Quiet Neighbors by Allan A. Ryan: The Legal Immigration of Nazi Collaborators into the U.S.

IvanMarchenko

Allan A. Ryan’s Quiet Neighbors (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984) recreates some of the horrors Jewish victims lived through in the Nazi death camps and describes the often lengthy and challenging process of bringing the Nazi victimizers and their collaborators to justice. In the short span of a year, from July 1942 to August 1943, the Nazis murdered nearly a million Jews at Treblinka. As Ryan recounts, “The guards drove the dazed and fearful Jews like livestock from the trains to be processed—clothing removed, hair shorn—some snatched out of the streams of people and told to stand aside. Families who had managed to stay together during the suffocating train ride slowly fell apart, their screams, their outstretched arms no match for the disciplined and experienced guards. After their hair was removed, the naked cargo was herded onto a dirt path packed hard by the feet of thousands of people before them. At the end lay gas chambers and, beyond them, deep smoldering pits that sent up thick black smoke to darken the sky” (Quiet Neighbors, 2). Some of the guards, many of whom were Ukrainian in origin, were particularly cruel and relished in humiliating and torturing the victims before killing them. One of the worst sadists among them was Ivan Marchenko, the man who pumped carbon monoxide into the gas chambers. Known as “Ivan the Terrible” among the prisoners and staff of Treblinka, Ivan was a mountain of a man infamous for beating victims with an iron pipe or cutting off body parts, just for sport, before killing them.

Amazingly, Marchenko, as well as other notorious Nazi collaborators, found refuge in the U.S. and blended seamlessly among American citizens. In fact, Ryan notes that in an ironic twist of justice, it became easier for former Nazi collaborators to immigrate legally to the U.S. after the war than for the survivors of the Holocaust. Ivan changed his name to John Demajanjuk and came to the U.S. in 1952. He and his wife moved to a small town, Seven Hills, in Ohio and raised together three kids. They were well liked by neighbors and no one suspected Ivan of wrongdoing, much less of crimes against humanity. It took nearly thirty years for the authorities to catch on that Demajanjuk was in fact Ivan Marchenko, the Terror of Treblinka, and strip him of his American citizenship.

Ryan argues that the fact that the U.S. was more likely to harbor victimizers rather than the victims of the Holocaust is not entirely accidental. The U.S. leadership, as we’ve seen in an earlier article, never wanted to portray WWII as fought to save the Jews. Even American Jewish leaders hesitated to apply too much pressure upon the government lest they unleash a wave of anti-Semitism in the country. In the summer of 1948, President Truman signed the Displaced Persons Act, which allowed 200,000 people to immigrate to the U.S. over a two-year period. (16) The vast majority—about 85 percent–of Jewish refugees who wanted to immigrate was excluded from this bill. By way of contrast, immigrants from countries that collaborated with the Nazis were welcome: “Having excluded nearly all the Jews,” Ryan observes, “Congress then extended America’s hand to the Balts. It required that 40 percent of the immigrants be from countries that had been “de facto annexed by a foreign power”—a diplomatic euphemism for Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, whose incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1944 the United States had never officially recognized” (17). The immigration bill also privileged farmers (offering them 30 percent of the available slots), which formed a high percentage of the non-Jewish Eastern European immigrants and a very low percentage of the Jews. As a New York Times journalist aptly summarized the situation, “As matters stand, it is easier for a former Nazi to enter the United States than for one of the Nazi’s innocent victims” (19).

Quiet Neighbors not only follows the extradition trials of some of the most notorious Nazi collaborators who made their way legally into the United States, but also puts on trial, as it were, America’s topsy-turvy postwar immigration policy, which privileged victimizers over victims.

 

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

 

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The concentration camp commandants: Review of Soldiers of Evil by Thomas Segev

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Thomas Segev’s dissertation, Soldiers of Evil (Jerusalem: Domino Press, 1987), goes a long way in explaining the psychology and social background of the Holocaust’s most ruthless mass murderers: the concentration camp Commandants. The book relies upon eyewitness accounts, victim testimonials, court documents as well as interviews with some of the Commandants themselves, their acquaintances, colleagues and family members who were willing to talk about the past. Segev notes that during Oswald Pohl’s trial (he was the SS Commander in charge of administering the entire Nazi concentration camp system) it was estimated that the Nazis imprisoned about 10 million people. (Soldiers of Evil, 15) By the end of the war, in January 1945, only 700,000 were found alive by the Allies. Of those, tens of thousands died shortly after liberation. Close to one million non-Jewish prisoners and 6 million Jewish prisoners were killed in the Nazi extermination camps.

One might expect that those who directed the mass murder of millions of innocent people would be prone to sadism. In his study, Segev observes that this was true only in some cases, but not most. Certainly men like Amon Goth, the Commandant of Plascow (so vividly described by Thomas Keneally in Schindler’s List), qualifies as sadistic. Goth would notoriously go on random shooting sprees of the defenseless inmates weakened by hard labor and hunger. Sometimes he would sick his dogs upon them to tear them apart limb by limb. He enjoyed the process of selecting his victims and witnessing their torment. His widow, Ruth Kalder, a woman with sadistic predispositions herself, became enchanted with Goth’s cruelty. In her eyes, it gave Goth an aura of a God, as he wielded the power of life and death over Plascow’s helpless inmates. After the war, she described her life with Goth in the concentration camp with longing and in idyllic terms, comparing her husband and herself to the King and Queen of a fiefdom. Like Goth, she showed no empathy for the prisoners, particularly the Jews, whom she considered subhuman. In an interview she gave in 1975, Kalder stated, “They were not human like us. … They were so foul” (Soldiers of Evil, 201).

Likewise, Arthur Rodl, Deputy Commandant to Karl Koch at the Buchenwald concentration camp, enjoyed killing inmates with his own bare hands. Segev recounts that on January 1, 1939, Rodl forced several thousands prisoners to line up, selected five among them, ordered them to strip and then proceeded to whip them until the morning to the sound of the camp orchestra. (Soldiers of Evil, 133) The Commandant of Buchenwald, Karl Koch, and his wife, Isle, who herself was known as “the monster of Buchenwald,” were equally notorious for their cruelty to inmates. They lived at Buchenwald in a gorgeous mansion known as “Villa Koch”, like royalty in the midst of the squalor of the concentration camp. Both took great pleasure in abusing and killing prisoners. Segev recounts that Isle would dress up in a provocative manner and ride around the camp on horseback. If any of the inmates looked at her, she would sometimes beat them with her own hands or, more commonly, ask her husband or the SS men to savagely attack them while she watched. There were rumors that Isle Koch even had lampshades made out of tattooed prisoners’ skin. Eventually the Nazi government tried Karl Koch not for his cruelty to prisoners (which was extreme even by Nazi standards), but for stealing stolen goods—the money, jewelry, clothes and extracted gold teeth—that the Nazi regime took from the Jews.

Despite such examples of sadistic behavior, Segev’s research indicates that the Nazi Commandants of concentration camps had a diverse background. Most of them were not predisposed to sadism, he found. However, all of them had a strong ideological background, the propensity to dehumanize others and lacked basic human empathy. As Segev observes, “There were among them men of different types: bureaucrats, opportunists, sadists, and criminals. The great majority of them were political soldiers” (Soldiers of Evil, 124). He further notes that most of the Nazi concentration camp Commandants “saw themselves first and foremost as soldiers: two thirds of them had served in the army before joining the Nazi party and the SS. Most of them had volunteered for the army before, during, and after the First World War” (Soldiers of Evil, 60). For many, the experiences of the war served to desensitize them to human suffering and to habituate them to the act of killing. Some of them received special ideological training in Theodor Eicke’s Death’s Head squads, an elite formation in which Eicke, described by Segev as a “Nazi grand seigneur,” recruited very young men with Aryan features whom he indoctrinated with a toxic combination of Romantic nationalism, Nazi ideology and rabid anti-Semitism.

Perhaps the most revealing inside look into the concentration camps’ Commandants’ mentality are the testimonies of Rudolf Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, and of Franz Stangl, the Commandant of Treblinka. Neither of them was particularly drawn to sadism yet both of them could kill hundreds of thousands of human beings as easily as one kills a gnat. In his 1971 interview with the British writer and historian Gitta Sereny, Stangl is asked how he could kill so many human beings. He nonchalantly compares the Jewish inmates to a herd of cattle trapped in their pins and headed for slaughter. Sereny asks him: “So you didn’t feel they were human beings?” Stagl responds: “Cargo. They were cargo” (Soldiers of Evil, 201-2).

Rudolf Hoss, responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million Jews at Auschwitz, dehumanized his victims in a similar fashion. In a conversation with his brother-in-law, Fritz Hensel, during the latter’s 4-week visit to Auschwitz, Hensel asks him how he could kill human beings. Hoss responds that the Jews were subhuman (Untermensch). Hensel asks for a clarification of the term “subhuman”. According to his account, Hoss sighs and replies: “You always ask and ask… Look, you can see for yourself. They are not like you and me. They are different. They look different. They do not behave like human beings. They have numbers on their arms. They are here in order to die” (Soldiers of Evil, 211). Using circular reasoning, the concentration camp Commandants dehumanized human beings through extremely cruel and inhumane treatment, then saw the results of their dehumanization as proof that their victims weren’t really human. Most of them were not prone to cruelty but could be exceptionally callous and cruel for ideological and political reasons.

Segev’s research indicates that sadistic Commandants like Goth and Koch did not in fact meet the SS ideal. Their evil could not be controlled and channeled in service to the Nazis. They killed for their own pleasure; stole for their own profit. The most successful concentration camp Commandants were those like Hoss and Stangl: “political soldiers” who killed millions of innocent human beings without conscience or remorse in order to fulfill the needs and ideals of the Nazi regime.

Claudia Moscovici

Holocaust Memory

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Could the Holocaust happen again? Simon Wiesenthal’s answer

Simon-Wiesenthalstudsterkel.org

Alan Levy’s study of the life and works of Nazi hunter and world-renowned author Simon Wiesenthal, Nazi Hunter: The Wiesenthal File (New York, Barnes and Noble Books, 1993), probes the question that is at the bottom of any profound understanding of the Holocaust: Could the Holocaust happen again? Wiesenthal’s answer, found throughout several of his works, is unequivocally yes. It could happen again, even though it’s not likely to start in the same country, or in the same conditions, or even with the same group of victims. But in raising this question, Wiesenthal’s underlying concern is not only will there be another Holocaust against the Jews in particular, but rather against any social groups that other groups wish to obliterate from the face of the Earth. The core of Nazism was racial hatred and intolerance. The Jews were the initial and most relentlessly pursued victims, along with the Gypsies. Both groups were deemed “inhuman” and a plague to humanity by Nazi ideology. The Slavs, whom the Nazis considered subhuman, were next on their list for enslavement and possible extermination. We never know where the Nazi mass murder hit list would have stopped had the Nazis themselves not been stopped by losing the war.

Wiesenthal argues that it’s not accidental that the Holocaust happened to the Jews—a minority group discriminated against in most European countries who didn’t have a country of their own—but the also maintains that genocide could happen again, to the Jews or to other groups of victims, if the following six conditions are met:

 

  1. Hatred. Wiesenthal believed that “Hatred is the juice on which those two monsters of human history, Hitler and Stalin, survived” (23). He argued that most of the Nazi leaders, including Eichmann, wouldn’t have used their skills for genocide had it not been for Hitler’s rise to power.

 

  1. Dictatorship. Genocide is the result of hateful sociopathic leaders who assume total or near-total power in a country. Without establishing totalitarian control of their nations, neither Hitler nor Stalin would have succeeded in killing millions of innocent people.

 

  1. Bureaucracy. Eichmann was first and foremost an efficient bureaucrat; a behind-the-desk mass murderer. The Nazi bureaucratic machine, set up in most countries controlled by or allied to Germany, enabled the extermination machinery to run smoothly.

 

  1. Modern technology. Wiesenthal believes that only modern technology facilitates genocide on such a massive scale. He speculates that had this technology been available to the Spanish Inquisition, they too might have killed the Jews en masse rather than given them the “choice” to convert or die.

 

  1. A world crisis or war. Without the war, and particularly without the World War caused by Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler couldn’t have engaged in such a massive and brazen genocide. WWII focused the Allies’ energies and attention on their primary objective—winning the war—as opposed to the enormous humanitarian crises caused by the Nazi regimes.

 

  1. Minorities as victims. Wiesenthal suggests that the targeted minority groups could be of any kind—racial, ethnic, religious, or political. If a given minority group is oppressed and blamed by sociopathic rulers for their country’s problems, they could become the victims of mass discrimination and eventual extermination in the right circumstances. Wiesenthal states: “when the Turks killed a million and a half Armenians almost a hundred years ago, those six components of genocide were there and they were there, too, when the Spanish Inquisition put twenty people on a stake and burned them. And I can promise you that Hitler has studied very carefully those holocausts.” (See Nazi Hunter, 24). The technology and mass media available to Hitler—which, of course, weren’t available during the Spanish Inquisition–only made his powers of destruction that much greater. As Wiesenthal asks, not purely rhetorically, “What will happen to this world when the haters today, the terrorists, come into possession of the technology of our time?” (Nazi Hunter, 25) We are still in the midst of grappling with this question, which has become increasingly relevant since Wiesenthal raised it.

 

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

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Why were so few Jews saved during the Holocaust?

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)

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)

In her comprehensive historical study, The Holocaust, Leni Yahil asks a question which, decades later, we still haven’t satisfactorily answered: “Why were so few of the millions of Jews who had been living in Europe prior to the Holocaust saved?” (The Holocaust, Oxford University Press, 543) The rise to power of the Nazis in Germany has been explored in-depth. But why did the rest of the world allow the Holocaust to happen? And why did so many countries even participate in the Nazi mass murder of Jews?

Instead of engaging casting blame, Yahil examines the specific circumstances in each European nation that prevented or made possible the rescue of the beleaguered Jews in Europe between the years 1938 and 1945. Based on the historical information she analyzes, she’s able to reach a number of general conclusions. In order for effective rescue operations to be launched, a given country (or regime) depended on the following three main factors:

  1. a) Accurate information regarding the German intentions to obliterate the Jews of Europe;
  2. b) An acknowledgement of that information from those in power in a given regime and from the general public (via the press) and
  3. c) A rescue action prompted by the information and acknowledgement. (See The Holocaust, 544)

One of the most striking reactions to information about the Holocaust, acquired by the world’s leading democracies—the U.S. and Great Britain–via reliable Polish and German sources as early as 1941, is precisely the lack of reaction to the information about the Nazi mass murder of Jews in occupied Poland.

In a previous article, entitled “America First,” I have described in greater detail some of the reasons why the U.S. in particular did not launch a rescue operation to save the Jews, even when they had indisputable information about their genocide at Auschwitz and other concentration and death camps. Like the British government, the U.S. prioritized winning the war. The country’s leadership, and—more surprisingly–even many Jewish community leaders in the U.S., did not wish to undertake any massive rescue mission that would create the impression that the war was being fought in order to save the Jews. They feared this kind of perception would decrease popular support for the war.

Even if the U.S. and Great Britain had attempted some rescue missions, however, it’s not clear they would have been that effective. Aside from military and political considerations, Yahil points out that the Nazis were far more ideologically motivated to asserting the supremacy of their master, Aryan, race through the Jewish genocide and the conquest of the Slavs (among others) than the democracies were committed to saving the oppressed. As she points out, during WWII, the world’s democracies were engaging in a defensive war: a war not of their own making and aimed to preserve the status quo.

By way of contrast, the Nazis were far more motivated in their destructive drives. Nazi Germany was fighting a war for world domination: one which, according to their theories of racial supremacy, they felt fully entitled to achieve by any means necessary (diplomacy, war, deceit, enslavement of other populations, ethnic cleansing and genocide). The rise of the totalitarian Nazi regimes eliminated all sense of human value and boundaries, making possible the enormous bureaucratic machine that deliberately and systematically destroyed millions of lives:

 

“Freed of the constraints of moral judgment and the norms of human society, their [Nazi] behavior was directed by practical and rational considerations in implementing their doctrine. Thus, although their basic approach was informed by irrational drives, their actions were governed by practical logic. They forged their irrationality into an ideology that drove the immense bureaucratic machine of the Third Reich. This was the source of the unique combination of fervor and cold calculation, of Hitler’s blend of firm purpose and impromptu strategy” (The Holocaust, 547).

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Anti-Semitism in Hungary today

jobbik-rally_20140305073411623

Anti-Semitism has a long history in Hungary, nearly as long as the history of the Jews living in the country. In fact, Hitler was not the first to prescribe armband to mark, isolate and shame the Jews. King Ladislaus IV of Hungary (1272-1290) ordered that each Jewish person should wear a piece of red cloth. In the fourteenth century, Jews were suspected of spreading the plague and expelled en masse from the country. (Incidentally, centuries later, this was a pretext offered by the Nazis for the establishment of Jewish ghettos). King Ladislaus II (1490-1516) accused Jews of ritual murder and burned them at the stake. The Diet of 1686 declared that Jews were not subjects of Hungary because they were not Christian (it categorized them as “unbelievers”). Queen Maria Theresa (1740-1780), perhaps emulating Catherine the Great of Russia (who segregated the Jews into the Pale of Settlement), expelled the Jews from Buda.

It is only in the modern period, under the reign of the Enlightened monarch Joseph II (1780-1790) that Jews attained minority rights. The National Assembly officially emancipated them half a century later, in 1849. This enabled the vast majority of Jews in Hungary to integrate well into the country and even to thrive. This was particularly true of the Jews of Budapest, a city where they constituted almost a quarter of the population. The Nazi influence upon the authoritarian regime of Miklos Horthy, and the rise to power of the Fascist Arrow Cross, undid a century of civil rights progress. The Holocaust of 1944 nearly wiped out the Jewish population of Hungary, killing nearly 600,000 Jews in Hungary and Hungarian territories.

The current Jewish population of Hungary remains very small: about 110,000 Jews live in Hungary, roughly the same number as right after WWII. Most of them live in Budapest and consider themselves to be assimilated Jews. In fact, only a small percentage—10 percent—of Jews identifies themselves as “Jewish” by religion. It seems incredible to me—even though this phenomenon is far from rare—that a country with such a small and well-assimilated Jewish population would experience a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism. Yet this is precisely what has happened in Hungary over the past two decades. Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, states: “In Hungary, Spain and Poland the numbers for anti-Semitic attitudes are literally off-the-charts and demand a serious response from political, civic and religious leaders”. In 2014 the ADL declared Hungary as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. The future looks bleak, as according to its survey, 50 percent of young Hungarians (people under the age of 35) have anti-Semitic attitudes.

Not surprisingly, contemporary Hungary has experienced a rise in neo-Nazi and other authoritarian anti-Semitic political parties and groups, such as the HunterSS, White Storm and Endlosung as well as the illegal paramilitary group the Hungarian National Front. In May 2014, Apathy Istvan Laszlo, a representative of the right wing nationalist party Jobbik (“The Movement for a Better Hungary”, which aims at the preservation of “Hungarian interests and values”) in the city Erzsebetvaros, even went so far as to publically state on his Facebook profile that the historical accounts of the Holocaust were exaggerated and to charge the Jews—or as he put it “the Jewish background superpower”—as responsible for the Holocaust. Making contradictory and inflammatory statements reminiscent of Hitler and the Nazi leadership, at the same time, Laszlo has denied that the Holocaust ever happened.

The dramatic rise of anti-Semitism in a country with so few Jews—most of whom identify as Hungarian—confirms one of the lessons of the Holocaust: anti-Semitism is an attitude that has little to do with the object of racial hatred and everything to do with authoritarian political parties that predicate their nationalist agenda not on constructive policies in the interest of the country they claim to represent, but upon a mythical sense of national identity formed by the exclusion and denigration of groups marked as “Other.”

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The Holocaust in Hungary

Budapest, Ferenc Szálasi

Historian Leni Yahil estimates that in 1941 there were approximately 762,000 Jews living in Hungary, about a fourth of whom lived in Budapest. (The Holocaust, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, 506). Under pressure from Nazi Germany, the conservative regime of Admiral Miklos Horthy and Prime Minister Miklos Kallay instituted some anti-Semitic measures modeled after the Nuremberg Laws. However, up to 1944 Horthy didn’t agree with the Nazi policy of deporting and exterminating Hungarian Jews. The Communist politician Bela Vago described the Horthy regime as a contradictory mixture of authoritarianism and some openness to democratic input; of anti-Semitic attitudes and relative tolerance towards the native Jewish population in Hungary:

“This was one of the paradoxical phenomena of the Hungarian regime, which contained a mixture of vestiges of feudalism with democratic-parliamentary elements; the authoritarianism of a quasi-fascistic regime with tolerance towards the democratic opposition; an official anti-Semitic policy with tolerance toward Jews in the fields of journalism, the arts, and other areas of culture. The Jews could be active as members of Parliament until the German occupation in 1944.’”(Cited by Leni Yahil in The Holocaust, Leni Yahil, 507).

Following the Soviet victory at the battle of Stalingrad, Horthy and Kallay began to realize that the Allies might win the war. Kallay sent out feelers to the Allies, hoping to negotiate an armistice for Hungary on favorable terms. When Hitler found out about this, Germany occupied Hungary. Horthy was allowed to remain the figurehead leader of Hungary, but Kallay was replaced with the fanatical pro-Nazi general Dome Sztojay. The latter fell into step with the Final Solution program and agreed to deport Hungary’s Jews.

Adolf Eichmann personally came to Hungary along with a team of “experts”, including Dr. Siefried Seidel (the former Commandant of Theresienstadt), Theodor Dannecker (in charge of the Jewish deportations from France, Bulgaria and Italy) and Dieter Wisliceny (who had been in charge of deporting the Greek and Slovakian Jews).

Although Eichmann was ever-present in Hungary, efficiently organizing the deportation of nearly 500,000 Jews living outside Budapest, he preferred to let the Hungarian gendarmes do the dirty work of rounding up the Jews in ghettos and sending them by train or in grueling death marches to concentration camps. By allowing for this “local initiative”, Eichmann hoped to appease the Hungarian leadership’s nationalist sentiments by giving them the illusion of relative autonomy. He later stated, “Over the years, I have learned from experience which hooks I have to use to catch which fish’” (The Holocaust, Yahil, 505). In less than two months, by August 1944, the Hungarian authorities and the SS had sent over 440,000 provincial Jews to concentration camps. All that was left was the Jews of Budapest.

Given that Germany continued to lose the war, Admiral Horthy hesitated to deport the Jews of the capital. He worried that this act would create a public outcry in the international press and provoke the Western Allies. Although under increasing pressure from Eichmann and his team to eliminate all the Jews of Hungary, Horthy put a stop to the deportations. He also dismissed the pro-Nazi Sztojay and began negotiating an armistice with the Soviets. In response, the Germans staged a coup and set up an even more extreme pro-Nazi government, led by Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross, whose members were notorious for their barbarism and anti-Semitism. In the process of rounding up the Jews of Budapest into a ghetto, the Arrow Cross hooligans manifested great cruelty and sadism, engaging in looting, beating, raping and murdering hundreds of Jews. Thousands of Jews were forced into death marches across the Austrian borders while hundreds, including toddlers and children, were pushed into the ice-cold Danube River. All in all, Szalasi’s Arrow Cross gendarmes murdered 15,000 Jews.

It is largely due to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s heroic efforts that about 140,000 Jews survived in the capital. The Soviets marched into Budapest on January 1945 and drove the Nazis and their Arrow Cross allies out of power by that spring. Unfortunately, when he tried to meet with Soviet generals to help the lot of the Jews left in the Budapest ghetto, Wallenberg was taken prisoner by the NKVD. Despite his valiant efforts, only a small percentage of Hungarian Jews in general lived through the Holocaust. Out of the country’s nearly 800,000 Jews living in Hungary in the early 1940’s, fewer than a third survived.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

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The Wannsee Conference: Casually planning the Final Solution

HeydrichWikipedia

 

On January 20, 1942 fifteen high-ranking Nazi officials got together at the at the elegant villa located at 56-58 Am Grossen Wannsee near Berlin to plan the mass murder of European Jews, code-named “the Final Solution”. Arriving in style in a Mercedes, Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RHSA), indicated to the panelists that Hitler had personally entrusted him with implementing the “Final Solution” to Europe’s “Jewish problem”. The genocide was supposed to include not only the Jews living under Axis control or occupation, but also those living in Allied and neutral states, including in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal. According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the following Nazi officials representing the SS were present at this conference: Reinhard Heydrich, SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, chief of the RSHA Department IV B4 (Jewish Affairs); SS Colonel Eberhard Schongarth, the commander of the RSHA field office in Krakow; SS Major Rudolf Lange, commander of Einsatzkommando 2 in Latvia; SS Major General Otto Hofmann, chief of SS Race and Settlement Office. (See http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005477).

These men were the leading architects of one of the world’s most horrific genocide. Yet they treated the conference, and their decision, as an ordinary, productive and rather pleasant get-together. Nobody voiced a single objection against killing millions of innocent men, women and children. In fact, by the time the Wannsee conference took place, tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied areas of the Soviet Union had already been rounded up and murdered, often with help from the local populations. Even though the mass murder of Jews was already under way in occupied Soviet territories and Poland, this conference focused on plans of how to generalize it to the rest of Europe in the most effective fashion. If there was any debate among these men, it was regarding the logistical methods of transporting so many people to their deaths as well what to do with Jews in mixed their plans for mass murder is these men’s sang-froid. If you’ve read descriptions of criminals committing horrific murders after which the perpetrators go out to dinner with their families or play with their children as if nothing out of the ordinary took place, then you’ll be able to imagine these Nazi officials’ mindset. Imagine, but not comprehend. Because such behavior is beyond the power of comprehension of anyone who is capable of empathy. Historian Alex Kershaw paints a vivid picture of the Wannsee meeting in The Envoy (New York, Da Capo Press, 2010), a book that offers a historical account of Raoul Wallenberg’s courageous actions to save the Jews of Budapest. After discussing the arrangements for mass murder, Kershaw narrates,

“Servants brought in refreshments. The attendees drank and ate and talked about finally ending the Jewish problem not just in Germany, but in all of Europe, including Britain and the Soviet Union… The meeting formally ended after ninety minutes, with Heydrich and the Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller being the last to leave the large dining room. They asked the thorough Eichmann to share a drink with them. Soon the three men were beside a fire, warming themselves. Eichmann would never forget how honored he felt to be asked to join these two giants of the Third Reich for a celebratory tipple… ‘After awhile,’ recorded Eichmann, ‘we got up on the chairs and drank a toast, then on the table and then round and round—on the chairs and on the table again. Heydrich taught it to us. It was an old north German custom… We sat around peacefully after the Wannsee Conference, not just talking shop but giving ourselves a rest after so many taxing hours.’” (5-6).

Eichmann’s casual account of the Wannsee conference and of the attitude of the men who participated in it speaks volumes about the Nazi regime and its power structure. The people who rose within its ranks were individuals without depth, without empathy and without conscience. Not only did they not give a thought to the millions who would die senselessly because of their decision, but also they took great pride in the outcome of their meeting, indulging in pleasurable pastimes like smoking and drinking, to celebrate a job well done.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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