Monthly Archives: January 2014

Ethics above Politics

AnneFrank7

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

t is incredible to me that, decades later, the Holocaust remains a controversial topic. It still polarizes people and leads to heated political debates rather than generating universal moral agreement. Ironically, I think this subject becomes politicized when an essentially ethical question comes up: who bears responsibility for it? This ethical question tends to turn political when important historical figures—leaders of various regimes associated with or supportive of Nazism—become, for some, nationalist symbols. The focus of discussion then changes from a defense of the millions of innocent victims to a defensive national posture. I think that, however complex the political and historical considerations may have been for each country during WWII, it’s important to keep in mind that the central issue at stake in the Holocaust is universal not national. The Holocaust represents the worst violation of human dignity and human rights.

anne-frank-family

This is a central message of The Diary of Anne Frank and one of the main reasons why it remains so popular, for generations, throughout the world. This child, barely an adolescent, reminds us what happens to ordinary human beings when they are subject to extraordinary brutality. She also reminds us that our common humanity is, fundamentally, far more important than our political, ethnic, racial or religious differences. In one of her most poignant diary entries, Anne describes the savage hunt of Jews by the Nazis in Holland, comparing it to the slave hunts:

“Countless friends and acquaintances have gone to a terrible fate. Evening after evening the green and gray army lorries trundle past. The Germans ring at every front door to inquire if there are any Jews living in the house. If there are, then the whole family has to go at once… It seems like the slave hunts of olden times… In the evenings when it’s dark, I often see rows of good, innocent people accompanied by crying children, walking on and on, in charge of a couple of these chaps, bullied and knocked about until they almost drop. No one is spared—old people, babies, expectant mothers, the sick—each and all join in the march of death” (The Diary of Anne Frank, New York: Bantam Books, 1967, pp. 53-54).

It is remarkable, though perhaps not surprising, that the wisdom that injustice is injustice no matter to what social group suffers from it comes from a child of thirteen. In fact, adults were initially blind to Anne Frank’s message, which almost didn’t see the light of day: not even after her family friend, Miep Gies, placed it in a drawer to save it from being confiscated by the Nazis; not even once it reached the hands of her father, Otto Frank, who himself barely made it alive from Auschwitz.

Otto struggled hard to find a publisher that would print his daughter’s diary. As Francine Prose accounts in Anne Frank: the Book, the Life, the Afterlife, “The manuscript was rejected by every editor who read it [in Holland], none of whom could imagine that readers would buy the intimate diary of a teenage girl, dead in the war” (New York: Harper Collins 2009, p 77).

AnneFrank8

Eventually the diary got published in Holland, largely thanks to the praise given by the journalist Jan Romein. In 1946, Romain wrote a moving review called “A Child’s Voice,” where he stated that he was impressed by Anne’s keen insights into human nature. (77) Even so, the diary’s fate—and success—was far from certain in the U.S. There, as in Europe, publishers initially viewed it with skepticism. As Francine Prose continues to explain, almost every mainstream publishing house rejected Anne’s diary. Editors saw it “as being too narrowly focused, too domestic, too Jewish, too boring, and above all, too likely to remind readers of what they wish to forget” (Anne Frank: the Book, the Life, the Afterlife, p. 80-81). People in both the U.S. and Europe wanted to put the war, and its many horrors, behind them.

Fortunately, two young editors—both female, both in their early twenties—identified with Anne’s words and saved the book from oblivion: Judith Jones, assistant of the director of Doubleday (who would later become a famous editor at Knopf) and Barbara Zimmerman (later Barbara Epstein), who would become the founder of The New York Review of Books. Both of them became so engrossed in Anne’s diary that they couldn’t put it down. Nor could they turn it down. They saw in the words of a young girl a universal cry against injustice and a message of mutual tolerance.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of these two editors, Anne’s diary got the chance to reach tens of millions of readers across the world for generations to come. I hope that her words will continue to touch us today, reminding us that, as far as the Holocaust is concerned, ethics should rise above politics and that the values that unite us as human beings are far more important than the differences that divide us.

Claudia Moscovici,

Literature Salon

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Famous couples: Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of the representative couples for America between the two world wars. Both were beautiful and famous. He, a writer that made it young, even though he was not fully recognized by the critics for his real value. She, an ambitious woman, who desired an accomplished man.  Hemingway, Fitzgerald’s good friend, didn’t like Zelda and blamed her for Scott’s failures. He wasn’t the only one. Often, however–especially during the last 20 years–Zelda Fitzgerald was considered a victim: a talented woman that lived in the shadow of a talented man. As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Zelda Sayre, the daughter of a judge from Alabama, was a beautiful, ambition woman who, it seems, wasn’t lacking in literary talent. Her letters, a journal and a novel is all we have left from her: all of it included in the 480 page volume edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. The first biographers attributed to her a secondary role in Scott Fitzgerald’s literary career. In spite of this, Fitzgerald recognized that, aside from his own self, Zelda was his main inspiration. “I truly have married the heroine of my novels,” the author of The Great Gatsby confessed in an interview in 1921.

In 1917, F. Scott Fitzgerald enrolled as a lieutenant, but he quickly realized that he wasn’t made for the army. During this period he wrote his first novel, named (in the first version) The Romantic Egoists, which later became This Side of Paradise. When the novel was published in 1920, the author was 23 years old. In 1918, he met Zelda at a ball close to Montgomery, Alabama. He asked her to marry him but she refused. To entice her, he tried to become rich and famous. It wasn’t easy. His first novel was refused by a big publisher because it was incomplete. He took a job at an advertising firm and created, for 90 dollars a month, slogans for various ad campaigns. Finally, the novel was published by the same publisher that initially refused it. This success won Zelda’s hand in marriage. She excitedly wrote to Scott: “Scott, my darling, Everything seems so easy and simple; this golden dawn. The fact I know I’ll be yours forever–that I belong to you–is truly liberating after all the tensions during the past month…. Waiting doesn’t seem so hard. I love you, my treasure…” Scott was in New York, where he was trying to become well-known to secure a decent living for his future wife. Zelda was still in Montgomery, so her enthusiastic tone can be partly explained by the distance that separated them.

Alexander McKaig, one of Scott’s friends, wrote the following observation in his journal about the new couple: “I visited Scott Fitz and his wife, a very dramatic, provincial Southern belle. She chews gum and shows her knees. I don’t think this marriage can last. Both of them get drunk. I think in a few years they’ll be divorced. Scott will write something important and die at the age of 23 in an attic…”. McKaig later wrote in his journal, after visiting the married couple: “Fitz should leave Zelda alone and stop chasing her…. The sad thing is that Fitz is completely overwhelmed by Zelda’s personality…. She’s the role model for all the feminine characters in his novels…”. Despite these critical remarks, even the author of the journal was eventually seduced by Zelda’s charisma: “She’s, without a doubt, the most beautiful and intelligent woman I’ve met”. Arriving in New York to be close to her husband, Zelda created quite a sensation among her husband’s acquaintances. The couple prospered, also thanks to Scott’s literary success.

In 1925, The Great Gatsby was published.  This novel took care of the 7,000 dollar debt Scott owed, with which the couple travelled to Europe.  The literary reviews weren’t exactly positive; on the contrary. The novel was received with reticence by the critics. To cover his debts, Scott wrote many short stories. Hemingway blamed his wife for the fact Scott become an alcoholic. He also thought Scott was wasting his talent on short stories because of Zelda, writing about his friend: “He represents the greatest tragedy of a talent in our cursed generation”.

In 1929 things didn’t look  good for the Fitzgerald couple. Scott made slow progress on his fourth novel, which exacerbated his depression. He described this situation  in a letter in 1929: “Even so, it’s possible, God willing, that the five years between my realease from the army and finishing Gatsby, thus the years between 1919 and 1924 during which I published three novels, approximately fifty short stories that sold well, a play, plus numerous articles and movie scripts, took everything out of me. On top of this, during this time we also mingled, with great energy, in the most entertaining social circles. … That’s what bothers me, au fond”.  Zelda herself was affected by numerous psychological crises, which become more and more acute. She took refuge in art. She also tried to publish a few short stories.  It seems that some of them were published in both her name and his. Several were signed  by him alone, however, since those paid more. In 1930, the couple grew apart. Zelda isolated herself in her own world and behaved inexplicably, from Scott’s point of view. She couldn’t even bear to have Scottie, their daughter, around her anymore. In 1932, Zelda’s condition worsened.  That same year her own novel, Save Me the Waltz, was published. In 1934, Zelda was sent, following a nervous breakdown, to a hospital near Baltimore.

It was the beginning of the end. Zelda remained hospitalized while, in 1940, Scott Fitzgerald died suddenly from a cardiovascular accident. He was 44 years old and left behind an unfinished novel, Another death in Hollywood. The author was buried discretely, in the presence of a few friends. On March 10, 1948, a fire burst out in the kitchen of the Highland hospital where Zelda was staying. Nine patients lost their lives, including Zelda.

The two of them remain, however, the mythical couple of America between the wars: “two people impossible to unite, whose bond can never be undone,” as Kyra Stromberg writes in her monograph,  Zelda & F. Scott Fitzgerald, published by Editura Paralela 45 in 2004 (translated by Iunia Martin): a book that serves as the inspiration for the story I have told.  Zelda is also the main character of Gilles Leroy’s French novel, Alabama Song, that won the  Prix Goncourt  in 2007 : a novel that brings to the forefront Zelda’s literary talent, which was long overshadowed by her more famous husband.

article by Adina Dinitoiu, Editor of Catchy.ro and of Observator Cultural

(originally published in Romanian on Catchy.ro):

translated from Romanian by Claudia Moscovici

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Total annihilation: The death factories

I.G. Farben at Auschwitz/Monowitz-Buna from Wikipedia

I.G. Farben at Auschwitz/Monowitz-Buna from Wikipedia

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Hitler’s explicit goal, formulated as early as Mein Kampf in the mid 1920’s, was to annihilate the Jewish people. What did total annihilation mean for the Nazis? It wasn’t enough to deport the Jews from Germany and other German-controlled countries to concentration camps. It wasn’t enough to isolate them in ghettos. It wasn’t enough to take their property and assets. It wasn’t enough to send them to labor and death camps in Poland.  It wasn’t enough to shoot them in the back of the head and pile them up, dead or alive, into mass graves. It wasn’t enough to burn their corpses, after gassing them, in crematoria. The Nazi regime wanted to destroy the evidence that their victims had ever existed. To do so, they had to hide or cover up their immense crimes against humanity. Each shred of evidence of Jewish existence—even the victims’ hair–was either destroyed or transformed and reused by German industry.

To accomplish the goal of exterminating millions of innocent civilians, the Nazis had to first invert the concepts of right and wrong: not only in their ideology, but also in the minds of party members. Hitler used the phrases “the Jewish question” and “the Final Solution” to outline his plans for mass murder. He rarely issued written orders concerning the fate of the Jews. Instead, he allowed his subordinates—Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi Minister of Interior; Reinhard Heydrich, the Chief of Police and of the Gestapo; Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, and Oswald Ludwig Pohl, the Financial Administrator of the SS in charge of the concentration and labor camps–to state explicitly, as well as to carry out, his implicit yet crystal clear orders of deportation and extermination of the Jews.

The concentration camps became, quite literally, death factories. The existence of these camps had to be kept, for the most part, secret from the German public, who might disapprove of it. Hitler had learned a lesson from the vocal protests against Action T4, the “euthanasia” program he instituted in 1939 in several German mental hospitals. While being more or less hidden from the German public, however, the extermination of the Jews was also loudly proclaimed as a point of pride for the initiated SS soldiers. Addressing SS leaders at Posen in 1943, Himmler describes acts of cowardice and of unspeakable cruelty against defenseless civilians—men, women, children and even babies–as acts of great civic courage, “decency” and heroism:

“We can talk about it quite frankly among ourselves and yet we will never speak of it publicly. It appalled everyone, and yet everyone was certain that he would do it next time if such orders should be issued…. I am referring to the Jewish evacuation program, the extermination of the Jews. … Most of you will know what it means when a hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred or a thousand are lying there. To have stuck it out and to have remained decent, that is what has made us tough. This is a glorious page in our history that has never and can never be written.” (see Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, Eds., Nazism 1919-1945, volume 3: Foreign Policy, War and Racial Extermination, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, University of Exeter Series, 2001).

Due to the demands of the German economy during the war, the question arose how to make maximal use of Jewish prisoners before killing them. Oswald Ludwig Pohl came up with the solution of doubling the role of some of the extermination camps—including the largest, the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex–as labor camps. This generated Monowitz-Buna, also called Auschwitz III, a slave labor camp established in October 1942 in collaboration with the German chemical company I. G. Farben. The company produced butadiene-based synthetic rubber (in Buna Works) as well as, more notoriously, Zyklon B, the toxic chemical used to gas millions of victims. Rewarded for his ingenuity, Pohl rose to power in the Nazi regime, serving as the financial administrator of the SS in charge of 20 concentration camps and 165 labor camps.

Although supportive of Pohl’s utilization of Jewish slave labor for the German economy, Himmler insisted that the Nazis must never subordinate their main goal—the eradication of the Jewish race—to economic objectives: not even during the war, when there was a labor shortage. The solution, for the Nazi regime, became the infamous death factories: selecting (most) prisoners deemed unfit for work for immediate extermination in the gas chambers, while working to death those deemed capable of labor. Even those who were chosen for immediate extermination were exploited to the very last. The Nazis extricated from their victims every possession: even the clothes on their backs, which were given to other prisoners, and their hair, which was shaved or cut off and used as stuffing for mattresses. The death factories thus fulfilled their intended role of total annihilation: by exterminating the Jewish people while also removing the last trace of their existence from the face of the Earth.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

 

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Action T4: From “Euthanasia” to the Final Solution

Christian_Wirth:WikipediaCommons

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Action T4: From “Euthanasia” to the Final Solution

by Claudia Moscovici 

Since the late 5th century BC up to current times, the Hippocratic Oath has been taken by doctors to ensure the ethics of the medical profession. Above all, the Hippocratic Oath forbids doctors from causing deliberate harm to their patients. Doctors pledge: “I will prescribe regiments for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone. I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such council.” The most egregious violation of medical ethics was perpetrated by Nazi doctors. “Euthanasia,” as practiced by Third Reich physicians, set the precedent for the Final Solution. From September 1939 to August 1941, when he began facing objections from German religious leaders, Hitler started experimenting in Germany with Action T4. The program was euphemistically described as “euthanasia”. In practice, however, it entailed the extermination of individuals in psychiatric institutions deemed “mentally incurable”. Over 70,000 patients in mental hospitals were killed under this program. Even when Hitler officially ended it in 1941, the practice continued until the end of the war. In concentration camps, it took an even more dangerous and deadly form.

“T4” is an abbreviation of Tiergarten Street Number 4 in Berlin, the address of the Charitable Foundation for Curative and Institutional Care, directed by Philipp Bouhler and Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician. As Robert Jay Lifton explains in The Nazi Doctors, the “euthanasia” program initially employed lethal injection. Later, in order to kill people in greater numbers and more efficiently, Nazi physicians began using carbon monoxide. This method of killing was also implemented later to kill Jews, Gypsies and Poles in concentration camps.

In 1939, Christian Wirth (featured in the picture), one of the SS officers in charge of exterminating the Jews in Poland, designed a gas chamber that was disguised as a public shower. Instead of water, patients were inundated by a toxic gas. Witnesses describe Wirth as a malicious sadist, similar to Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious “Angel of Death”. Corporal Franz Suchomel recalls: “From my activity in the camps of Treblinka and Sobibor, I remember that Wirth in brutality, meanness, and ruthlessness could not be surpassed. We therefore called him ‘Christian the Terrible…” (Arad Ytzhak, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, p 183-186).

The gas used at first was carbon monoxide, but that was deemed as too slow acting. The Nazis then turned to Zyklon B—a cyanide based pesticide—to murder 1.2 million people in gas chambers. The process, deemed a quicker and “more humane” method of killing (compared to shooting or carbon monoxide), in actuality caused a slow and excruciating death. In The Diary of Petr Ginz: 1941-1942, Chava Pressburger pays homage to her brother Petr, who died in Auschwitz at the tender age of 16. She is particularly pained by the thought that her brother died such a gruesome death:

“I ask readers to forgive me for returning to that terrible description. The witness in question worked in the gas chambers. His task was to wait for the people shoved into the gas chamber to suffocate; then he had to open the chamber and transport the heaps of corpses to the ovens, where they were to be burned. This man could barely speak for tears. He testified that the position of corpses suggested what went on inside the hermetically sealed chamber, when it began to be filled with toxic gas. The stronger ones, led by an overpowering instinct for self-preservation, tried to get to the top, where there was still some air left, so that the weaker ones were trampled to death” (131).

Conceptually, the distance between the Action T4 program practiced in German mental hospitals and the mass murder in concentration camps was not so great.  The T4 program offered the framework for the killing machine implemented in the Final Solution. As Allan Bullock observes in Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, Action T4 set the following precedents for mass extermination:

1)    it established an atmosphere of secrecy, shrouded in a language filled with codes and euphemisms to describe torture and murder;

2)    it implicated doctors in murder through a procedural façade of professionalism (including physical examinations, diagnoses, and the administration of “medicines” or “operations”);

3)    from the very beginning, it set Jewish patients apart from others for “special treatment”. Jews did not have to meet the T4 criteria—namely, of being diagnosed with incurable diseases or mental disorders—in order to be killed. They could be killed simply because they were Jewish. (Hitler and Stalin, 746)

Perhaps the most valuable lesson Hitler learned from the T4 program was to take the killing machine outside of his own country. Following vocal protests by the Protestant pastors Paul-Gerhard Braune and Fritz von Bodelschwingh and by Cardinal August Count von Galen, Hitler decided to bide his time and kill more covertly: not on German territory, where he wanted to remain popular, but elsewhere. The opportunity presented itself when he attacked Russia in Operation Barbarossa, beginning on June 22, 1941. With the onset of war, all bets were off. The Nazis used war against “the Bolshevik empire” as a justification for putting into practice everything they had learned from the more limited Action T4 “euthanasia” program: this time to kill Jews, Gypsies and Poles on an unprecedented mass scale.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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