Janusz Korczak, “The King of the Children”

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Joseph Stalin once told U.S. Ambassador Averill Harriman “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” Perhaps this is why readers react so much more sympathetically to the personal account of the Holocaust in The Diary of Anne Frank than to any history or political science book on the subject. The deaths of Janusz Korczak and the nearly two hundred orphans he took care of are far from being a statistic. It is one of the most tragic episodes of Holocaust history, recorded both in his diary describing their lives in the Warsaw Ghetto, Ghetto Diary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), and in a beautifully written biography by Betty Jean Lifton, The King of Children: A Biography of Janusz Korczak (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988).

Janusz Korczak, the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit, a Jewish Polish educator, doctor and writer of children’s books and educational philosophy, was famous long before he perished along with his children during the Holocaust. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he devoted a large part of his life to writing about how to raise children. Unlike Rousseau, however, he practiced what he preached. Korczak devoted his entire life to taking care of thousands of orphans and destitute children. He worked first as a pediatrician, then as a leader of the Orphans’ Society. There he met the woman who would become his assistant, friend and greatest collaborator, Stefania Wilczynska.

In 1911 Korczak became the Director of an orphanage for Jewish children. In this context, he implemented some of the ideas expressed in his books: particularly that children need to be encouraged, not punished, and that they need a combination of guidance and autonomy to develop into decent human beings and good citizens. This was especially true of the thousands of homeless and hungry street urchins, both Polish and Jewish, that Korczak and Wilczynska raised, fed and educated over the course of their lives. Like in Korczak’s books, they created a “Children’s Republic”: not a utopia, but a place where the orphans had a lot of say in their upbringing and education, forming their own parliament, court and newspaper. Korczak, a keen psychologist, also encouraged them to write a diary where they learned to express their fears and sadness without allowing it to dominate their lives. He built for his orphans a state-of-the art orphanage: one of the first buildings with electricity and running water in Warsaw.

Not long after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, they decreed the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto on October 12, 1940. Korczak was obliged to move his modern orphanage from the Polish section of town, on Krochmalna 92, to a smaller building on 33 Chlodna within the ghetto walls, and later to an even tinier place on 16 Sienna Street. Even in the face of incredible hardship, disease and starvation, Korczak struggled every day to feed, clothe, educate and comfort the nearly 200 orphans under his care. He would go asking for food and donations throughout the ghetto, stage plays and other cultural activities, in the attempt to foster some semblance of normalcy in disastrous conditions. Although several of his Polish former students and friends offered him false papers to escape the Ghetto, he refused to abandon the children.

But on August 6th 1942, even the most cynical couldn’t have predicted that the Germans would send thousands of children living in the Ghetto to their deaths, in Treblinka. They took Korczak, his staff and the children by surprise when they stormed into the orphanage and ordered them to march to the gathering place at the train station, for deportation to the East. Betty Jean Lifton vividly describes the orphans’ sad procession; one of the darkest and most touching episodes in Holocaust history:

 

“The Germans had taken a roll call: one hundred and ninety-two children and ten adults. Korczak was at the head of this little army, the tattered remnants of the generations of moral soldiers he had raised in his children’s republic. He held five-year-old Romcia in one arm, and perhaps Szymonek Jakubowicz, to whom he had dedicated the story of planet Ro, by the other. Stefa followed a little way back with the nine-to twelve-year-olds… As the children followed Korczak away from the orphanage, one of the teachers started singing a marching song, and everyone joined in: ‘Though the storm howls around us, let us keep our heads high’” (The King of the Children, 340).

 

Although Janusz Korczak could not protect his beloved orphans from the gas chamber, he gave them one last gift: the comfort of facing their deaths with dignity.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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IG Farben: Manufacturing Death

Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering

View of the Reichstag assembly after Hitler’s speech in Berlin on Jan. 30, 1937. Left first row, right: Adolf Hitler. Standing on the steps: the Prussian Premier Hermann Goering. (AP Photo)

IG Farben didn’t start out as a Nazi death factory, which is what it’s known for to this day. In fact, up to the mid 1930’s, its chief executives were not particularly anti-Semitic. Formed in 1925, IG Farben started out as a chemical company that manufactured dye. It was so successful, that by the 1930’s it became the largest chemical company in the world and the fourth largest company in general. One of its leaders, Carl Bosch, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1931 for the development of chemical high-pressure methods. In Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2008), Diarmuid Jeffreys describes the progression—or, more fittingly, regression–of IG Farben from Germany’s leading chemical company to a death factory during the Holocaust.

Jeffreys records one of the most telling moments of this transition: the episode when the company’s leader, Carl Bosch, who valued the scientific work of many of his Jewish colleagues and employees, paid a visit to Hitler himself in the attempt to change his anti-Semitic outlook by considering its impact on science. Needless to say, Hitler not only didn’t budge, but also refused to communicate with Bosch henceforth:

“Then Bosch, as delicately as he could, raised the “Jewish question.” Perhaps the Fuhrer didn’t realize the potentially damaging consequences of his policies, he suggested. If more and more Jewish scientists were forced abroad, German physics and chemistry could be set back a hundred years. To his alarm, Hitler erupted in fury. Obviously the businessman knew nothing of politics, he snarled. If necessary, Germany would ‘work one hundred years without physics and chemistry’. Bosch tried to continue but Hitler rang for an aide and told him icily, ‘The Geheimrat wishes to leave.’” (178)

When the company’s senior executives, who didn’t see much scientific or economic value in anti-Semitism–Carl Bosch and Carl Duisberg—retired, they were replaced by a new crop of leaders who toed the party line. The company started to follow a more “pragmatic” approach, catering to the gruesome needs of the Nazi regime.

By 1941, IG Farben became directly involved in the death machine at Auschwitz. It built a rubber factory called Monowitz, or Auschwitz III, monitored by IG Farben managers and run through the exploitation of slave labor. There prisoners were worked to death, in identical conditions to the rest of the concentration camp: fed the same insufficient and unnutricious food; guarded by the same brutal SS prisoners; lacking in health care, and subject to the same reprisals and torture as the rest of the prisoners of the Auschwitz complex. Most prisoners could only survive two to three months working in such harsh conditions. When they were no longer fit for work, they were sent to the gas chamber.

After the war, following the precedent set by the Nuremberg Trial, some of the leaders of IG Farben were indicted before a U.S. Tribunal led by General Telford Taylor. In 1947 and 1948, twenty-four defendants faced similar charges to those leveled a few years earlier against the Nazi war criminals:

  1. Planning and waging a war of aggression against other countries
  2. War crimes and crimes against humanity through destroying occupied territories
  3. War crimes against humanity through the enslavement, deportation, rape, torture and murder of civilians.
  4. Membership in the SS, a criminal organization
  5. Conspiring to commit the crimes outlined above

In the end, as General Taylor would remark with great disappointment after the trial, justice was not served. Only thirteen of the company’s senior executives received prison terms (one to eight years). (See Hell’s Cartel, 400) The rest of those indicted were released, and many became successful executives in other companies. After the war, IG Farben was fractured, but not annihilated. The Soviet Union took over part of it, while the Western part of the company continued to thrive, eventually becoming affiliated with Standard Oil. Because of its close affiliation with the Holocaust, the remnants of the company faced continual protests. Although IG Farben executives announced in 2001 that the company would dissolve by 2003, it continues to exist today, still in the process of liquidation. IG Farben thus remains a living testimony to the fact that business and science, if placed in the wrong hands, can be easily used for the most corrupt and amoral purposes.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The Nuremberg Trial

 

Nurember-Trial-history.com

How do you punish the perpetrators of the biggest genocide in human history? Do they deserve a fair trial, which their millions of victims never got? These are some of the questions the Allies debated during and after WWII. They were eventually resolved by the Nuremberg Trial, which Ann and John Tusa describe in vivid detail in their book by the same name (The Nuremberg Trial, New York: Atheneum, 1986). Several options were suggested, even before the war was over and the Ally victory secured.

Documents released in 2006 from the British War Cabinet indicate that in December 1944 the Cabinet considered a swift and severe punishment of the Nazi leaders involved in crimes against humanity. Winston Churchill suggested summary execution of the top Nazi leaders. A year earlier, at the Tehran Conference, Joseph Stalin proposed executing 50,000-100,000 Nazi officers. Roosevelt appeared prepared to go on board with this idea, but at the time Churchill vehemently objected, stating that most of them were fighting for their country.

Roosevelt later considered a plan proposed by US Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau. Morgenthau called for the de-industrialization of Germany and the execution of the major Nazi war criminals. This proposed retribution, once publicized by the media, caused massive protests in the US, which dissuaded Roosevelt from pursuing it. The plan eventually adopted by President Harry S. Truman after Roosevelt’s death continues to serve as a precedent for prosecuting war crimes today in its fairness and legality. The trial that took place in 1945 and 1946 in the city of Nuremberg distinguishes itself from how the totalitarian regimes had administered “justice” by leveling false accusations against millions of innocent people and murdering them.

The Allies chose Nurermberg for the trial of the top Nazi leaders for several reasons:

1) its Palace of Justice was one of the few public buildings in major cities in Germany that had withstood the Ally bombings and remained relatively intact

2) the building included a large prison

3) Nuremberg was the ceremonial place where the Nazis held rallies and issued their infamous anti-Semitic legislature.

The International Military Tribunal tried 24 Nazi perpetrators for crimes against peace (planning and waging wars of aggression), war crimes (violations of internationally agreed upon rules of waging war), and crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, enslavement, rape and deportation of civilians).

Of course, not all of the leading perpetrators of Nazi atrocities were caught and punished. Hitler along with Goebbels and his family had committed suicide. Many Nazi war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann, scattered throughout the world and lived, for many years, in hiding. Others, including Heinrich Himmler, disguised themselves as ordinary soldiers in the many camps throughout Europe. As the Tusas point out, it was very difficult to catch these mass murderers:

 

“Given the vast number of such camps, not just in the Four Zones of Germany but in Austria and the liberated countries, all of which were constantly receiving new inmates, chacking them was time consuming and frustrating. There was too little communication between the searchers and the authorities who might hold their prey; up-to-date intelligence circulated haphazardly if at all. Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the roundup of many leading Nazi war criminals took months” (The Nuremberg Trial, 37).

 

Remarkably, given the post-war mass migrations and chaos, 24 of the leading Nazi war criminals stood trial in Nuremberg, including Hermann Goering (Hitler’s heir), Joachim von Ribbentrop (Nazi Foreign Minister), Rudolf Hess (Hitler’s deputy), Hans Frank (the ruthless Governo-General of occupied Poland), Wilhelm Keitel (Army Head), Wilhelm Frick (Minister of Interior), Erns Kaltenbrunner (Security Chief), Konstantin von Neurath (Governor of Moravia and Bohemia), Erich Raeder (Navy Chief), Karl Doenitz (Raeder’s successor), Alfred Jodl (Commander of Armed Forces), Alfred Rosenberg (the blood-thristy Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories), Baldur von Fritz Sauckel (Chief of Forced Labor), Albert Speer (Armaments Minister), Baldur von Schirach (Hitler Youth Leader), Julius Streicher (leading writer of anti-Semitic propaganda), Alfred Seyss-Inquart (the ingratiating Comminissioner for the Occuped Netherlands), and Martin Bormann (Hitler’s Adjuct, who was tried in his absence). (See https://www.ushmm.org/)

Despite their positions of leadership and direct communications with Hitler and Himmler, most of the accused claimed ignorance of the Holocaust. In the cases when, faced with irrefutable evidence, they were obliged to admit their involvement, they argued that they were merely following orders and serving their country. Most adopted an obsequious tone and seemed non-descript despite their previous prominence in the Nazi regime. The Tusas note two exceptions: Goering and Speer. Hermann Goering behaved in his usually flashy and bombastic manner. During the trial, he acted in control of the situation. When he was sentenced to death, he committed suicide in his cell rather than relinquish his power. Albert Speer, the Minister of Defense, put up an impressively argued defense and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Robert H. Jackson, the United States prosecutor, shone throughout the trial in his eloquence, precision and passion.

On October 1, 1946, the International Military Tribunal issued the verdicts. Twelve of the most notorious war criminals, inluding Goering, Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, Frank and SeyssInquart, received the death penalty. Three of the accused (Hess, Funk and Raeder) were sentenced to life in prison. Four men (Doenitz, Schirach, Speer and Neurath) received jail terms ranging from 10 to 20 years.

The Nuremberg trial is rightly described as “the greatest trial in history.” In this trial, the Allies showed incredible restraint, given the magnitude of suffering the Nazis caused. The trial could have offered a farce of justice, giving the war criminals a taste of their own medicine. But it didn’t. The Allies took the high road instead, which is why the Nuremberg trial continues to serve as a role model for how to deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity in as fair a fashion as possible, despite the understandable temptation for revenge and retribution.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Focusing on the positive: Michigan, let’s vote for Governor John Kasich

Governor_John_Kasich

We’re experiencing an election season like no other. The two major political parties in the U.S. find themselves in the unique predicament of elections dominated by party outsiders. Fox News aptly calls it a “voter revolt”: for both the Democratic and the Republican parties, fringe candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders (a Social Democrat) and real estate mogul Donald Trump, have gained momentum and have a real chance of becoming the party nominees in the upcoming general election (Trump more so than Sanders). Although the political establishment in both parties would have preferred that Trump and Sanders not run for president, each party strategically welcomed them into their fold as mainstream candidates rather than encouraging them to run as independents, which would have diverted a non-negligible percentage of voters away from their party in the general election. Thus, both the Democratic and the Republican Parties took a calculated risk that the fringe candidates would ultimately lose in the primaries and not draw votes from their endorsed candidates when it came time for voting for America’s president. It’s not clear that this calculated risk will pay off. Because, currently, it’s the American people—more specifically, voter discontent with the Washington establishment–that are leading the atypical direction of the primaries.

A significant proportion of both Republican and Democratic voters are registering their disappointment with their respective parties by voting in unexpectedly large numbers for Trump and Sanders. Trump is particularly seductive for the angry mob congregating around him, more as an act of vengeance against the establishment than of political support. This is the best explanation I have read for Donald Trump’s dangerous populist appeal, given by one of his supporters, John Moore:

“I think of Donald Trump not as a candidate but as a weapon. A weapon which I intend to use recklessly and carelessly in pursuit of a political Gotterdammerung. I am totally uninterested in criticisms and in the supposed qualities of other candidates. The disgust and anger I feel permits no other choice. With any luck, he might be a good President. The most important thing right now, though, is to wreak vengeance on the establishment.” (John Moore, Facebook)

To complicate the situation on the Republican side further, the second most popular candidate, Ted Cruz, although part of the establishment (a Senator from Texas), has alienated fellow party members. So part of the Republican establishment is now conducting a high-stakes strategy game on how to get its two unendorsed yet most popular candidates—Trump and Cruz—beaten by an endorsed Republican candidate who can also win the general election. Many seemed to have settled on Marco Rubio, a young senator from Florida. Although Rubio did poorly in the New Hampshire debate and primary, several important members of the Republican party have backed him and are pressuring moderate Republican John Kasich, the Governor of Ohio, to follow Jeb Bush’s lead and opt out of the election in order to consolidate Republican votes in the primaries around Rubio. They stipulate that the longer the Republican establishment remains divided among multiple candidates the greater the odds that Trump or Cruz, the two frontrunners, will win the Republican nomination.

Fortunately for American voters, Governor Kasich has decided to continue his campaign for President, focusing on the primaries in the Midwest, particularly Michigan and Ohio. I believe that John Kasich is the most qualified Republican candidate and urge fellow Michigan voters to take note of his positive campaign and vote for him in the upcoming open primaries on March 8. So far the Republican primaries have been dominated by negative considerations: public fears and anxieties (particularly pertaining to the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.); mudslinging and bullying of candidates, and false allegations (made mostly by members of the Cruz campaign staff). When we vote for President of the United States, however, we vote for the issues we care about and for the person we believe can help bring them to fruition, not against someone or something.

I’m glad to see that throughout this negative campaigning, fear mongering, and process of elimination strategizing, Governor John Kasich has stood firm and remains focused on all the positives he has to offer America: namely, his vast political experience; success in economic policies as Governor of Ohio, and a moderate position on many of the social issues that divide our nation. To offer just a few examples: John Kasich, elected as Governor of Ohio in 2010 and reelected in 2014, has eliminated an 8 billion dollar budget deficit (or, if you accept the Cleveland Plain Dealer figures, a 6 billion dollar deficit) and created a 2 billion dollar surplus for Ohio. That is quite an accomplishment.

Kasich has also served in the United States House of Representatives from 1983 to 2001. He has participated for 18 years in the House Armed Services Committee and six years as Chairman of the House Budget Committee. Starting with the 1990’s, he was a main proponent of balancing the federal budget, which remains one of his top priorities.

On most social issues, Kasich is a Republican with a progressive streak. On the issue of abortion, however, he holds a conservative position. Kasich is staunchly pro-life and has passed several measures to de-fund Planned Parenthood. The issue of abortion remains hotly debated and divisive in our country because it’s a deeply personal moral issue. Many of us have friends and relatives on both sides of the debate and we respect them, without necessarily sharing, their views. What I would like to emphasize, however, both as a woman and as a feminist writer, is that being pro-life doesn’t mean that Kasich is anti-women or against women’s rights, as some have charged recently. The Governor has appointed several women while in office, including his campaign manager (Beth Hansen), his Lieutenant Governor (Mary Taylor) and his appointment to the Ohio Supreme Court (Judith French). We should also keep in mind that, on the issue of abortion, Kasich’s personal ethical stance coincides with the majority of his Republican constituency, to whom he’s answerable. I believe that if and when Republican voters’ views will shift in Ohio and throughout the country, probably so will the public policies of Republican Party leaders. As a case in point, on the issue of gay marriage, Kasich maintains a moderate stance. Although the Governor personally believes in traditional marriage, he declared that he will respect the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell V. Hodges which argued that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. Kasich’s political views reflect a change in public opinion. Over the past six or seven years, there has been a significant shift for Republican voters and therefore also for the Republican party leaders on the issue of gay marriage. It is no longer the controversial, hot-button topic that it was in 1994.

On economic issues touching mainstream America, Kasich is what can fairly be called a compassionate conservative, which is part of why his candidacy has great appeal across party boundaries. He has supported Medicaid-expansion funding provided by Obamacare in Ohio, something not favored by many mainstream Republicans. At the same time, he is against Obamacare, which he claims has vastly increased the cost of healthcare in Ohio. Governor Kasich plans to replace it with a more affordable and less costly healthcare plan that will foster greater competition among insurance companies.

For me, as a first-generation legal immigrant coming to the United States during the 1980s from Communist Romania, the problem of immigration is especially relevant. On the issue of illegal immigration, which the Trump campaign has brought to the foreground, Kasich’s stance is both humane and pragmatic. Although the Governor supports tightening the borders to impede further illegal immigration, unlike Trump and Cruz, he is against establishing a Gestapo-style “deportation force” that would round up illegal immigrants, yank them from their homes, and toss them out of the country. As someone currently working on a history book about the Holocaust, I would also caution that if actually implemented, Trump’s policy would set a dangerous precedent reminiscent in some respects of the Fascist era.

By way of contrast, Governor Kasich proposes a viable solution to the problem of illegal immigration. Although he does not suggest a path to citizenship for all illegal immigrants, he supports a path to granting them legal status, so that if they pay taxes and meet the requirements, they can eventually work, drive and raise their children in this country. His view is that most illegal immigrants are not rapists and murderers, as Trump’s incendiary rhetoric might suggest, but rather people who, like generations of previous immigrant American families, are looking for better opportunities for themselves and their children. They pursued those opportunities through illegal means, however, which is why they can’t automatically be granted citizenship status.

Governor John Kasich offers a unique combination of ample political experience and common sense policies that can help our country flourish. Although definitely a mainstream Republican, he negotiates well with the Democrats. We need someone capable of bilateral collaboration if we want to overcome the current stalemate and accomplish anything in this country. Unlike some of the other candidates, who feed voter anxieties and even hatred by focusing on identifying internal and external enemies, Kasich offers “a positive vision for America”. In the upcoming general election, the Governor’s nuanced and reasonable positions can attract a wide range of voters. At the same time, he is the mainstream Republican candidate his party currently needs: the one that, if given the Republican nomination, has the best chance of becoming America’s next President.

My own state, Michigan, will hold open primaries on March 8th. Regardless of your voting history and party affiliation, I urge fellow Michiganders to take a serious look at Governor John Kasich’s sound policies and vast political experience and to vote for him in the primary.

Claudia Moscovici, author of Velvet Totalitarianism: Post-Stalinist Romania

 

 

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The true banality of evil: Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning

OrdinaryMencoverscribd.com

Hannah Arendt referred to Adolf Eichmann as the paradigm of the banality of evil: an ordinary man led by extraordinary circumstances to exceptional evil. However, given that Eichmann spearheaded some of the key initiatives of the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, I have argued that he was quite extraordinary: extraordinarily sociopathic and evil. The circumstances of Fascist Germany allowed his true nature to be revealed and his thirst for power through murder to be played out.

In Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993) historian Christopher R. Browning reveals the true nature of the banality of evil by recounting the transformation of members of the Order Police, the Police Battalion 101, from regular men to brutal killers. Although initially the Order Police was composed of young men sympathetic to Nazi principles, by the late 1930’s it included older men from all walks of life: policemen, workers, small businessmen. Browning notes that these Order Police units expanded during the war: “Twenty-one police battalions of approximately 500 men each were formed from the various police companies and training units in Germany, thirteen of them were attached to the armies invading Poland” (6).

While one can plausibly argue that the SS were chosen for their anti-Semitic outlook and brutality, that’s not the case of the Reserve Police Battalion 101. Yet this unit of five hundred “ordinary men” is responsible for the murder of 38,000 Jews and the deportation of an additional 45,200 in occupied Poland in 1942. Few of the perpetrators were tried for their crimes against humanity after the war.

For those who did face a trial, their main defense was similar to Eichmann’s: namely, that they were merely following the orders of their superiors. In their case, unlike in Eichmann’s, this defense sounded plausible. Few of these men were ardent Nazis. Even fewer had violent or sadistic tendencies. Most of them were middle-aged men who were found ineligible for military duty. They were sent to Poland to participate in Operation Reinhard, which included shooting en masse the Jews of entire small towns, such as Jozefow and Lomazy.

They did so voluntarily, although initially not eagerly. Most of these men hesitated to kill women and children in the beginning. Browning points out that, contrary to the later excuse they offered that they were merely following orders, those orders didn’t entail any serious negative consequences for those who refused to follow them. The commander of Unit 101 gave his soldiers the option of opting out of conducting mass murders if they did not have the “fortitude” to kill civilians. All they faced, at worst, was peer pressure from some of their more ruthless colleagues. And yet, Browning notes, remarkably, only 12 out of the 500 men in Reserve Police Battalion 101 opted not to shoot innocent people.

Seeing themselves as merely doing their duty, they rounded up and shot thousands of helpless civilians. As they got used to their “job”, they became more violent and sadistic. Some even smashed Jewish babies against the wall, or threw them up into the air and shot them. The rest became increasingly used to the mass murders, quickening the pace of slaughter and increasing the brutality as time went on. If any book can show that genocide can happen anywhere and be perpetrated by regular human beings placed in extraordinary circumstances, Browning’s well-researched and persuasive book is it.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Review of Sarah’s Key

sarahskeypadua360.com

 

Between 1940 and 1944, approximately 75,000 Jews were deported from France. Most of them perished in the German concentration camps. Despite these grim statistics, and despite the fact that France was partially occupied by Germany from 1940 to 1944, France was one of the European countries with the highest Jewish survival rate: roughly 75 percent. Out of about 340,000 Jews living in France, about 72,500 died during the Holocaust. Initially, part of France retained some autonomy: the Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Petain signed an armistice with Germany. German anti-Semitic measures against the Jewish population of France began almost immediately, including forcing Jews to wear the yellow star and forbidding Jews from working in white-collar professions, as lawyers, teachers and journalists. Following a similar procedure in France to the rest of occupied Europe, the Germans created a Judenrat, the Union Generale des Israelites de France, to be able to control the Jewish population through a centralized administration.

Repressive measures soon followed. In August 1941, over 4000 Jews were incarcerated at the Drancy camp, to be deported to Auschwitz in March 1942. The Germans targeted for deportation not only men, but also women and children. The French police rounded up 13,000 Jews in Paris—including 4000 children–during the Velodrome D’Hiver roundup in July 1942. They were held there in horrible conditions: without heat, water, food or sanitation facilities. Some committed suicide by throwing themselves off the bleachers. The French municipal police carried the roundups on their own. Emile Hennequin, the director of police in Paris, officially ordered that the arrest of over 13,000 Jews “must be effected with maximum speed, without speaking and without comment.” The arrested were not given the opportunity to pack or say goodbye to loved ones.

The novel Sarah’s Key (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008), written by Tatiana de Rosnay and originally published in France under the title Elle s’appelait Sarah, captures this shameful part of French history. The novel personalizes the atrocity by telling the fictionalized story of Sarah Starzynski, a ten-year-old Jewish girl living with her parents and four year old brother in Paris, who are rounded up by the French police in July 1942 and confined in the Velodrome d’Hiver. In the panic of the moment, Sarah hides her little brother in a camouflaged closet that looks like part of the wall, hoping to let him out upon returning in a few hours. She makes him promise not to get out until she returns.

However, Sarah and her parents don’t get the chance to return home. Her parents are eventually deported to Auschwitz, where they perish. Sarah, however, manages to escape with another Jewish girl, Rachel, to the countryside where they are hidden by a couple, Jules and Genevieve Dufaure, who are both farmers with a good heart. While Rachel dies of dysentery, Sarah survives and remains obsessed with saving her younger brother. The couple disguises her as a boy and they take the train back to Paris. By then, as Sarah discovers, her family’s apartment has already been allocated to another, non-Jewish family. Sarah rings the doorbell and, as soon as she’s let in, she runs quickly to the hidden closet. When she opens it, she’s horrified to find the corpse of her dead brother, who kept his promise to wait for her.

This tragic family tale is discovered sixty years later by journalist Julia Jarmond, whose in-laws inhabited the Jewish family’s former apartment in Paris. Julia, an American living in Paris, is herself struggling through a troubled marriage with Frenchman Bertrand Tezac, who cheated on her with a woman he’s fallen in love with. When Julia discovers she’s pregnant and decides to keep the baby, Bertrand, who was planning to leave his wife for his mistress, feels trapped. The couple divorces and Julia finds meaning in raising her baby girl, whom she tellingly names Sarah, and in tracking down the family history that leads her to these personal revelations about the Holocaust. Sarah’s Key may not be historical in the strictest sense of the term: the main characters are fiction. But this fictionalized journey into the past uncovers one of the darkest–and very real–moments in French history.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

 

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Primo Levi’s reflection on humanity in crisis: Survival in Auschwitz (If This is a man)

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Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, translated by Giulio Einaudi), is not just about the author’s survival in the notorious Nazi concentration camp, but above all about the survival of his humanity after enduring such a grueling process of dehumanization. Published in 1947 under the Italian title If This is a Man (Se questo e un uomo), the author doesn’t claim to offer new information in this autobiographical book. Nor does he wish to level fresh accusations against the Nazis. Written in a calm, observational tone, Survival in Auschwitz sets out “to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind” (9).

Thoughtful and thought provoking, the narrative constitutes a reflection on the power—and limits—of forgiveness. In an interview published by the New Republic on February 16, 1986, Levi announces that he did not harbor feelings of hatred towards the Germans. He explains: “I regard hatred as bestial and crude, and prefer that my actions and thoughts be the product, as far as possible, of reason. Much less do I accept hatred directed collectively at an ethnic group, for example at all the Germans.” Levi views the Holocaust not as a reflection of the German nation, but as a much broader crisis of humanity. Nation after nation fell under the Nazi spell and power as many engaged in terrific acts of cruelty.

Does this mean that the author absolves the Nazi of moral responsibility for their actions? Not at all. In the same interview, Primo Levi qualifies: “All the same, I would not want my abstaining from explicit judgment to be confused with an indiscriminate pardon.” He explains that he can only forgive those who show–through their actions, not just their words–that they take responsibility and feel guilty for their crimes against humanity. He is speaking, above all, of the crimes of ordinary men and women.

In Survival in Auschwitz Levi describes how inflicting harm upon other human beings becomes completely routine. Without harboring any particular hatred, Nazi officers conduct the selection process and send hundreds of thousands of people—including practically all women and children—to their deaths in the gas chambers. One of the questions that continues to preoccupy Levi throughout his life is how this mass murder can become commonplace—little more than doing one’s job–and how much the German population at large knew about it and allowed it to happen.

In the 1986 New Republic interview Levi, characteristically, offers a very reasonable answer: because totalitarian regimes function very differently from democracies it’s not possible to have a dissemination of truthful information and open criticism of despicable actions in totalitarian regimes that we can have in democratic societies. Yet, by the same token, Levi remarks, “it was not possible to hide the existence of the enormous concentration camp apparatus from the German people. What’s more, it was not (from the Nazi point of view) even desirable. Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of undefined terror in the country was one of the aims of Nazism.”

Perhaps one of the most profound observations in Survival in Auschwitz is the statement that just as absolute happiness is impossible, so is absolute unhappiness, even in the hellish conditions of the Nazi concentration camps. Human beings gradually adapt to each phase of the process of dehumanization: starting with the isolation from the rest of the population in Jewish ghettos; to the order to gather by the train station to be transported in cattle trains to the concentration camps (he describes how lovingly mothers pack for the trip clothes and nourishment for their children, p.91); to the brutal conditions of the camps themselves. At each phase, victims focus on the moment-to-moment fight for survival. Heroism in such adverse conditions becomes almost impossible; while, conversely, as Levi observes, “to sink is the easiest of matters; it is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp” (Survival in Auschwitz, 90). In such a context, the quest for survival assumes heroic dimensions in itself, as is the ability to endure extreme hardship while remaining human and humane. Few are able achieve this: among those few is Levi’s friend, Lorenzo, the man who motivates him to do the same and whom he remembers fondly for the rest of his life.

When asked, in the New Republic interview, why a grander, more ambitious heroism didn’t occur in the camps—“How is it that there were no large-scale revolts? —Levi reminds readers that in the heavily guarded concentration camps, “Escape was difficult and extremely dangerous. The prisoners were debilitated, besides being demoralized, by hunger and ill treatment. Their heads were shaved, their striped clothing was immediately recognizable, and their wooden clogs made silent and rapid walking impossible.” Moreover, the prisoners were in a foreign country whose inhabitants were largely hostile to them or, at best, indifferent to their plight and whose local language they didn’t speak. As for revolts, Levi points out, they existed—in Treblinka, Sobibor and Birkenau. However, “They did not have much numerical weight. Like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, they represented, rather, examples of extraordinary moral force. In every instance they were planned and led by prisoners who were privileged in some way, and consequently in better physical and spiritual condition than the average camp prisoner.”

Although he remained, philosophically speaking, a humanist and rationalist throughout his life despite the severe trauma he experienced in the Nazi concentration camps, Levi eventually succumbed to its effects: the depression and nightmares that haunted him throughout his life. In April 1987 he died after falling from his third-story apartment in Turin, which many close to him considered a suicide. Yet he did not write, suffer and die in vain. Through his memoirs, books and interviews, Primo Levi left behind an invaluable intellectual legacy that helps us recall, commemorate, and understand better the worst humanitarian crisis in our history.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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