Category Archives: Claudia Moscovici Holocaust Memory

Between Fanaticism and Terror: Hitler, Stalin and The Noise of Time

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Between Fanaticism and Terror: Hitler, Stalin and The Noise of Time

By Claudia Moscovici

During WWII much of Europe was caught in a vice between fanaticism and terror; between Hitler and Stalin. The plight of tens of millions of people falling victim to Stalinism on the one hand and Fascism on the other is eloquently captured by Gustaw Herling, a Polish prisoner in the Soviet Union:   “I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug, on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope” (Gustaw Herling, A World Apart, 175-76). The similarities between these two evil dictators obsessed with acquiring unlimited power are far greater than their differences. Yet it’s worth noting that they selected their targets differently. Stalin’s purges covered every segment of Soviet society, almost indiscriminately: the Communist party; the Politburo; even the army, navy and air force in a time when preparations for war should have been a priority.

Julian Barnes, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2011, describes the arbitrary nature of Stalin’s Great Terror with exquisite literary skill and historical insight in his new biographical novel about the composer Dimitri Shostakovich, The Noise of Time (New York and London: Knopf, 2016). Tellingly, the title phrase is borrowed from Osip Mandelstam’s memoirs, who himself died in a transit camp during the Great Terror in 1938. In personalizing the plight of millions by focusing on the tribulations of a single life—particularly that of a famous man—Barnes illustrates that nobody was immune to Stalin’s subjugating power. Even the great Soviet General and Chief of Staff, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the composer’s patron, fell victim to Stalin’s paranoia in the purge of the military of June 1937.

By some miracle or good fortune, Shostakovich’s life is spared by Stalin. But the composer’s reputation isn’t; rising and falling with the vicissitudes of the Soviet regime, which the narrator calls “the Power”. In 1936, Shostakovich suffers a humiliating reprimand for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, deemed by Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper and propaganda mouthpiece, to be representative of the “fidgety, neurotic music” of the bourgeoisie. Although later Stalin himself calls the composer at home and undoes some of the damage to his reputation, Shostakovich, along with millions of others, lives in constant fear of the dictator’s arbitrary—and often fatal–displays of power.

Success and failure have a way of boiling down to the same thing in totalitarian regimes, which subsume artistic merit to ideological whims. Even after Stalin’s death, during Nikita Khrushchev’s milder regime, when the composer is pressured to join the Communist Party in order to become the Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers, Shostakovich feels almost as pained and humiliated as he did when he was vilified by Stalin’s acolytes in Pravda. In channeling the character of Shostakovich so compellingly and revealing with a keen sense of irony the arbitrary nature of Soviet totalitarianism, Barnes depicts its nature as well as those who had suffered its effects first-hand: authors such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Eugenia Ginzburg.

By way of contrast to Stalin’s arbitrary purges, Hitler honed in on one main target: the Jews. His single-minded focus on destroying the Jewish people could only be called, in his own words, “fanaticism”. He remarked: “Any violence which does not spring from a firm spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook” (Mein Kampf, 171). There are many hypotheses about what might have caused Hitler’s hatred of Jews, ranging from psychological to sociological and biographical explanations. These speculations, however, only make sense in hindsight. Nothing in Hitler’s adolescence, when pathology usually shows up, gave any obvious sign of the tremendous anti-Semitic hatred that would later dominate his life.

Biographers state that Hitler was a mediocre student, receiving bad grades in physics, mathematics and German. His preformed better in art, but wasn’t that original. As a young man, he pursued his artistic career in Vienna for about six years. Some state that Hitler’s anti-Semitism grew out of the frustration that he wasn’t accepted to the prestigious Vienna Art Academy. They surmise that he may have blamed his failure on the Jews. Perhaps there’s some truth in that, but there’s evidence to the contrary as well. Hitler continued to sell his art and make a living from art sales, supplemented by funds from his family. Interestingly, as Raul Hilberg states, “Apparently, two of the [art] dealers were Jews” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 4).

WWI seems to have been a major turning point in Hitler’s life. But even then nobody could have guessed that this mediocre soldier would rise to absolute power and wield death and destruction throughout Europe. Hitler was decorated the Iron Cross First Class during the war, but only the second or third time he was recommended for it: incidentally, by a Jew (Lieutenant Gutmann). At the end of the war, Hitler was gassed and spent a considerable period of time recuperating in a hospital. There he had time to contemplate what might have brought about the humiliating defeat of Germany. The company commander of the unit to which Hitler belonged in 1919 asked soldiers the question why Germany had lost the war. Hitler wrote down an answer that prefigured the major themes of Mein Kampf, his autobiographical treatise written in prison and published in 1925-26. He distinguished between an anti-Semitism based on reason, which would have staying power, and an anti-Semitism based on emotion, manifested in pogroms. Only the former, he predicted, could efface the Jews from the face of the Earth. (See Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 5)

So to return to our earlier question: why did Hitler target the Jews as the main scapegoat and object of his vitriol? He offers a direct answer to this question in Mein Kampf:

 

“The art of leadership as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary… Where there are various enemies… it will be necessary to block them all together as forming one solid front, so that the mass of followers in a popular movement may see only one common enemy against whom they have to fight. Such uniformity intensifies their belief in their own cause and strengthens their feeling of hostility towards the opponent” (Mein Kampf, 110).

 

This statement reflects the cold and calculated reasoning Hitler alluded to as early as the note of 1919. He targeted the Jews as his scapegoats and victims for strategic reasons. Hitler’s explicit intent was to simplify the root of all social and economic problems to the Jews—outsiders in most European countries–and coalesce all forces and people against this common enemy. His choice wasn’t primarily a matter of genuine emotion, nor only of a pathological, sick hatred. As for Stalin during the Great Terror, it was primarily the product of an insatiable and malicious will to power. This ultimate answer–which boils down to evil for its own sake–could have never offered a satisfactory response to the question most often scribbled by victims on cell walls, in prisons, concentration camps and gulags, a question which still echoes to this day: “Zachto—Why?”

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Hazy Hints of Memory: After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring

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Hazy Hints of Memory: After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring

by Claudia Moscovici

Early childhood development specialists emphasize the importance of having a nurturing and stable environment for infants and toddlers. That’s when the foundations of a child’s personality are formed and influence the rest of their life. Studies have shown that many of the children who grew up in the Communist Romanian orphanages during the 1980’s, living in deplorable conditions and deprived of love, attention, adequate sanitary facilities and healthy food, developed personality deficiencies that marred their lives. Many felt emotionally detached from others and could barely communicate, even as adults.

What about the youngest children of the Holocaust, growing up in the most hellish circumstances imaginable? Most of them perished in the fires of the crematoria, being the first to be selected for immediate death. The few so-called “lucky” child survivors recall bits and pieces of might have been an even worse fate. Rabbi Joseph Polak’s recent memoir, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring (New York, Urim Publications, 2015), winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award, depicts surviving as a toddler in environments whose only certainties were suffering, squalor, misery and death.

Joseph Polak was born on October 16, 1942, in a Jewish family in German-occupied Netherlands. The Dutch Nazis were ready to snatch him from normal life and send his entire family to the transit camp Westerbork even before he was born. His mother recalled the loud pounding on the door in the middle of the night by “the Police” when she was nine months pregnant with Joseph. She courageously warded off the Dutch Nazis by pointing out the advanced state of her pregnancy, but they didn’t stay away for long. A year later, on September 29, 1943, the Nazis returned. The Polak family was sent to Westerbork for about four months, joining 100,000 other Jews who would be deported to “the East”.

Being so young, Joseph retained only hazy traces of memory of the transit camp, enhanced by his mother’s subsequent descriptions: its crowded, sweaty, uncomfortable conditions; the state of anxiety of so many uprooted, displaced people deprived of their roots, assets, professions, families and identities while awaiting to be sent to what they rightly suspected would be a miserable place. The Dutch government set up Camp Westerbork in the fall of 1939 for Jewish refugees who were not Dutch citizens and entered the country illegally. Following the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, the camp grew and became, between 1942 to 1944, a transit camp for all Dutch Jews on their way to Nazi concentration camps. While the camp organizers, who were also Jewish, attempted to create some semblance of normalcy through various routines and activities—which included entertaining diversions such as plays and musical shows—inmates were obsessed with the weekly lists of candidates for deportation to the East. Staying versus leaving Westerbork could mean the difference between life and death. Eventually almost everyone had to leave.

Joseph and his parents were sent to Bergen-Belsen on February 1, 1944, during a period of time known for relatively good conditions. Those didn’t last, however. In December 1944 the camp began receiving a large intake of prisoners from Eastern camps evacuated by the Germans faced with the Soviet army’s advance. Grossly overcrowded and without sufficient food and medical supplies or sanitation facilities for its growing population, in its last year Bergen-Belsen became a breeding ground for typhus, dysentery, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and death. Starving and deprived of adequate care, with a mother who had become a shadow of her former self and weighed only 50 pounds, little Joseph wandered around hungry and in rags, playing among the miles of corpses lined up at Bergen-Belsen. The narrator depicts, vividly, the overpowering stench of feces and decomposing bodies. Ultimately, his family was “lucky” again. On April 9, 1945 they were sent along with 2500 other Jews to Theresienstadt. On the way, they were liberated by the Soviet Army in Tröbitz, a little village of 700 people in East Germany. Despite being “freed,” his parents no longer had the strength to survive. His father passed away in May, while his mother fell gravely ill. Joseph was taken  by the Dutch authorities and placed in the care of another Dutch-Jewish family.

Joseph doesn’t have many memories of this brief period. He only recalls a fleeting impression of security offered by his adoptive father. The young boy held on tightly to his jacket as they rode together on a scooter, enjoying the sights and the breeze. Their destination, however, would be a new shock for little Joseph: a white hospital bed where he’s reunited with a mother that he can no longer bond with or even recognize. It takes time for mother and child to begin to heal, to grow together again, in the more livable conditions offered by a center for Jewish survivors in The Hague, where they spend the next three years, from 1945 to 1948. Later, his mother tells Joseph how she managed to put the atrocious conditions of the concentration camp momentarily out of her mind by imagining that she was at her favorite department store, far removed from the squalor of Bergen-Belsen. Then she takes him to that store again. Flashes of memory spark in the child’s mind as he perceives, with a sense of wonder and incomprehensible nostalgia for the sordid yet familiar past, the contrast between the luxurious goods in front of his eyes and the misery of his first years of life. In December 1948, mother and child sail to New York together. They end up living with her family in Montreal.

It took Rabbi Joseph Polak decades to return to his early childhood past, which he only vaguely recalls in bits and pieces, and which, for a long time, he wanted to forget. When he was fifty years old, ten years after his mother had passed away, he returned to Bergen-Belsen after a trip to Paris, where he lectured on Jewish law. He was ready, by then, not only to remember his family’s experiences of the Holocaust, but also to preserve and share them with others. It occurred to him that as even the child survivors of the Holocaust age and pass away, there is a risk that their memories will disappear along with them. Reading After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring will do more than remind readers of the Holocaust; it will help us empathize with the victims by putting us in those circumstances through different narrative means.

First of all, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring is a beautifully written, evocative memoir. In parts, it’s also a theosophical dialogue, staging discussions between the narrator and the Angel of Death on the timeless question of theodicy: how can an omnipotent and omniscient God allow such horrific suffering of children, of innocents? I’m not sure that this question is answered in any definitive way by the text, but readers can find some solace in the evolution of the author’s life. Rabbi Joseph Polak used his good fortune of being one of the few very young child Holocaust survivors to fill the void of nihilism left by the trauma of his past and make something worthwhile and redeeming of his life. Instead of turning his back upon humanity for what so many did to their fellow human beings, he reached out to help and heal others, both as a Rabbi and as a writer.

This narrative is also an educational text. It makes pedagogical bridges with new generations of readers. Where relevant, Rabbi Polak offers helpful historical background and places the Dutch Holocaust in proper perspective. Middle school and high school students, exposed to Anne Frank’s diary and little else about the Holocaust in the Netherlands, may perceive Dutch citizens of the era as heroes who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis. While many certainly did, as Polak points out, the Netherlands was at the same time a country that rounded up Jews with remarkable zeal and efficiency. Between the summer of 1942 and the fall of 1944, the Dutch collaborators sent over 100,000 Jews, or 75 percent of the country’s Jewish citizens, to concentration camps. Only 5,200 among them survived. The odds were better for those who went into hiding with the aid of the Dutch underground or helpful non-Jewish friends. Of the 30,000 Jews who hid from the Nazis, two thirds survived.

Last but not least, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring has a beautiful, authentic and often lyrical style. At times, it reminded me of Marguerite Duras’ writing: vivid yet also vaguely suggestive; drawing out the philosophical implications of sensory descriptions; versatile in the way it reaches out to its readers. Memoir, philosophical and religious treatise, oratory, history lesson and literary text: you will find all this and more in Joseph Polak’s After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring.

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(Un)orthodox and Hasidic Judaism

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Raised by her grandparents, aunts and uncles in the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, even as a child Deborah Feldman felt oppressed and out of place. In her controversial memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), she casts light upon the secretive and mystical world of Orthodox Judaism. Hasidic Jews live in the midst of our contemporary world in a way that strictly observes the religious rituals of their eighteenth-century Polish orthodox roots. Hasidic Judaism, which in the Hebrew language means “piety” or “loving-kindness”, originated in the Pale of Settlement region of eighteenth-century Poland, part of a large area in Eastern Europe set up by Catherine the Great of Russia in 1791 for Jewish habitation. The Pale of Settlement included a large part of the Polish Commonwealth as well as regions in modern Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, the Ukraine and Russia.

Setting itself apart from the then prevalent Rabbinism, which had become a kind of religious formalism, Hasidic teachings emphasized Jewish mysticism and the strength of the religious community. It embraced the medieval tradition of Kabbalah and encouraged the religious study of the Torah by every Jewish male, an education that begins at the age of three and continues throughout their lives. Today there are approximately 30 large Hasidic groups, which rarely intermarry, and hundreds of smaller groups. Although similar in religious outlook, these groups tend to stick together to their own ethnic communities.

In the Hasidic religion, women are prohibited from religious study and even discouraged from reading lay books, which may corrupt their modesty. They are prescribed traditional roles as wives and mothers. Strict religious rituals govern the interaction between men and women. In the documentary entitled A Life Apart, PBS.org depicts the patriarchal microcosm of Hasidic Judaism:

 

“Orthodox women in particular are charged with a religious obligation to raise children and are “exempt” from all commandments that are considered “time-bound,” i.e., those that must be performed at a certain time. These include the obligation to study Torah, and to attend daily prayer services. Men and women thus have considerably different experiences of spirituality and daily tasks. Most observers would not dispute that the Hasidim live in a traditionally patriarchal system. (http://www.pbs.org/alifeapart/intro_2.html)

Most members of Hasidic communities value deeply their traditional way of life and feel it is their duty to preserve it even in the midst of an increasingly egalitarian contemporary society. But what happens to those—particularly to women–who feel oppressed by the rules and patriarchal underpinnings of this atavistic way of life?

This is the predicament that Deborah Feldman, a young woman who feels trapped by the practices of her Hasidic community, finds herself in. Ignorant of sexuality and having had little contact with men outside her family, Deborah’s world dramatically changes for the worse when, according to the practices of the Satmar Sect of Hasidic Judaism to which her extended family belongs, she’s forced into an arranged marriage at the age of seventeen. Her husband, Eli, who although only 24 years old, is considered a late bloomer, is not a horrible man. But Deborah’s awakening feminist consciousness and her growing reluctance to embrace the world of Hasidic Judaism, combined with her husband’s strict observance of the traditional ways of his family, makes for a very unhappy marriage. Had Eli been paired up with a woman who was equally observant of the Hasidic religion, he might have made an excellent match. But his marriage to Deborah is, from the start, doomed to failure.

Their sexual inexperience–and Deborah’s ever-growing anxiety in living in a devoutly religious world she rejects—leads to sexual dysfunction for the couple. When, after several years of religious counseling and conventional therapy, Deborah and Eli have a baby (Yitzhak, whom they call Yitzy), the young mother finds herself as detached from their son as she is from her religiously observant husband. She’s alarmed by her own lack of maternal feeling, wondering, “Could I be so damaged by my childhood experiences that I was drained of the ability to love anything? It was one thing if I couldn’t manage to love a man I was arbitrarily arranged to marry. It was a whole other thing to feel detached from my own child” (217).

She looks within and considers exploring other paths in life, which could make her feel more fulfilled. Perhaps her lack of emotion is tied to her sense of dissatisfaction. Once she takes a poetry course at Sarah Lawrence College, she discovers her talent for writing and starts flourishing in a modern environment so different from the traditional society she was raised in. Deborah then realizes that a large part of her emotional unavailability is caused by the strain of living in a traditional culture to which she feels she doesn’t belong. Yet she feels torn, since the traditional way of life that she was brought up in is all she knows. For awhile, she leads a double life, struggling to change personas, from Hasidic to modern, as often as she changes her clothes: from the traditional long skirts prescribed by her religion to the jeans she changes into when she takes classes at Sarah Lawrence College. But only one persona reflects her true identity. Just as she feels more herself in jeans, she feels more at home in mainstream American society. Eventually, after much hesitation, Deborah takes a leap of faith, leaving the Hasidic way of life to begin a new, modern life with her son. The more at ease she feels with herself, the more bonded she feels to her baby. Deborah associates contemporary society with freedom: not the freedom to engage in excess, as it is for some youths who leave the Hasidic community, but the freedom to discover her talents and identity without shame and without having to hide.

When first published, Unorthodox was highly controversial, particularly for members of the Hasidic community, many of whom felt offended. This memoir offers a very critical and intimate perspective on a fundamentalist religion that many embrace wholeheartedly and willingly. For me, the most important aspect of this book was not so much its critique of orthodoxy as its emphasis upon individual choice: the freedom to choose one’s religion and way of life as an adult and, along with that, the freedom to choose one’s identity.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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A cowardly success: The Final Solution as a reaction to German failure in war

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  PRISONERS

Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder advances an interesting and plausible hypothesis about some of the motivations behind the Final Solution. Snyder also believes that the accelerated timing of the plan to annihilate European Jews arose from Himmler’s and Heydrich’s efforts to compensate for the (partial) German failure in the war against the Soviet Union. When it became clear that the plan to conquer, starve and enslave the people of the Soviet Union was not moving as quickly as Hitler anticipated and desired, Snyder argues, “Heydrich and Himmler were able to turn the unfavorable battlefield situation to their advantage, by reformulating the Final Solution so that it could be carried out during a way that was not going according to plan. They understood that the war was becoming, as Hitler began to say in August 1941, a “war against the Jews. Himmler and Heydrich saw the elimination of the Jews as their task” (Bloodlands, 188).

When he attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Snyder elaborates, Hitler and his henchmen had in mind a dystopic plan for the East:

1) attacking and conquering quickly the Soviet Union;

2) implementing a Hunger Plan that would blockade and starve entire areas of the Soviet Union, causing the deaths of over 30 million people;

3) a Final Solution that would eliminate all Jews after the war was won, and

4) a Generalplan Ost in which native Germans would colonize the western part of the Soviet Union and enslave its people for the German economy

Competing for Hitler’s favor (and for power) with Göring, Himmler started implementing these objectives in 1941. The Hunger Plan, however, didn’t work as effectively as the Nazis had hoped. It achieved only partial success in Leningrad, parts of Belarus and the Ukraine. Overall, the conquest of the Soviet Union was taking longer than anticipated. According to Snyder, “As these utopias waned, political futures depended upon the extraction of what was feasible from the fantasies” (Bloodlands, 187). So Himmler and Heydrich, eager to prove their “courage” and resourcefulness in the face of Germany’s partial failure on the military front, engaged in an act of ultimate cowardice: He ordered the ruthless mass murder of all the Jews in the conquered territories in the Soviet Union, and soon afterward in most of Nazified Europe.

Himmler personally travelled to the Soviet Union in June 1941 to make it clear to the Waffen SS troops and to the Order Police battalions that they needed to kill not only Jewish men—all of whom he labeled as “Communist partisans”–but also Jewish women and children. Himmler and Heydrich worked closely together, engaging in a kind of division of labor of genocide. Heydrich made arrangements for the Final Solution in Berlin, while Himmler managed the administrative details to carry it out, directing the Waffen SS, the Einsatzgruppen and the Order Police under his control to mass shootings of Jewish civilians in the occupied regions of the Soviet Union. By August 1941, Snyder estimates, the Nazis had murdered over one million Jewish civilians in the Soviet Union. “The East,” Himmler pompously declared, “belongs to the SS” (Bloodlands, 189).

While Snyder’s hypothesis that the earlier implementation of the Final Solution had a lot to do with Germany’s partial failure in their conquest, colonization and destruction of the Soviet Union is exceptionally well argued and persuasive, this argument doesn’t take away from the fact that the Final Solution was a central goal for the Nazis regardless of German success or failure in war. The annihilation of the Jews would have no doubt happened had Nazi Germany won the war. Soviet Jews—along with the Jews of conquered nations throughout Europe–were trapped in an impossible situation by Nazi ideology itself, for which anti-Semitism and the annihilation of the Jews was a central priority.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The siege of Leningrad: Genocide by starvation

The Great Patriotic War. Blokade of Leningrad.

The Nazi siege of Leningrad—the historic capital of tsarist Russia, Saint Petersburg–lasted for several years: It begun on September 8, 1941 and was lifted on January 27, 1944. For Lenigraders, this encirclement constituted 872 days of sheer torture; of hovering on the brink between life and death. Hundreds of thousands didn’t make it. The blockade might as well have been called genocide through starvation because it caused the deaths of an estimated one million Russians. Marshal Zhukov, sent by Stalin to save the city, followed the dictator’s orders not to retreat. But, to the Russian’s surprise, the Germans didn’t advance much either. Hitler decided to kill the inhabitants of Leningrad in a slow, tortuous way by strangling all of their supply routes and starving a population of 2.5 million. He planned to wipe out the inhabitants, then raze Leningrad to the ground and hand over the area to his Finnish allies.

This genocide by starvation was therefore a premeditated decision–a crime against humanity–not an indirect or incidental result of a siege during war. According to historian Max Hastings, Hitler consulted Professor Ernst Zigelemeyer, in charge of the Munich Institute of Nutrition—to find out how much food (and calories) the average person requires to live. Zigelemeyer informed him that the Soviet government would not be able to provide Lenigraders with more than 8.8 grams of bread daily, which wouldn’t be sufficient for the majority to survive the siege. Hitler thus concluded: “It’s not worth risking the lives of our troops. The Leningraders will die anyway. It is essential not to let a single person through our front line. The more of them that stay there, the sooner they will die, and then we will enter the city without trouble, without losing a single German soldier” (Inferno, Vintage Books, 2012). His demonic plan almost worked.

Within months, tens of thousands of people perished from hunger and cold. Within a few weeks of the siege, the city was left without its coal and oil supplies, and thus without heat. Within a few months, the water supplies froze, resulting in much quicker deaths from thirst. The desperate population began hunting and eating birds and rats. Household pets weren’t safe either as many ate cats and dogs. Some even resorted to eating wallpaper paste, sawdust, grass cakes and even the dead. Corpses accumulated in the streets as the ground was frozen solid and people had little energy left to bury the bodies. Hastings cites Elena Skryabina, who captures with eloquence the pangs of hunger of Lenigraders in her diary: “We are approaching the greatest horror… Everyone is preoccupied with only one thought: where to get something edible so as not to starve to death. We have returned to prehistoric times. Life has been reduced to one thing—the hunt for food” (Inferno, 167).

The Soviets made some attempts at saving women and children and workers, but millions were left behind. Only the privileged few could count on escaping the horror. Once he realized that Hitler wasn’t planning a full-scale attack of the city, Stalin recalled Zhukov to Moscow. The composer Dimitri Shostakovich, who created a symphony about the plight of his native city–the Seventh Leningrad Symphony–finished the piece elsewhere.

If the Soviet army and bands of partisans hadn’t been resourceful enough to open up a small corridor to the city in mid-January 1943—which subsequently enabled them to send barges of goods during the summer and sleds on improvised ice paths during the winter—and channel some life-saving supplies to Leningrad, Hitler would no doubt have achieved his objective of starving to death the city’s entire population.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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The Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward: Reviews of Red Scarf Girl and Mao’s Great Famine

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Mao’s Communist experiments, the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-62) and the so-called “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1972) created a disaster of unprecedented proportions in China. In Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, Frank Dikotter documents that between 30-32 million people starved to death as a result of the Great Leap Forward. (New York: Walker and Company, 2011)

In an ill-hatched attempt to catch up quickly with the economy of the Soviet Union and the West in industrial production (particularly in the manufacture of steel), Mao Zedong launched China into a series of agricultural experiments with no basis in science that devastated the country. He mandated forced collectivization of private farms. At the same time, he encouraged the peasants to plant significantly less, allowing about a third of the farms to remain uncultivated. Despite the imposition of internal passports branding Chinese citizens as “farmers” or “city dwellers,” millions of peasants migrated to the cities, hoping to escape working for the Communist farm collectives and their often abusive and corrupt officials.

These disastrous measures, Dikotter elaborates, were compounded by the fact the grains were poorly stored and often diluted with water, to increase their weight and give the appearance of meeting the quotas. Out of a severely diminished agricultural supply, tons of grains rotted, were infested by vermin or caught on fire as a result of poor storage. To give the impression of prosperity, Mao earmarked for export most of China’s meager agricultural production. Domestically, the only stores that were well-stocked–the so-called “Friendship Stores”–were reserved for government officials and foreign visitors. Tens of millions of Chinese people suffered as a result of being deprived of adequate food, clothes and consumer goods.

The situation became so dire, Dikotter documents, that some desperate individuals sold their children to have fewer mouths to feed. Others went so far as to eat corpses or even kill the living to survive a few more weeks, or days. Some became so unscrupulous that they disinterred the corpses of family members or neighbors and used them as fertilizer: “Inside the house were four large cauldrons in which corpses were being simmered into fertilizer, the extract to be evenly distributed over the fields” (173).

Obsessed with silencing any opposition, however feeble and adulatory, Mao penalized any individual who reported even glimmers of the truth about the massive disaster consuming his country. Dikotter makes it clear that Mao became aware of the truth, but couldn’t accept any critique, much less the massive failure of his grand designs for setting China on an industrial fast track:

“Mao received numerous reports about hunger, disease and abuse from every corner of the country, whether personal letters mailed by courageous individuals, unsolicited complaints from local cadres or investigations undertaken on his behalf by security personnel or private secretaries” (69).

When the extent of destruction could no longer be hidden from view even by the heaviest oppression and propaganda, Mao, much like Stalin had before him, deflected any responsibility for the program’s failure on his underlings and colleagues. (84) At the same time, he purged from the government precisely the officials who had been critical of the Great Leap Forward and warned him about its disastrous effects. Only once the famine had already claimed tens of millions of victims, in November 1960, did Mao finally begin to reverse the fatal course of forced collectivization by restoring some local markets and allowing the starving peasants to cultivate some private plots. It took two more years for the country to emerge from the crisis.

While Dikotter’s book paints the big picture of the Maoist disaster, Ji-li Jiang’s memoir, Red Scarf Girl, (New York, HarperCollins, 2004), gives readers a glimpse of the same period through a personalized optic. A good student living in a normal, loving family, Ji-li Jiang’s life turns upside down with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Most of the values she had been previously taught become subverted by the new Communist indoctrination sessions: the value of education; respect for parents, grandparents and teachers; even feelings of loyalty and friendship. Private ownership, academic achievement, family love become discarded values: “Four Olds,” a highly pejorative term indicating something outdated, anti-Communist and old-fashioned, according to the Orwellian “Newspeak”.

Not surprisingly, the most mendacious and power-hungry students thrive in the new system, victimizing and bullying the rest. Jiang’s father, whose Communist dossier is suspect because he’s the son of a landlord, is sent to slave labor in the fields. Her mother falls victim to harrowing interrogation sessions, where she’s asked to turn against husband. With tremendous courage, she refuses. Her grandmother is humiliated by being forced to sweep the streets. Setting children against parents and grandparents, the Communist officials pressure the young girl to denounce her family.

Wavering between feelings of compassion for her downtrodden family members and a sense of shame for being associated with them, at one point Jiang decides to change her name. But she’s not ready to abandon her loved ones, as the Communist official suggests. For her, loyalty and empathy prove stronger than the ideological indoctrination. Long before her family immigrates to the United States, this important choice signifies Ji-li Jiang’s first step towards freedom.

 

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici Holocaust Memory, Communist China, Frank Dikotter Mao's Great Famine, Holocaust Memory, Ji-li Jiang Red Scarf Girl, Mao, the Cultural Revolution, The Great Leap Forward