Category Archives: Nazi Germany

Decoding Nazi Germany’s Enigma Code: Review of “The Imitation Game”

The-Imitation-Game.liveforfilms.com

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

Decoding Nazi Germany’s encrypting machine, Enigma, was no easy task. Invented by the German engineer Arthur Scherbius at the end of WWI, Enigma machines were used by the Nazis during WWII to exchange (encode and decipher) secret messages pertaining to national security and strategy of war. Three Polish cryptologists who worked for Polish military intelligence—Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski—were the first to begin deciphering Enigma messages, using theoretical mathematics and information given by French military intelligence.

 

During the war, the Allies captured an actual Enigma machine, enabling them to study its hardware and make further progress in figuring out how it worked.  Two compatible Enigma machines would have to work together, the first one encoding a secret message, the second decoding it. An operator would type in a message in German. The Enigma machine would automatically convert each letter into a different letter of the alphabet, through a process of random substitution. The encrypted text would be sent to another operator whose deciphering machine was similar and compatible with the first operator’s machine: only in this case the second Enigma machine would convert the random letters into plain German.

 

A new movie, The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, focuses on the life of British mathematician and cryptologist Alan Turing, who is credited for helping decode the Nazi Enigma machines. Loosely based on Andrew Hodges biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma (Princeton University Press, 2014), this movie succeeds as a character study as well as a very interesting historical thriller. Turing faces barriers not only from the Navy Commander Denniston, but also from his colleagues, who initially resent the fact he’s entirely focused on building a machine at the expense of their collective work. Portrayed as slightly autistic, without friends lacking a sense of humor, Turing ends up being a fascinating character nonetheless. In fact, his flaws make him seem all the more unique. He goes against the grain to invent the machine capable of solving the puzzles that hundreds of brilliant minds working in the field cannot. Turing’s more sensitive side evolves in his friendship with his colleague Joan Clark (marvelously played by Keira Knightly), whom he asks to marry him in the spring of 1941. Although she accepts despite the fact Turing confesses to her his homosexuality, soon thereafter he changes his mind and breaks up with her in a dramatic scene.

 

Turing’s homosexuality becomes as central to the plot of the movie as his creation of the machine that breaks the Enigma codes. A few years after the war, in 1952, Turing, by then 39 years old, has a sexual and romantic relationship with a homeless young man named Arnold Murray. When one of Murray’s acquaintances burglarizes his house, Turing calls the police. During the investigation, the detectives called to the scene discover that Turing is homosexual, a criminal offense in Britain at the time. He’s charged with “gross indecency” and given the choice of going to prison or two years of probation (which includes taking hormonal treatment to reduce his libido). On June 8, 1954, the man who helped save millions of lives and shorten the war by at least two years tragically commits suicide by ingesting cyanide. The movie implies that the hormonal treatment, criminal charges and social isolation have a lot to do with Alan Turing’s untimely death, while the Hodges biography indicates this could have been an accidental death.

 

To transform a messy, complex human life into a drama, a film has to change many aspects of that life. In a recent review of The Imitation Game for Slate, L. V. Anderson goes over some of the ways in which the film deviates from Turing’s life as described by Hodges’s biography:

 

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/12/03/the_imitation_game_fact_vs_fiction_how_true_the_new_movie_is_to_alan_turing.html

 

The (real) Alan Turing depicted by Hodges in Alan Turing: The Enigma, though eccentric, was a much more likable and social person than the character in the film. He was well liked by his fellow cryptologists working at Bletchley Park, who describe him as “a very easily approachable man” and claimed to be “very very fond of him”. In the film, Alan’s more of a loner who is taught to value human emotion by Joan Clark, his friend and confidante. The movie also exaggerates Alan Turing’s role in single-handedly deciphering the Enigma machine, downplaying the roles of others and of the Polish precedents. The movie romanticizes Alan’s early crush for a fellow student at Sherborn School, a boy named Christopher Morcom with whom he shares a love of cryptology (in real life, L. V. Anderson states, they shared a love of chemistry and math). In the movie this love is described as reciprocal, while in the biography it appears to be a more ambiguous relationship, probably just friendship on Christopher’s part.

 

All these changes, in my estimation, add rather than take away from the strength of the film. They render Alan Turing’s scientific contributions seem all the more significant and heroic while the tragic irony of his death becomes all the more acute. After all, the man who helped save the world from the Nazi regime—a regime that killed homosexuals for being gay—is forced by the British government to choose between prison and a debilitating hormone treatment, in a “free” democratic country to which he had devoted his mind and his life.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Alan Turing, Alan Turing: The Enigma, Claudia Moscovici, history, Holocaust Memory, Nazi Germany, The Imitation Game, WWII

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

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA: PRISONERS

 

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

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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Filed under Claudia Moscovici Holocaust Memory, Himmler's plans for the Final Solution, Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, Timothy Snyder Bloodlands

Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics: Review of The Boys in the Boat

The US Olympic rowing team in 1936

 

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 1936 Hitler held the Summer Olympics in Berlin, having won the bid for the event over Barcelona. He spared no expense to impress the world with the prowess and superiority of Nazi Germany. He built six gymnasiums, numerous arenas and an enormous track and field stadium (state of the art for its time) with a capacity of 100,000 seats. He commissioned his favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, to create a documentary about the event, called Olympia, which highlighted the talent of the German athletes. The groundbreaking film employed many new techniques that would become the staple of documentaries on athletic events: including extreme close-ups, smash cuts (abrupt changes of scenes without transition), and unusual camera angles that captured the viewers’ attention. Olympia received high praise, internationally.

Daniel James Brown’s new bestselling book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (New York: Penguin Books, 2014) captures this historic event from an American perspective. The book focuses in particular on the point of view of Joe Rantz, a poor boy from Seattle abandoned by his father and stepmother at a young age and left to fend for himself.

Brown’s prose, reminiscent of another bestseller about this era—Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken—captures with simplicity, eloquence and pathos Joe’s tribulations with his dysfunctional family; his long-lasting love with Joyce, his loyal teenage sweetheart, and the arduous practice with his teammates in preparation for the Olympics.

Offering an engaging perspective on the sport of rowing and a slice of life into the Great Depression in the U.S., The Boys in the Boat also captures especially well the moment in European history when the Nazi regime consolidated power and gained international recognition.

By 1936, Hitler had already instituted the Nuremberg Race Laws in Germany. In 1935, at the annual Nazi party rally held in Nuremberg, he had announced laws that defined the racial concept of a “Jew” and a half-Jew”, excluded German Jews from citizenship, prohibited them from marrying or having sexual relations with Aryans, and imposed numerous economic sanctions and restrictions on German Jews.

The implications of the Nuremberg laws extended to the 1936 Olympics. Hitler desired to ban Jews and black people from the Olympic games. The official Nazi newspaper, the Volkischer Beobachter, explicitly declared that these groups should not be allowed to participate in the Olympic Games in Berlin. Once several nations objected to this racism and threatened to boycott the Olympics, however, Hitler relented. He abandoned the racial prohibitions at the event and even allowed a half-Jewish German woman—Helene Mayer—to participate on the German team. He also ordered the temporary removal of discriminatory signs such as “Jews not wanted” from the streets of Berlin.

The Boys in the Boat delves into Nazi history and propaganda, even capturing the mutual attraction–as well as the tension and competition for Hitler’s favor–between filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Notorious for his voracious sexual appetite and affairs with young movie stars, Goebbels tries to seduce Riefenstahl following their flirtatious interactions. In several dramatically described episodes in the book, Riefenstahl rejects his advances and even complains to Hitler about his interference into her filming of the Olympics. Nonetheless, the author makes it clear that the talented filmmaker and the lecherous Minister of Propaganda share a common goal. Like Hitler, they want to see the triumph of the German athletes.

To the readers’ delight, their desires are frustrated by the unexpected victory of the underdogs. The American team wins despite all odds: despite the fact that two of their rowers fell ill before the race; despite the fact the home crowds cheered for Germany, and despite the fact they were given the worst lane. Italy gets second place and Germany comes in third. In some ways, the American athletic victory is conveyed not only as the personal triumphs of Joe Rantz and his teammates, but also as a political victory over Nazism of sorts, as Hitler is described leaving the balcony in fury over his country’s loss. The Boys in the Boat thus transforms an American personal interest story into an unforgettable part of world history.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under 1936 Berlin Olympics, Claudia Moscovici, Daniel James Brown, Holocaust Memory, Leni Riefenstahl, Nazi Germany, Olympia, The Boys in the Boat

The siege of Leningrad: Genocide by starvation

The Great Patriotic War. Blokade of Leningrad.

 

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

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

The 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 Gypsy Holocaust: Review of The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies by Guenter Lewy

GysiesHolocaustushmmorg

 

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

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

The Gypsies also experienced a Holocaust at the hands of the Nazi regime. Initially, Nazi racial ideology expressed some ambivalence towards the Gypsies, by way of contrast to the Jews, whom they perceived as “vermin”. On the one hand, the Nazis regarded the Gypsies as “work-shy”, nomadic beggars and thieves, racially inferior to the Aryan race. On the other hand, some Nazi racial theories traced “racially pure” Gypsies to “Aryan” Indian tribes. In the end, this dual perspective on the Gypsies didn’t alter their mistreatment. Although the Nazis didn’t have a comparable “Final Solution”, or systematic plan to exterminate the Gypsies the way the did the Jews, the Gypsies suffered a similar fate. Like the Jews, they were rounded up for slave labor, interred in ghettoized areas (Gypsy Camps), and subsequently sent to killing centers.

Guenter Lewy’s closely researched book, The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), traces the oppression of the Gypsies in Germany and Nazi controlled territories, starting with the racial laws of the early 1930’s, to their deportation to concentration camps beginning in 1940, to their eventual extermination in Auschwitz in May 1944.

When the Nazis consolidated power in 1936, Heinrich Himmler, who became the SS Chief and the Chief of German police, instituted the Reich Central Office for the Suppression of the Gypsies Nuisance. This organization took progressive steps to contain and persecute the Gypsies. As early as 1938, Lewy recounts, the Gypsies were rounded up and confined to Gypsy camps (Zigeunerlager). Many men were also forced into slave labor, under the program “Operation Work-Shy”. Himmler took charge of this step-by-step process of isolation and discrimination, in a characteristically systematic—and insidious–fashion. In a decree entitled “Combatting the Gypsy Plague,” he set out to determine the “inner characteristics of that race” (36). Dr. Robert Ritter, a Nazi child psychologist, became the head of The Research Institute for Racial Hygiene and Population Biology. He classified the Gypsies according to their racial profile, as pure-bred or mixed. (43) Ironically, Gypsies of “pure blood” received some special consideration and were deemed to be more integrated into German society. By way of contrast, “mixed blood” Gypsies were declared “racially inferior” and subjected to far worse treatment: in a kind of inversion of the racial laws applied to the Jews.

Only a small number of Gypsies benefitted from the racial exemptions applicable to “pure Gypsies”: somewhere between 5,000 to 15,000 individuals. The rest—about 90 percent of the Gypsies—were considered by Ritter’s pseudoscientific classification as being of “mixed” or “degenerate” blood. The vast majority of them were rounded up and deported from all the Reich and Nazi-occupied territories. In 1938, Gypsy men from Marzahn were sent to Sachsanhausen. However, large-scale, mass deportations of the Gypsies to the East began in 1940. By 1942, Himmler ordered that all the Gypsies (Roma people) in the Reich be deported to concentration and extermination camps. (75)

At Auschwitz, Gypsies were some of the few inmates, along with a group of Czech inmates from the Theresienstadt concentration camp (known as “the Family Camp”), who were allowed to keep their clothes, not shave their hair off, and stay together in clans that comprised men, women and children. Despite this somewhat better treatment, their conditions were miserable. They lacked sufficient food, lived in squalor and were plagued by lice and disease. The children often suffered from noma, a disease stemming from malnutrition that caused a form of gangrene on their faces, which often looked like holes in their cheeks. The notorious Josef Mengele also enjoyed experimenting on Gypsy children, particularly on twins, his specialty.

Lewy doesn’t call the Nazi persecution of the Gypsies a “Holocaust” because it was, in some respects, less systematic than the genocide of the Jews. Gypsies were not explicitly selected for total extermination, as were the Jewish people. This distinction makes sense. However, in the end, the result was the same, since approximately 250,000 Gypsies were killed by the Nazi regime.

 

Claudia Moscovici,

Literature Salon

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Lebensraum: Genocide, Slavery and Ethnic Cleansing in the Nazi expansion campaign

lebensraumnewyorktimes

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

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

Hitler’s idea of Lebensraum–or, literally, creating more “living space” for Germany and the Germanic people by expanding to other areas of Europe and the Soviet Union through ethnic cleansing, deportation and genocide—was not original. This essentially colonialist concept had been around since the Middle Ages, while the term itself was coined in the early 1900’s by the German ethnographer Friedrich Ratzel. However, in his implementation of Lebensraum, Hitler transformed colonialism into a process of pillaging and mass murder of unprecedented proportions, with tragic consequences for humanity. Claiming that the Germanic people didn’t have enough room and natural resources to sustain their growing population, Hitler wanted to build an Aryan empire by conquering large parts of Europe and the Soviet Union, including Poland, the Ukraine and Russia. In order to achieve this goal, Hitler intended to kill hundreds of millions of their inhabitants and enslave the rest, annihilating and subjugating entire populations whom he considered “subhuman” or, at any rate, far inferior to the Aryan master race.

To prove the so-called inferiority of the conquered nations, Hitler inverted, in a characteristic move, cause and effect. He began a ruthless policy of terror, starving the captured people, humiliating them, killing them, and imprisoning them in labor and concentration camps. This mistreatment dehumanized the victims, often reducing them to animal-like behavior in their hopeless struggle to survive. Hitler then launched a propaganda campaign that “demonstrated” the behavior of the conquered people was abject and animalistic, to prove that they were inferior to the “civilized” German race.

The WWII historian Antony Beevor documents in his magnificent book, The Second World War (New York, Little, Brown & Company, 2012) that, following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, “By February 1942, 60 percent of the 3.5 million Red Army prisoners had died of starvation, exposure or disease” (418). A quarter of the population of Belarus perished due to the Germans’ savage oppression. In addition, millions of Jews were rounded up in conquered cities and villages and shot by the Einsatzgruppen, or incarcerated in ghettos, concentration and death camps. Hitler aimed to achieve his top two, interrelated, goals simultaneously: to create more living space for the Germans by clearing vast areas of their native, “undesirable” people.

Although they agreed on the basic principle of Lebensraum, top Nazi officials disagreed about how to best achieve it. Vying for influence, they offered competing proposals. According to Beevor, Alfred Rosenberg, the minister of the Eastern territories, wanted to secure the cooperation of former Soviet nationalities, such as the Ukraine, in a joint struggle against the Soviet Union. Initially, many Ukrainians welcomed the German invasion and collaborated with the Nazis. The tide began to turn, however, when they realized that they were mistreated by the Germans as much, if not more so, than they had been by the Soviets. In Germany, the most “radical” views about how to achieve Lebensraum prevailed.

Herman Göring, appointed President of the Reichstag (1932-1945) as well as Minister (Reichminister) of Economics and of Aviation, preferred the method of starving out the native populations and bringing in German and Germanic people on those lands. Heinrich Himmler, the Reichführer or Chief of German Police and Commissioner for Strengthening the German Nationhood, opted for the most brutal method: ethnic cleansing through mass murder, either by shooting or gassing. In the end, Germany adopted all three strategies, focusing in particular upon the ruthless solutions proposed by Göring and Himmler, which were most closely aligned with Hitler’s racist ideology and sociopathic tendencies.

Both Hitler and Himmler envisaged an idyllic German empire stretching to the Urals, built upon the blood and sacrifice of those they considered to be “subhuman races” (Untermenschen): including the Jews, Slavs and Gypsies. The notion—and practice—of creating more Lebensraum for the German people inseparably combined utopia and dystopia by turning a mad fantasy into an all-too-real nightmare. As Beevor elaborates, “Nazi ideas for the future constituted little more than a grotesque fantasy… Himmler dreamed of gemütlich German colonies, with gardens and orchards built across the former killing grounds of his SS Einsatzgruppen. And to provide a holiday center the Crimea, renamed Gotenhau, would become the German Riviera” (418). The result of this so-called utopic vision of an Aryan master race dominating most of Europe and the Soviet Union was the horrific abuse and death of tens of millions of innocent people, the devastation of entire cities and villages, and the destruction of natural resources that would take years to replenish.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Filed under Anthony Beevor The Second World War, Claudia Moscovici, Hitler, Holocaust Memory, Lebensraum, Nazi Germany, Slavery and Ethnic Cleansing in the Nazi expansion campaign, the Holocaust, WWII

The Lodz Ghetto: Review of The Cage by Ruth Minsky

TheCageAmazon

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 her Holocaust memoir, The Cage (Simon & Schuster, 1997), Ruth Minsky Sender compares the Lodz Ghetto not to imprisonment of human beings, but to a cage that animals are trapped in. The metaphor is powerful and apt. A medium sized city in Poland, Lodz had a relatively large Jewish population. Out of the city’s nearly 700,000 occupants, about a quarter of million were Jews. The Germans established the Lodz Ghetto in February, 1940. They forced the Jews who lived in other areas to abandon their homes and squeeze into the tiny, 4 square kilometer area, of the Jewish Quarter. The cage grew smaller and smaller as outside contact became more and more difficult. German Police units patrolled the perimeter of the ghetto, to eliminate contact between Jews and Poles. The ghetto walls trapped inside 162,681 human beings, left with meager means of survival. Many of them, particularly those who had moved from other parts of town, were also left homeless, at the mercy of the ghetto’s dissipating community resources. To ensure that the ghetto didn’t receive outside help, the Germans passed punitive laws towards anyone that sold food or goods to its inhabitants. While in the Warsaw Ghetto the underground food smuggling and black market trade flourished for a while, in the Lodz Ghetto it was practically impossible. As contact with the Poles was strictly punished, the Jewish inhabitants were at the mercy of the Germans for all the resources they needed to survive.

The ghetto was governed by a Jewish Council whose “Elder”, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, ruled with an iron fist. One of the most colorful and controversial figures of the Holocaust, Rumkowski became so used to the power he exercised within the ghetto walls that he came to be known as “King Rumkowski”. The historian Raul Hilberg describes him as a megalomaniac autocrat hungry for power. He notes, however, that Rumkowski had some benevolent tendencies, which he exercised on behalf of the ghetto inhabitants and particularly on behalf of children:

 

“A Zionist, he involved himself in community affairs and managed several orphanages with devotion. Widowed and childless, he became a dedicated autocrat in the ghetto. He was able to act alone, because the fear-stricken men who had replaced the murdered councilmen were merely his advisory board… When bank notes were printed in the ghetto, they bore his likeness. Frequently he made speeches with phrases like ‘I do not like to waste words,’ ‘My plan is based on sound logic’, ‘I have decided,’ ‘I forbid,’ and ‘My Jews.’ Rumkowski presided over his community through periods of starvation and deportations for almost five years” (Perpetrators, Victims and Bystanders, New York: HarperPerennial, 109).

 

To appease Hans Biebow, the ruling Nazi official in the area, and to keep the inhabitants alive, Rumkowski established a ghetto manufacturing economy for the Germans. Even so, most of the ghetto inhabitants, particularly the poorer ones and those unable to work, barely had enough food to survive. Most subsisted on a meager diet of about 900 calories a day. Starvation and disease thinned out the ghetto population even before the Nazis began deporting people to the death camps.

LodzGhettochildren_headed_for_deportation

Ruth (Riva) Minsky was only 16 years old when her mother was taken away by the Nazis, never to be seen again. Her father had already passed away earlier from an illness. So Riva, only a child herself, was left to take care of herself and her three younger brothers, including the youngest, Laibele, who suffered from tuberculosis. They barely have enough food to survive; in the harsh Polish winter they shiver from cold. Eventually Riva manages to find a job as a seamstress making German army uniforms. Despite being orphans, Riva and her brothers resist with all their might moving to the ghetto orphanage or being adopted by different families. In fact, the way their nuclear family clings together—with such tenacity that even the director of the orphanage decides to give Riva custody of her brothers—is one of the most moving aspects of the memoir.

Even so, during the winter, the living conditions become so harsh that the Jewish Council decides to burn all the old homes in order to have firewood for the ghetto inhabitants. Riva and her brothers, who live in an old house, are obliged to move into a room of an old grocery store with an underground cellar. This new place, though much smaller and bereft of their family memories, serves them well. Later they hide in the cellar, during the repeated raids by the Jewish Police looking for Jews to meet the Nazi quota for deportation to death camps. Riva and her brothers are particularly at risk since “Operation Reinhard”, or the Final Solution, initially targets children, the ill and the elderly. All those in the Lodz Ghetto deemed by the Nazis “unfit” for work are sent to the Chelmno death camp. Riva escapes several of the selections by hiding and depending on a network of teenage friends. But she cannot escape for long.

In the summer of 1944, the Nazis begin to liquidate the entire ghetto as the Soviet forces approach. They transport the remaining population, including the Elder himself, to Auschwitz. Although he had been promised safety and protection for his cooperation with the local Nazis, Rumkowski himself perished in the concentration camp. Out of the nearly 200,000 inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto, less than 1000 survived to be liberated by Soviet troops on January 19, 1945. Only 12 of them were children. Riva is one of the relatively lucky ones. She survived the unspeakably harsh conditions in Auschwitz due to her youth and resilience; her network of friends that helped each other; luck, and a kind prisoner doctor that took her to a local hospital. Her moving memoir, written in a simple and didactic prose intended for the young adult audience, offers a unique and informative look into the horrendous human cage that was once the Lodz Ghetto.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

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The Book Thief: Holocaust Literature as Best Seller

Thebookthiefcover

 

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

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

The 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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Heroism in Hell: Resistance, The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Israel Gutman

Heroism in Hell: Resistance, The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Israel Gutman

by Claudia Moscovici

Warsaw Ghetto, Wikipedia

Warsaw Ghetto, Wikipedia

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

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

It is difficult to imagine a more hellish environment than the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto created by the Nazis in the fall of 1940 and completely destroyed, along with 300,000 of its 400,000 inhabitants, by the summer of 1942. The Ghetto is extraordinary in many respects. The largest Jewish ghetto of Nazi occupied territories, it was one of the largest sites of the torture, predation and mass murder of Jews, 254,000 of whom were eventually sent to the Treblinka death camp. It is also the site of the greatest Jewish resistance against the Nazis. As Israel Gutman, author of Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising states, “The Uprising represents defiance and great sacrifice in a world characterized by destruction and death” (New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994, xi).
The destruction came piecemeal, creating unbelievable psychological torture for the Jewish population of Warsaw. On October 16, 1940 the process began. The Nazis herded hundreds of thousands of Jews, constituting about a third of the population of Warsaw, into a tiny area, less than three percent of the city’s living space. People were forced to leave their homes, most of their property, their neighbors and friends and their jobs. Governor-General Hans Frank ordered the building of the wall by mid-November, closing off the Warsaw Ghetto from the outside world. The SS shot on the spot anyone seen trying to escape from the Ghetto.
Adam Czerniakow, an engineer by profession, was named the head of the Judenrat (the Jewish Council). He had to contend with lack of sufficient food and shelter, disease and starvation, sending Jewish men to forced labor under horrific conditions, and eventually with the deportation of most of the Jews in the Ghetto, including babies and children, to death camps. On July 1942, he couldn’t take the pressure and the guilt any longer. He committed suicide, leaving behind a note to his wife in which he stated that he could not collaborate with the Nazis in the murder of Jewish children.
Following his death, even the orphaned children he tried so hard to protect were sent to death camps. In an incredibly moving passage, Gutman describes the dignity with which they left to die, led by the Director of the orphanage, Dr. Janusz Korczak:

“They marched through the ghetto to the Umschlagplatz where they joined thousands of people waiting without shade, water, or shelter in the hot August sun. The children did not cry out. They walked quietly in forty-eight rows of four. One eyewitness recalled, ‘This was no march to the train cars but rather the mute protest against the murderous regime… a process the like of which no human eye had witnessed’” (Resistance, 139-140).

For those left behind in the Ghetto following the mass deportation, the moment for resistance had arrived. As long as they had a modicum of hope left, the Jews didn’t revolt against the Nazi oppressors. They had the welfare of spouses, parents and children to think of, whom they believed they could save by cooperating with the Nazis. Most clung to the false hopes fostered by the Nazis through a campaign of misinformation. Furthermore, the conditions in the Ghetto weren’t conducive to resistance. Isolated from any source of income or help, starved, overworked and continually preyed upon by the Nazis, for two years the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto fought for their survival. Even before the mass deportation began, the conditions were so bad that about 100,000 Jews died, mostly from illness and starvation. Only once the deportation to Treblinka took away most of the Jewish population, along with the last shred of hope, did the remaining Jews—mostly young men and women—decide to take action. They fought hopelessly and heroically, against all odds of ever emerging alive out of the uneven battle with the Nazis.
Based on previous experience, the Germans didn’t expect to encounter any resistance. On January 18, 1943, they entered the Ghetto after a four-month respite, to resume deportations and send most of the remaining Jews to Treblinka. This time, however, the few thousand Jews left in the Ghetto knew they had nothing to hope for and therefore nothing to lose. Abba Kovner, a partisan fighter and well-known poet, rallied the youth with these inspiring, unforgettable words:

“We will not be led like sheep to slaughter. True, we are weak and helpless, but the only response to the murderer is revolt! Brothers! It is better to die fighting like free men than to live at the mercy of the murderers. Arise! Arise with your last breath!” (Resistance, 102)

The Jewish fighters, organized by ZOB (Jewish Combat Organization) and ZZW (Jewish Military Union), fought back with all their might. They used the few guns they had at their disposal, homemade bombs–any weapons they could find–to ward off the Nazis. In the first attack, a few SS soldiers were killed and more were wounded. The Nazis momentarily withdrew, only to return a few days later, on the eve of Passover (April 19, 1943), with even larger forces and more ammunition, weapons and tanks. Their instructions from Himmler were crystal clear: the total destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Nazis proceeded to hunt down the Jews and burn the Ghetto to the ground. The Jewish resistance fighters, led by Mordecai Anielewicz, Yitzhak Zuckerman and Marek Edelman, fought bravely. They built a network of safe areas and tunnels underground and even on the roofs, with ladders. They returned the fire of the attackers, even though the Nazis were far more numerous and better armed. As the Nazis scorched the Ghetto, the bunkers, “which had been planned and equipped to provide refuge for months, became burning cages without air, water, or food” (Resistance, 236). Israel Gutman’s moving historical account of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising offers an answer to the much-raised question—why didn’t the Jews fight their oppressors?—and offers an unforgettable portrayal of heroism in hell.

Claudia Moscovici
Literature Salon

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Hateful words: Nazi propaganda and the freedom of expression

Nazi poster, from USHMM.org

Nazi poster, from USHMM.org

 

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

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

 

The freedom of expression is a double-edged sword. Without it, probably no other freedom is possible. Yet this freedom can also lead to the consolidation of totalitarian regimes when groups defined by hatred and discrimination use it to further their political goals. This is exactly what happed with the rise of the Nazi regime. The freedom of expression, which was more or less respected by the Weimar Republic, was turned into propaganda: hateful words and grandiose nationalist promises, used to sway public opinion in support of Nazi ideology.

An inherently manipulative man, Adolf Hitler realized from the start the value of propaganda. His autobiographical treatise, Mein Kampf (1926), includes three chapters on the importance of propaganda in shaping public opinion. Hitler states, quite explicitly: “Propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people… The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings…” He continues to argue that these feelings can, and should be, biased as opposed to aiming for the truth: “Propaganda must not investigate the truth objectively and, in so far as it is favorable to the other side, present it to the theoretical rules of justice; yet it must present only that aspect of the truth which is favorable to its own side” (Mein Kampf, translated by Ralph Manheim, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

Once the Nazis rose to power in 1933, Hitler promptly set up a Reich Ministry of Propaganda under the leadership of Joseph Goebbels. The propaganda machine took over all forms of expression: including art, film, literature, journalism, theater and the educational system. The media became saturated with messages of blame and scorn for the Jews, described as the cause of all of Germany’s problems. Not content with controlling the content and means of expression in Germany, the Nazi regime also actively suppressed other points of view. As early as 1933, they sent to prison and concentration camps their perceived political opponents.

Propaganda, or hateful words, became an essential tool that enabled the gruesome reality of the Holocaust. By labeling Jews as “subhuman”, the Nazi media justified their racial discrimination and oppression. Newspapers such as “The People’s Observer”, “The Attack” and “The Reich” depicted Jews as parasites that depleted the resources of Western civilization and corrupted the Aryan gene pool. Sending contradictory messages didn’t weaken the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda. By describing Jews as, simultaneously, the greediest capitalists and the leaders of Bolshevism, the Nazi media could reach an even broader audience and political spectrum. However, nationalism remained the Nazi movement’s most effective means of manipulation of public opinion in Germany. Blaming the Jews for Germany’s defeat in WWI and for its subsequent economic collapse helped Hitler gain the support of the masses. Sometimes propaganda functioned as a cover that hid, rather than generated, information. The Final Solution plan to exterminate the Jewish people was alluded to in code and not reported to the general public.

The means of communication became as important as the message itself. The Nazis realized the importance of technology in disseminating their message to the general public. In his speech “Radio as the Eight Great Power”, Goebbels declares: “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio… “ Each time Hitler invaded a foreign country, he launched a propaganda campaign that turned the facts upside down. For instance, the German media described the invasion of Poland, both in the country and internationally, as an act of self-defense against a belligerent enemy nation. The same distortion of truth took place shortly before and during the war with the Soviet Union, starting with Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. Although Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a Nazi-Soviet pact (on August 23, 1939) that made them allies, once Germany launched a war, the Nazis justified their actions in the press as a defensive move made against Bolshevik Jews, who aimed to take over and destroy the world.

Propaganda remains a risk today in countries that respect the freedom of expression. Given the way in which the mass media has become accessible to everyone, even the most hateful and extremist groups can propagate their message to the general public in democratic societies. For this reason, the U.S. placed a few limitations to the freedom of speech that may diminish the power of hate groups. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution declares the freedom of religion, of speech and of the press. During the twentieth-century, however, this freedom of expression became subject to certain limitations: 1. Speech (or writing) that presents “a clear and present danger” is not protected by the First Amendment. 2. Similarly, “fighting words,” or speech meant to incite immediate violence is also not protected. 3. Libel and slander, or making false statements about an individual or a group of people, likewise don’t qualify as “free speech”. Finally, the First Amendment no longer protects “obscenity.”

Although the freedom of expression isn’t absolute in democratic societies, placing some restrictions upon it may not be enough to prevent hate groups from using propaganda to rise to power. What is said and printed is as important as what is censored. Offering quality information in the media—well-verified facts, with intelligent analyses and commentaries–about events that happen all over the world keeps the public informed, so that we’re better judges of the information we’re presented. Ignorance is far from being bliss. On the contrary, it’s the perfect context for manipulation by dangerous groups hungry for power and blood.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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