Tag Archives: Holocaust Studies

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

Wilhelm-Fildermancertitudinea.ro

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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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, history, Holocaust in Romania, Holocaust Memory, Jean Ancel, Memoirs and Diaries Wilhelm Filderman, Romanian Fascism, the Holocaust, Wihelm Filderman, WWII

Review of Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis by Nicholas Stargardt

ChildrenWWIItelegraph.co.uk

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

Children were the most innocent casualties of WWII. Killed in concentration camps, orphaned by battles throughout Europe, languishing from starvation, destroyed by disease, targeted for their race, traumatized by violence, tens of millions of children throughout European countries suffered and died. Nicholas Stargardt’s informative and well-documented book, Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis (New York: Vintage Books, 2007) draws upon children’s school assignments, journals and letters to recreate for contemporary readers an invaluable historical picture of children’s lives under the Nazi regimes.

For me, the most inspiring and heartbreaking true story in the book is his account of life for the Jewish orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto and the heroic deeds of their caretaker, Doctor Janusz Korczak. Selfless and courageous, Korczak provided for the orphans even in the harshest conditions—resorting to begging for food for them—and stayed with them to the end to comfort them as they were boarded on death trains, refusing the chance to survive without them. Stargardt describes how on the morning of August 6, 1942, after finding out about the Nazi plan to liquidate the children of the orphanage, “Stefa Wilczynska and Janusz Korczak instinctively moved together to calm the children and get them to gather together their things as they had been shown. One of the teachers went out into the courtyard and obtained a quarter of an hour from the Jewish police to allow the children to pack up and come out in good order… As they lined up in fifty rows of four abreast Korczak set off with the younger children in the lead so that they would not be outstripped by the older ones… That day, all the children’s homes in the ghetto were cleared by the Germans…” (182).

Stargardt also depicts children’s unhappy lives in concentration camps and their powers of adaptation. Because of the wealth of documentation, he focuses in particular on the group from Theresienstadt, called “the Family Camp” at Auschwitz because it was the only camp in which young children were allowed to survive for awhile and continued to live with their families–until they too were killed en masse between July 10-12, 1944. (see my earlier review about Theresienstadt, http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/real-story-terezin-theresienstadt-%E2%80%9Cmodel%E2%80%9D-jewish-ghetto-i-am-star-inge-auerbacher).

“Racial outsiders” were not the only victims of the Nazis, however. Even privileged categories of children—German children themselves—suffered during the Nazi regime, though not for the same reasons as Jewish, Polish or Gypsy victims. Towards the end of WWII, many German children were, like their parents, casualties of war. Stargardt describes, for instance, the bombing of Hamburg, which “marked a turning point in the war. Its scale was completely unprecedented, and it came at a time when both British and German governments that such attacks on German civilians might decide the fortunes of the war” (233). Child survivors recall feeling very frightened by the bombing and praying to stay alive. “The conjunction of sudden awakening out of deep sleep and the sound of the sirens was particularly potent,” the author explains. “In Bochum, Karl-Heinz Bodecker repeated each night as he got into bed, ‘May the Tommies leave us in peace tonight.’ Among Ute Rau’s first stumbling words were ‘Quick, quick, coats, cellar’” (234). Perhaps the deepest suffering of German children was a result of losing their fathers. According to Stargardt, 4,923,000 German soldiers died during the war, two thirds of them perishing during 1944 and 1945. (337) Consequently, millions of German children of that generation grew up not knowing what it’s like to have a father.

Furthermore, about 13 million abandoned and orphaned children were displaced during and shortly after WWII. (351) Many were victims of forced evacuations, slave labor, “Germanization”, concentration camps and the rare survivors of the liquidated Jewish ghettos. Although their numbers can be quantified, their suffering cannot. These children were the victims of a war that was largely outside their control and, for the youngest, also beyond their comprehension.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Review of “The Holocaust in Romania” by Radu Ioanid

HolocaustinRomaniaIoanid

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

Radu Ioanid’s The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies Under the Antonescu Regime, 1940-1944 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 2000), has received well-deserved high praise from Elie Wiesel. Wiesel writes in the Foreword: “I do not hesitate to say it: Radu Ioanid merits the recognition of all those who are interested in that history which has so lamely become known as the Holocaust. His work treats an unfortunately little-known subject: the tragic fate of the Jewish communities in Romania. Only a few historians, such as the great Raul Hilberg or Dora Litani, among others, have addressed it in their works. In fact, Radu Ioanid often leans upon them, but his work explores more fully the Evil that reined in Transnistria, between the Bug and Dnister, the two great rivers in Ukraine. His work, based as it is on material from unpublished archives, thus constitutes a new contribution to this field” (vii).

Ioanid is one of the first scholars to address the thorny subject of the Holocaust in Romania. Aside from Raul Hilberg, who covers the destruction of Jews throughout Europe including Romania, Jean Ancel (The History of the Holocaust in Romania, University of Nebraska Press, 2012) and Denis Deletant (Hitler’s Forgotten Ally, Palgrave MacMillan Publishing, 2006) also subsequently covered this topic at length. Radu Ioanid, however, paved the way for research focusing on the Holocaust in Romania.

His book is very important, not least of all because the Holocaust is denied or minimized by many in Romania: strangely enough, not only by the fringe political elements–Nazi or neo-Nazi sympathizers—but also by many conservative and even mainstream Romanians.

The main reasons for Holocaust denial in the country are complex, however, three key factors come to mind: 1) Ion Antonescu, Romania’s authoritarian, pro-Fascist leader, has been rehabilitated as a nationalist hero, 2) some consider the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina who perished in the Holocaust not Romanian, but Ukranian (even though they were under Romanian occupation during the Holocaust) and perhaps most importantly 3) Romania has a unique and ambivalent history towards its Jewish population during the Fascist era. It is the country that collaborated with Germany and doomed to death between 250,000 to 290,000 Jews (mostly those living in Bukovina and Bessarabia) while at the same time being one of the European countries with most Jewish survivors: about 375,000 Jews living in Wallachia, Moldavia and Southern Transylvania made it alive through the end of WWII.

Those who want to absolve Ion Antonescu and the country in general of responsibility for the massacre of Jews in Romania have to contend with Radu Ioanid’s thoroughly researched and compelling evidence to the contrary. Ioanid describes the pogrom in Iasi that occurred in June 1941 as “one of the most savage pogroms of WWII” (The Holocaust in Romania, 63). Iasi was a divided city: half of its population was Jewish (about 50,000 out of 100,000 people), yet at the same time it was also the center of anti-Semitic, Fascist political activity (the Iron Guard headquarters). During the Iasi pogrom over 10,000 Jews were beaten, shot, robbed, raped and/or murdered. Hundreds of people were stuffed into boarded up “death trains”(about 100 persons to each car) that traveled aimlessly for days on end without food or water provisions. Most of them died of suffocation, thirst or starvation. The degradation of the Jews’ humanity is almost indescribable. As Ioanid points out, “At one stop the inmates were permitted to drink from a pond where pigs wallowed; several fainted and drowned right there, others perished later from the ensuing gastrointestinal infections” (85). Antonescu not only allowed this to happen, but, according to Ioanid, he sent an order requiring that Jewish women and children be included in this “Action”.

Moreover, unlike the German crimes against humanity, which were largely hidden by Hitler from the native population, the violence in Iasi was perpetrated in plain sight of the Romanian people, many of whom participated, alongside the goons from the Iron Guard and government officials, in the lootings, beatings and murders of Jews. As Ioanid elaborates, “The mob’s cruelty and greed too the form of truly shocking torture, rape, killing and robbery, all continuing earlier precedents but achieving spectacular new heights of barbarism” (62).

The pogrom in Iasi, however, pales by comparison—at least in magnitude—to the Holocaust in Bessarabia and Bukovina, which began in June 1941 and resulted in over 300,000 deaths from forced deportations (to Transnistria), beatings, shootings, starvation and disease. Antonescu used the fact that Northern Bukovina had been briefly controlled by the Soviet Union (in June 1940) to charge the Jewish inhabitants of both Bukovina and Bessarabia with collaboration with the Red Army and target them for mass deportation and murder.

Although most of the Jews of Regat (Moldavia, Walachia and Southern Transylvania), being considered “Romanian Jews”, were spared from the Holocaust, Ioanid reminds us of significant exceptions: “about thirteen thousand Jews were murdered during the pogrom in Iasi, then the Moldavian capital… During deportations from Dorohioi about twelve thousand Jewish inhabitants were sent to Transnistria, at least one half of which perished” (111). Furthermore, the Iron Guard killed 125 Jews in the Bucharest pogrom.

Will those who do not wish to believe that the Holocaust occurred in Romania, or that Ion Antonescu’s policies were largely responsible for it, be persuaded by Ioanid’s careful study of the subject? Probably not. Historical evidence rarely sways ideological beliefs. But that is not the book’s main purpose. This history of the Holocaust in Romania establishes the facts, to commemorate the victims and allow the survivors who want to know what happened access to the truth.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Privilege and Persecution: Review of The Diary of Mary Berg, Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto

MaryBergphotoDoyleNewYork

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 Diary of Mary Berg, a Polish survivor of American origins of the Warsaw Ghetto, has recently been in the news, a feature story in The New York Times. The journal contains entries from October 1939 to March 1944, offering first-hand details about the Nazi occupation of Poland, the establishment and destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, where nearly 400,000 Polish Jews lost their lives. Published in 1945 by L. B. Fisher, the diary initially received a lot of media coverage but went out of print in 1950. Thereafter the author declined opportunities to discuss her experiences of the Holocaust and even sometimes denied the diary’s existence. Nonetheless, the book resurfaced in 2006, published by Oneworld Publications under the title The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto and edited by S. L. Shneiderman, with an introduction by Susan Pentlin. Shneiderman had also translated the original diary from Polish into Yiddish and hired Norbert Guterman and Sylvia Glass to translate the Polish edition into English.

The diary took the spotlight again in a New York Times Books article by Jennifer Schuessler entitled “Survivor Who Hated the Spotlight” (published on November 10, 2014), which covered the recent auction of Mary Berg’s private photographs due to be sold at Doyle New York, a Manhattan auction house. How did these photographs resurface? Ms. Berg herself passed away in 2013. A Pennsylvania antique dealer bought her photographs, which had an estimated value of thousands of dollars, at an estate sale for only ten dollars. After relatives heard the news of the planned auction, they contacted Doyle and the auction house cancelled the auction, which had been scheduled for November 24, 2014. Schuessler cites Rachel B. Goldman, Assistant Professor of History at the College of New Jersey and a Judaic Studies expert, who maintains that the auction provoked a sense of outrage. She explains why: “This could set a tragic precedent of less Holocaust material being put in archives and instead ending up in private hands—including the wrong private hands, I might add.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/11/arts/survivor-who-hated-the-spotlight.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A5%22%7D&_r=0

These photographs, like the diary itself, offer an invaluable glimpse into the horrific lives even of the privileged inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto. Coming from an affluent family (her father was a successful art dealer and collector of the European masters such as Poussin and Delacroix), Mary Berg was especially fortunate to have a mother who was an American citizen. The Nazis generally treated American citizens differently from Polish captives, in the effort to launch a propaganda campaign that hid from the American press details about the persecution and massacre of European Jews. Mary Berg’s diary was one of the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust in Poland. It describes the tremendous duress of the hundreds of thousands of Jews trapped by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto and provides anecdotal accounts of the heroic and tragic Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which Mary received news about from survivor friends.

Originally from Lodz, where the Nazis had already set up a Jewish Ghetto, Mary moved to Warsaw with her family, hoping that life would be better there. In November 1940, however, the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto, where Mary was trapped with her family until a few days before the mass deportations to concentration camps, in the summer of 1942. She saw with her own eyes the brutality, the beatings, the random shootings of innocent civilians. She witnessed from her window countless people being forcibly deported to the Treblinka death camp and to Auschwitz. She saw, helplessly, thousands of children reduced to skin and bones. She barely escaped death herself. Due to her mother’s American citizenship, Mary, her parents, and her sister were sent to a camp in Vittel, France, which, as she states in her journal, seemed like “paradise” compared to the hardship and horror of life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Mary Berg’s diary offers a unique testimony about privilege and persecution in the Warsaw Ghetto. Originally the wealthier, well-connected members of the community could buy privileges, including jobs, exemptions from forced labor or deportation and, perhaps most importantly, the contraband food needed to ward off starvation. As members of the wealthier class, Mary and her friends helped organize charity talent shows, which not only gathered donations to feed the orphaned children and the starving poor in the ghetto, but also raised the public morale. Eventually, however, as the Nazis began implementing the Final Solution, even the wealthy faced the dangers of starvation, deportation and death.

Although privileged and young, Mary Berg is not only an incredibly astute observer of historical events, but also a highly compassionate person. Even when she and her family has enough to eat, she feels guilty for those who are starving in the Ghetto and does what she can to help them. After her family manages to escape the Ghetto, she is haunted by frequent nightmares about the hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who lost their lives in that living hell. In the one of the most moving scenes of her journal, Mary describes a scene that she will often relive: the day the orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto, led by their beloved teacher Dr. Janusz Korczak, went with dignity to their deaths:

“Dr. Janusz Korczak’s children home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. … They walked in ranks of two, calm, and even smiling. They had not the slightest foreboding of their fate. At the end of the procession marched Dr. Korczak, who saw to it that the children did not walk on the sidewalk. Now and then, with fatherly solicitude, he stroked a child on the head or arm, and straightened out the ranks” (169).

This sad procession walked to the trains that took them to Treblinka, where they were all killed. If there any episode in history can be said to capture the horror and brutality of the Holocaust, the massacre of the orphaned children of the Warsaw Ghetto would be it. Civilization—or rather the lack thereof—cannot sink any lower than this.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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A Cataclysmic War: Review of Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt

CecilBeaton, portrait of EileenDunne1940LondonBlitzJudt

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

Tony Judt’s monumental history of the (post) WWII era ranks up there with Robert Conquest’s study of the Soviet Union, Alan Bullock’s biographical history of Hitler and Richard Pipes’ account of the Russian Revolution. Rare in its depth, breadth and scope, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2005) examines the devastating ripple effects of a cataclysmic war—WWII—throughout Europe during the entirety of the twentieth century. Publishers Weekly rightly hails the book as “the best history we have of Europe in the postwar period and not likely to be surpassed for many years…. One of its great virtues is that it covers the small countries as well as the large and powerful ones.” Postwar covers the history of the entire Cold War, dwelling on the spread and dismantlement of Communism. However, the book’s most staggering information—replete with statistics—focuses on the devastation of WWII and its immediate aftermath.

Although Judt covers the material damage done to European cities, he observes that this damage “was insignificant when set against the human losses. It is estimated that about thirty-six and a half million Europeans died between 1939 and 1945 from war-related causes(…)—a number that does not include deaths from natural causes in those years, nor any estimate of the numbers of children not conceived or born then or later because of the war” (Postwar, 17-18).

This is what I’d like to focus upon in this review, since one of the book’s main strengths is to quantify and explain the ravages of totalitarianism and war. Tens of millions of civilians and soldiers died from mass extermination, disease, malnutrition, forced marches, deportations, labor and concentration camps. We’ve already seen that the Holocaust alone claimed ten million victims, about 6 million of whom were Jewish.

Military losses assumed staggering proportions. Judt documents that the Soviet Union alone lost 8.6 million fighters, Germany 4 million, Romania about 300,000. Countless Soviet soldiers died as prisoners of war, as the Germans captured 5.5 million Soviet soldiers. Many of those that managed to survive against all odds the Nazi imprisonment were deported by Stalin to Siberia once they arrived home. (18-19)

Women suffered from the ravages of war both as human beings and specifically as women. Many were raped and tortured as part of the atrocities of war and, later, the spoils of victory. Germany paid a heavy price for having succumbed to Nazi rule. As the German saying went, “Better enjoy the war—the peace will be terrible.” According to Judt, “87,000 women in Vienna were reported by clinics and doctors to have been raped by Soviet soldiers in the three weeks following the Red Army’s arrival in the city” (20).

With the farmland, electrical plants, infrastructure and even industry of so many European countries nearly destroyed, people continued to suffer from hunger, polluted water supplies and diseases, of which typhoid and diphtheria were widespread. Hospitals had insufficient supplies, staff and resources to take care of the ill and dying. As Judt describes the situation in Poland, “for the 90,000 children of liberated Warsaw there was just one hospital, with fifty beds” (22).

One of the biggest Diasporas in history, WWII led to the expulsion, deportation and migration of 30 million people between 1939-1942. (23) Germany, who ignited the war, lay in ruins by its end. Judt cites William Byford-Jones, a British officer in Germany, who observed the country’s dire situation in 1945:

“Flotsam and Jetsam! Women who had lost husbands and children, men who had lost their wives; men and women who had lost their homes and children; families who had lost vast farms and estates, shops, distilleries, factories, flour-mills, mansions. There were also little children who were alone, carrying some small bundle, with a pathetic label attached to them” (23).

The Jews of Europe suffered the worst. Targeted for slave labor and extermination just for being born Jewish, over 6 million Jews lost their lives during the war. Even among the fortunate few who got to see the day of liberation from the Nazis, 4 out of 6 died within a few weeks afterwards. Their condition, Judt explains, “was beyond the experience of Western medicine” (24).

After describing the chaos and suffering of war, as the title suggests, Postwar depicts the rebirth of parts of Europe. Indeed, part of the book’s message is one of hope. Given the human devastation and the material destruction caused by WWII, it is a miracle that Western Europe managed to rebound and emerge like a phoenix from the ashes of war to flourish in first part of the twentieth century. Still under the grips of totalitarianism (Communism), it would take Eastern Europe another half a century to recover from WWII and the dangerous ideologies that led to the near destruction of an entire continent and its people.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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