Category Archives: Nazi Germany

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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Filed under Adolf Hitler, anti-Semitism, Claudia Moscovici, hate groups, literature salon, Nazi Germany, Nazi propaganda, propaganda, Reich Ministry of Propaganda, the First Ammendment

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

Schindler's List

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

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 off 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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Total annihilation: The death factories

I.G. Farben at Auschwitz/Monowitz-Buna from Wikipedia

I.G. Farben at Auschwitz/Monowitz-Buna from 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

Hitler’s explicit goal, formulated as early as Mein Kampf in the mid 1920’s, was to annihilate the Jewish people. What did total annihilation mean for the Nazis? It wasn’t enough to deport the Jews from Germany and other German-controlled countries to concentration camps. It wasn’t enough to isolate them in ghettos. It wasn’t enough to take their property and assets. It wasn’t enough to send them to labor and death camps in Poland.  It wasn’t enough to shoot them in the back of the head and pile them up, dead or alive, into mass graves. It wasn’t enough to burn their corpses, after gassing them, in crematoria. The Nazi regime wanted to destroy the evidence that their victims had ever existed. To do so, they had to hide or cover up their immense crimes against humanity. Each shred of evidence of Jewish existence—even the victims’ hair–was either destroyed or transformed and reused by German industry.

To accomplish the goal of exterminating millions of innocent civilians, the Nazis had to first invert the concepts of right and wrong: not only in their ideology, but also in the minds of party members. Hitler used the phrases “the Jewish question” and “the Final Solution” to outline his plans for mass murder. He rarely issued written orders concerning the fate of the Jews. Instead, he allowed his subordinates—Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi Minister of Interior; Reinhard Heydrich, the Chief of Police and of the Gestapo; Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, and Oswald Ludwig Pohl, the Financial Administrator of the SS in charge of the concentration and labor camps–to state explicitly, as well as to carry out, his implicit yet crystal clear orders of deportation and extermination of the Jews.

The concentration camps became, quite literally, death factories. The existence of these camps had to be kept, for the most part, secret from the German public, who might disapprove of it. Hitler had learned a lesson from the vocal protests against Action T4, the “euthanasia” program he instituted in 1939 in several German mental hospitals. While being more or less hidden from the German public, however, the extermination of the Jews was also loudly proclaimed as a point of pride for the initiated SS soldiers. Addressing SS leaders at Posen in 1943, Himmler describes acts of cowardice and of unspeakable cruelty against defenseless civilians—men, women, children and even babies–as acts of great civic courage, “decency” and heroism:

“We can talk about it quite frankly among ourselves and yet we will never speak of it publicly. It appalled everyone, and yet everyone was certain that he would do it next time if such orders should be issued…. I am referring to the Jewish evacuation program, the extermination of the Jews. … Most of you will know what it means when a hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred or a thousand are lying there. To have stuck it out and to have remained decent, that is what has made us tough. This is a glorious page in our history that has never and can never be written.” (see Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, Eds., Nazism 1919-1945, volume 3: Foreign Policy, War and Racial Extermination, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, University of Exeter Series, 2001).

Due to the demands of the German economy during the war, the question arose how to make maximal use of Jewish prisoners before killing them. Oswald Ludwig Pohl came up with the solution of doubling the role of some of the extermination camps—including the largest, the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex–as labor camps. This generated Monowitz-Buna, also called Auschwitz III, a slave labor camp established in October 1942 in collaboration with the German chemical company I. G. Farben. The company produced butadiene-based synthetic rubber (in Buna Works) as well as, more notoriously, Zyklon B, the toxic chemical used to gas millions of victims. Rewarded for his ingenuity, Pohl rose to power in the Nazi regime, serving as the financial administrator of the SS in charge of 20 concentration camps and 165 labor camps.

Although supportive of Pohl’s utilization of Jewish slave labor for the German economy, Himmler insisted that the Nazis must never subordinate their main goal—the eradication of the Jewish race—to economic objectives: not even during the war, when there was a labor shortage. The solution, for the Nazi regime, became the infamous death factories: selecting (most) prisoners deemed unfit for work for immediate extermination in the gas chambers, while working to death those deemed capable of labor. Even those who were chosen for immediate extermination were exploited to the very last. The Nazis extricated from their victims every possession: even the clothes on their backs, which were given to other prisoners, and their hair, which was shaved or cut off and used as stuffing for mattresses. The death factories thus fulfilled their intended role of total annihilation: by exterminating the Jewish people while also removing the last trace of their existence from the face of the Earth.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

 

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Genocide Indifference

Children starving in the Warsaw ghetto, Wikipedia Commons

Children starving in the Warsaw ghetto, Wikipedia Commons

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

Practically everyone knows that the Holocaust is the biggest genocide in human history.  But not everyone cares about this anymore. I’m not referring only to pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic groups. I fear that, as the last surviving Holocaust victims pass away, genocide indifference is becoming a mainstream phenomenon.  Part of the reason for this detachment may be that the Holocaust reminds us of an almost unimaginable horror and cruelty. The facts themselves are very difficult to absorb. The Holocaust involved the mass murder of approximately six million Jews: about two-thirds of European Jewry. Between the years 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws were established by Adolf Hitler, until 1945, when the Allies liberated Europe, the Jews were systematically deprived of their civil rights, source of income, jobs, savings and property. They were segregated and isolated from non-Jewish friends, neighbors and colleagues in ghettos, where they fell prey to starvation and disease. They were subjected to slave labor. They were rounded up by the SS and by paramilitary units to be shot in front of long ditches (which usually they, themselves, were forced to dig). They were packed up a hundred people into sealed cattle trains with no windows to concentration camps, traveling for days usually without food, water or the chance to relieve themselves. In the camps, they endured conditions of filth, forced labor, brutality, disease and hunger. Those selected for hard labor usually died within a few months from these grueling conditions. Those immediately selected for death were herded into facilities that resembled showers to die an excruciating death by inhaling a toxic gas that took fifteen to twenty minutes to work. Struggling to reach the last pocket of air, the strong trampled on the frail and small. Yes, almost everyone knows this. But does everyone care about it? Or are we becoming indifferent to this genocide of the past? I’d like to explore here some of the possible reasons for Holocaust indifference:

1. Knowledge doesn’t imply caring. In Israel one day is dedicated to remembering the Holocaust and its many victims at school and in the media. In the U. S., The Diary of Anne Frank is taught in most middle schools in a unit on the Holocaust. New generations are exposed to the subject, yet the depth of its tragedy may not register.  This brings me to my second reason: historical distance or presentism.

2. Historical distance. We are decades away from the genocide that the Nazis perpetrated on the Jews, Gypsies, Poles and Slavs during WWII. Why focus on this unpleasant past? Some say, let’s live in the present. There are so many horrible things happening in the world today. Why not work on fixing them instead? My answer is that without knowledge of history it’s difficult to confront the problems of the present. Without learning from history, we may not easily recognize the dangers of autocracy; the vulnerability of democracies; the toxic charisma of sociopathic leaders; the lies or partial truths we are told to justify inhumane actions. Only by learning about the dangers—and horrors—of the past can we recognize them in the present and avoid them in the future.

3. Desensitization. It’s well known that people can become desensitized to gruesome events by familiarity and repetition. The fact we hear often about the Holocaust in history classes or the media doesn’t mean that the horror touches us on an emotional level. In fact, as Raul Hilberg explains in Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders (HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), gradual desensitization to cruelty against Jews was one of the main reasons why so many ordinary people could participate in the killing machinery of the Holocaust.  Initially, the German soldiers hesitated to kill civilians. After a few months in the death squads, however, they felt comfortable enough to kill even children without a second thought: “Again and again, witnesses recall that small children were thrown out of windows, or tossed like sacks into trucks, or dashed against walls, or hurled live into pyres of burning corpses” (p. 54).

4. Ethnic or religious blindspots. Many people have a sense of ethnic belonging and care most about their social group. After all, nobody can care about every bad thing that happens in this world. But caring only about your social group not only diminishes the capacity for empathy, but also gives you a potentially dangerous blindspot. Those who care only about their ethnic or religious group are more likely to support harm done to other groups. They are also more likely to miss the obvious: the bad things that happened to others can happen to your group too. Ethnic and religious discrimination sets a dangerous precedent. Conversely, when you care about the rights of others you defend your human rights too.

5. Nationalist pride. I think nationalism and patriotism can be very positive phenomena. They give those living in a country a sense of cohesion and pride. But there is such a thing as misplaced patriotism. There are some things that your country has done that nobody should be proud of. Denying that they happened or shifting blame is not a constructive way to keep the glory and unity of one’s country intact. Now that so many formerly communist countries have become democratic, it’s time that they face the truth about their role in the Holocaust. Today’s generations are not to blame for what their ancestors did. But they are to blame for the truth that they deny. In short, there are no good reasons for genocide indifference.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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