Monthly Archives: November 2014

Fury (2014) and America’s involvement in WWII

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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

Initially, the U.S. didn’t declare war on Germany. In December 1941 America officially entered WWII by declaring war against Japan after the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. Subsequently, Germany declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, thus obliging America to officially enter WWII. As far as Germany was concerned, for several years the U.S. had maintained relative neutrality, even though it aided the Allies with supplies. Although President Roosevelt had wanted to get involved in the war earlier on the side of the Allies, he met some initial resistance. While public opinion in the U.S. was, generally speaking, antagonistic to Hilter and the Nazi regime, many Americans nevertheless supported isolationist policies.

By the end of WWII, however, the U.S. was not only fully engaged in the war, but also played a leading role in the Allied victory. While American losses were not as great (proportionately) as those of Russia and European countries involved in the war, about 16 million Americans served in the Armed Forces and nearly 300,000 of them were killed in combat. Even Stalin–no friend of the West or of democracy–admitted, at a dinner at the Tehran Conference in 1943, “Without American production the United Nations could never have won the war.”

The movie Fury (2014), directed by David Ayer and staring Brad Pitt and Logan Lerman, follows the final push of the American forces into the heart of Nazi Germany. It focuses on the activities of the 2nd Armored Division of the 66th Armored Regiment, manning a tank named “Fury”, under the command of Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt). By the end of the film, this five man crew fights heroically against an entire SS battalion of three hundred Waffen SS soldiers, inflicting serious damage upon the Germans and fighting against them to the last man.

This plot may seem like a typical military heroism movie. However, the film’s real strength lies in depicting the psychological dynamics among the five men and in offering a more historically realistic portrayal of soldiers’ behavior. The drama hinges upon the transformation of the youngest member of the group—the Army typist Norman “Machine” Ellison—who knows nothing about combat and hesitates to kill fellow human beings (particularly the young German fighters of the Hitler Youth). His battle-hardened, older companions make fun of his scruples and pressure him to kill. Wardaddy goes so far as to thrust a gun into his hand and force the young man to kill a German prisoner who’s begging for his life. Repeatedly, Wardaddy drives home the lesson that war is about killing your enemy or being killed by them.

Although Norman never fully accepts this simple “us” versus “them” mentality, he shows heroism with a heart. In one of the most telling scenes of the movie, Wardaddy pressures him to have sex with a young and beautiful German girl, Emma, whose house they invaded in order to eat. The movie doesn’t glamorize the rape, even though Emma “chooses” to sleep with the relatively sensitive and innocent Norman over his rougher companions. The film clearly illustrates that the young woman had no real choice, since choosing who will rape you isn’t a true choice.

While Norman may abandon some of his moral principles in order to become fully engaged in the war, he develops from a naïve young man into a hero that his tank companions—and the viewers—can admire. One of the fellow soldiers calls him “a good man,” acknowledging that their behavior has been corrupted in the war. Fury showcases a moral complexity that I’ve rarely seen in American war movies. It shows that in war—even a war as necessary as WWII was—heroism can become inseparable from heartlessness, just as saving countries from oppression can become tainted by claiming the “spoils” of victory (looting and rape).

 

Claudia Moscovici,

Literature Salon

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Review of “The Holocaust in Romania” by Radu Ioanid

HolocaustinRomaniaIoanid

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

Radu Ioanid’s The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies Under the Antonescu Regime, 1940-1944 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 2000), has received well-deserved high praise from Elie Wiesel. Wiesel writes in the Foreword: “I do not hesitate to say it: Radu Ioanid merits the recognition of all those who are interested in that history which has so lamely become known as the Holocaust. His work treats an unfortunately little-known subject: the tragic fate of the Jewish communities in Romania. Only a few historians, such as the great Raul Hilberg or Dora Litani, among others, have addressed it in their works. In fact, Radu Ioanid often leans upon them, but his work explores more fully the Evil that reined in Transnistria, between the Bug and Dnister, the two great rivers in Ukraine. His work, based as it is on material from unpublished archives, thus constitutes a new contribution to this field” (vii).

Ioanid is one of the first scholars to address the thorny subject of the Holocaust in Romania. Aside from Raul Hilberg, who covers the destruction of Jews throughout Europe including Romania, Jean Ancel (The History of the Holocaust in Romania, University of Nebraska Press, 2012) and Denis Deletant (Hitler’s Forgotten Ally, Palgrave MacMillan Publishing, 2006) also subsequently covered this topic at length. Radu Ioanid, however, paved the way for research focusing on the Holocaust in Romania.

His book is very important, not least of all because the Holocaust is denied or minimized by many in Romania: strangely enough, not only by the fringe political elements–Nazi or neo-Nazi sympathizers—but also by many conservative and even mainstream Romanians.

The main reasons for Holocaust denial in the country are complex, however, three key factors come to mind: 1) Ion Antonescu, Romania’s authoritarian, pro-Fascist leader, has been rehabilitated as a nationalist hero, 2) some consider the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina who perished in the Holocaust not Romanian, but Ukranian (even though they were under Romanian occupation during the Holocaust) and perhaps most importantly 3) Romania has a unique and ambivalent history towards its Jewish population during the Fascist era. It is the country that collaborated with Germany and doomed to death between 250,000 to 290,000 Jews (mostly those living in Bukovina and Bessarabia) while at the same time being one of the European countries with most Jewish survivors: about 375,000 Jews living in Wallachia, Moldavia and Southern Transylvania made it alive through the end of WWII.

Those who want to absolve Ion Antonescu and the country in general of responsibility for the massacre of Jews in Romania have to contend with Radu Ioanid’s thoroughly researched and compelling evidence to the contrary. Ioanid describes the pogrom in Iasi that occurred in June 1941 as “one of the most savage pogroms of WWII” (The Holocaust in Romania, 63). Iasi was a divided city: half of its population was Jewish (about 50,000 out of 100,000 people), yet at the same time it was also the center of anti-Semitic, Fascist political activity (the Iron Guard headquarters). During the Iasi pogrom over 10,000 Jews were beaten, shot, robbed, raped and/or murdered. Hundreds of people were stuffed into boarded up “death trains”(about 100 persons to each car) that traveled aimlessly for days on end without food or water provisions. Most of them died of suffocation, thirst or starvation. The degradation of the Jews’ humanity is almost indescribable. As Ioanid points out, “At one stop the inmates were permitted to drink from a pond where pigs wallowed; several fainted and drowned right there, others perished later from the ensuing gastrointestinal infections” (85). Antonescu not only allowed this to happen, but, according to Ioanid, he sent an order requiring that Jewish women and children be included in this “Action”.

Moreover, unlike the German crimes against humanity, which were largely hidden by Hitler from the native population, the violence in Iasi was perpetrated in plain sight of the Romanian people, many of whom participated, alongside the goons from the Iron Guard and government officials, in the lootings, beatings and murders of Jews. As Ioanid elaborates, “The mob’s cruelty and greed too the form of truly shocking torture, rape, killing and robbery, all continuing earlier precedents but achieving spectacular new heights of barbarism” (62).

The pogrom in Iasi, however, pales by comparison—at least in magnitude—to the Holocaust in Bessarabia and Bukovina, which began in June 1941 and resulted in over 300,000 deaths from forced deportations (to Transnistria), beatings, shootings, starvation and disease. Antonescu used the fact that Northern Bukovina had been briefly controlled by the Soviet Union (in June 1940) to charge the Jewish inhabitants of both Bukovina and Bessarabia with collaboration with the Red Army and target them for mass deportation and murder.

Although most of the Jews of Regat (Moldavia, Walachia and Southern Transylvania), being considered “Romanian Jews”, were spared from the Holocaust, Ioanid reminds us of significant exceptions: “about thirteen thousand Jews were murdered during the pogrom in Iasi, then the Moldavian capital… During deportations from Dorohioi about twelve thousand Jewish inhabitants were sent to Transnistria, at least one half of which perished” (111). Furthermore, the Iron Guard killed 125 Jews in the Bucharest pogrom.

Will those who do not wish to believe that the Holocaust occurred in Romania, or that Ion Antonescu’s policies were largely responsible for it, be persuaded by Ioanid’s careful study of the subject? Probably not. Historical evidence rarely sways ideological beliefs. But that is not the book’s main purpose. This history of the Holocaust in Romania establishes the facts, to commemorate the victims and allow the survivors who want to know what happened access to the truth.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under 1940-1944, Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory, Ion Antonescu, Iron Guard, Radu Ioanid, Review of "The Holocaust in Romania", the Holocaust, the Holocaust in Bessarabia and Bukovina, the Holocaust in Romania, the Iasi pogrom, Transnistria

The Legacy of Serge Moscovici: The Holocaust and Social Psychology

 

Jurnalul.roSergeMoscovici

Recently, on the day of his death (November 16, 2014), Le Monde published a tribute article about Serge Moscovici, considered by many to be “the father of social psychology”. (see Julie Clarini’s article, http://www.lemonde.fr/disparitions/article/2014/11/16/serge-moscovici-figure-de-la-psychologie-sociale-est-mort_4524344_3382.html) I first encountered his name during my first years of graduate school, in 1994-95, when I studied with the historians Genevieve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot at the Collège international de philosophie and the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. Some of my colleagues inquired if I was related to Serge Moscovici, the well-known social psychologist of Romanian origins whose last name I shared. I didn’t know what to answer them, since I had never researched our genealogy. But the question itself aroused my curiosity. Once I began reading his books and learning more about his background, I found Serge Moscovici to be a remarkable person and intellectual.

Born in Braila, Romania on June 14, 1925 under the name of Srul Hers Moscovici, he overcame incredible hardship and rose to intellectual fame against all odds. Being Jewish, his youth was marred by the anti-Semitic legislation passed by Romania’s Fascist regimes, which reflected the tone set by Nazi Germany throughout most of Europe. He was expelled from high school. Since some vocational schools remained open to Jews, he trained as a mechanic at Ciocanul, in Bucharest. While living in the capital, he observed with dismay some of Romania’s leading intellectual figures—particularly Mircea Eliade and Emil Cioran—express pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic points of view. He took refuge in what he felt would be the opposite route by joining the Romanian Communist Party, which was one of the few political parties that remained open to Jews. Moscovici witnessed the Bucharest Pogrom (in January 1941) and was sent to a forced labor camp, where he worked in construction. He was fortunate enough to be freed by the Red Army in 1944. Thereafter he made up for lost time and became the worldly intellectual he wanted to be, an ambition that couldn’t be realized in a Romania ruled by a Fascist regime. He taught himself French and philosophy.

Growing disenchanted with the Communist party, Moscovici moved to Paris, where he began studying psychology at the Sorbonne. His 1961 thesis, which would be published as a book in 1976, La psychanalyse, son image, son public, covered the relatively new field—group or social psychology–that would eventually gain him world renown. Having lived through both Nazi and Communist regimes—oppressed by one for being Jewish, disillusioned with the other—his research covered the psychological factors behind conformity (and mass movements) and the role of minorities in influencing larger group dynamics. Through a series of psychological experiments, he arrived at the scientific conclusion, which he had already witnessed in his life, that minorities can, indeed, influence the actions of the majority, even when what they say is counterintuitive or just plain false. These psychological experiments can be used to explain, in part, the manner in which totalitarian movements—Fascism and Communism alike—began as minority views and ended up ruling the majority throughout European and Eastern Block countries.

Later in life, in 1997, Serge Moscovici published an autobiographical book, Chronique des années égarées (Editions Stock), where he expresses some disappointment with the fact that his son, Pierre Moscovici–who would become famous in his own right as French Minister of the Economy, Finance and Industry–had to experiment in his youth with Communism and find out the hard way the lessons about totalitarianism learned years earlier by his father. Wisdom may be passed on from generation to generation, but rarely only through books or anecdotes. It also requires some personal experience: an experience of lived history that Serge Moscovici translated, in his research and books, into an elegant psychological theory. For those interested in social psychology, the role of the masses and the dynamics of totalitarian movements, Serge Moscovici’s death represents a great loss.

 

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

 

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Privilege and Persecution: Review of The Diary of Mary Berg, Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto

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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

The Diary of Mary Berg, a Polish survivor of American origins of the Warsaw Ghetto, has recently been in the news, a feature story in The New York Times. The journal contains entries from October 1939 to March 1944, offering first-hand details about the Nazi occupation of Poland, the establishment and destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, where nearly 400,000 Polish Jews lost their lives. Published in 1945 by L. B. Fisher, the diary initially received a lot of media coverage but went out of print in 1950. Thereafter the author declined opportunities to discuss her experiences of the Holocaust and even sometimes denied the diary’s existence. Nonetheless, the book resurfaced in 2006, published by Oneworld Publications under the title The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto and edited by S. L. Shneiderman, with an introduction by Susan Pentlin. Shneiderman had also translated the original diary from Polish into Yiddish and hired Norbert Guterman and Sylvia Glass to translate the Polish edition into English.

The diary took the spotlight again in a New York Times Books article by Jennifer Schuessler entitled “Survivor Who Hated the Spotlight” (published on November 10, 2014), which covered the recent auction of Mary Berg’s private photographs due to be sold at Doyle New York, a Manhattan auction house. How did these photographs resurface? Ms. Berg herself passed away in 2013. A Pennsylvania antique dealer bought her photographs, which had an estimated value of thousands of dollars, at an estate sale for only ten dollars. After relatives heard the news of the planned auction, they contacted Doyle and the auction house cancelled the auction, which had been scheduled for November 24, 2014. Schuessler cites Rachel B. Goldman, Assistant Professor of History at the College of New Jersey and a Judaic Studies expert, who maintains that the auction provoked a sense of outrage. She explains why: “This could set a tragic precedent of less Holocaust material being put in archives and instead ending up in private hands—including the wrong private hands, I might add.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/11/arts/survivor-who-hated-the-spotlight.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A5%22%7D&_r=0

These photographs, like the diary itself, offer an invaluable glimpse into the horrific lives even of the privileged inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto. Coming from an affluent family (her father was a successful art dealer and collector of the European masters such as Poussin and Delacroix), Mary Berg was especially fortunate to have a mother who was an American citizen. The Nazis generally treated American citizens differently from Polish captives, in the effort to launch a propaganda campaign that hid from the American press details about the persecution and massacre of European Jews. Mary Berg’s diary was one of the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust in Poland. It describes the tremendous duress of the hundreds of thousands of Jews trapped by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto and provides anecdotal accounts of the heroic and tragic Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which Mary received news about from survivor friends.

Originally from Lodz, where the Nazis had already set up a Jewish Ghetto, Mary moved to Warsaw with her family, hoping that life would be better there. In November 1940, however, the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto, where Mary was trapped with her family until a few days before the mass deportations to concentration camps, in the summer of 1942. She saw with her own eyes the brutality, the beatings, the random shootings of innocent civilians. She witnessed from her window countless people being forcibly deported to the Treblinka death camp and to Auschwitz. She saw, helplessly, thousands of children reduced to skin and bones. She barely escaped death herself. Due to her mother’s American citizenship, Mary, her parents, and her sister were sent to a camp in Vittel, France, which, as she states in her journal, seemed like “paradise” compared to the hardship and horror of life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Mary Berg’s diary offers a unique testimony about privilege and persecution in the Warsaw Ghetto. Originally the wealthier, well-connected members of the community could buy privileges, including jobs, exemptions from forced labor or deportation and, perhaps most importantly, the contraband food needed to ward off starvation. As members of the wealthier class, Mary and her friends helped organize charity talent shows, which not only gathered donations to feed the orphaned children and the starving poor in the ghetto, but also raised the public morale. Eventually, however, as the Nazis began implementing the Final Solution, even the wealthy faced the dangers of starvation, deportation and death.

Although privileged and young, Mary Berg is not only an incredibly astute observer of historical events, but also a highly compassionate person. Even when she and her family has enough to eat, she feels guilty for those who are starving in the Ghetto and does what she can to help them. After her family manages to escape the Ghetto, she is haunted by frequent nightmares about the hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who lost their lives in that living hell. In the one of the most moving scenes of her journal, Mary describes a scene that she will often relive: the day the orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto, led by their beloved teacher Dr. Janusz Korczak, went with dignity to their deaths:

“Dr. Janusz Korczak’s children home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. … They walked in ranks of two, calm, and even smiling. They had not the slightest foreboding of their fate. At the end of the procession marched Dr. Korczak, who saw to it that the children did not walk on the sidewalk. Now and then, with fatherly solicitude, he stroked a child on the head or arm, and straightened out the ranks” (169).

This sad procession walked to the trains that took them to Treblinka, where they were all killed. If there any episode in history can be said to capture the horror and brutality of the Holocaust, the massacre of the orphaned children of the Warsaw Ghetto would be it. Civilization—or rather the lack thereof—cannot sink any lower than this.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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A Cataclysmic War: Review of Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt

CecilBeaton, portrait of EileenDunne1940LondonBlitzJudt

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

Tony Judt’s monumental history of the (post) WWII era ranks up there with Robert Conquest’s study of the Soviet Union, Alan Bullock’s biographical history of Hitler and Richard Pipes’ account of the Russian Revolution. Rare in its depth, breadth and scope, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2005) examines the devastating ripple effects of a cataclysmic war—WWII—throughout Europe during the entirety of the twentieth century. Publishers Weekly rightly hails the book as “the best history we have of Europe in the postwar period and not likely to be surpassed for many years…. One of its great virtues is that it covers the small countries as well as the large and powerful ones.” Postwar covers the history of the entire Cold War, dwelling on the spread and dismantlement of Communism. However, the book’s most staggering information—replete with statistics—focuses on the devastation of WWII and its immediate aftermath.

Although Judt covers the material damage done to European cities, he observes that this damage “was insignificant when set against the human losses. It is estimated that about thirty-six and a half million Europeans died between 1939 and 1945 from war-related causes(…)—a number that does not include deaths from natural causes in those years, nor any estimate of the numbers of children not conceived or born then or later because of the war” (Postwar, 17-18).

This is what I’d like to focus upon in this review, since one of the book’s main strengths is to quantify and explain the ravages of totalitarianism and war. Tens of millions of civilians and soldiers died from mass extermination, disease, malnutrition, forced marches, deportations, labor and concentration camps. We’ve already seen that the Holocaust alone claimed ten million victims, about 6 million of whom were Jewish.

Military losses assumed staggering proportions. Judt documents that the Soviet Union alone lost 8.6 million fighters, Germany 4 million, Romania about 300,000. Countless Soviet soldiers died as prisoners of war, as the Germans captured 5.5 million Soviet soldiers. Many of those that managed to survive against all odds the Nazi imprisonment were deported by Stalin to Siberia once they arrived home. (18-19)

Women suffered from the ravages of war both as human beings and specifically as women. Many were raped and tortured as part of the atrocities of war and, later, the spoils of victory. Germany paid a heavy price for having succumbed to Nazi rule. As the German saying went, “Better enjoy the war—the peace will be terrible.” According to Judt, “87,000 women in Vienna were reported by clinics and doctors to have been raped by Soviet soldiers in the three weeks following the Red Army’s arrival in the city” (20).

With the farmland, electrical plants, infrastructure and even industry of so many European countries nearly destroyed, people continued to suffer from hunger, polluted water supplies and diseases, of which typhoid and diphtheria were widespread. Hospitals had insufficient supplies, staff and resources to take care of the ill and dying. As Judt describes the situation in Poland, “for the 90,000 children of liberated Warsaw there was just one hospital, with fifty beds” (22).

One of the biggest Diasporas in history, WWII led to the expulsion, deportation and migration of 30 million people between 1939-1942. (23) Germany, who ignited the war, lay in ruins by its end. Judt cites William Byford-Jones, a British officer in Germany, who observed the country’s dire situation in 1945:

“Flotsam and Jetsam! Women who had lost husbands and children, men who had lost their wives; men and women who had lost their homes and children; families who had lost vast farms and estates, shops, distilleries, factories, flour-mills, mansions. There were also little children who were alone, carrying some small bundle, with a pathetic label attached to them” (23).

The Jews of Europe suffered the worst. Targeted for slave labor and extermination just for being born Jewish, over 6 million Jews lost their lives during the war. Even among the fortunate few who got to see the day of liberation from the Nazis, 4 out of 6 died within a few weeks afterwards. Their condition, Judt explains, “was beyond the experience of Western medicine” (24).

After describing the chaos and suffering of war, as the title suggests, Postwar depicts the rebirth of parts of Europe. Indeed, part of the book’s message is one of hope. Given the human devastation and the material destruction caused by WWII, it is a miracle that Western Europe managed to rebound and emerge like a phoenix from the ashes of war to flourish in first part of the twentieth century. Still under the grips of totalitarianism (Communism), it would take Eastern Europe another half a century to recover from WWII and the dangerous ideologies that led to the near destruction of an entire continent and its people.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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