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Rendering the past immediate: Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness

 

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When Luisa Zielinski interviewed the Hungarian writer, Nobel Prize winner (2002) and Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz in the Paris Review during the summer of 2013, the author was already suffering from Parkinson’s disease. (See Imre Kertesz. “The Art of Fiction”, Paris Review No. 220, interviewed by Luisa Zielinksi) Despite being seriously ill, Kertesz spoke with characteristic lucidity about his fiction as well as about the Holocaust. Born in 1929 in Budapest, Kertesz was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 for a short period of time, and then transferred to Buchenwald. His works deal with the Holocaust, yet they are not strictly speaking autobiographical. Fatelessness (Vintage International, 2004) in particular seems to parallel Kertesz’s experiences in Nazi concentration camps, but the author focuses on the subject’s historic-philosophical dimensions. Kertesz views his description of the Holocaust in Fatelessness as a rupture of civilization that the entire world should examine and take seriously rather than an anecdote of his own trying experiences during adolescence. “I was interned in Auschwitz for one year,” he recalls. “I didn’t bring back anything, except for a few jokes, and that filled me with shame. Then again, I didn’t know what to do with this fresh experience. For this experience was no literary awakening, no occasion for professional or artistic introspection.” Writing as a mode of reflection and communication with others rather than in order to come to terms with his painful personal experiences assumed, at some point, primary importance for him.

Yet, as Kertesz recounts during the Paris Review interview, he didn’t feel destined to be a writer. Rather, he became a writer by painstakingly editing his own texts. The process of writing wasn’t easy, both because of the difficult subject matter he chose and because he had to hide his endeavors from the Communist regime. In fact, the experience of totalitarian repression forms a common thread between his experience of Nazism and of the repressive regime that followed it. “I was suspended in a world that was forever foreign to me, one I had to reenter each day with no hope of relief. That was true of Stalinist Hungary, but even more so under National Socialism,” he declares.

Despite the broad socio-political sweep of his themes, Kertesz’s fiction, particularly the novel Fatelessness, reads like an intimate psychological account of a young man’s disconcerting and painful experience of being uprooted from his family, schoolmates and friends to be thrust into the alien and brutal world of the Nazi concentration camps. Gyorgy Koves, the 15-year old protagonist, first loses his father, who is deported to and dies in labor camp. His stepmother and a Hungarian employee continue taking care of the family business, a store, and are fortunate enough to survive the war and eventually marry each other. But Gyorgy (George) lacks such luck. Along with a throng of teenage boys, he’s rounded up by the Hungarian Arrow Cross and sent to forced labor, then deported to Auschwitz. Fatelessness depicts his experiences there.

There are countless books on the Holocaust. The subject has been written about so much that some readers risk being jaded to it. This novel is especially effective in rendering this familiar topic new and touching. One of the most unique aspects of the novel is its present temporality: the adolescent narrator describes his experiences in the present, as if writing in a diary, noting every character’s expression and interspersing realistic dialogues without offering much judgment or analysis. Kertesz considers this observational technique as appropriate for a child narrator. As he explains, “a child has no agency in his own life and is forced to endure it all”. While few Jewish victims had much agency during the Holocaust, adults at least had the emotional maturity to realize what was happening to them and understand some of the socio-political reasons why. Child victims, on the other hand, were swept by the Nazi extermination machine without being able to comprehend the events that destroyed their lives or do anything about it. Given the almost existentialist nature of Kertesz’s writing, how much of Fatelessness is based on the author’s life and how much of it is historical fiction becomes far less relevant than the narrative’s powerful and immediate connection to generations of readers.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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

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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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The gas chambers: Filip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz

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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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Remembering the “forgotten Holocaust”: The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang

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Iris Chang’s book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of WWII describes one of the most brutal mass murders in world history: the massacre of over 300,000 Chinese men, women and children by Japanese soldiers in what she calls “an orgy of cruelty” in the (then) capital city of Nanking, during the winter of 1937. The blood bath took place in the span of about six weeks, from December 12, 1937 to February 10, 1938. As Chang states, “Indeed, even by the standards of history’s most destructive war, the Rape of Nanking represents one of the worst instances of mass extermination” (The Rape of Nanking, New York: Penguin books, 1997, 5). What is remarkable about the sheer cruelty of Japanese attack is not only the mass murder of countless innocent civilians, but the also the systematic rape, torture and maiming of women and children.
Chang describes in gruesome detail how Japanese soldiers would gang rape women, ranging from girls only nine or ten years old to elderly women in their 80’s and 90’s. Nobody was safe anywhere, at any time. The rapes occurred at all hours of the day and night, everywhere: in homes, in the streets, in apartments, in offices or stores. Often girls would die from these savage rapes. Not content with raping and humiliating women in a culture that prized female virtue and chastity, some of the Japanese soldiers went on to savagely beat their victims, maim them, cutting off their breasts or vaginas, disemboweling them, ripping babies out of the bellies of pregnant women, and even impaling them with bayonets. Their sadism knew no bounds.
Men were not immune from harm either. In fact, the Japanese first targeted soldiers—and prisoners of war–luring them in groups of about 200 men to designated parts of the city with promises of food, water, and humane treatment. Nothing could have been further from the truth than these false promises. After leaving them without food and water for days, thus weakening their health and spirit, the Japanese soldiers would round up the Chinese prisoners and murder them. Sometimes these mass murders would turn into game-like killing sprees, in which some of the Japanese soldiers would compete with one another in who could kill the most Chinese prisoners. After luring Chinese soldiers to their deaths, thus depriving the city of its defense, the Japanese soldiers turned their rage upon the civilian population of Nanking.
How can one explain this brutality? Chang traces historically the roots of Japan’s martial mentality, starting with the samurai warrior class. She also discusses the more recent, twentieth-century doctrine, of racial superiority to the Chinese. Then she outlines some of the economic factors—particularly the depression of the 1930’s—that, along with the doubling of the population of Japan to 65 million persons, made it “increasingly difficult for Japan to feed its people” (26). The country’s leaders came to view imperial expansion, particularly the conquest of China and its territories, as a solution to these economic and demographic problems.
Ultimately, however, part of the explanation has to do, as in Germany’s case with Hitler, with the malicious decisions of evil leaders. The Japanese leadership—perhaps Prince Asaka himself—issued a clear order to the rank-and-file soldiers: “KILL ALL CAPTIVES” (40). This command was motivated by a total disregard for human life (at least, for the lives of the Chinese captives), as well as by practical concerns. Killing their victims would mean having fewer mouths to feed, fewer people to shelter, and fewer worries about Chinese retaliation. Prince Yasuhiko Asaka (1887-1981), the temporary commander of the Japanese forces in Nanking, was known for his ruthlessness in war. Kesago Nakajima (1881-1945), the Lieutenant General of the Imperial Japanese Army largely responsible for the atrocities committed in Nanking, was far worse. By all accounts, Nakajima was a reputed sadist. According to Chang, David Bergamini describes him in Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy as a “small Himmler of a man, a specialist in thought control, intimidation and torture”. Even his biographer, Kimura Kuninori, calls him “a beast” and “a violent man” (37).
The rape of Nanking, the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges and the many atrocities of WWII don’t prove that humanity, as a whole, is evil. However, these massive atrocities across cultures do prove that there is a percentage of human beings who are capable of unleashing boundless violence in the right conditions. As Chang herself states, “Looking back upon millennia of history, it appears clear that no race or culture has a monopoly on wartime cruelty. The veneer of civilization seems to be exceedingly thin—one that can be easily stripped away, especially by the stresses of war” (55). The Rape of Nanking is a well-documented, remarkable history that goes a long way in making sure that “the forgotten Holocaust” will be remembered by generations to come.Iris

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The Book Thief: Holocaust Literature as Best Seller

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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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“Constantinople” by Minodora Perovici: A great work of historiography and a labor of love

Constantinople under the banner of the Crusaders and of the Ottoman Empire by Minodora Perovici offers an incredibly erudite and well-informed history of this magnificent city that marks the transformations of entire civilizations during the medieval period. This book is also, clearly, a labor of love.  Ms. Perovici relies upon primary texts–chansons de geste and chronicles by contemporaries (DucasGiorgio SphrantzesLaonic Chalcocondil, Geoffroy de Villehardouin and Pseudo-Phrantzes) to describe not only how the capital city of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and eventually Ottoman empires changed hands, but also the social and economic systems that made this city the heart of medieval Europe. The author also describes in detail the motivations of the Crusaders, and the complex system of vassalage, relying upon the words of chroniclers who followed the Crusades themselves. Ms. Perovici then traces the rise of this city during the 12th century, when it became the biggest and wealthiest in Europe. She also describes its conquest in 1261 by the Crusaders, under the leadership of Michael VIII Palaiologos and  its ultimate fall to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. With the death of one civilization came the rise of another, as Constantinople, henceforth known as Istambul, became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. If I call Ms. Perovici’s historiography “a labor of love” it’s because her book combines an incredible breadth of knowledge, covering the fate of Constantinople throughout several centuries, with a great attention to detail. The book’s depth and breadth of knowledge stems from the author’s deep appreciation of the cultures which conquered and revived this great medieval city, and of the texts of the chroniclers who lived through its upheavals and transformations.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Backcover description: “Constantinople under the banner of the Crusaders and of the Ottoman Empire” is a work that goes beyond the usual historical study because it is based on direct observation of historical facts described by the contemporary chroniclers themselves. They record the events that marked the course of history which they were familiar with directly and lived through. The French historian Geoffroy de Villehardouin participated directly in the fourth Crusade. He lived, side by side with the Crusaders, their longings, emotions, doubts, joys and difficulties, considering the conquest of Constatinople a big victory and completely forgetting the real goal of the Crusaders: the fight against the “infidels”. His chronicles, found at the Academy Library in French, was translated by the author (Minodora Perovici). So was a part of the French epic poetry (les chansons de geste) included in the text to explain the nature of feudal relations between Lords and their vassals, on which the formation of the Crusader armies were based and which shaped the foundation of the Latin states in the Orient. Those who lived through the tragedy of the Constantinople conquered by the Ottoman empire, the drama of the king and the devastation of the empire can be considered to be the real authors of this text. This book is based on a dialogue with the Byzantine chroniclers Ducas, Giorgio Sphrantzes, Laonic Chalcocondil and Pseudo-Phrantzes. Their narratives are truthful: although sometimes they’re dramatic, even picturesque, in the manner and style of the times. Conquered in 1204 by the Catholic Crusaders, Constantinople will be reconqured in 1261 by the Orthodox Byzantines, only to yield to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.”

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

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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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