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

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

By Claudia Moscovici

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

by Claudia Moscovici

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The siege of Leningrad: Genocide by starvation

The Great Patriotic War. Blokade of Leningrad.

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

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

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

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

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

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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