Monthly Archives: December 2014

Remembering Bergen-Belsen: Review of Four Perfect Pebbles

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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

In a child’s imagination, there’s a fine line between hope and superstition. For Marion Blumenthal, a nine-year-old Jewish girl imprisoned with her family in the notorious concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, hope meant psychological survival in dire conditions, where death was a near certainty. Holding four pebbles in her hand, the young girl tells her older brother, Albert: “Look closely. I have these three pebbles, exactly matching. Today I will find the fourth. I suppose you think I’m silly’” (Four Perfect Pebbles co-written by Lila Perl and Marion Blumenthal Lazan, New York: Scholastic, 1996, 7). Although Albert humors his emotional and imaginative sister, for Marion finding the fourth pebble represents the survival of each one of her family members: her mother, her father, herself and her brother. The memoir Four Perfect Pebbles tells the story of the Blumenthal family’s survival against all odds. Of German origin, the Blumenthals flee the increasingly anti-Semitic measures adopted by the Nazis in Germany. They believe that they have escaped to relative safety in Holland. As the Nazi empire expands to Holland, however, in 1944 they arrange to be part of a group immigrating to Palestine (in exchange for release of German POW’s). However, to their misfortune, their ship is delayed by three months. Instead of finding their way to Israel, the Blumenthals are sent off first to the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork and later to the “Family Camp” in Bergen-Belsen.

Four Perfect Pebbles offers invaluable historical information about the Holocaust, targeting a young adult audience and written for their level. It also describes an exceptional story of survival in one of the most lethal concentration camps: the same one, in fact, where Anne and Marion Frank perished. Initially intended as a prisoner of war camp, in 1943 Bergen-Belsen became a full-fledged Nazi concentration camp. Located in Northern Germany, it operated between 1940 and 1945. In June 1943, Bergen-Belsen was designated a “holding camp” for Jews that were supposed to be exchanged for German prisoners in other countries. The SS divided the camp into several sections, including the “Hungarian camp”, the “Special camp” for Polish Jews and the “Star camp” for Dutch Jews, where Marion Blumenthal and her family were interned.

Aside from being deprived of sufficient food, water, adequate medical treatment and basic hygiene facilities, the inmates of Bergen-Belsen were forced to work all day long. Approximately 50,000 people perished there. Bergen-Belsen imprisoned Jews, Poles, Russians, Dutch, Czech, German and Austrian inmates. In August 1944, the Nazis created a new section, called the “Women’s camp”, which held about 9,000 women and girls at any given time. In general, the concentration camp became dangerously overcrowded, as over 80,000 people were brought there in cattle trains from camps in Poland and other areas overtaken by the Soviet army.

Unlike Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen had no gas chambers. Yet as death surrounded her and dozens of corpses were laid out on top of one another outside her barracks each day, young Marion lived in constant fear of extermination: “’Even though we had been told,’ Marion said, ‘that there were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, how could we ever be sure? … The soap that the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen were given before entering the showers did not guarantee their harmlessness. For it was common practice at Auschwitz to provide soap—and also the promise of hot coffee or warm soup afterward—in order to maintain calm and to deceive those about to be gassed” (66-67).

Conditions at Bergen-Belsen were notoriously bad. They deteriorated rapidly towards the end of the war, even by concentration camp standards. Marion Blumenthal recalls, “By early 1945 the food at Bergen-Belsen consisted mainly of cabbage-flavored water and moldy bread. This ration was far less than the six hundred calories a day per inmate that the camp had formerly provided… The death toll was now mounting rapidly as the result of exposure, hunger, severe diarrhea, and fevers” (70). Anne and Marion Frank perished here from typhus in March 1945, only weeks before the camp’s liberation by the Allies.

When the British and Canadians entered the camp on April 15, 1945, they found thousands of corpses and 60,000 half-starved and dangerous ill prisoners, themselves very close to death. But Marion and her family were not among them. After having been starved, forced into slave labor, attacked by fleas and allowed to languish sick from typhus, the Nazis forced them to march for miles as they were fleeing the Allies. Soon, however, they were finally freed by the Soviets and ended up in a refugee camp in Tröbitz. As she had grasped her four perfect pebbles, Marion continued to hold on to the hope of her family’s survival. Unfortunately, her father didn’t make it. He succumbed to typhus in May 1945. His death came as a blow to their tight-knit nuclear family. As Marion notes, “We had come so far, through flight, imprisonment, evacuation, the Nazis’ final attempt to destroy us, liberation at last, and now this—freedom and sorrow” (99). Her memoir, Four Perfect Pebbles, keeps his memory—and that of countless other Holocaust victims–alive. This book is not only an important historical document, but also a moving testimony of the paradoxical “freedom and sorrow” of being liberated after having suffered so much trauma and the inconsolable loss of loved ones that perished in the Holocaust.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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A Heroic Fight for Human (and Jewish) Rights: The Memoirs and Diaries of Wilhelm Filderman

Wilhelm-Fildermancertitudinea.ro

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

Wilhelm Filderman, the Chair of the Union of Romanian Jews and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania (1923-1947), is not only one of the country’s most influential Jewish leaders, but also the person who played a key role in saving a large percentage of Romania’s Jews from the Holocaust. At the beginning of 1942 the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania was dismantled and replaced by a Nazi controlled Jewish Council, in preparation for deporting Romania’s Jews to concentration camps in Poland. A lawyer of international repute and a former high school colleague of the man who would become Romania’s authoritarian ruler during the Fascist period—Marshal Ion Antonescu—Filderman was one of the key figures who helped persuade Antonescu not to send the Jewish population of the country living in Regat (Wallachia, Moldavia and Southern Transylvania), about 375,000 people, to their death in concentration camps.

Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, Filderman was not able to prevent Antonescu from sending almost 300,000 Jews living the Romanian-occupied regions of Bessarabia and Bukovina to concentration and resettlement camps in Transnistria. In fact, in March 1943, Antonescu deported Filderman himself to Transnistria for three months after the Jewish leader vehemently protested yet another government tax on the Jews.

Opposing totalitarianism in all its forms, Filderman also refused to support the Communist regime established in Romania after the end of WWII. He didn’t join the Democratic Jewish Committee affiliated with the Communist Party and, as a result, was arrested for a short period of time in 1945. Vilified for his anti-Communist stance, Filderman escaped to France after he heard that he’d be arrested once again, this time on the false charge of being a British agent. He spent the rest of his life in Paris, until his death in 1963. Wilhelm Filderman’s archives—his memoirs and letters—were transferred to the Holocaust Museum in Israel, the Yad Vashem archives, in accordance to the wishes expressed in his will.

Despite looking extensively, I could only find Volume I of Filderman’s Memoirs and Diaries, published by Yad Vashem in 2004 and edited by the great historian Jean Ancel. This volume covers the period from 1900-1940. So far, I haven’t been able to locate anywhere Volume II of Filderman’s memoirs, which would cover the years 1941-1947: namely, the historically crucial periods of the Antonescu regime, the Holocaust, WWII and the Communist takeover of Romania. Jean Ancel passed away in 2008, before having had the chance to finish editing the second volume of Filderman’s memoirs. Even though we may not have the full documents available in English, we can still see a clear picture of Filderman’s selfless and courageous struggles on behalf of Jewish—and human–rights by reading Volume I of his memoirs. As Ancel states in the introduction, Filderman’s journal reveals the author’s underlying humanist and democratic motivation: “Filderman continued to see his waging war on evil and his struggle on behalf of the Jews not only as an effort for an oppressed minority, but also as part of the larger struggle for human rights” (9).

Although devoted to his family, Wilhelm Filderman was also consumed by his duties to the Jewish people living in Romania. He worked long days, and often nights as well, using his legal training to contest Romania’s draconian anti-Jewish decrees. He was not opposed to Zionism, but he supported Jewish assimilation above all. As Ancel rightly states, Filderman “loved Romania and could not understand why Romania did not love him and his coreligionists… Filderman believed that only a modicum of goodwill was required to see the Jews’ fierce desire to identify with Romanian nationalism, to be part of the country and of Romanian society” (13). He viewed Romanian Jews, most of whom had lived in the country for centuries, as Romanians nationally and fought to obtain for them the same civil rights as those enjoyed by ethnic Romanians. The rise of Fascism and Nazism—particularly after the rise to power of the Iron Guard in 1927 and of Ion Antonescu in 1940–transformed Filderman’s legal battles for civic equality into a heroic fight for Jewish survival.

 

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

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Review of Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis by Nicholas Stargardt

ChildrenWWIItelegraph.co.uk

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

Children were the most innocent casualties of WWII. Killed in concentration camps, orphaned by battles throughout Europe, languishing from starvation, destroyed by disease, targeted for their race, traumatized by violence, tens of millions of children throughout European countries suffered and died. Nicholas Stargardt’s informative and well-documented book, Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis (New York: Vintage Books, 2007) draws upon children’s school assignments, journals and letters to recreate for contemporary readers an invaluable historical picture of children’s lives under the Nazi regimes.

For me, the most inspiring and heartbreaking true story in the book is his account of life for the Jewish orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto and the heroic deeds of their caretaker, Doctor Janusz Korczak. Selfless and courageous, Korczak provided for the orphans even in the harshest conditions—resorting to begging for food for them—and stayed with them to the end to comfort them as they were boarded on death trains, refusing the chance to survive without them. Stargardt describes how on the morning of August 6, 1942, after finding out about the Nazi plan to liquidate the children of the orphanage, “Stefa Wilczynska and Janusz Korczak instinctively moved together to calm the children and get them to gather together their things as they had been shown. One of the teachers went out into the courtyard and obtained a quarter of an hour from the Jewish police to allow the children to pack up and come out in good order… As they lined up in fifty rows of four abreast Korczak set off with the younger children in the lead so that they would not be outstripped by the older ones… That day, all the children’s homes in the ghetto were cleared by the Germans…” (182).

Stargardt also depicts children’s unhappy lives in concentration camps and their powers of adaptation. Because of the wealth of documentation, he focuses in particular on the group from Theresienstadt, called “the Family Camp” at Auschwitz because it was the only camp in which young children were allowed to survive for awhile and continued to live with their families–until they too were killed en masse between July 10-12, 1944. (see my earlier review about Theresienstadt, http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/real-story-terezin-theresienstadt-%E2%80%9Cmodel%E2%80%9D-jewish-ghetto-i-am-star-inge-auerbacher).

“Racial outsiders” were not the only victims of the Nazis, however. Even privileged categories of children—German children themselves—suffered during the Nazi regime, though not for the same reasons as Jewish, Polish or Gypsy victims. Towards the end of WWII, many German children were, like their parents, casualties of war. Stargardt describes, for instance, the bombing of Hamburg, which “marked a turning point in the war. Its scale was completely unprecedented, and it came at a time when both British and German governments that such attacks on German civilians might decide the fortunes of the war” (233). Child survivors recall feeling very frightened by the bombing and praying to stay alive. “The conjunction of sudden awakening out of deep sleep and the sound of the sirens was particularly potent,” the author explains. “In Bochum, Karl-Heinz Bodecker repeated each night as he got into bed, ‘May the Tommies leave us in peace tonight.’ Among Ute Rau’s first stumbling words were ‘Quick, quick, coats, cellar’” (234). Perhaps the deepest suffering of German children was a result of losing their fathers. According to Stargardt, 4,923,000 German soldiers died during the war, two thirds of them perishing during 1944 and 1945. (337) Consequently, millions of German children of that generation grew up not knowing what it’s like to have a father.

Furthermore, about 13 million abandoned and orphaned children were displaced during and shortly after WWII. (351) Many were victims of forced evacuations, slave labor, “Germanization”, concentration camps and the rare survivors of the liquidated Jewish ghettos. Although their numbers can be quantified, their suffering cannot. These children were the victims of a war that was largely outside their control and, for the youngest, also beyond their comprehension.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Klaus Iohannis, Romania’s new president-elect, viewed from abroad

IohannisTheEconomist

A victory for Iohannis, a step forward for democracy and minority rights in Romania: Klaus Iohannis viewed from abroad

by  Claudia Moscovici

I have not seen the Romanian public so enthusiastic and optimistic about a political event since the anti-Communist revolution of 1989. On November 16, 2014 the Romanian center-right candidate, Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German, won the presidential election. His victory over Victor Ponta came as a welcome surprise for many Romanian voters. Ponta was ahead during most of the presidential campaign and had won the first round, on the November 2nd election. Many Romanians view Iohannis’ victory as a step forward for democracy. What are some of the factors that led to Iohannis’ unexpected victory and how is it perceived by the press abroad?

Reuters recently briefly covered the Romanian election with some ambivalence. In an article published on November 16, Matthias Williams claims, “Analysts had said that victory for Ponta might have helped make Romania a more stable nation, with the main levers of power held by one bloc. By contrast, Iohannis’ win could trigger renewed political tensions in one of Europe’s poorest states.” Despite these misgivings, in next sentence the author expresses the other side of the coin, which coincides with what I’ve been reading in the Romanian press: namely, that Romanians had grown increasingly critical of the Ponta regime and were ready for a change: “Thousands of people took to the streets of Bucharest to voice their anger at Ponta’s government on Sunday night and demand his resignation.” Williams brings up one of the main issues at stake, which is the country’s growing disenchantment with political corruption: “Growth rebounded to more than 3 percent in the third quarter of 2014, but corruption and tax evasion are rife, and progress to implement reforms and overhaul a bloated state sector is mixed.” (see http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/16/romania-election-idUSL6N0T608D20141116)

Young voters, the educated elite and Romanian citizens abroad (the diaspora) voted, overwhelmingly, in favor of Klaus Iohannis. Romanians would like to build a country with less political corruption, more transparency in the government, a thriving economy and a more democratic voting process in the country and especially for Romanians living abroad. In fact, the difficulties in voting for oversea Romanian citizens, which got international media coverage, drew widespread sympathy for Iohannis, both within and outside Romania. “Overseas voters, “ Williams notes, “played a key role in swinging the vote at the last presidential election in 2009. Romania’s large and growing diaspora is widely seen as anti-Ponta, and many voiced their anger when long queues and bureaucratic hurdles prevented them from voting in the first round. The uproar triggered the foreign minister’s resignation, sparked protests in cities across Romania and may have helped galvanize the anti-Ponta vote.” In Paris and Munich people lined up for hours on end, waiting for the opportunity to vote. In Munich, some people showed the cameras their toothbrushes, to indicate they’d be willing to spend the night there if that’s what it took.

For many Romanians, Klaus Iohannis represents a change for the better. Although much of his political platform remains to be seen, in the eyes of his supporters he stands for political accessibility, honesty and good character. A former physics teacher and current mayor (of Sibiu) of German origin, Iohannis also represents a victory for ethnic Romanians. Ethnic Germans living in Romania were brought into the international limelight a few years ago, when novelist Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009. Despite the fact that ethnic Germans have been living in Romania for hundreds of years, they still face some prejudice and obstacles. In fact, As Alison Mutler points out in The Associated Press article of November 17, Victor Ponta tried to play the nationalist card by depicting Iohannis as a cultural outsider. This strategy backfired. Mutler notes, “His win was also the failure of the nationalist card played by Ponta, who mocked his rival’s minority German ethnicity and the fact that he is a Lutheran and not a member of the powerful Orthodox Church.” Iohannis supporters, The Economist reports on November 17th, 2014, “greeted the mayor of Sibiu with cries of ‘Danke Schön’. He will become the first member of an ethnic minority, and the first non-Orthodox Christian, to serve as president in Romania’s post-communist history.” (see http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2014/11/romanias-elections-0?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/Transylvaniansurprise)

This unprecedented win represents not only a victory for democracy in Romania, but also a step forward for ethnic minorities. Ethnic Germans, or Rumaniendeutsche, were numerous in the country before the end of WWII, numbering almost eight hundred thousand. Most of them immigrated to Germany (or were evicted from the country) shortly after WWII, when Romania became Communist. By 2011, their numbers fell to less than 40,000. A second wave, over 100,000 ethnic Germans, immigrated to Germany following the anti-Communist revolution of 1989. Although still perceived as “foreigners” by some native Romanians, ethnic Germans have lived in Romania—mostly in the region Transylvania—for centuries. The majority belong to the ‘Saxons’, who are descendants of Germans who settled in Transylvania during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Iohannis, who states that his family has lived in Romania for over 700 years, is most likely a descendent of this ethnic group. The second group, the Swabians, are descended from Southern Germans who settled in the Banat region during the eighteenth-century. The third group, the “Lander” Germans, came to Northern Transylvania during the eighteenth century. While ethnic minorities may still face some prejudice in Romania, the country has made great strides over the past ten years in representing ethnic minorities.

“Conditions for minorities in Romania today have been significantly improved through reforms pushed through in the run-up to the country’s accession to the EU. An accession treaty signed in early 2005 resulted in Romania’s full membership in 2007. … Minorities are currently represented in both chambers of parliament.” (for more information on Minorities in Romania, see Minority Rights, (http://www.minorityrights.org/3521/romania/romania-overview.html).

CurteaVecheKlausIohannis

Romanians have a lot of hope for the country under the new government. They hope for a healthier economy and more job opportunities. They would like to see the continuing integration of Romania into the European community, less political corruption, and a more democratic—and easier–process of voting, especially for the diaspora. Iohannis has expressed his commitment to fulfilling these hopes, so the country has reason for optimism. He has also shown his accessibility to the public—and graciousness–during a recent book signing of his autobiography, Pas cu Pas (Step by Step), published by Curtea Veche Publishing, where he spent hours with fans, signing over 3000 autographs. This presidency wouldn’t be the first time a member of a minority group has paved the way for the majority. After all, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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