Could the Holocaust happen again? Simon Wiesenthal’s answer

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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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Eichmann’s Extraordinary Evil: Review of Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth

Adolf-Eichmann-theguardian.com

In Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (New York: Random House 2014), Bettina Stangneth challenges Hannah Arendt’s hypothesis that Eichmann represents the banality of evil: an ordinary man turned mass murder by extraordinary circumstances (the war and the rise of Nazi totalitarianism). The image of Eichmann that emerges from Stangneth’s book is one of a charming chameleon that deceives others about his intentions and his credentials. Without knowing more than a few words of Yiddish and having no knowledge of Hebrew, Eichmann relied upon the smattering of Jewish culture he got by spying on Jewish leaders to climb the political ladder and obtain an official function as Head of Department of Jewish Affairs in the SD (Security Service of the Nazi Party). Although most of the time he gave the impression of being calm and reserved, he would fly off into an ideological rage—similar to Hitler’s–whenever his objectives were frustrated or when it served his purposes (such as to intimidate Jewish leaders into complying with his orders). As if with the flip of a switch, however, Eichmann could instantly revert to being courteous and collected (for instance, when a German woman would step into one of the ideological meeting). His emotions, like his attachments, were shallow. Although he remained “loyal” to his wife, Veronika Liebl, he cheated on her and dominated her. At one point he boasted that he tore up the Bible of his highly religious wife, though eventually he allowed her to practice Christianity. Their dominance bond was quite strong, however, since Vera patiently–and faithfully–waited for years while her husband lived in hiding after the war and eventually joined him in Argentina, where he managed to escape justice for eleven years.

The picture that emerges from Stangneth’s book is not that of an ordinary man corrupted by power in a totalitarian regime—as Arendt famously indicates in Eichmann in Jerusalem, A report on the banality of evil–but that of a psychopath: a highly narcissistic man without remorse, without conscience and without the capacity for forming deeper human attachments. Hungry for power, Eichmann unscrupulously adapts himself to the norms of the Nazi regime, even anticipating Hitler’s wishes to implement a program of exterminating the Jews after the German invasion of Russia in 1941. War enabled the Nazis to carry out what couldn’t be achieved during peacetime: a systematic genocide of unprecedented proportions carried out, at least in the Eastern campaign, openly and often with the collaboration of the local populations.

Eichmann became responsible for the mass deportations of nearly 6 million Jews to concentration camps, where most victims were sent to the gas chambers. Far from merely following orders—as he later stated during his defense in the trial in Jerusalem—Eichmann showed great enthusiasm and initiative for mass murder. In 1944, when even Himmler had begun to reverse course and issued an order to stop the Jewish deportations, Eichmann went to Hungary to personally oversee the deportation and extermination of the Hungarian Jews. With astonishing efficiency, in a few months, Eichmann managed to send 437,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, where about 80 percent were killed on the spot and most of the rest died afterwards from hunger, abuse or disease. Only the heroic actions of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg prevented him from sending all of the Jews of Budapest to their deaths. Interestingly, like most psychopaths, Eichmann was a bully only with those in a position of weakness. When Wallenberg confronted him face to face and stopped the deportation of hundreds of Jews, Eichmann didn’t do anything to stop him. Only afterwards, behind his back, he railed against the Wallenberg, calling him “a Jewish dog” and “an interventionist”. Turning moral norms upside down, Eichmann felt that all those who expedited genocide were courageous heroes and those who fought against it were cowards and weaklings.

Although highly manipulative and versatile, Eichmann remained, to the very end, a man without conscience. After the war he even expressed great pride in his genocidal actions, stating that he would “leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” He may have boasted about his actions, but like most psychopaths, Eichmann didn’t want to have to pay their consequences. After Germany’s defeat in 1945, he fled to Austria and later, in 1950, to Argentina. There he joined a community of Nazi expatriates. Far from leading a quiet, anonymous life, this mass murderer longed for his former glory and power.

In fact, Eichmann even planned to write a book, based on a series of interviews with Willem Sassen–a Dutch collaborator and Nazi journalist also hiding in Argentina–that would not only leave his Nazi legacy for posterity but also, he hoped, instigate a second coming of the Third Reich during his lifetime. Perhaps it was this psychopath’s extraordinary hubris that finally did him in. Eventually the Mossad, Israel’s Intelligence Service, caught up with him in 1960 and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial. He was charged, among other things, with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the Jewish people. The jury found Eichmann guilty on all counts. He was executed by hanging on May 31, 1962. Perhaps no book on the subject can compete in its influence with Eichmann in Jerusalem, but in one significant respect I found Bettina Stangneth’s account far more accurate than Arendt’s: Eichmann’s evil was anything but banal.

 

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

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The Holocaust in Austria and The Woman in Gold: A historical battle for art

WomaninGoldGustavKlimtWikipedia

Up to the 1930’s, and particularly before the Anschluss , or Hitler’s annexation of Austria in March 1938, the Jewish people thrived in Austria. Of course, along with many other European countries, Austria experienced a rise in anti-Semitism during the 1930’s. The country was home to a significant population of Jews, nearly 200,000, most of whom lived in Vienna. They comprised about 9 percent of the capital’s population. When the Nazis marched into the city, numerous Austrians greeted them with enthusiasm. Once Austria became part of the Reich, following a rigged plebiscite that indicated 99 percent of the country was in support of this union, the Nazis hastened to implement anti-Semitic legislation based on the Nuremberg Laws already in effect in Germany.

The anti-Jewish rallies, pogroms and laws that took years to consolidate, gradually, in Germany swept over Austria in a matter of months. Jews were arrested on various pretexts, tortured and humiliated. Their property and stores were looted; many of their synagogues were burned. Hundreds of them were sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany and to Mauthausen, the newly established concentration camp in Austria. Many Jews tried to flee the country. Those who chose to stay or couldn’t escape in time were eventually deported to various Jewish ghettos in Eastern Europe–particularly Minsk, Riga and Lodz–from which they were eventually liquidated or sent to die in concentration camps. Thousands of Viennese Jews were also sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, from which they were eventually deported to Auschwitz. By 1942, fewer than 10,000 Jews remained in the country, most of whom were saved by the fact that they were married to non-Jewish Austrians.Right after the Anschluss, both Eichmann and Göring came to Vienna to speed up the implementation of anti-Semitic legislation. In a speech delivered on March 26, 1938, Göring stated that the Aryanization of Austria—which entailed, among other things, the confiscation and redistribution of Jewish property to “Aryans”—must occur immediately and be carried out in an “absolutely systematic manner” (The Holocaust, 105). As Leni Yahil explains, the term “property” included “assets of all kinds: works of art, jewelry, even all types of commercial and social benefits” (The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945, translated from Hebrew by Ina Friedman and Haya Galai, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. 105).

This is the historical era that the newly released film, The Woman in Gold, captures magnificently. The movie, which is based on a true story, follows the legal and emotional struggles of an elderly Jewish Austrian woman living in the U.S.., Maria Altmann (played by Helen Mirren), to reclaim a painting of her aunt Adele. This portrait is executed by none other than the famous Art Nouveau painter Gustav Klimt. In 1907, the artist was comissioned by Adele’s husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy industrialist working in the sugar industry, to paint several portraits of his beautiful young wife.

When Adele died from meningitis in 1925, her husband discovered in her will that she wished to donate the Klimt painting to the Austrian State Gallery. Years later, to save himself from the Nazis, Ferdinand fled to Zurich. After the Anschluss, the Nazis took over his property, including the Klimt portrait of his wife. In 1941, the portrait of Adele was transferred to the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, owned by the Austrian State Gallery.

Over the years Klimt’s gilded and elegant portait of Adele Bloch-Bauer became one of Austria’s most prized artistic possessions, with an estimated value of well over 100 million dollars. When Maria tries to reclaim the painting, she finds that the Austrian government is not willing to part with it. Despite her reluctance to revisit the past and open old wounds, Maria does just that. She hires a young lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg (played by Ryan Reynolds), to help her fight for her family’s treasure. This battle, to her, represents far more than a sentimental attachment to her aunt’s portrait: it represents justice, decades later, for the countless Jewish people robbed by the Nazi regimes.

After several court battles in the U.S. that carries the case of stolen art to the Supreme Court, in 2006, Maria is able to win a binding arbitration battle in her native Austria. On June 19, 2006, Ronald S. Lauder, the President and co-founder of Neue Gallery in New York City, announced that he acquired the Adele Bloch-Bauer portrait. It sold for 135 million dollars. Mr. Lauder stated: “With this dazzling painting, Klimt created one of his greatest works of art. We are overjoyed to be able to give Adele Bloch-Bauer a permanent home at the Neue Galerie. Her presence will enrich the museum immesurably.”(http://www.neuegalerie.org/museum/press-releases/klimt-bloch-bauer) While some critics interpret this legal dispute for Klimt’s famed portrait as an exercise in greed, I think that the movie rightly emphasizes the greater historical dimensions of this magnificent work of art.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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