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The Wannsee Conference: Casually planning the Final Solution

HeydrichWikipedia

 

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

On January 20, 1942 fifteen high-ranking Nazi officials got together at the at the elegant villa located at 56-58 Am Grossen Wannsee near Berlin to plan the mass murder of European Jews, code-named “the Final Solution”. Arriving in style in a Mercedes, Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RHSA), indicated to the panelists that Hitler had personally entrusted him with implementing the “Final Solution” to Europe’s “Jewish problem”. The genocide was supposed to include not only the Jews living under Axis control or occupation, but also those living in Allied and neutral states, including in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal. According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the following Nazi officials representing the SS were present at this conference: Reinhard Heydrich, SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, chief of the RSHA Department IV B4 (Jewish Affairs); SS Colonel Eberhard Schongarth, the commander of the RSHA field office in Krakow; SS Major Rudolf Lange, commander of Einsatzkommando 2 in Latvia; SS Major General Otto Hofmann, chief of SS Race and Settlement Office. (See http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005477).

These men were the leading architects of one of the world’s most horrific genocide. Yet they treated the conference, and their decision, as an ordinary, productive and rather pleasant get-together. Nobody voiced a single objection against killing millions of innocent men, women and children. In fact, by the time the Wannsee conference took place, tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied areas of the Soviet Union had already been rounded up and murdered, often with help from the local populations. Even though the mass murder of Jews was already under way in occupied Soviet territories and Poland, this conference focused on plans of how to generalize it to the rest of Europe in the most effective fashion. If there was any debate among these men, it was regarding the logistical methods of transporting so many people to their deaths as well what to do with Jews in mixed their plans for mass murder is these men’s sang-froid. If you’ve read descriptions of criminals committing horrific murders after which the perpetrators go out to dinner with their families or play with their children as if nothing out of the ordinary took place, then you’ll be able to imagine these Nazi officials’ mindset. Imagine, but not comprehend. Because such behavior is beyond the power of comprehension of anyone who is capable of empathy. Historian Alex Kershaw paints a vivid picture of the Wannsee meeting in The Envoy (New York, Da Capo Press, 2010), a book that offers a historical account of Raoul Wallenberg’s courageous actions to save the Jews of Budapest. After discussing the arrangements for mass murder, Kershaw narrates,

“Servants brought in refreshments. The attendees drank and ate and talked about finally ending the Jewish problem not just in Germany, but in all of Europe, including Britain and the Soviet Union… The meeting formally ended after ninety minutes, with Heydrich and the Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller being the last to leave the large dining room. They asked the thorough Eichmann to share a drink with them. Soon the three men were beside a fire, warming themselves. Eichmann would never forget how honored he felt to be asked to join these two giants of the Third Reich for a celebratory tipple… ‘After awhile,’ recorded Eichmann, ‘we got up on the chairs and drank a toast, then on the table and then round and round—on the chairs and on the table again. Heydrich taught it to us. It was an old north German custom… We sat around peacefully after the Wannsee Conference, not just talking shop but giving ourselves a rest after so many taxing hours.’” (5-6).

Eichmann’s casual account of the Wannsee conference and of the attitude of the men who participated in it speaks volumes about the Nazi regime and its power structure. The people who rose within its ranks were individuals without depth, without empathy and without conscience. Not only did they not give a thought to the millions who would die senselessly because of their decision, but also they took great pride in the outcome of their meeting, indulging in pleasurable pastimes like smoking and drinking, to celebrate a job well done.

 

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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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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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Doyle Auction House, Holocaust Memory, Janusz Korczak, Mary Berg, massacre of the orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto, Nazi occupation of Poland, The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Final Solution, Warsaw Ghetto

Action T4: From “Euthanasia” to the Final Solution

Christian_Wirth:WikipediaCommons

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

Action T4: From “Euthanasia” to the Final Solution

by Claudia Moscovici 

Since the late 5th century BC up to current times, the Hippocratic Oath has been taken by doctors to ensure the ethics of the medical profession. Above all, the Hippocratic Oath forbids doctors from causing deliberate harm to their patients. Doctors pledge: “I will prescribe regiments for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone. I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such council.” The most egregious violation of medical ethics was perpetrated by Nazi doctors. “Euthanasia,” as practiced by Third Reich physicians, set the precedent for the Final Solution. From September 1939 to August 1941, when he began facing objections from German religious leaders, Hitler started experimenting in Germany with Action T4. The program was euphemistically described as “euthanasia”. In practice, however, it entailed the extermination of individuals in psychiatric institutions deemed “mentally incurable”. Over 70,000 patients in mental hospitals were killed under this program. Even when Hitler officially ended it in 1941, the practice continued until the end of the war. In concentration camps, it took an even more dangerous and deadly form.

“T4” is an abbreviation of Tiergarten Street Number 4 in Berlin, the address of the Charitable Foundation for Curative and Institutional Care, directed by Philipp Bouhler and Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician. As Robert Jay Lifton explains in The Nazi Doctors, the “euthanasia” program initially employed lethal injection. Later, in order to kill people in greater numbers and more efficiently, Nazi physicians began using carbon monoxide. This method of killing was also implemented later to kill Jews, Gypsies and Poles in concentration camps.

In 1939, Christian Wirth (featured in the picture), one of the SS officers in charge of exterminating the Jews in Poland, designed a gas chamber that was disguised as a public shower. Instead of water, patients were inundated by a toxic gas. Witnesses describe Wirth as a malicious sadist, similar to Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious “Angel of Death”. Corporal Franz Suchomel recalls: “From my activity in the camps of Treblinka and Sobibor, I remember that Wirth in brutality, meanness, and ruthlessness could not be surpassed. We therefore called him ‘Christian the Terrible…” (Arad Ytzhak, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, p 183-186).

The gas used at first was carbon monoxide, but that was deemed as too slow acting. The Nazis then turned to Zyklon B—a cyanide based pesticide—to murder 1.2 million people in gas chambers. The process, deemed a quicker and “more humane” method of killing (compared to shooting or carbon monoxide), in actuality caused a slow and excruciating death. In The Diary of Petr Ginz: 1941-1942, Chava Pressburger pays homage to her brother Petr, who died in Auschwitz at the tender age of 16. She is particularly pained by the thought that her brother died such a gruesome death:

“I ask readers to forgive me for returning to that terrible description. The witness in question worked in the gas chambers. His task was to wait for the people shoved into the gas chamber to suffocate; then he had to open the chamber and transport the heaps of corpses to the ovens, where they were to be burned. This man could barely speak for tears. He testified that the position of corpses suggested what went on inside the hermetically sealed chamber, when it began to be filled with toxic gas. The stronger ones, led by an overpowering instinct for self-preservation, tried to get to the top, where there was still some air left, so that the weaker ones were trampled to death” (131).

Conceptually, the distance between the Action T4 program practiced in German mental hospitals and the mass murder in concentration camps was not so great.  The T4 program offered the framework for the killing machine implemented in the Final Solution. As Allan Bullock observes in Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, Action T4 set the following precedents for mass extermination:

1)    it established an atmosphere of secrecy, shrouded in a language filled with codes and euphemisms to describe torture and murder;

2)    it implicated doctors in murder through a procedural façade of professionalism (including physical examinations, diagnoses, and the administration of “medicines” or “operations”);

3)    from the very beginning, it set Jewish patients apart from others for “special treatment”. Jews did not have to meet the T4 criteria—namely, of being diagnosed with incurable diseases or mental disorders—in order to be killed. They could be killed simply because they were Jewish. (Hitler and Stalin, 746)

Perhaps the most valuable lesson Hitler learned from the T4 program was to take the killing machine outside of his own country. Following vocal protests by the Protestant pastors Paul-Gerhard Braune and Fritz von Bodelschwingh and by Cardinal August Count von Galen, Hitler decided to bide his time and kill more covertly: not on German territory, where he wanted to remain popular, but elsewhere. The opportunity presented itself when he attacked Russia in Operation Barbarossa, beginning on June 22, 1941. With the onset of war, all bets were off. The Nazis used war against “the Bolshevik empire” as a justification for putting into practice everything they had learned from the more limited Action T4 “euthanasia” program: this time to kill Jews, Gypsies and Poles on an unprecedented mass scale.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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