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The gas chambers: Filip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz

EyewitnessAuschwitztabletmag

Philip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1979) is one of the most disturbing and valuable books about the Holocaust I’ve read. This testimony offers in gruesome detail an eyewitness account of what actually happened in the gas chambers: from the moment hundreds of thousands of Auschwitz prisoners arrived hungry, thirsty and terrified on cattle trains; to the separation of families and the selection process; to the brutal beatings and threats by SS officers; to the lies intended to induce prisoners to think that they were about to be “disinfected” in public showers rather than killed; to the sadistic torture of some; to the gassing of the terrified victims and the desecration and pillaging of corpses, and finally to their cremation by fellow prisoners condemned to the Sonderkommandos: prisoners like Filip Muller.

The members of Sonderkommando, composed almost entirely of Jewish inmates, were forced under threat of death to do the most disturbing work for the SS: dispose of the countless corpses of the victims killed in the gas chambers. They did not themselves commit the murders. That task was left to the SS soldiers, who often did their job zealously. Mass murder was daily business at Auschwitz, but it was also “top secret”.

Although information had leaked about the mass gassing of prisoners, the Nazis tried to cover up their massacres. They kept the members of the Sonderkommando isolated from other prisoners, to reduce the chances of reports about the mass gassing of prisoners with Zyklon B reaching other Auschwitz inmates and the outside world. Usually, after having removed and incinerated the bodies of the victims, the members of the Sonderkommando were themselves killed in the gas chambers, so that there would be no prisoner eyewitnesses to the Nazi atrocities.

The author, Filip Muller, is one of the rare survivors among those condemned to work in the Sonderkommando. Born in 1922 in a small town (Sered) in Slovakia, Muller was only twenty years old when he was brought to Auschwitz in April 1942. After a short while, as punishment, he was assigned to dispose of the corpses of the victims. Many of them had wasted away to skin and bones in Auschwitz or in Polish ghettos; others had died of typhus and other diseases in the concentration camp; some had been brutally beaten and shot by the SS, others were hung to set an example for other prisoners, but by far most—hundreds of thousands of men, women, children and babies–were collectively massacred in the gas chambers. As Muller recalls, the sadism and brutality of the SS soldiers knew no bounds: “Shouting and wielding their truncheons, like beaters at a hunt, the remaining SS men chased the naked men, women and children into the large room inside the crematorium. All that was left in the yard were the pathetic heaps of clothing which we had to gather together to clear the yard for the second half of the transport” (33).

Although vicious and violent, the SS officers would sometimes pretend courtesy towards incoming Jewish inmates to persuade the victims to cooperate and expedite the extermination process. The Nazis adapted their behavior to the circumstances. In some cases, when the prisoners already knew they were doomed to death—as was the case with many of the groups arriving from nearby ghettos in Poland—the SS soldiers would beat them into submission in order to force them into the gas chambers. At other times, when prisoners arriving from far away locations falsely believed that they would live, the SS would set up an elaborate ruse to cultivate false hopes. They even went so far as to place hooks with numbers inside the gas chambers, to suggest that the prisoners would retrieve their clothes after the “showers” and be sent off elsewhere to work.

This was the case, for instance, with the “Family Camp”, made up of prisoners from Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. They were the only Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz who were allowed to wear civilian clothes, whose hair was not shaved off and who, as the name of their group suggests, were not separated from their family members. The Family Camp was subject to less abuse not out of any Nazi kindness, of course, but to provide to the outside world a false model of what life in Auschwitz was like for Jewish inmates. Although Muller and other prisoners from the Sondercommando tried to warn some of the leaders of the Family Camp that they’d be soon exterminated and encouraged them to rebel, by the time the victims believed these dire warnings it was too late. In the end, every last man, woman and child from the group was gassed by the SS, many of them after having been beaten by soldiers or bitten by dogs to the point of disfiguration: “The people,” Muller recounts, “crowded together on one side of the room, were shaking with terror. Almost all of them were now sobbing: their weeping sounded like a heart-breaking dirge. Most of them were badly hurt from truncheon blows as well as from the sharp teeth of the dogs” (109).

Muller heard countless times the heart wrenching attempts of the doomed prisoners to escape, once the SS officers pushed them into the gas chambers, bolted shut the door and dropped in from above the canisters of poison gas: “The prelude to death was repeated with equal brutality and with the same ending. Finally there were about 600 desperate people crammed into the crematorium. A few SS men were leaving the building and the last one locked the entrance door from the outside. Before long the increasing sound of coughing, screaming and shouting for help could be heard from behind the door. I was unable to make out individual words, for the shouts were drowned by knocking and banging against the door, intermingled with sobbing and crying. Only now and then there was a moan, a rattle, or the sound of muffled knocking against the door. But soon even that ceased and in the sudden silence each of us felt the horror of this terrible mass death” (33-34).

The horrific spectacle of death, repeated several times a week, and at times several times a day—particularly during the deportation of almost 440,000 Jews from Hungary in the spring and summer of 1944–did not destroy Muller’s humanity. It only strengthened his resolve to survive the Nazi nightmare in order to provide testimony about this unprecedented genocide, which the Nazis tried to erase from history and which some so-called “revisionist historians” continue to deny today.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

 

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The Book Thief: Holocaust Literature as Best Seller

Thebookthiefcover

The Book Thief (New York: Albert A. Knopf, 2007), a novel by Australian writer Markus Zusak, accomplished a rare feat for Holocaust literature: the novel won numerous literary awards and became a long-standing international best seller, including being on the New York Times best seller list for a record of 230 weeks. What’s even more surprising about the novel’s success is not only its somber theme, but also the fact it’s a work of literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction), a style of writing that rarely becomes a mainstream hit. Although the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is not cut-and-dry—for instance, Elizabeth Kostova’s novel, The Historian, fits both genres–I’d say that genre fiction places emphasis upon a fast-moving, interesting plot, while literary fiction privileges psychologically nuanced characterizations and a unique narrative style.  Death characterized the Holocaust, and Death is the real narrator of the novel, which begins with the heroine’s end: Liesel Meminger’s death, many years after WWII, after she’s lived a full life and had children and grandchildren of her own. As Death carries the elderly woman’s soul to the other side, it also takes and narrates her childhood diary.

In the late 1930’s and early 40’s, Liesel is a young adopted girl living in Germany. She has her first encounter with Death when her brother, Werner Meminger, who is also given up for adoption along with her, dies on the train to Molching. He’s buried by the railway station. That day, Liesel’s obsession with books—and death–begins. She picks up The Grave Digger’s Handbook, a book dropped by the funeral director at her brother’s funeral. Shortly thereafter, the distraught girl joins what might be seen as a typical German family, with whom she bonds quickly. Liesel’s adoptive father, Hans Hubermann, is a loyal German, who served during WWI, but is not sympathetic to the Nazi regime. Despite his reservations, Hans is enlisted in the German army during WWII. Artistic and sensitive—a painter and accordion player–Hans probably characterizes the attitude of a vast majority of Germans who were not anti-Semitic yet were forced to participate in the Nazi regime. His wife, Rosa, is a no-nonsense woman with a sharp tongue and a loving heart. She washes people’s clothes to supplement their income but gradually, one by one, her customers fire her.

Liesel also meets Max Vandenburg, a Jew hidden by the Hubermann family from the Nazis, whose father fought during WWI alongside Hans Hubermann. Liesel befriends him. When Hans becomes ill, she reads to him. He eventually recovers, in part, the novel suggests, because of the power of friendship transmitted through the act of reading. Liesel and her family have a close call with the Gestapo, as soldiers search their house to see if they can use their basement as a shelter. Fortunately, they deem it too shallow and they leave.
In all respects, Liesel blends in with her adoptive family. Their hardships and struggles become hers as well. She becomes especially close friends with Rudy Steiner, a blond “Aryan” boy a few months older than her, who develops a crush on her. Although the girl refuses to kiss him, together they embark on many adventures, which bond them to one another. Together, they become book thieves when the Mayor and his wife also fire Rosa. Their love of books and of the forbidden, representing a kind of protest against the Nazi regime and against injustice in life in general, binds the two children even more. e murders perpetrated by the Nazis, but it is not sympathetic to them. Rather, Zusak depicts Death as a kind of Humanist, philosophical character: humane and disapproving of senseless violence, hatred and destruction. In parts, Death touches upon the comic and the absurd, needing “a vacation” from its job during the war.
I think the strength of this novel lies in its complex characterizations: the German characters in particular are nuanced and multifaceted, not stereotyped in any way. They too struggle with the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime and try to help victims, as much as they can. In the end, however, they too become victims of Hitler’s war, as Rosa, Hans and Rudy all die when the Hubermann house is bombed. Rudy doesn’t even get to experience Liesel’s first kiss, dying seconds before she finally declares her love for him and kisses him. Only Liesel survives and gets the chance to have a full life.
If I were to identify any weakness in the novel it would be in the narrative style. Since style functions as a kind of author’s unique fingerprint in literary fiction, it’s largely dependent upon each reader’s subjective taste. The choppy, short sentences and disjointed, subjective structure of the novel weren’t to my personal taste, particularly since I usually look for a dense, sweeping and well-informed description of lived history in Holocaust literature. This novel, however, is impressionistic in both style and structure. But these stylistic features also made The Book Thief popular with readers of all ages, particularly with young readers, who could identify with the characters and appreciate its accessible form. Due to its literary success, The Book Thief was recently made into a movie directed by Brian Percival, released in November 2013. The movie, however, unlike the book, received mixed reviews.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Remembering the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Ivy by Gansforever Osman

Ivy by Gansforever Osman

I learned about the Holocaust from my family, from school and from history books. The Holocaust was so horrific that we hoped humanity as a whole had learned something from history and would never commit such atrocities again. Yet I watched with my own eyes, on TV, as it happened again and again, only on a smaller scale: which, of course, didn’t take away from the suffering of the victims. It was the early 1990’s. Between 1992 and 1995, I followed with horror the news reports about the atrocities committed by Serbian soldiers upon ethnic Bosnians in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the span of a few short years, Bosnian Serb forces backed by the Serbian Yugoslav Army attacked Bosnian Muslims. They raped and tortured countless women and girls. They forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes. This campaign of “ethnic cleansing” led to the deaths of 100,000 Bosnians. At the time, it was the worst genocide since the one perpetrated by the Nazis during WWII.

Surprisingly, these atrocities happened during an era in which Europe was filled with hope. By the early 1990’s, we had recently celebrated the anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe and the end of the somber Cold War. There was an atmosphere of renewed hope—and faith in democracy–throughout Europe, but particularly in the former communist countries. Yet with the death of totalitarian leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980, and the end of the communist rule, the former Yugoslavia disintegrated into tension. It became a place of ethnic struggles and hatred rather than one of burgeoning democracy.

By 1991, the population of Bosnia included about 40 percent Bosnians, 30 percent Serbs and 20 percent Croatians. Tensions built between the ethnic Bosnians and the ethnic Serbs in the region. Under leadership of Radovan Karadzic, the Serbs in Bosnia created their own entity, the Serbian National Assembly. The problems began when the Bosnian Serbs sought to incorporate–by force–Bosnia into a Greater Serbia. Bosnia declared its independence. The U.S. and the European Community recognized Bosnia’s independence in May 1992: a well-intentioned diplomatic move that proved to have disastrous political consequences.

Soon afterwards, Bosnian Serb forces led by the ruthless nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic attacked Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital. This beautiful town, which many of us remember as the picturesque place of the 1984 winter Olympics, became in 1992 a place of death: murder, rape and “ethnic cleansing,” or the forcible expulsion of ethnic Bosnians by Serbian forces.

Although officially the policy of “ethnic cleansing” may not have the same goals as genocide—the physical eradication of a people—it often employs the same inhumane and destructive methods: rape, torture, even murder. Unfortunately, the U.N. refused to intervene and restore peace. This emboldened the Serbian nationalists and worsened the crisis in the region. In 1995, Bosnian Serbs attacked Srebrenica, a Bosnian town, and began a bloody campaign of “ethnic cleansing”. Serbian soldiers separated men from women and girls. They often shot the men in the forest while beating and raping the women and girls. About 8000 Bosnian men were massacred and about 30,000 civilians were expulsed from their homes.

I will never forget one particular incident from the massacre in Srebrenica that was covered on the news in the U.S. What troubled me most was a true story about a Serbian soldier who apparently “saved” a Bosnian girl from gang rape by fellow Serbs. He removed her from the dangerous situation, fed her, protected her and talked to her reassuringly and tenderly for several days. Once he secured her trust, gratitude and devotion, he raped and killed her himself. Afterwards, he boasted about his exploits in English, on an interview on the international news. This degree of psychological sadism exceeds even that of the brutes who raped and killed women without initially faking niceness and caring. What he did to her was more insidious, duplicitous and perverse.

Unfortunately, his action was not an isolated incident. This widespread cruelty was made possible by the cruelty of soldiers pushed to an extreme by misplaced nationalist feelings. It was made possible by a national policy led by unscrupulous leaders that encouraged one ethnic group to view another as, somehow, less than human. And it was also made possible, indirectly, by the U.N.’s lack of intervention until it was too late for tens of thousands of innocent civilians.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

 

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The Holocaust in more personal terms

 

photo by Magdalena Berny

photo by Magdalena Berny

For every book I write, be it fiction or nonfiction, there is a personal motivation as well as what I’d call a more “universal” element. I have to feel a strong personal connection to the subject of the book, since, after all, I’ll be studying that subject and writing about it for several years. At the same time, I have to believe that it’s a subject that has some historical weight to it, so that it can interest others as well. This was the dual motivation behind writing my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 2009), translated into Romanian as Intre Doua Lumi (Editura Curtea Veche, 2011). This novel draws upon, in part, my family’s story. But it represents, above all, a slice of life about communist Romania during the dismal last years of the Ceausescu regime.

Right now, I’m working on two books about the Holocaust. The first one, called Holocaust Memory, will be a collection of book reviews of some of the most significant and resonant memoirs, histories and novels about the Holocaust that I can find written (or translated) in English. The subject, I believe, is universal. Although the history of the Holocaust concerns most the Jewish people, this topic is also about social psychology, WWII, and the history of Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan and the U.S. during one of the most trying moments of our collective past. As usual, however, there is also a personal component to my interest in this topic: I’m still haunted by some of the stories my Jewish grandparents told me about the Holocaust when I was a child.

In a fragment of Velvet Totalitarianism which I’d like to share with you below, I pieced together some of the life stories culled, here and there, from conversations with my Jewish grandparents about their experiences during WWII. This is by no means a history of the Holocaust in Romania. It offers a tiny kaleidoscope of family stories filtered by memory which, I hoped as I was writing my novel about communism years ago, I would one day have the know-how and the courage to explore in greater depth.

 

Chapter 10

[…]

“Grandma, what’s a pogrom?” Irina asked.

“You’re too young to learn about these terrible things,” Grandma Sara replied.

“Please tell me. I’ll do my best to understand,” the girl pleaded.

“I know you will. But these are adult subjects. They’re too sad for kids.”

“I’m not a kid any more. I’m already eleven!” Irina objected.

“You’re not a little kid, but you’re still a kid,” the grandmother stroked Irina’s hair.

“But, Grandma, since this happened to our own family…I have the right to know,” Irina insisted with the stubbornness of a child.

Grandma Sara gave in and told Irina, as far as she could recall, an abbreviated version of her family history. “What do you want me to say? We went from a rock to a hard place, as they say. My family’s originally from the Ukraine, a country next to Romania that was part of the Russian empire. Ironically, the reason we came to Romania is because we were running away from the pogroms there.”

“You still haven’t told me what that word means,” Irina reminded her.

“That’s what I’m about to explain,” the grandmother answered. “Long ago, Jews weren’t allowed in Russia itself; they had to live only in this area called the Pale of Settlement, which was part in Poland, part in the Ukraine. Like I said, our family lived in the Ukrainian part. And from time to time, when the tsar or hordes from neighboring villages were looking for someone to blame for their problems, they attacked Jewish villages, stole property, and killed tens of thousands of innocent people.”

“Even children?” Irina wanted to know.

“Yes. Women and children also.”

“But how can people be so mean?” Irina’s pupils expanded.

“The more downtrodden you are, the more you’re mistreated,” was all Grandma Sara could say.

By reading histories of the Holocaust, Irina later learned the details that her grandmother wouldn’t tell her, or didn’t know, or perhaps wanted to forget. Some Jews were shot in mass, but most lost their lives in “death trains” and concentration camps in Transnistria. Thousands of human beings were packed together like cattle in closed, windowless train compartments. Left for days on end without fresh air, water, food or latrines, they died of suffocation, dehydration or illnesses as the train wondered aimlessly around the countryside. Well, not aimlessly. Because by the end of its journey, the objective had been reached. All of its passengers were dead.

“Your grandfather was one of them,” Grandma Sara once told her.

“How did he manage to escape?” Irina asked with a shudder.

Her grandmother shook her head, as if the answer was beyond her grasp: some kind of miracle. “With God’s help, somehow, he jumped from the moving train. He still limps to this day. But at least he’s alive.”

Eventually, many Romanian Jews found their way to what later became the state of Israel, including all of her grandparents’ surviving siblings. In fact, Irina found out from her grandmother, her grandparents were the only ones who didn’t leave the country.

“Why did you and Zeida decide to stay behind?” Irina wondered. “Why didn’t you move to Israel like the rest of the family?”

Her grandmother shrugged: “Romania’s the only place we know. We were born here and so were our parents. This is our country, the only place we called home.”

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Plans for a second Holocaust? Stalin’s “Doctors’ Plot”

Stalin'slastcrime

Most people know about Hitler’s virulent attack on the Jewish people, culminating in the atrocities of the Holocaust. Fewer know, however, that Stalin himself was planning a widespread attack on the Jews between the years 1948-1953. Compared to Hitler, up until the end of his life, Stalin was an “equal opportunity” killer. He masterminded the imprisonment, torture, show trials and death of his (real or potential) political adversaries and critics, as well as of countless individuals whom he suspected of independence of thought. Prominent officials and unknown functionaries; wealthier farmers (kulaks) and the poor and the hungry in the Ukraine and other areas of the Soviet Union; Christian religious leaders and Communist atheists: everyone suffered under Stalin’s reign of terror. Even the leaders of the secret police forces (NKVD), including Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov, were eventually purged. However, unlike Hitler and the Nazi regime, up until the end of his life, Stalin didn’t target the Jews for being Jewish.

In fact, Jews featured prominently—though they were by no means a majority, as Hitler would claim–in the communist leadership. Granted, when he planned to forge a Soviet-Nazi alliance, Stalin dismissed Maxim Litvinov, the Jewish Foreign Minister. He replaced him with Vyacheslav Molotov, the principal signatory of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. Later, in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin manifested an uncharacteristic optimism and trust in the strength of his alliance with Hitler. The Soviet leader didn’t react promptly to the news of war. For a few days he isolated himself in shock and even forbade his generals from making preemptive strikes against the German forces gathered at the Soviet borders. Having been deprived of information about the Nazi campaigns against the Jewish people all over Europe, about 4 million Soviet Jews were left vulnerable, on the path of the Nazi attack. Although many of them were able to escape before the Germans invaded their region, a large number of those living in the Western parts of the Soviet Union were trapped by the rapid German advance.

Raul Hilberg documents that Stalin’s decision not to evacuate promptly civilians from the areas invaded by Germany were prompted by two main considerations: “One was the prevention of a hasty flight of people. Their production was needed until the very last moment… The second guideline was applied in cities whose fall was imminent. In these situations, priority for evacuation was usually given to skilled workers, managers, party functionaries, civil servants, students, intellectuals, and various professionals… But there is little evidence of any Soviet attempts to evacuate Jews as such” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 250-251). The refusal to evacuate civilians as quickly and efficiently as possible affected Jews more than other groups, since they were in the greatest danger of extermination by the Nazis. But at this point Stalin’s strategy was not directly aimed at the Jews. They fell victim to his general policy, which affected everyone in Soviet areas occupied by the Germans.

All this changed between the years 1948-1953, when Stalin began mounting a specifically anti-Semitic campaign in the Soviet Union that, some claim, could have led to a second Holocaust. While it’s not clear how far the Soviet leader would have gone with his plans, what is clear is that like Hitler, Stalin began targeting Jews as Jews for discrimination and abuse. There’s also strong evidence that he was planning another massive purge.

As usual, Stalin offered a pretext: the death in 1948 of a prominent Soviet official, Andrei Zhdanov, much as Sergey Kirov’s assassination in 1934 offered Stalin the pretext to launch the “Great Terror” purges of 1937-38. From 1946-7, Zhdanov was Chairman of the Soviet Union. He organized the Cominform, which set the official policy for Communist parties throughout Europe. In his role as Chairman, Zhdanov also set the tone for cultural production in the Soviet Union. He is infamous for his censorship of writers and artists, including the famous poet Anna Akhmatova.

Years later, between 1952 and 1953, Stalin used Zhdanov’s death as a pretext to accuse several prominent doctors, six out of nine of which were Jewish, of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders. He cast doubt upon Zhdanov’s cause of death, suggesting a Jewish conspiracy. Aside from turning on the doctors themselves, including his personal physician, A. N. Vinogradov, Stalin also targeted Jewish intellectuals, whom, according to Alan Bullock, the Soviet press labeled “Zionist agents of American imperialism.” (See Hitler and Stalin, 951-952) Lydia Timashuk, a sycophant and political instigator, “discovered” the Doctors’ plot. She even received the Order of Lenin for her false denunciations. Stalin took over the case, ordering that Vinogradov be imprisoned and the other doctors tortured. The media called Jews the “enemies within” and the anti-Semitic campaign and initial arrests were followed by more “spontaneous” pogroms in the Ukraine.

The question remains why Stalin chose to target the Jews in his plans for new purges. Aside from his all-pervasive sense of paranoia, which led him to suspect treachery and sabotage even from his closest friends and allies, there are several reasons for Stalin’s anti-Semitic turn. Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov, authors of Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953 (New York: HarperCollins eBooks, 2010), argue that in the early 1950’s Stalin was planning an even greater purge the one he launched during the Great Terror (1937-38). They maintain that Stalin was motivated by three principal considerations: 1. The need to reestablish the reigns of power through terror and purge the Ministry of Security; 2. The threat he saw in the establishment of the state of Israel and the spread of Jewish Zionism in the Soviet, and 3) the growing tension with the United States after the end of their alliance in WWII. Although the Soviet Union had recognized the state of Israel early on, Stalin perceived the U.S.-Israeli alliance as a threat to the Soviet Union.

Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The Soviet Union had the largest remaining Jewish population: according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, about two million Jews. During the war, Hitler and Stalin became archenemies. Ironically, had Stalin lived to carry out the planned purges, he might have accomplished Hitler’s dream.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon 

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Isaac Babel, the Great Terror and The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland

 

Isaac Babel

Isaac Babel

“I have only one request: that I be allowed to complete my last work…” Isaac Babel

The Stalinist purges assumed monstrous proportions with an opportunity: Sergei Kirov’s assassination. Eugenia Ginsburg begins her memoir about her arrest in 1937 and experience in labor camps, Journey into the Whirlwind (Mariner Books, 2002), by stating as much: “That year, 1937, really began on December 1, 1934,” the day when Kirov, the head of the Communist party organization in Leningrad, was murdered. This assassination, which some suspect was facilitated by the NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), provided Stalin with the perfect pretext to launch “the Great Terror”. The Soviet leader started a witch hunt for traitors, Trotskyist conspirators, saboteurs, and “enemies of the people” that would culminate in the spectacular show trials, incarceration, torture, enslavement in labor camps and often death of leading cultural, military and political figures. Like Ginsburg herself, the notable short story writer Isaac Babel also fell prey to Stalin’s purges of the intelligentsia. Best known for his collections of short stories Red Cavalry and Tales of Odessa, Babel is considered to be one of the best Jewish Russian authors. Although he knew both Yiddish and Hebrew, Babel most admired the nineteenth-century French classics: particularly Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Flaubert’s works. He was arrested in May of 1939, tortured, then shot on the standard made-up charge of being a Trotskyite terrorist and spy, in January 1940.

Isaac Babel was well known both for his fiction and for his adventurous romantic life. In the 1930’s he made the mistake of becoming romantically involved with Nikolai Yezhov’s second wife, Yevgenia Feigenberg. She was a sensual and promiscuous woman notorious for her intrigues that ran a popular literary salon in Russia. Babel would pay for his transgression, as well as for his lack of enthusiasm for the communist regime, with his life. Yezhov himself, the head of NKVD from 1936-1938, was dubbed the “bloody dwarf”. Under his leadership of the secret police, Stalin began the Great Terror, staging show trials that relied upon forced confessions and purging millions of people from all strata of society. Leading cultural figures, particularly those known for independence of mind, were favorite targets of the regime. Having a liaison with Yezhov’s wife, however, put Babel in a particularly vulnerable position. The NKVD began closely monitoring the famous writer right up to his arrest on May 15, 1939, by which time Lavrenty Beria, Yezhov’s equally bloodthirsty successor, had taken over the secret police.
In a last, desperate note to Beria, Babel famously wrote: “I have only one request: that I be allowed to complete my last work…”

Archivist'sStory

It was not only Babel’s life that was threatened with extinction, but also his writing, which would be burned without a trace by the NKVD. The contemporary American writer Travis Holland masterfully captures Isaac Babel’s last days in prison in his critically acclaimed novel, The Archivist’s Story. This novel offers a window into the Great Terror. Without scenes of graphic violence, only through strong characterizations and vivid descriptions, The Archivist’s Story reveals the palpable fear and great strain weighing upon all human relationships during the Stalinist purges. Even the most intimate bonds–between mother and son or among friends and lovers–are threatened by suspicion, fear and forced denunciations. Incredibly, and to his credit, Holland is able to humanize even the employees of the NKVD. He reveals some of them not as Stalin’s heartless marionettes, but as complex human beings, with their own inner struggles and family bonds. Prisoners and prison guards, writers threatened with not only death but also extinction and archivists in charge of destroying their works, are all entrapped in the same totalitarian system where nobody is safe or free.

The novel follows the life of Pavel Dubrov, a former teacher in the prestigious Kirov Institute who was demoted to the position of Lubyanka prison archivist following a political scandal.  His new job is to classify and destroy “deviationist” literature. Risking his own safety, Pavel attempts to save some of Isaac Babel’s short stories from being obliterated by the NKVD. In a sense, the protagonist has little to lose. Although young, he’s already lost much of what made life meaningful. His beloved wife, Elena, died in a suspicious train accident. His best friend, Semyon Borisovich Sorokin, was demoted and wanted by the NKVD for criticizing a popular Soviet professor, a puppet of the regime.  His mother, to whom Pavel used to be very close, is diagnosed with a brain tumor and suffers, increasingly, from blackouts. He, himself, languishes in a position antithetical to his former profession and principles. As Pavel’s world crumbles around him, he continues to fight the regime in the only way he can. He tries to help those around him threatened with imprisonment to escape to safety and attempts to save some of Babel’s fiction as a record of literary value; as pages of living history.

Before the NKVD has the chance to arrest him, Pavel manages to stow away a few valuable things in the wall, hidden behind a brick: Babel’s short stories and an anonymous postcard from his mother telling him that she loves him. “If he can save Babel’s story, save some remnant of his work, perhaps he can redeem himself, if there is anything in him left to redeem. Perhaps it is not too late” (The Archivist’s Story, Bantam Bell Publishing Group, 2007, 159).  Although, like millions of others taken away by the NKVD during the Great Terror, Pavel has little chance of survival, he manages to salvage what matters to him most: his own humanity.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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An Unlikely Hero: On Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's List

Slavery is perhaps the most debasing system in human civilization. It degrades human beings to the status of property. Slaves are bought and sold like objects. They are forced to work for free or for flimsy compensation, often in grueling and inhumane conditions. Sometimes they are raped and beaten by their owners. Slaves are deprived of all human rights and of their dignity. With the exception of the Holocaust, I don’t know of any other period in human history when slavery was desired by the slaves themselves and when forced labor became a saving grace for the victims. In such a dark epoch, when everything conspired to wipe the Jewish people of the face of the Earth, enslaving over a thousand of them in an enamel factory became an act of courage and heroism.

As incredible as this topsy-turvy perspective may seem to contemporary readers, this is the story of Thomas Keneally’s great historical novel, Schindler’s List. The novel is based upon the eyewitness accounts of several of the Jewish survivors saved by the German industrialist Oskar Schindler. It is a biographical fiction in the strict sense of the term. In fact, Keneally states, “most exchanges and conversations, and all events, are based on the detailed recollections of the Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jews), of Schindler himself, and of other witnesses to Oskar’s acts of outrageous rescue”. (New York: Touchstone, Schindler’s List, 1982, Author’s Note, 10)

Oskar Schindler is, by the author’s own account, an unlikely hero. As Keneally acknowledges in the Prologue, Oskar Schindler “was not a virtuous man in the customary sense of the term”. (Schindler’s List, 14) We tend to think of heroes as virtuous individuals: people with extraordinary character and moral fortitude. Yet Oskar Schindler was an average man, with ordinary human foibles. He was a sensualist and an honest womanizer: if that’s not a contradiction in terms. He openly cheated on his virtuous wife, Emilie, with both long-term mistresses and countless casual lovers. He loved carousing with his friends, business partners, acquaintances and escorts. Worse yet, he was a member of the Nazi party, initially joining its ranks out of genuine political conviction, of his own free will.

Though quickly disillusioned by the Nazis, Schindler nonetheless hopes to profit financially from the new regime. An ethnic German from the Sudetenland, he moves to Krakow Poland to set up an enamelware factory that will employ the slave labor of local Jews. The large Jewish community in Krakow was isolated from the rest of the population by the Nazis in a ghetto, which was formally established in March 1941 in the Podgorze district. Schindler witnesses the incredible cruelty manifested by the SS towards the 15,000 helpless Jewish civilians as well as the random acts of violence of his sociopathic country mate, Amos Goeth, who regards the captive Jews as his personal property and prey.

This biographical novel presents a slice of history and a study of contrasts: between times of normalcy and the mass insanity of the Nazi era; between the humane  actions of Oskar Schindler and the savage inhumanity of Amon Goeth. Without the dark figure of Goeth, it would be more difficult to appreciate Schindler’s heroism and humanity.

Amos Goeth, the SS Second Lieutenant in charge of liquidating the Krakow ghetto and of overseeing the Plaszow concentration and labor camp, is a malicious sadist. He savagely beats his Jewish servant, Helen Hirsch, and kills Jewish inmates, randomly, just for sport. As the narrator states, “No one knew Amon’s precise reason for settling on that prisoner—Amon certainly did not have to document his motives. With one blast from the doorstep, the man was plucked from the group of pushing and pulling captives and hurled sideways in the road” (192).

By way of contrast to Goeth’s predatory cat and mouse games, Schindler exhibits compassion, courage and character. He uses all his connections, resourcefulness and wealth to save as many Jews as possible during the Holocaust.  Threatened by the advance of the Russian army on the Eastern front, the Nazis dismantle the Plaszow labor and concentration camp. When he finds out about their plans to send most of the prisoners to their deaths in Auschwitz, Schindler promises those who worked for him that he would save them. He sets up a small munitions factory in his hometown of Brinnlitz, Czechoslovakia, where he eventually manages to bring over 1500 Jews.  In these horrific times, slavery becomes the Jews’ only salvation. “Oskar’s list, in the mind of some, was already more than a mere fabulation. It was a List. It was a sweet chariot which might swing low” (277).

The Nazi regimes brought out the worst in many people throughout Germany and occupied Europe: at best, a cruel indifference to the enslavement and massacre of Jews; at worst, various degrees of collusion with the local Nazi administrations. Yet these evil times also brought out the best in some, like Oskar Schindler. His acts of courage and resourcefulness have inspired the blockbuster movie, Schindler’s List (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg. Perhaps this is why we still know of Oskar Schindler to this day. But the greatest homage to this ordinary man who did his best to protect fellow human beings from the Nazi savagery remains that he will be forever remembered and honored by generations of Jews as an extraordinary hero.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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