Tag Archives: Holocaust Studies

Eichmann’s Extraordinary Evil: Review of Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth

Adolf-Eichmann-theguardian.com

 

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

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

In Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (New York: Random House 2014), Bettina Stangneth challenges Hannah Arendt’s hypothesis that Eichmann represents the banality of evil: an ordinary man turned mass murder by extraordinary circumstances (the war and the rise of Nazi totalitarianism). The image of Eichmann that emerges from Stangneth’s book is one of a charming chameleon that deceives others about his intentions and his credentials. Without knowing more than a few words of Yiddish and having no knowledge of Hebrew, Eichmann relied upon the smattering of Jewish culture he got by spying on Jewish leaders to climb the political ladder and obtain an official function as Head of Department of Jewish Affairs in the SD (Security Service of the Nazi Party). Although most of the time he gave the impression of being calm and reserved, he would fly off into an ideological rage—similar to Hitler’s–whenever his objectives were frustrated or when it served his purposes (such as to intimidate Jewish leaders into complying with his orders). As if with the flip of a switch, however, Eichmann could instantly revert to being courteous and collected (for instance, when a German woman would step into one of the ideological meeting). His emotions, like his attachments, were shallow. Although he remained “loyal” to his wife, Veronika Liebl, he cheated on her and dominated her. At one point he boasted that he tore up the Bible of his highly religious wife, though eventually he allowed her to practice Christianity. Their dominance bond was quite strong, however, since Vera patiently–and faithfully–waited for years while her husband lived in hiding after the war and eventually joined him in Argentina, where he managed to escape justice for eleven years.

The picture that emerges from Stangneth’s book is not that of an ordinary man corrupted by power in a totalitarian regime—as Arendt famously indicates in Eichmann in Jerusalem, A report on the banality of evil–but that of a psychopath: a highly narcissistic man without remorse, without conscience and without the capacity for forming deeper human attachments. Hungry for power, Eichmann unscrupulously adapts himself to the norms of the Nazi regime, even anticipating Hitler’s wishes to implement a program of exterminating the Jews after the German invasion of Russia in 1941. War enabled the Nazis to carry out what couldn’t be achieved during peacetime: a systematic genocide of unprecedented proportions carried out, at least in the Eastern campaign, openly and often with the collaboration of the local populations.

Eichmann became responsible for the mass deportations of nearly 6 million Jews to concentration camps, where most victims were sent to the gas chambers. Far from merely following orders—as he later stated during his defense in the trial in Jerusalem—Eichmann showed great enthusiasm and initiative for mass murder. In 1944, when even Himmler had begun to reverse course and issued an order to stop the Jewish deportations, Eichmann went to Hungary to personally oversee the deportation and extermination of the Hungarian Jews. With astonishing efficiency, in a few months, Eichmann managed to send 437,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, where about 80 percent were killed on the spot and most of the rest died afterwards from hunger, abuse or disease. Only the heroic actions of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg prevented him from sending all of the Jews of Budapest to their deaths. Interestingly, like most psychopaths, Eichmann was a bully only with those in a position of weakness. When Wallenberg confronted him face to face and stopped the deportation of hundreds of Jews, Eichmann didn’t do anything to stop him. Only afterwards, behind his back, he railed against the Wallenberg, calling him “a Jewish dog” and “an interventionist”. Turning moral norms upside down, Eichmann felt that all those who expedited genocide were courageous heroes and those who fought against it were cowards and weaklings.

Although highly manipulative and versatile, Eichmann remained, to the very end, a man without conscience. After the war he even expressed great pride in his genocidal actions, stating that he would “leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” He may have boasted about his actions, but like most psychopaths, Eichmann didn’t want to have to pay their consequences. After Germany’s defeat in 1945, he fled to Austria and later, in 1950, to Argentina. There he joined a community of Nazi expatriates. Far from leading a quiet, anonymous life, this mass murderer longed for his former glory and power.

In fact, Eichmann even planned to write a book, based on a series of interviews with Willem Sassen–a Dutch collaborator and Nazi journalist also hiding in Argentina–that would not only leave his Nazi legacy for posterity but also, he hoped, instigate a second coming of the Third Reich during his lifetime. Perhaps it was this psychopath’s extraordinary hubris that finally did him in. Eventually the Mossad, Israel’s Intelligence Service, caught up with him in 1960 and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial. He was charged, among other things, with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the Jewish people. The jury found Eichmann guilty on all counts. He was executed by hanging on May 31, 1962. Perhaps no book on the subject can compete in its influence with Eichmann in Jerusalem, but in one significant respect I found Bettina Stangneth’s account far more accurate than Arendt’s: Eichmann’s evil was anything but banal.

 

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

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

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA: PRISONERS

 

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

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

Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder advances an interesting and plausible hypothesis about some of the motivations behind the Final Solution. Snyder also believes that the accelerated timing of the plan to annihilate European Jews arose from Himmler’s and Heydrich’s efforts to compensate for the (partial) German failure in the war against the Soviet Union. When it became clear that the plan to conquer, starve and enslave the people of the Soviet Union was not moving as quickly as Hitler anticipated and desired, Snyder argues, “Heydrich and Himmler were able to turn the unfavorable battlefield situation to their advantage, by reformulating the Final Solution so that it could be carried out during a way that was not going according to plan. They understood that the war was becoming, as Hitler began to say in August 1941, a “war against the Jews. Himmler and Heydrich saw the elimination of the Jews as their task” (Bloodlands, 188).

When he attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Snyder elaborates, Hitler and his henchmen had in mind a dystopic plan for the East:

1) attacking and conquering quickly the Soviet Union;

2) implementing a Hunger Plan that would blockade and starve entire areas of the Soviet Union, causing the deaths of over 30 million people;

3) a Final Solution that would eliminate all Jews after the war was won, and

4) a Generalplan Ost in which native Germans would colonize the western part of the Soviet Union and enslave its people for the German economy

Competing for Hitler’s favor (and for power) with Göring, Himmler started implementing these objectives in 1941. The Hunger Plan, however, didn’t work as effectively as the Nazis had hoped. It achieved only partial success in Leningrad, parts of Belarus and the Ukraine. Overall, the conquest of the Soviet Union was taking longer than anticipated. According to Snyder, “As these utopias waned, political futures depended upon the extraction of what was feasible from the fantasies” (Bloodlands, 187). So Himmler and Heydrich, eager to prove their “courage” and resourcefulness in the face of Germany’s partial failure on the military front, engaged in an act of ultimate cowardice: He ordered the ruthless mass murder of all the Jews in the conquered territories in the Soviet Union, and soon afterward in most of Nazified Europe.

Himmler personally travelled to the Soviet Union in June 1941 to make it clear to the Waffen SS troops and to the Order Police battalions that they needed to kill not only Jewish men—all of whom he labeled as “Communist partisans”–but also Jewish women and children. Himmler and Heydrich worked closely together, engaging in a kind of division of labor of genocide. Heydrich made arrangements for the Final Solution in Berlin, while Himmler managed the administrative details to carry it out, directing the Waffen SS, the Einsatzgruppen and the Order Police under his control to mass shootings of Jewish civilians in the occupied regions of the Soviet Union. By August 1941, Snyder estimates, the Nazis had murdered over one million Jewish civilians in the Soviet Union. “The East,” Himmler pompously declared, “belongs to the SS” (Bloodlands, 189).

While Snyder’s hypothesis that the earlier implementation of the Final Solution had a lot to do with Germany’s partial failure in their conquest, colonization and destruction of the Soviet Union is exceptionally well argued and persuasive, this argument doesn’t take away from the fact that the Final Solution was a central goal for the Nazis regardless of German success or failure in war. The annihilation of the Jews would have no doubt happened had Nazi Germany won the war. Soviet Jews—along with the Jews of conquered nations throughout Europe–were trapped in an impossible situation by Nazi ideology itself, for which anti-Semitism and the annihilation of the Jews was a central priority.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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

The US Olympic rowing team in 1936

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Hitler’s ban on modern art: The “Degenerate Art” exhibit of 1937

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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 Ban on Modern Art: The “Degenerate Art” Exhibit of 1937

Artistic and political freedom usually go together. “Where books are burned, people are burned,” declared the poet Heinrich Heine, almost prophetically, as if anticipating the destruction of art and literature by the Nazi regime. Indeed, regimes that restrict art tend to also restrict the freedom of speech, the press: practically all areas of society and culture. This holds as true for today’s tyrannies as it did for the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Not surprisingly, ISIL—the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is responsible for publicized beheadings of innocent civilians, burning or stoning people to death, kidnapping, rapes and murder, has implemented a sharia school in Mosul, a city it controls in Northern Iraq, where it banned the teaching of art, music, history and literature.

During the Stalinist and post-Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe, Communist states instituted the reign of Socialist Realism in culture. All artistic fields—the visual and plastic arts, music, theater, film, dance and literature—became subordinated to the goal of glorifying Communist ideology and the “workers’ revolution.” In reality, of course, this meant reducing culture to a personality cult of the tyrant in power, stifling creativity and expression.

The Nazis went a step further. To spread Nazi ideology throughout German society and culture, Hitler essentially banned most modern art, which his regime called “degenerate art” (“Entartete Kunst”), viewing it as a product of Jewish or Communist cultural corruption. Ironically, the term “Entartung,” or “degeneracy”, was coined in 1892 by the Jewish author Max Nordau. It referred to the atavistic, degenerate traits of “born criminals”. When the Nazis came to power, they used the concept of “degeneracy” to describe all aspects of culture that they considered to be contaminated by “the perverse Jewish spirit” and could corrupt the Aryan race.

By 1937, the works of Europe’s most famous modern artists—Dadaists, Post-Impressionists (including Henri Matisse and Vincent Van Gogh) Expressionists (Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall) and Abstract Expressionists (Pablo Picasso) as well as some of the world’s leading modernist writers, such as Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann, were purged from museums, libraries and private collections. Over 5000 modern works of art were confiscated.

In 1937, the Nazis, under the cultural leadership of Adolf Ziegler, head of the Reich Chamber of Visual Art, and Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda, created a travelling exhibit devoted to mocking so-called “degenerate art”. It was first held in Munich on July 19, 1937, then moved around to cities throughout Germany and Austria.

A large and imposing portrait of Jesus greeted the crowds. The modernist paintings were strewn around haphazardly and often left unframed, sometimes hanging only by a cord. Signs posted next to them expressed slogans intended to undermine their value, such as “Revelation of the Jewish Racial Soul,” “An Insult to German Womanhood,” “The Ideal—cretin and whore,” and “Nature as seen by sick minds.”

As Carole Strickland explains, “The object was to discredit any work that betrayed Hitler’s master race ideology; in short, anything that smacked of dangerous free-thinking. Nazi leaders considered Modernist art so threatening they prohibited children from the show and hired actors to roam the halls loudly criticizing modern art as the work of lunatics. … Price tags displayed how much public museums had paid for the works with signs “Taxpayer, you should know how your money was spent.” (The Annotated Mona Lisa, Andrew McMeel Publishing, Kansas City, 1992).

The plan to undermine modern art at the 1937 Munich “Degenerate Art” exhibit backfired. The exhibit of modernist works was, despite the heavy attack, extremely popular, attracting three million visitors. Unfortunately, in 1942 the Nazis succeeded in burning, in the gardens of the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris, countless modernist works by notable artists such as Picasso, Klee, Leger and Miro. Their hatred of modern art, however, didn’t prevent them from exploiting it for financial gain. The Nazis looted museums and private collections throughout occupied Europe as a means of enriching their regime while impoverishing European culture.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Holocaust Memory: Beyond the Jewish Genocide

RuthMaierRandomhouse.com.au

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 Holocaust refers to the genocide of nearly 6 million Jews by the Nazis and Nazi collaborators. There is no doubt that the Jews were singled out for systematic extermination. However, it is also important to keep in mind that the Nazis murdered or sent to slave labor camps millions of non-Jews as well. Over 3 million Russians died as prisoners of war and in concentration or labor camps established by the Nazis.

Max Hastings documents that by February 1942, “almost 60 percent of the 3.35 million Soviet prisoners in German hands had perished; by 1945, 3.3 million were dead out of 5.7 million taken captive. (Inferno, 488). A large percentage of Russian civilians sent to Nazi forced labor camps—170,000 out of 2.77 million workers—perished there, along with large numbers of Polish and Italian prisoners of war. (Inferno, 489).

The Nazi policy of deliberately starving the inhabitants of conquered territories—in Holland, Poland and the Soviet Union–in order to channel food and supplies to their soldiers and to native Germans led to the slow and painful deaths of millions of innocent people. Their deaths, and their suffering, are part of the Holocaust and should also be commemorated and remembered.

Auschwitz statistics tell a grim story about the Nazi regime’s countless victims. According to Max Hastings, out of the over one million Jews who arrived at the camp only 100,000 survived, against all odds. Only half of the non-Jewish Polish prisoners survived in the camp. By the end of August 1944, when the Gypsy camp was liquidated, only 2000 out of the 23,000 Gypsies incarcerated at Auschwitz made it out alive. (see Inferno, 486).

Ruth Maier, a young Jewish Austrian woman, considered this more universal dimension of the Holocaust shortly before she herself was sent to die in Auschwitz:

“If you shut yourself away and look at this persecution and torture of Jews only from the viewpoint of a Jew, then you’ll develop some sort of complex which is bound to lead to a slow but certain psychological collapse. The only solution is to see the Jewish question from a broader perspective… We’ll only be rich when we understand that it’s not just we who are a race of martyrs. That beside us there are countless others suffering, who will suffer like us until the end of time… if we don’t … fight for a better…” (cited in The Diary of Ruth Maier, translated by Jamie Bulloch, Vintage Books 2010).

Ruth didn’t finish her sentence. She perished in Auschwitz on December 1, 1942. In 2010, her diary appeared in an English translation by Jamie Bulloch under the title of Ruth Maier’s Diary: A Jewish Girl’s Life in Nazi Europe. Some have compared her writing to that of Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag. Others have likened it to the journal of Anne Frank. Indeed, her diary offers not only an eloquent individual testimony about the Holocaust but also an important universal message: The Holocaust targeted Jews first and most, but the Nazi ethnic cleansing touched millions of lives and would have annihilated entire peoples and nations had Hitler realized his evil dreams. Ethnic hatred poisons the lives of countless people, often reaching far beyond the victims it isolates and targets first.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The siege of Leningrad: Genocide by starvation

The Great Patriotic War. Blokade of Leningrad.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Claudia Moscovici,

Literature Salon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Remembering Bergen-Belsen: Review of Four Perfect Pebbles

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

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

In a child’s imagination, there’s a fine line between hope and superstition. For Marion Blumenthal, a nine-year-old Jewish girl imprisoned with her family in the notorious concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, hope meant psychological survival in dire conditions, where death was a near certainty. Holding four pebbles in her hand, the young girl tells her older brother, Albert: “Look closely. I have these three pebbles, exactly matching. Today I will find the fourth. I suppose you think I’m silly’” (Four Perfect Pebbles co-written by Lila Perl and Marion Blumenthal Lazan, New York: Scholastic, 1996, 7). Although Albert humors his emotional and imaginative sister, for Marion finding the fourth pebble represents the survival of each one of her family members: her mother, her father, herself and her brother. The memoir Four Perfect Pebbles tells the story of the Blumenthal family’s survival against all odds. Of German origin, the Blumenthals flee the increasingly anti-Semitic measures adopted by the Nazis in Germany. They believe that they have escaped to relative safety in Holland. As the Nazi empire expands to Holland, however, in 1944 they arrange to be part of a group immigrating to Palestine (in exchange for release of German POW’s). However, to their misfortune, their ship is delayed by three months. Instead of finding their way to Israel, the Blumenthals are sent off first to the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork and later to the “Family Camp” in Bergen-Belsen.

Four Perfect Pebbles offers invaluable historical information about the Holocaust, targeting a young adult audience and written for their level. It also describes an exceptional story of survival in one of the most lethal concentration camps: the same one, in fact, where Anne and Marion Frank perished. Initially intended as a prisoner of war camp, in 1943 Bergen-Belsen became a full-fledged Nazi concentration camp. Located in Northern Germany, it operated between 1940 and 1945. In June 1943, Bergen-Belsen was designated a “holding camp” for Jews that were supposed to be exchanged for German prisoners in other countries. The SS divided the camp into several sections, including the “Hungarian camp”, the “Special camp” for Polish Jews and the “Star camp” for Dutch Jews, where Marion Blumenthal and her family were interned.

Aside from being deprived of sufficient food, water, adequate medical treatment and basic hygiene facilities, the inmates of Bergen-Belsen were forced to work all day long. Approximately 50,000 people perished there. Bergen-Belsen imprisoned Jews, Poles, Russians, Dutch, Czech, German and Austrian inmates. In August 1944, the Nazis created a new section, called the “Women’s camp”, which held about 9,000 women and girls at any given time. In general, the concentration camp became dangerously overcrowded, as over 80,000 people were brought there in cattle trains from camps in Poland and other areas overtaken by the Soviet army.

Unlike Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen had no gas chambers. Yet as death surrounded her and dozens of corpses were laid out on top of one another outside her barracks each day, young Marion lived in constant fear of extermination: “’Even though we had been told,’ Marion said, ‘that there were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, how could we ever be sure? … The soap that the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen were given before entering the showers did not guarantee their harmlessness. For it was common practice at Auschwitz to provide soap—and also the promise of hot coffee or warm soup afterward—in order to maintain calm and to deceive those about to be gassed” (66-67).

Conditions at Bergen-Belsen were notoriously bad. They deteriorated rapidly towards the end of the war, even by concentration camp standards. Marion Blumenthal recalls, “By early 1945 the food at Bergen-Belsen consisted mainly of cabbage-flavored water and moldy bread. This ration was far less than the six hundred calories a day per inmate that the camp had formerly provided… The death toll was now mounting rapidly as the result of exposure, hunger, severe diarrhea, and fevers” (70). Anne and Marion Frank perished here from typhus in March 1945, only weeks before the camp’s liberation by the Allies.

When the British and Canadians entered the camp on April 15, 1945, they found thousands of corpses and 60,000 half-starved and dangerous ill prisoners, themselves very close to death. But Marion and her family were not among them. After having been starved, forced into slave labor, attacked by fleas and allowed to languish sick from typhus, the Nazis forced them to march for miles as they were fleeing the Allies. Soon, however, they were finally freed by the Soviets and ended up in a refugee camp in Tröbitz. As she had grasped her four perfect pebbles, Marion continued to hold on to the hope of her family’s survival. Unfortunately, her father didn’t make it. He succumbed to typhus in May 1945. His death came as a blow to their tight-knit nuclear family. As Marion notes, “We had come so far, through flight, imprisonment, evacuation, the Nazis’ final attempt to destroy us, liberation at last, and now this—freedom and sorrow” (99). Her memoir, Four Perfect Pebbles, keeps his memory—and that of countless other Holocaust victims–alive. This book is not only an important historical document, but also a moving testimony of the paradoxical “freedom and sorrow” of being liberated after having suffered so much trauma and the inconsolable loss of loved ones that perished in the Holocaust.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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A Heroic Fight for Human (and Jewish) Rights: The Memoirs and Diaries of Wilhelm Filderman

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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

Wilhelm Filderman, the Chair of the Union of Romanian Jews and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania (1923-1947), is not only one of the country’s most influential Jewish leaders, but also the person who played a key role in saving a large percentage of Romania’s Jews from the Holocaust. At the beginning of 1942 the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania was dismantled and replaced by a Nazi controlled Jewish Council, in preparation for deporting Romania’s Jews to concentration camps in Poland. A lawyer of international repute and a former high school colleague of the man who would become Romania’s authoritarian ruler during the Fascist period—Marshal Ion Antonescu—Filderman was one of the key figures who helped persuade Antonescu not to send the Jewish population of the country living in Regat (Wallachia, Moldavia and Southern Transylvania), about 375,000 people, to their death in concentration camps.

Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, Filderman was not able to prevent Antonescu from sending almost 300,000 Jews living the Romanian-occupied regions of Bessarabia and Bukovina to concentration and resettlement camps in Transnistria. In fact, in March 1943, Antonescu deported Filderman himself to Transnistria for three months after the Jewish leader vehemently protested yet another government tax on the Jews.

Opposing totalitarianism in all its forms, Filderman also refused to support the Communist regime established in Romania after the end of WWII. He didn’t join the Democratic Jewish Committee affiliated with the Communist Party and, as a result, was arrested for a short period of time in 1945. Vilified for his anti-Communist stance, Filderman escaped to France after he heard that he’d be arrested once again, this time on the false charge of being a British agent. He spent the rest of his life in Paris, until his death in 1963. Wilhelm Filderman’s archives—his memoirs and letters—were transferred to the Holocaust Museum in Israel, the Yad Vashem archives, in accordance to the wishes expressed in his will.

Despite looking extensively, I could only find Volume I of Filderman’s Memoirs and Diaries, published by Yad Vashem in 2004 and edited by the great historian Jean Ancel. This volume covers the period from 1900-1940. So far, I haven’t been able to locate anywhere Volume II of Filderman’s memoirs, which would cover the years 1941-1947: namely, the historically crucial periods of the Antonescu regime, the Holocaust, WWII and the Communist takeover of Romania. Jean Ancel passed away in 2008, before having had the chance to finish editing the second volume of Filderman’s memoirs. Even though we may not have the full documents available in English, we can still see a clear picture of Filderman’s selfless and courageous struggles on behalf of Jewish—and human–rights by reading Volume I of his memoirs. As Ancel states in the introduction, Filderman’s journal reveals the author’s underlying humanist and democratic motivation: “Filderman continued to see his waging war on evil and his struggle on behalf of the Jews not only as an effort for an oppressed minority, but also as part of the larger struggle for human rights” (9).

Although devoted to his family, Wilhelm Filderman was also consumed by his duties to the Jewish people living in Romania. He worked long days, and often nights as well, using his legal training to contest Romania’s draconian anti-Jewish decrees. He was not opposed to Zionism, but he supported Jewish assimilation above all. As Ancel rightly states, Filderman “loved Romania and could not understand why Romania did not love him and his coreligionists… Filderman believed that only a modicum of goodwill was required to see the Jews’ fierce desire to identify with Romanian nationalism, to be part of the country and of Romanian society” (13). He viewed Romanian Jews, most of whom had lived in the country for centuries, as Romanians nationally and fought to obtain for them the same civil rights as those enjoyed by ethnic Romanians. The rise of Fascism and Nazism—particularly after the rise to power of the Iron Guard in 1927 and of Ion Antonescu in 1940–transformed Filderman’s legal battles for civic equality into a heroic fight for Jewish survival.

 

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

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