Tag Archives: Judaic Studies

A precedent for the Holocaust: The Armenian genocide and The Promise

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

As Peter Balakian points out in the Preface of his book, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian genocide and America’s response (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), the Holocaust had a significant historical precedent: one which, unfortunately, is all too often ignored. The Armenian genocide, he states, “has often been referred to as ‘the forgotten genocide,’ ‘the unremembered genocide,’ ‘the hidden holocaust,’ or ‘the secret genocide’” (xvii). He adds that many historians—including Yehuda Bauer, Robert Melson, Howard M. Sachar and Samantha Power–rightfully consider the Armenian genocide as “the template for most of the genocide that followed in the twentieth century” (xviii). Over a century later, Turkey still refuses to acknowledge the systematic and premeditated mass killings of the Armenian population by the Ottoman Turks, even though this genocide, officially recognized as such by 29 countries, is very well documented: “In the past two decades, scholars have unearthed and translated a large quantity of official state records documenting the Committee of Union and Progress’s (Ottoman Turkey’s governing political party) finely organized and Implemented plan to exterminate the Armenians” (xxi). Balakian himself studied “hundreds of U.S. State Department documents (there are some four thousand documents totaling about thirty-seven thousand pages in the National Archives) written by American diplomats that report in depth the process and devastation of the Armenian Genocide. The extermination of the Armenians is also illuminated in British Foreign Office records, and in official records from the state archives of Germany and Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey’s World War I allies. The foremost scholar of the Armenian Genocide, Professor Vahakn Dadrian, has made available in translation body of Turkish sources both primary and secondary” (xxi).

The genocide involved the systematic mass murder and ethnic cleansing of approximately 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during WWI. The extermination started on April 24, 1915, with the deportation and execution of a few hundred Armenian intellectuals from Constantinople. It progressed to the forced conscription, imprisonment in labor camps and murder of able-bodied males. Soon thereafter, it led to the mass murder of women, the elderly and children, who were herded by Turkish military escorts for hundreds of miles across the Syrian desert, without sufficient food, water, medical care or sanitary facilities. The Turks periodically butchered entire villages and communities mercilessly driven on these death marches. Women and young girls were often subjected to rape and torture before being killed. Sometimes the victims were loaded on cattle trains for days, without any provisions, in a manner similar to the Nazi transportation of Jews to concentration camps almost three decades later.

Similarly to the Jewish Holocaust, the Armenian Holocaust didn’t happen out of the blue. Like the Jews in many European countries, the Armenians were considered second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire. Even during relatively Enlightened times, when the Ottoman rulers granted the Christian and Jewish minorities relative autonomy and minority rights, non-Muslims were still considered to be “gavours”: meaning “infidels” or “unbelievers”. In the Eastern provinces, Armenian villages found themselves subject to higher taxation and often invaded by their Turkish and Kurdish neighbors. Moreover, like the Jews in the Pale of Settlement region, the Armenians fell victim to periodic pogroms.

However, discrimination and subjugation don’t necessarily lead to wide-scale genocide. Consequently, just as the Jews couldn’t have anticipated the extermination of their people by the Nazis, nothing prepared the Armenian communities living under Ottoman rule for their ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Turks. In both cases, world wars were used as an excuse—and incitement–for genocide. The Ottoman Empire entered WWI on August 2, 1914, when it signed a secret treaty with Germany to fight on the side of the Axis powers. The Turkish leadership wanted the local Armenian population to act on their behalf. It called for their insurrection against the Russian Army. The Minister of War, Enver Pasha, launched an attack on the Russians. He attempted to encircle and destroy the Russian army at Sarikamish in order to reclaim Turkish territories occupied by the Russians since 1877. However, his plan failed and his troops were defeated. The Turks blamed their defeat on the local Armenian population, claiming that they were traitors who helped the Russians. Subsequently, able-bodied Armenian men living in the Ottoman Empire were discharged from active military service, disarmed, and sent to forced labor battalions, where many were executed by the Turks.

In a move that would prefigure the Jewish genocide in the Eastern Territories during WWII, on May 29, 2015, the Turkish Central Committee passed a law of deportation (the “Tehcir Law”) that gave the Ottoman Empire the right to deport anyone they considered a threat to “national security,” which, in their minds, included women and children. The mass deportation—in grueling death marches–of the elderly, women and children soon followed. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died from starvation, disease, and being butchered in mass shootings. To carry out genocide, the Turks formed a paramilitary organization that has been compared to the Nazi Einsatzgruppen. The Turkish Committee of Union and Progress founded a “Special Organization”, comprised mostly of Turkish criminals released from prisons, who were put in charge of the deportations and massacres of the Armenians. They killed countless helpless civilians, decimating their numbers through forced marches, shootings, mass burning, drowning and even poisoning. Like the Nazis, the Turks experimented with toxic gases and biological warfare (inoculating healthy Armenians with the blood of typhoid patients). After the Allies defeated the Axis powers, on November 3, 1918 Sultan Mehmet VI was ordered by the Allied administration to hold war trials for the Turkish leaders of the Armenian genocide, which included Mehmed Talaat Pasha, Enver Pasha and about 130 high officials of the Ottoman Empire.

The contemporary movie The Promise (2016), directed by Terry George, captures the trauma of the Armenian genocide in an epic drama reminiscent of War and Peace. The movie traces the love triangle between Mikael, an Armenian medical student who falls in love with Ana, an Armenian tutor educated in France, who is engaged to Chris, an American journalist covering the war for the Associated Press. A small town boy from a poor family, before meeting Ana, Mikael himself becomes engaged to a wealthier neighbor, whose family gives him a dowry (400 gold coins) to cover his expenses for medical school in Constantinople. At a party held by his wealthy uncle, Mikael is introduced to Ana, his nieces’ tutor, as well as Emre, the son of a Turkish official, whom he befriends. He’s smitten with Ana as soon as he meets her. The young woman captivates him with her beauty, culture and sophistication. But the beginning of WWI nips their romance in the bud. Mikael is sent to a labor camp, from which he manages to escape. In one of the most harrowing scenes of the film, Mikael rides on top of a cattle train, hoping to elude the Turkish army and make it back to his native village to help his family. Suddenly it starts to pour. He hears strange sounds emanating from the train: terrible moaning and cries. Hands emerge between the grates of the train, trying in vain to cup the drops of water. To his shock, Mikael discovers that hundreds of Armenian civilians are trapped inside, dying of thirst and hunger. Before jumping off the train, the young man manages to pry open the lock to one of the doors and save the trapped prisoners. He finally makes it to his parents’ house, where the family has an emotional reunion. However, realizing that it would be too dangerous to stay with his parents, Mikael and his fiancée get married in great haste and move to a remote area, where they live together in a rustic cabin. A few months later, his wife becomes pregnant and experiences health complications.

Meanwhile, his friends, Ana and Chris, visit Mikael’s parents trying to locate him. They are helping a group of orphans escape from the murderous Turkish troops. As Mikael joins them on the back roads to lead the orphans to a safer area, he watches helplessly as a group of Turkish soldiers carry off his own family and other inhabitants of his little village, Sirun. He runs to their aid but arrives too late: most of his family and neighbors lie murdered in a ditch. Only his young niece and his mother have (barely) survived, left for dead by the Turks. The rest of the beleaguered Armenian community decides that it’s better to fight to the death rather than be butchered like sheep by the Turks. Armed with rudimentary tools and a lot of courage, the refugees fight valiantly and manage to hold off the Turkish onslaught until a French ship, le Guichen, comes to their rescue. As Mikael takes a lifeboat of orphans to safety, Ana drowns when her boat is capsized by Turkish artillery. Despite their rivalry for her love, both Mikael and Chris mourn her death. This tragedy resolves the tension of the love triangle that had divided them.

The Promise, I believe, follows in the footsteps of War and Peace in depicting war on an epic scale through the optic of a personalized family drama and love story. It alludes to the Armenian genocide, and captures episodes of it, without becoming too didactic. While viewers seem to rate the film highly, the critical reception has been mixed. Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator website, reports that, so far, The Promise received an average rating of 5.7/10. Benjamin Lee, the film critic for The Guardian found the film “soapy” but well intentioned. Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times concurred, calling it “corny” and “a derivative of better war romances”. The Nation’s film critic, Pietro A. Shakarian, rated it more highly, claiming “The Promise captures the magnitude of this history [of the Armenian genocide] that no prior film on the genocide has done before.” I agree in part with both perspectives. Like Shakarian, I find The Promise to be a moving epic drama that tackles an important and often overlooked subject. At the same time, I feel that the film sometimes privileges the love triangle at the expense of offering viewers more necessary background about the Armenian genocide. For instance, when depicting the friendship between Mikael and Emre (the son of the Turkish official, who is eventually killed because he didn’t turn against his Armenian friend), the movie may give viewers the false impression that Turks and Armenians peacefully coexisted before the beginning of the war. But, as my previous discussion has described, the status of the Armenians living under Ottoman rule was similar to that of the Jews in many European countries: they were considered (at best) second-class citizens and (at worst) enemies to be killed in pogroms. In both cases, the sociopolitical conditions were ripe for mass extermination. World wars were the catalyst, not the cause, of genocide.

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Survivors Club: A Family’s Legendary Tale

 

Survivors Club: A Family’s Legendary Tale

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

Michael Bornstein’s Holocaust survival story is the stuff that legends are made of. A few years ago, Bornstein ran across a photo of footage taken by Soviet troops of the recently liberated child survivors at Auschwitz. The documentary wasn’t actually from the day of liberation of the concentration camp. It was filmed as a reenactment a few days later. The children were asked to put on for the last time the striped, threadbare dingy clothes they wore in the concentration camp: only this time they wore them on top of the regular clothes they found in the “Canada” warehouse at Auschwitz, where the Nazis deposited the belongings of prisoners upon arrival. To his own surprise, Michael Bornstein, by now a grandfather, recognized himself in that photograph. He is the gaunt four-year-old boy with wispy, short hair standing in the front. It was miraculous that he had survived. The odds were heavily stacked against him.

Out of the millions of inmates at Auschwitz, fewer than 3000 were liberated by the Soviets and only 52 of them were children under the age of eight. Seeing this picture stirred something in him: not so much full-fledged memories, since Michael had been too young to remember the horrors of the Holocaust, as the desire to record his family’s incredible survival story. With the help of archival research, his father’s documents and interviews with neighbors and surviving relatives, Michael Bornstein and his daughter, NBC and MSNBC News producer Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, co-wrote his Holocaust memoir, aptly calling it Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). Although the title alludes primarily to the handful of children who survived Auschwitz, it also refers to Michael’s family. Out of the 3,200 Jews living in Zarki at the time of the Nazi invasion in September 1939, about 30 survived. Most of the survivors were members of the Bornstein family.

Historically, Michael Bornstein’s family and their neighbors experienced first-hand almost every stage of Nazi atrocities in Poland. Upon invading their little town, Zarki, the Wehrmacht burned it to the ground. They rounded up hundreds of Jews and shot them in nearby forests, in the streets and even in their own homes. Soon thereafter, the Nazis set up a Jewish Ghetto. Unlike larger ghettos throughout Poland, however, for most of its existence, the one in Zarki remained open, allowing some life-sustaining trade and interaction with the local Polish population. Michael’s father, Israel Bornstein, was elected Jewish Council President, a heavy responsibility that he reluctantly accepted. He and his resilient and courageous wife, Sophie, did their best to protect not only their own nuclear family—their older son Samuel and Michael, who was still a baby—but also the entire Jewish community of their town.

As in the case of the other Jewish ghettos in Poland, life for Jews in Zarki was a constant struggle to ward off hunger, forced labor, and the relentless waves of deportations to death camps. For awhile, Israel Bornstein managed to round up the resources to bribe the local Gestapo chief, Officer Schmitt, into giving their community more food and occasionally decreasing their burdens. Schmitt, though a callous man and a true Nazi believer was, fortunately, also venal. But small-scale bribery proved to be no match for the immense Nazi killing machine. By the end of September 1942, most of the Jewish inhabitants of Zarki were sent to die at Treblinka. Perhaps wishing to demonstrate his “humanity,” Schmitt made one exception. He spared Israel Bornstein and his nuclear family from death. They, along with Israel’s mother (Dora), were sent to a more lenient labor camp until they, too, were eventually dispatched to Auschwitz. As Michael was to find out later, his father and older brother both perished there.

Michael, by now a toddler, was placed in a children’s section of the concentration camp. Had his mother not managed to sneak him into the women’s camp after a few weeks, he most likely wouldn’t have made it. The older children, themselves starving, were constantly stealing most of his meager portions of daily gruel. Under the wing of his mother and grandmother, Michael managed to live in hiding from day to day. When his mother was reassigned to another labor camp, the little boy was left under the sole protection of his paternal grandmother. Ironically, it was illness that ultimately saved his life. Suffering from high fever, he was placed in the infirmary around the time the Nazis began to force the Auschwitz prisoners on the fatal death marches. From the infirmary window, Michael watched the beleaguered, freezing prisoners file away from the camp under the blows of the Nazi guards. The story of his liberation by the Allies a few days later is captured by the Soviet footage. But the inspiring tale of his survival—Survivors Club–has only now been told.

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Janusz Korczak, “The King of the Children”

Korczakandthechildrentoingtoing.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

Joseph Stalin once told U.S. Ambassador Averill Harriman “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” Perhaps this is why readers react so much more sympathetically to the personal account of the Holocaust in The Diary of Anne Frank than to any history or political science book on the subject. The deaths of Janusz Korczak and the nearly two hundred orphans he took care of are far from being a statistic. It is one of the most tragic episodes of Holocaust history, recorded both in his diary describing their lives in the Warsaw Ghetto, Ghetto Diary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), and in a beautifully written biography by Betty Jean Lifton, The King of Children: A Biography of Janusz Korczak (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988).

Janusz Korczak, the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit, a Jewish Polish educator, doctor and writer of children’s books and educational philosophy, was famous long before he perished along with his children during the Holocaust. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he devoted a large part of his life to writing about how to raise children. Unlike Rousseau, however, he practiced what he preached. Korczak devoted his entire life to taking care of thousands of orphans and destitute children. He worked first as a pediatrician, then as a leader of the Orphans’ Society. There he met the woman who would become his assistant, friend and greatest collaborator, Stefania Wilczynska.

In 1911 Korczak became the Director of an orphanage for Jewish children. In this context, he implemented some of the ideas expressed in his books: particularly that children need to be encouraged, not punished, and that they need a combination of guidance and autonomy to develop into decent human beings and good citizens. This was especially true of the thousands of homeless and hungry street urchins, both Polish and Jewish, that Korczak and Wilczynska raised, fed and educated over the course of their lives. Like in Korczak’s books, they created a “Children’s Republic”: not a utopia, but a place where the orphans had a lot of say in their upbringing and education, forming their own parliament, court and newspaper. Korczak, a keen psychologist, also encouraged them to write a diary where they learned to express their fears and sadness without allowing it to dominate their lives. He built for his orphans a state-of-the art orphanage: one of the first buildings with electricity and running water in Warsaw.

Not long after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, they decreed the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto on October 12, 1940. Korczak was obliged to move his modern orphanage from the Polish section of town, on Krochmalna 92, to a smaller building on 33 Chlodna within the ghetto walls, and later to an even tinier place on 16 Sienna Street. Even in the face of incredible hardship, disease and starvation, Korczak struggled every day to feed, clothe, educate and comfort the nearly 200 orphans under his care. He would go asking for food and donations throughout the ghetto, stage plays and other cultural activities, in the attempt to foster some semblance of normalcy in disastrous conditions. Although several of his Polish former students and friends offered him false papers to escape the Ghetto, he refused to abandon the children.

But on August 6th 1942, even the most cynical couldn’t have predicted that the Germans would send thousands of children living in the Ghetto to their deaths, in Treblinka. They took Korczak, his staff and the children by surprise when they stormed into the orphanage and ordered them to march to the gathering place at the train station, for deportation to the East. Betty Jean Lifton vividly describes the orphans’ sad procession; one of the darkest and most touching episodes in Holocaust history:

 

“The Germans had taken a roll call: one hundred and ninety-two children and ten adults. Korczak was at the head of this little army, the tattered remnants of the generations of moral soldiers he had raised in his children’s republic. He held five-year-old Romcia in one arm, and perhaps Szymonek Jakubowicz, to whom he had dedicated the story of planet Ro, by the other. Stefa followed a little way back with the nine-to twelve-year-olds… As the children followed Korczak away from the orphanage, one of the teachers started singing a marching song, and everyone joined in: ‘Though the storm howls around us, let us keep our heads high’” (The King of the Children, 340).

 

Although Janusz Korczak could not protect his beloved orphans from the gas chamber, he gave them one last gift: the comfort of facing their deaths with dignity.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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IG Farben: Manufacturing Death

Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering

View of the Reichstag assembly after Hitler’s speech in Berlin on Jan. 30, 1937. Left first row, right: Adolf Hitler. Standing on the steps: the Prussian Premier Hermann Goering. (AP Photo)

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

IG Farben didn’t start out as a Nazi death factory, which is what it’s known for to this day. In fact, up to the mid 1930’s, its chief executives were not particularly anti-Semitic. Formed in 1925, IG Farben started out as a chemical company that manufactured dye. It was so successful, that by the 1930’s it became the largest chemical company in the world and the fourth largest company in general. One of its leaders, Carl Bosch, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1931 for the development of chemical high-pressure methods. In Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2008), Diarmuid Jeffreys describes the progression—or, more fittingly, regression–of IG Farben from Germany’s leading chemical company to a death factory during the Holocaust.

Jeffreys records one of the most telling moments of this transition: the episode when the company’s leader, Carl Bosch, who valued the scientific work of many of his Jewish colleagues and employees, paid a visit to Hitler himself in the attempt to change his anti-Semitic outlook by considering its impact on science. Needless to say, Hitler not only didn’t budge, but also refused to communicate with Bosch henceforth:

“Then Bosch, as delicately as he could, raised the “Jewish question.” Perhaps the Fuhrer didn’t realize the potentially damaging consequences of his policies, he suggested. If more and more Jewish scientists were forced abroad, German physics and chemistry could be set back a hundred years. To his alarm, Hitler erupted in fury. Obviously the businessman knew nothing of politics, he snarled. If necessary, Germany would ‘work one hundred years without physics and chemistry’. Bosch tried to continue but Hitler rang for an aide and told him icily, ‘The Geheimrat wishes to leave.’” (178)

When the company’s senior executives, who didn’t see much scientific or economic value in anti-Semitism–Carl Bosch and Carl Duisberg—retired, they were replaced by a new crop of leaders who toed the party line. The company started to follow a more “pragmatic” approach, catering to the gruesome needs of the Nazi regime.

By 1941, IG Farben became directly involved in the death machine at Auschwitz. It built a rubber factory called Monowitz, or Auschwitz III, monitored by IG Farben managers and run through the exploitation of slave labor. There prisoners were worked to death, in identical conditions to the rest of the concentration camp: fed the same insufficient and unnutricious food; guarded by the same brutal SS prisoners; lacking in health care, and subject to the same reprisals and torture as the rest of the prisoners of the Auschwitz complex. Most prisoners could only survive two to three months working in such harsh conditions. When they were no longer fit for work, they were sent to the gas chamber.

After the war, following the precedent set by the Nuremberg Trial, some of the leaders of IG Farben were indicted before a U.S. Tribunal led by General Telford Taylor. In 1947 and 1948, twenty-four defendants faced similar charges to those leveled a few years earlier against the Nazi war criminals:

  1. Planning and waging a war of aggression against other countries
  2. War crimes and crimes against humanity through destroying occupied territories
  3. War crimes against humanity through the enslavement, deportation, rape, torture and murder of civilians.
  4. Membership in the SS, a criminal organization
  5. Conspiring to commit the crimes outlined above

In the end, as General Taylor would remark with great disappointment after the trial, justice was not served. Only thirteen of the company’s senior executives received prison terms (one to eight years). (See Hell’s Cartel, 400) The rest of those indicted were released, and many became successful executives in other companies. After the war, IG Farben was fractured, but not annihilated. The Soviet Union took over part of it, while the Western part of the company continued to thrive, eventually becoming affiliated with Standard Oil. Because of its close affiliation with the Holocaust, the remnants of the company faced continual protests. Although IG Farben executives announced in 2001 that the company would dissolve by 2003, it continues to exist today, still in the process of liquidation. IG Farben thus remains a living testimony to the fact that business and science, if placed in the wrong hands, can be easily used for the most corrupt and amoral purposes.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Auschwitz III, Carl Bosch, Carl Duisberg, Claudia Moscovici, Hell's Cartel by Diarmuid Jeffreys, Holocaust Memory, IG Farben, the Holocaust

The Nuremberg Trial

 

Nurember-Trial-history.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

How do you punish the perpetrators of the biggest genocide in human history? Do they deserve a fair trial, which their millions of victims never got? These are some of the questions the Allies debated during and after WWII. They were eventually resolved by the Nuremberg Trial, which Ann and John Tusa describe in vivid detail in their book by the same name (The Nuremberg Trial, New York: Atheneum, 1986). Several options were suggested, even before the war was over and the Ally victory secured.

Documents released in 2006 from the British War Cabinet indicate that in December 1944 the Cabinet considered a swift and severe punishment of the Nazi leaders involved in crimes against humanity. Winston Churchill suggested summary execution of the top Nazi leaders. A year earlier, at the Tehran Conference, Joseph Stalin proposed executing 50,000-100,000 Nazi officers. Roosevelt appeared prepared to go on board with this idea, but at the time Churchill vehemently objected, stating that most of them were fighting for their country.

Roosevelt later considered a plan proposed by US Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau. Morgenthau called for the de-industrialization of Germany and the execution of the major Nazi war criminals. This proposed retribution, once publicized by the media, caused massive protests in the US, which dissuaded Roosevelt from pursuing it. The plan eventually adopted by President Harry S. Truman after Roosevelt’s death continues to serve as a precedent for prosecuting war crimes today in its fairness and legality. The trial that took place in 1945 and 1946 in the city of Nuremberg distinguishes itself from how the totalitarian regimes had administered “justice” by leveling false accusations against millions of innocent people and murdering them.

The Allies chose Nurermberg for the trial of the top Nazi leaders for several reasons:

1) its Palace of Justice was one of the few public buildings in major cities in Germany that had withstood the Ally bombings and remained relatively intact

2) the building included a large prison

3) Nuremberg was the ceremonial place where the Nazis held rallies and issued their infamous anti-Semitic legislature.

The International Military Tribunal tried 24 Nazi perpetrators for crimes against peace (planning and waging wars of aggression), war crimes (violations of internationally agreed upon rules of waging war), and crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, enslavement, rape and deportation of civilians).

Of course, not all of the leading perpetrators of Nazi atrocities were caught and punished. Hitler along with Goebbels and his family had committed suicide. Many Nazi war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann, scattered throughout the world and lived, for many years, in hiding. Others, including Heinrich Himmler, disguised themselves as ordinary soldiers in the many camps throughout Europe. As the Tusas point out, it was very difficult to catch these mass murderers:

 

“Given the vast number of such camps, not just in the Four Zones of Germany but in Austria and the liberated countries, all of which were constantly receiving new inmates, chacking them was time consuming and frustrating. There was too little communication between the searchers and the authorities who might hold their prey; up-to-date intelligence circulated haphazardly if at all. Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the roundup of many leading Nazi war criminals took months” (The Nuremberg Trial, 37).

 

Remarkably, given the post-war mass migrations and chaos, 24 of the leading Nazi war criminals stood trial in Nuremberg, including Hermann Goering (Hitler’s heir), Joachim von Ribbentrop (Nazi Foreign Minister), Rudolf Hess (Hitler’s deputy), Hans Frank (the ruthless Governo-General of occupied Poland), Wilhelm Keitel (Army Head), Wilhelm Frick (Minister of Interior), Erns Kaltenbrunner (Security Chief), Konstantin von Neurath (Governor of Moravia and Bohemia), Erich Raeder (Navy Chief), Karl Doenitz (Raeder’s successor), Alfred Jodl (Commander of Armed Forces), Alfred Rosenberg (the blood-thristy Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories), Baldur von Fritz Sauckel (Chief of Forced Labor), Albert Speer (Armaments Minister), Baldur von Schirach (Hitler Youth Leader), Julius Streicher (leading writer of anti-Semitic propaganda), Alfred Seyss-Inquart (the ingratiating Comminissioner for the Occuped Netherlands), and Martin Bormann (Hitler’s Adjuct, who was tried in his absence). (See https://www.ushmm.org/)

Despite their positions of leadership and direct communications with Hitler and Himmler, most of the accused claimed ignorance of the Holocaust. In the cases when, faced with irrefutable evidence, they were obliged to admit their involvement, they argued that they were merely following orders and serving their country. Most adopted an obsequious tone and seemed non-descript despite their previous prominence in the Nazi regime. The Tusas note two exceptions: Goering and Speer. Hermann Goering behaved in his usually flashy and bombastic manner. During the trial, he acted in control of the situation. When he was sentenced to death, he committed suicide in his cell rather than relinquish his power. Albert Speer, the Minister of Defense, put up an impressively argued defense and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Robert H. Jackson, the United States prosecutor, shone throughout the trial in his eloquence, precision and passion.

On October 1, 1946, the International Military Tribunal issued the verdicts. Twelve of the most notorious war criminals, inluding Goering, Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, Frank and SeyssInquart, received the death penalty. Three of the accused (Hess, Funk and Raeder) were sentenced to life in prison. Four men (Doenitz, Schirach, Speer and Neurath) received jail terms ranging from 10 to 20 years.

The Nuremberg trial is rightly described as “the greatest trial in history.” In this trial, the Allies showed incredible restraint, given the magnitude of suffering the Nazis caused. The trial could have offered a farce of justice, giving the war criminals a taste of their own medicine. But it didn’t. The Allies took the high road instead, which is why the Nuremberg trial continues to serve as a role model for how to deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity in as fair a fashion as possible, despite the understandable temptation for revenge and retribution.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, crimes against humanity, Holocaust Memory, Nazi war criminals, Review of the Nuremberg Trial by Ann and John Tusa, the Holocaust, the Nuremberg Trial

The true banality of evil: Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning

OrdinaryMencoverscribd.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

Hannah Arendt referred to Adolf Eichmann as the paradigm of the banality of evil: an ordinary man led by extraordinary circumstances to exceptional evil. However, given that Eichmann spearheaded some of the key initiatives of the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, I have argued that he was quite extraordinary: extraordinarily sociopathic and evil. The circumstances of Fascist Germany allowed his true nature to be revealed and his thirst for power through murder to be played out.

In Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993) historian Christopher R. Browning reveals the true nature of the banality of evil by recounting the transformation of members of the Order Police, the Police Battalion 101, from regular men to brutal killers. Although initially the Order Police was composed of young men sympathetic to Nazi principles, by the late 1930’s it included older men from all walks of life: policemen, workers, small businessmen. Browning notes that these Order Police units expanded during the war: “Twenty-one police battalions of approximately 500 men each were formed from the various police companies and training units in Germany, thirteen of them were attached to the armies invading Poland” (6).

While one can plausibly argue that the SS were chosen for their anti-Semitic outlook and brutality, that’s not the case of the Reserve Police Battalion 101. Yet this unit of five hundred “ordinary men” is responsible for the murder of 38,000 Jews and the deportation of an additional 45,200 in occupied Poland in 1942. Few of the perpetrators were tried for their crimes against humanity after the war.

For those who did face a trial, their main defense was similar to Eichmann’s: namely, that they were merely following the orders of their superiors. In their case, unlike in Eichmann’s, this defense sounded plausible. Few of these men were ardent Nazis. Even fewer had violent or sadistic tendencies. Most of them were middle-aged men who were found ineligible for military duty. They were sent to Poland to participate in Operation Reinhard, which included shooting en masse the Jews of entire small towns, such as Jozefow and Lomazy.

They did so voluntarily, although initially not eagerly. Most of these men hesitated to kill women and children in the beginning. Browning points out that, contrary to the later excuse they offered that they were merely following orders, those orders didn’t entail any serious negative consequences for those who refused to follow them. The commander of Unit 101 gave his soldiers the option of opting out of conducting mass murders if they did not have the “fortitude” to kill civilians. All they faced, at worst, was peer pressure from some of their more ruthless colleagues. And yet, Browning notes, remarkably, only 12 out of the 500 men in Reserve Police Battalion 101 opted not to shoot innocent people.

Seeing themselves as merely doing their duty, they rounded up and shot thousands of helpless civilians. As they got used to their “job”, they became more violent and sadistic. Some even smashed Jewish babies against the wall, or threw them up into the air and shot them. The rest became increasingly used to the mass murders, quickening the pace of slaughter and increasing the brutality as time went on. If any book can show that genocide can happen anywhere and be perpetrated by regular human beings placed in extraordinary circumstances, Browning’s well-researched and persuasive book is it.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Review of Sarah’s Key

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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)

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Between 1940 and 1944, approximately 75,000 Jews were deported from France. Most of them perished in the German concentration camps. Despite these grim statistics, and despite the fact that France was partially occupied by Germany from 1940 to 1944, France was one of the European countries with the highest Jewish survival rate: roughly 75 percent. Out of about 340,000 Jews living in France, about 72,500 died during the Holocaust. Initially, part of France retained some autonomy: the Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Petain signed an armistice with Germany. German anti-Semitic measures against the Jewish population of France began almost immediately, including forcing Jews to wear the yellow star and forbidding Jews from working in white-collar professions, as lawyers, teachers and journalists. Following a similar procedure in France to the rest of occupied Europe, the Germans created a Judenrat, the Union Generale des Israelites de France, to be able to control the Jewish population through a centralized administration.

Repressive measures soon followed. In August 1941, over 4000 Jews were incarcerated at the Drancy camp, to be deported to Auschwitz in March 1942. The Germans targeted for deportation not only men, but also women and children. The French police rounded up 13,000 Jews in Paris—including 4000 children–during the Velodrome D’Hiver roundup in July 1942. They were held there in horrible conditions: without heat, water, food or sanitation facilities. Some committed suicide by throwing themselves off the bleachers. The French municipal police carried the roundups on their own. Emile Hennequin, the director of police in Paris, officially ordered that the arrest of over 13,000 Jews “must be effected with maximum speed, without speaking and without comment.” The arrested were not given the opportunity to pack or say goodbye to loved ones.

The novel Sarah’s Key (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008), written by Tatiana de Rosnay and originally published in France under the title Elle s’appelait Sarah, captures this shameful part of French history. The novel personalizes the atrocity by telling the fictionalized story of Sarah Starzynski, a ten-year-old Jewish girl living with her parents and four year old brother in Paris, who are rounded up by the French police in July 1942 and confined in the Velodrome d’Hiver. In the panic of the moment, Sarah hides her little brother in a camouflaged closet that looks like part of the wall, hoping to let him out upon returning in a few hours. She makes him promise not to get out until she returns.

However, Sarah and her parents don’t get the chance to return home. Her parents are eventually deported to Auschwitz, where they perish. Sarah, however, manages to escape with another Jewish girl, Rachel, to the countryside where they are hidden by a couple, Jules and Genevieve Dufaure, who are both farmers with a good heart. While Rachel dies of dysentery, Sarah survives and remains obsessed with saving her younger brother. The couple disguises her as a boy and they take the train back to Paris. By then, as Sarah discovers, her family’s apartment has already been allocated to another, non-Jewish family. Sarah rings the doorbell and, as soon as she’s let in, she runs quickly to the hidden closet. When she opens it, she’s horrified to find the corpse of her dead brother, who kept his promise to wait for her.

This tragic family tale is discovered sixty years later by journalist Julia Jarmond, whose in-laws inhabited the Jewish family’s former apartment in Paris. Julia, an American living in Paris, is herself struggling through a troubled marriage with Frenchman Bertrand Tezac, who cheated on her with a woman he’s fallen in love with. When Julia discovers she’s pregnant and decides to keep the baby, Bertrand, who was planning to leave his wife for his mistress, feels trapped. The couple divorces and Julia finds meaning in raising her baby girl, whom she tellingly names Sarah, and in tracking down the family history that leads her to these personal revelations about the Holocaust. Sarah’s Key may not be historical in the strictest sense of the term: the main characters are fiction. But this fictionalized journey into the past uncovers one of the darkest–and very real–moments in French history.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

 

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