sheer torture even if actual physical torture was discouraged.

Furthermore, according to Cherish’s own account, Liebehenschel was a loyal German and a fervent Nazi: without these qualities he couldn’t have risen in the ranks of the SS. In different times, Arthur Liebehenschel could have played a role in better causes. In Nazi Germany, however, his ambition and misplaced loyalty to Hitler’s regime led him to play a significant role in “the banality of evil”: namely, in committing gravely immoral acts against tens of thousands of innocent human beings, without any particular hatred for the victims or zest for violence.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Arthur Wilhelm Liebehenschel, Barbara Cherish, Claudia Moscovici, Hannah Arendt the banality of evil, Holocaust Memory, Rudolf Hoss, The Auschwitz Kommandant: a daughter’s memoirs about Arthur Wilhelm Liebehenschel

The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw 1939-194

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“Until The Pianist, I have never read a piece so moving that I had to bring it to the screen,” declared the award-winning movie director Roman Polanski, himself a survivor of the Krakow Jewish Ghetto, from which he escaped as a child after his mother’s death.

The story Polanski would make into an unforgettable film in 2002 is the war journal of the world-class pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman and his incredible tale of survival (The Pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, New York: Picador Press, 1999). Szpilman lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland between 1939-1945. His life was constantly in peril, and doubly so: both as a Jew and as a Pole. His family was rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto and was liquidated along with its nearly half a million Jewish inhabitants, who were shot, died of disease or starvation, or were sent to concentration camps. (For more on this subject, see my earlier article on the Warsaw Ghetto, “Heroism in Hell”): http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/heroism-hell-resistance-warsaw-ghetto-uprising-israel-gutman)

Time after time Wladyslaw’s intuition, luck, connections and resilience save him from a near-certain death. Although his brother, sisters and parents perished in the Treblinka death camp, the young man manages to survive thanks to the last-minute intervention from a friend who works for the Jewish Ghetto Police, who helps him right as he’s about to board the cattle train to the concentration camp. To evade death yet again, Wladyslaw gets a work permit and becomes a slave laborer, along with the 50,000 working Jews (and their families) left in the Warsaw Ghetto, who, for a few more weeks or months, were still deemed “useful” by the Nazis.

Later the young man becomes involved in the Jewish resistance movement in the ghetto, made up mostly of very courageous young men, who would rather die fighting than let the Nazis “slaughter them like sheep”. Right before the Nazis stomp out the rebellion, killing almost every last Jew and burning the ghetto to the ground, Wladyslaw yet again manages to miraculously escape by hiding with two Polish friends, the married couple Andrez and Janina Bogucki. Once their neighbor discovers him there, however, he is obliged to flee into an empty room with a piano, where he tries to recover from jaundice and malnutrition. When in the midst of the Polish resistance his apartment hit by bombs, he escapes from place to place in the stark and empty shell left of what was once the beautiful and prosperous city of Warsaw.

Just as he believes he has cheated death and found a safer building that hadn’t yet been destroyed, Wladyslaw runs into an elegant German officer. Had this man been a typical SS officer this would have meant certain death for the Jewish Pole. But in a twist of fate that seems to be the stuff fiction is made of, it so happens that this particular German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, is a rare breed: a refined, humane man who hates the Nazi totalitarian regime and what it has done to Germany, to the Jewish people, and to the rest of the world. Wilm also adores classical music. Once he finds out that Wladyslaw is a musician, he asks him to play something on the grand piano. Szpilman chooses Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor. When he hears this beautiful music, the German officer is not only convinced of Wladyslaw’s talent, he’s also deeply moved by it. He returns several times to give the starving young man much-needed food provisions, without which he no doubt would have died. Germans have almost lost the war by the time of this fortuitous meeting between the German officer and the Polish Jew. In gratitude, Wladyslaw tells him his name, in case he’s ever taken prisoner by the Poles or Russians and will need his help someday. In a twist of fate–and strange role reversal—when captured by the Red Army Wilm Hosenfeld mentions Szpilman’s name to save his own life. Unfortunately, by the time the Wladyslaw learns of this fact, it’s too late. The Soviet prisoner of war camp had already been abandoned.

The most memorable aspects of The Pianist, for me, are its beautiful writing—this journal reads like a great novel—and its nuanced descriptions of life in the Warsaw Ghetto: the overcrowded and increasingly desperate, deplorable conditions, where “Half a million people had to find somewhere to lay their heads in an already over-populated part of the city, which scarcely had room for more than a hundred thousand” (59). Class hierarchies may have saved the richer inmates from the worst conditions for a while, but eventually almost everyone meets their death. Even the children of the orphanage are doomed. They go to their deaths with dignity, sheltered by their beloved leader, Janusz Korczak, from knowledge of their tragic fate:

 

“The evacuation of the Jewish orphanage run by Janusz Korczak had been ordered that morning. The children were to have been taken away alone. He had the chance to save himself, and it was only with difficulty that he persuaded the Germans to take him too. He had spent long years of his life with children, and now, on this last journey, he would not leave them alone. He wanted to ease things for them. He told the orphans they were going out into the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible, suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man who loved children, as Germans do, even those he was about to see on their way into the next world” (95-96).

 

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory, Roman Polanski The Pianist, the Holocaust, the Nazi occupation of Poland, The Pianist, Warsaw Ghetto, Wladyslaw Szpilman

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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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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