The controversial journal of Mihai Sebastian (1935-1944)

JournalMihaiSebastian

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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Dare to Live: Abrashe Sabrin’s Memoir from Vilna

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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

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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

TED and TEDx: The democratic dissemination of “ideas worth sharing”

TEDxReghin

In her 2011 TEDx talk at Silicon Valley entitled the TEDxStory, Lara Stein discussed one of the main goals of the TEDx series she helped launch throughout the world in 2009. The theme of her presentation was “How to create a global movement and how to keep it personal”. To address this topic, Stein first considered if TEDx is actually a movement, a trend or a tribe.

http://www.tedxsv.org/?page_id=1221

She began with the definition of a movement—“movements are large, sometimes informal, groupings of individuals or organizations which focus on specific political or social issues”—which, in her estimation, described TED and its mission in some respects but not in others. TED tends to include many political groups and affiliations and is, generally speaking, embracing of numerous ideologies yet at the same time politically nonpartisan. She also considered and ultimately rejected the concept of a trend. TED goes much deeper than a trend. Trends tend to be associated with passing fashions and even fads. Baggy pants are a trend. TED, on the other hand, has staying power.

Founded in 1984 by Richard Saul Wurman as a convergence of three fields—technology, entertainment and design—TED has grown into an international phenomenon that covers almost every field of knowledge and human endeavor. Moreover, the goals of this international nonprofit foundation are far from faddish. TED has a worthwhile and ambitious mission: the democratic sharing of information. On their website, the TED organizers state: “We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world. On TED.com, we’re building a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers—and a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other, both online and at TED and TEDx events around the world, all year long.” (See http://www.ted.com/about/our-organization)

Given its global reach, Lara Stein declared in her talk that the concept of a “tribe” best describes the TED lecture series. According to its dictionary definition, a tribe is “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect”. While TED is not a tribe in the literal or traditional sense, this concept does describe, by analogy, the manner in which its members are united—despite their countless ethnic, national, political and social differences—by a common commitment to sharing meaningful information. They believe not only in the motto of TED—namely, that ideas are “worth sharing”—but also in the assumption that communicating the right ideas can make a significant positive difference in the world. By “right” ideas I mean those that contribute to the communication of scientific knowledge in numerous fields, to the growth of businesses, to the flourishing of individuals and communities, as well as to the growth of art and culture in general—are encouraged.

Being a fan and a participant in the TEDx series, I’m sympathetic to TED’s mission and impressed with its accomplishments. On September 20, 2014, I participated via a Skype interview in a TEDxReghin event entitled “Brizant!” (a branding concept translated as “fire and water”) with the theme “the magic of life” organized by Sorin Suciu in my native country, Romania. The event took place in the town of Reghin, known as “the city of violins”. The participants who spoke about what they perceived as life’s magic and meaning came from different professions and walks of life: economics (Daniel Moga); communication and life coaching (Christina Varo); athletic coaching of children and young adults (Mihai Corui); electrical engineering (Sorina Lupu); business (Flaviu Roman); medicine (Nora Chifor) and writing/art criticism (me). Despite having different perspectives, the speakers shared an honesty in their answers and a commitment to communicating ideas with the public.

https://www.ted.com/tedx/events/11458

http://www.zi-de-zi.ro/farmecul-vietii-povestit-la-tedxreghin/

For me, this local TEDx event embodied the principles articulated by Lara Stein when she developed the TEDx series—or independently organized cultural events—in over 130 countries and 1,200 cities throughout the world. TEDx stands for disseminating knowledge to everyone, not just the elite. It stands for disseminating knowledge in numerous cities, big or small, capitals or provincial towns. It stands for disseminating knowledge in both developed and developing countries. It stands for disseminating knowledge by people from all walks of life and areas of expertise, not just academic pundits.

It takes a real balancing act to combine a wide, democratic scope with quality standards. For TEDx is committed to having standards—the talks are curated—without, however, being “elitist”. Anyone can participate in these talks as speakers, provided that their presentations meet the curatorial standards of the local organizers and are approved by the central administration in New York City. Since the organizers of local TEDx series have a lot of autonomy, the forum remains open and democratic in fact, not just in theory.

This combination of talks in major cities as well as presentations in smaller communities also ensures that the speakers have an audience interested in what they have to say. Statistically speaking, few participants will have a large, international audience. Like in any other public forum, the more visible the speakers were originally—I’m thinking of “public” intellectuals such as Alain de Botton, or well-established business professionals such as Steve Jobs—the more visible they’re likely to be on the TED speaker series as well. It’s therefore not surprising that Steve Jobs’ 2005 presentation, “How to live before you die”, was one of the most popular TED talks of all time.

http://www.ted.com/talks/steve_jobs_how_to_live_before_you_die?language=en

But the establishment of the locally organized, grassroots TEDx series ensures that nobody talks in a void. Whether they’re famous or relatively unknown, addressing a large international audience or a small community, no speaker is left to feel like an insignificant drop of water in an ocean of communication of ideas. They all reach an audience and have a chance at making a positive difference in their community. As Mother Teresa once said, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, Lara Stein, literature salon, Sorin Suciu, TED, TED in Romania, TEDx, TEDx Reghin, TEDx tribes, the TEDx movement

The Lodz Ghetto: Review of The Cage by Ruth Minsky

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In her Holocaust memoir, The Cage (Simon & Schuster, 1997), Ruth Minsky Sender compares the Lodz Ghetto not to imprisonment of human beings, but to a cage that animals are trapped in. The metaphor is powerful and apt. A medium sized city in Poland, Lodz had a relatively large Jewish population. Out of the city’s nearly 700,000 occupants, about a quarter of million were Jews. The Germans established the Lodz Ghetto in February, 1940. They forced the Jews who lived in other areas to abandon their homes and squeeze into the tiny, 4 square kilometer area, of the Jewish Quarter. The cage grew smaller and smaller as outside contact became more and more difficult. German Police units patrolled the perimeter of the ghetto, to eliminate contact between Jews and Poles. The ghetto walls trapped inside 162,681 human beings, left with meager means of survival. Many of them, particularly those who had moved from other parts of town, were also left homeless, at the mercy of the ghetto’s dissipating community resources. To ensure that the ghetto didn’t receive outside help, the Germans passed punitive laws towards anyone that sold food or goods to its inhabitants. While in the Warsaw Ghetto the underground food smuggling and black market trade flourished for a while, in the Lodz Ghetto it was practically impossible. As contact with the Poles was strictly punished, the Jewish inhabitants were at the mercy of the Germans for all the resources they needed to survive.

The ghetto was governed by a Jewish Council whose “Elder”, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, ruled with an iron fist. One of the most colorful and controversial figures of the Holocaust, Rumkowski became so used to the power he exercised within the ghetto walls that he came to be known as “King Rumkowski”. The historian Raul Hilberg describes him as a megalomaniac autocrat hungry for power. He notes, however, that Rumkowski had some benevolent tendencies, which he exercised on behalf of the ghetto inhabitants and particularly on behalf of children:

 

“A Zionist, he involved himself in community affairs and managed several orphanages with devotion. Widowed and childless, he became a dedicated autocrat in the ghetto. He was able to act alone, because the fear-stricken men who had replaced the murdered councilmen were merely his advisory board… When bank notes were printed in the ghetto, they bore his likeness. Frequently he made speeches with phrases like ‘I do not like to waste words,’ ‘My plan is based on sound logic’, ‘I have decided,’ ‘I forbid,’ and ‘My Jews.’ Rumkowski presided over his community through periods of starvation and deportations for almost five years” (Perpetrators, Victims and Bystanders, New York: HarperPerennial, 109).

 

To appease Hans Biebow, the ruling Nazi official in the area, and to keep the inhabitants alive, Rumkowski established a ghetto manufacturing economy for the Germans. Even so, most of the ghetto inhabitants, particularly the poorer ones and those unable to work, barely had enough food to survive. Most subsisted on a meager diet of about 900 calories a day. Starvation and disease thinned out the ghetto population even before the Nazis began deporting people to the death camps.

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Ruth (Riva) Minsky was only 16 years old when her mother was taken away by the Nazis, never to be seen again. Her father had already passed away earlier from an illness. So Riva, only a child herself, was left to take care of herself and her three younger brothers, including the youngest, Laibele, who suffered from tuberculosis. They barely have enough food to survive; in the harsh Polish winter they shiver from cold. Eventually Riva manages to find a job as a seamstress making German army uniforms. Despite being orphans, Riva and her brothers resist with all their might moving to the ghetto orphanage or being adopted by different families. In fact, the way their nuclear family clings together—with such tenacity that even the director of the orphanage decides to give Riva custody of her brothers—is one of the most moving aspects of the memoir.

Even so, during the winter, the living conditions become so harsh that the Jewish Council decides to burn all the old homes in order to have firewood for the ghetto inhabitants. Riva and her brothers, who live in an old house, are obliged to move into a room of an old grocery store with an underground cellar. This new place, though much smaller and bereft of their family memories, serves them well. Later they hide in the cellar, during the repeated raids by the Jewish Police looking for Jews to meet the Nazi quota for deportation to death camps. Riva and her brothers are particularly at risk since “Operation Reinhard”, or the Final Solution, initially targets children, the ill and the elderly. All those in the Lodz Ghetto deemed by the Nazis “unfit” for work are sent to the Chelmno death camp. Riva escapes several of the selections by hiding and depending on a network of teenage friends. But she cannot escape for long.

In the summer of 1944, the Nazis begin to liquidate the entire ghetto as the Soviet forces approach. They transport the remaining population, including the Elder himself, to Auschwitz. Although he had been promised safety and protection for his cooperation with the local Nazis, Rumkowski himself perished in the concentration camp. Out of the nearly 200,000 inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto, less than 1000 survived to be liberated by Soviet troops on January 19, 1945. Only 12 of them were children. Riva is one of the relatively lucky ones. She survived the unspeakably harsh conditions in Auschwitz due to her youth and resilience; her network of friends that helped each other; luck, and a kind prisoner doctor that took her to a local hospital. Her moving memoir, written in a simple and didactic prose intended for the young adult audience, offers a unique and informative look into the horrendous human cage that was once the Lodz Ghetto.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memoir, Holocaust Memory, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, Nazi Germany, Nazi occupation of Poland, Ruth Minsky Sender, The Cage, the Holocaust

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 Jewish inmate, which turns out to have been false. In this case, the novel comes closer to the actual truth. The historian Robert Jay Lifton documents that Höss had an affair with a Polish prisoner, Eleonore Hodys, whom he tried to murder when she became pregnant in order to avoid scandal (see The Nazi Doctors, 1986, Harper Collins Publishers, 201) 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. Like in real life, in Sophie’s Choice, Höss is dispatched to Berlin before he has the chance to intervene in Sophie’s life. In Auschwitz, there were rumors circulating that Höss was temporarily replaced with Arthur Liebehenschel because of his affair with a prisoner. This too probably has no foundation in reality. It’s more likely that Höss was transferred because of his implication in a scandal involving the arrest of the Auschwitz political leader Maximilian Grabner. As Robert Jay Lifton elaborates: “Grabner was implicated through an SS anticorruption investigation, originally aimed at profiteering, although it also charged him with murders beyond those authorized, notably of Polish prisoners. Grabner’s exit was supported by Dr. Wirths, with whom he had confrontations over killings. Although implicated in Grabner’s misdeeds, Höss was, in fact, promoted into the central concentration-camp administration” (The Nazi Doctors, 310). Whatever the reason for Rudolf Höss’s hasty transfer, in the novel, Sophie 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