Tag Archives: Treblinka

Janusz Korczak, “The King of the Children”

Korczakandthechildrentoingtoing.com

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

Advertisements

Comments Off on Janusz Korczak, “The King of the Children”

Filed under Betty Jean Lifton The King of the Children, Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory, Janusz Korczak, the Holocaust in Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto, Treblinka, Warsaw Ghetto orphans

The concentration camp commandants: Review of Soldiers of Evil by Thomas Segev

concentrationcampcommandantsjapantimes.co.jp

Thomas Segev’s dissertation, Soldiers of Evil (Jerusalem: Domino Press, 1987), goes a long way in explaining the psychology and social background of the Holocaust’s most ruthless mass murderers: the concentration camp Commandants. The book relies upon eyewitness accounts, victim testimonials, court documents as well as interviews with some of the Commandants themselves, their acquaintances, colleagues and family members who were willing to talk about the past. Segev notes that during Oswald Pohl’s trial (he was the SS Commander in charge of administering the entire Nazi concentration camp system) it was estimated that the Nazis imprisoned about 10 million people. (Soldiers of Evil, 15) By the end of the war, in January 1945, only 700,000 were found alive by the Allies. Of those, tens of thousands died shortly after liberation. Close to one million non-Jewish prisoners and 6 million Jewish prisoners were killed in the Nazi extermination camps.

One might expect that those who directed the mass murder of millions of innocent people would be prone to sadism. In his study, Segev observes that this was true only in some cases, but not most. Certainly men like Amon Goth, the Commandant of Plascow (so vividly described by Thomas Keneally in Schindler’s List), qualifies as sadistic. Goth would notoriously go on random shooting sprees of the defenseless inmates weakened by hard labor and hunger. Sometimes he would sick his dogs upon them to tear them apart limb by limb. He enjoyed the process of selecting his victims and witnessing their torment. His widow, Ruth Kalder, a woman with sadistic predispositions herself, became enchanted with Goth’s cruelty. In her eyes, it gave Goth an aura of a God, as he wielded the power of life and death over Plascow’s helpless inmates. After the war, she described her life with Goth in the concentration camp with longing and in idyllic terms, comparing her husband and herself to the King and Queen of a fiefdom. Like Goth, she showed no empathy for the prisoners, particularly the Jews, whom she considered subhuman. In an interview she gave in 1975, Kalder stated, “They were not human like us. … They were so foul” (Soldiers of Evil, 201).

Likewise, Arthur Rodl, Deputy Commandant to Karl Koch at the Buchenwald concentration camp, enjoyed killing inmates with his own bare hands. Segev recounts that on January 1, 1939, Rodl forced several thousands prisoners to line up, selected five among them, ordered them to strip and then proceeded to whip them until the morning to the sound of the camp orchestra. (Soldiers of Evil, 133) The Commandant of Buchenwald, Karl Koch, and his wife, Isle, who herself was known as “the monster of Buchenwald,” were equally notorious for their cruelty to inmates. They lived at Buchenwald in a gorgeous mansion known as “Villa Koch”, like royalty in the midst of the squalor of the concentration camp. Both took great pleasure in abusing and killing prisoners. Segev recounts that Isle would dress up in a provocative manner and ride around the camp on horseback. If any of the inmates looked at her, she would sometimes beat them with her own hands or, more commonly, ask her husband or the SS men to savagely attack them while she watched. There were rumors that Isle Koch even had lampshades made out of tattooed prisoners’ skin. Eventually the Nazi government tried Karl Koch not for his cruelty to prisoners (which was extreme even by Nazi standards), but for stealing stolen goods—the money, jewelry, clothes and extracted gold teeth—that the Nazi regime took from the Jews.

Despite such examples of sadistic behavior, Segev’s research indicates that the Nazi Commandants of concentration camps had a diverse background. Most of them were not predisposed to sadism, he found. However, all of them had a strong ideological background, the propensity to dehumanize others and lacked basic human empathy. As Segev observes, “There were among them men of different types: bureaucrats, opportunists, sadists, and criminals. The great majority of them were political soldiers” (Soldiers of Evil, 124). He further notes that most of the Nazi concentration camp Commandants “saw themselves first and foremost as soldiers: two thirds of them had served in the army before joining the Nazi party and the SS. Most of them had volunteered for the army before, during, and after the First World War” (Soldiers of Evil, 60). For many, the experiences of the war served to desensitize them to human suffering and to habituate them to the act of killing. Some of them received special ideological training in Theodor Eicke’s Death’s Head squads, an elite formation in which Eicke, described by Segev as a “Nazi grand seigneur,” recruited very young men with Aryan features whom he indoctrinated with a toxic combination of Romantic nationalism, Nazi ideology and rabid anti-Semitism.

Perhaps the most revealing inside look into the concentration camps’ Commandants’ mentality are the testimonies of Rudolf Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, and of Franz Stangl, the Commandant of Treblinka. Neither of them was particularly drawn to sadism yet both of them could kill hundreds of thousands of human beings as easily as one kills a gnat. In his 1971 interview with the British writer and historian Gitta Sereny, Stangl is asked how he could kill so many human beings. He nonchalantly compares the Jewish inmates to a herd of cattle trapped in their pins and headed for slaughter. Sereny asks him: “So you didn’t feel they were human beings?” Stagl responds: “Cargo. They were cargo” (Soldiers of Evil, 201-2).

Rudolf Hoss, responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million Jews at Auschwitz, dehumanized his victims in a similar fashion. In a conversation with his brother-in-law, Fritz Hensel, during the latter’s 4-week visit to Auschwitz, Hensel asks him how he could kill human beings. Hoss responds that the Jews were subhuman (Untermensch). Hensel asks for a clarification of the term “subhuman”. According to his account, Hoss sighs and replies: “You always ask and ask… Look, you can see for yourself. They are not like you and me. They are different. They look different. They do not behave like human beings. They have numbers on their arms. They are here in order to die” (Soldiers of Evil, 211). Using circular reasoning, the concentration camp Commandants dehumanized human beings through extremely cruel and inhumane treatment, then saw the results of their dehumanization as proof that their victims weren’t really human. Most of them were not prone to cruelty but could be exceptionally callous and cruel for ideological and political reasons.

Segev’s research indicates that sadistic Commandants like Goth and Koch did not in fact meet the SS ideal. Their evil could not be controlled and channeled in service to the Nazis. They killed for their own pleasure; stole for their own profit. The most successful concentration camp Commandants were those like Hoss and Stangl: “political soldiers” who killed millions of innocent human beings without conscience or remorse in order to fulfill the needs and ideals of the Nazi regime.

Claudia Moscovici

Holocaust Memory

Comments Off on The concentration camp commandants: Review of Soldiers of Evil by Thomas Segev

Filed under Auschwitz, Claudia Moscovici, concentration camp Commandants, Franz Stangl, Holocaust Memory, Rudolf Hoss, Soldiers of Evil Thomas Segev, the Holocaust, Treblinka