Yom Hashoah (Israel Holocaust Remembrance Day)

Being a Jew means being eternally vigilant.  In Europe it is astonishing how many groups, tribes and nations took the opportunity during WWII to turn on their Jewish neighbors and kill them, usually for money (and we were called money grubbing).  Here is a short list: Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Dutch, Belgians, French, Italians, Greeks, Norwegians, Swedes, Croats, Bosnians (Muslims), and so on.  If you are a member of any one of these groups you owe a debt to humanity and to the Jewish people in particular.

The only peoples on record that did anything to protect their Jewish citizens were the Danes (who ferried them across to neutral Sweden), Bulgarians, and Albanians (who are Muslims).  The Swedes were supposedly neutral, but cooperated with the Nazis, selling them iron ore and safe-guarding their stolen gold.  Switzerland was neutral, but readily returned Jews who managed to desperately cross the border into their territory.  The Italians protected some of their Jews and the Spanish also, even though Franco was allied with Germany and similarly with the Finns.  Although many Russians were anti-Semitic, the Red Army included many Jewish soldiers and they were very helpful to the starving decimated Jews as they defeated the German Army (Wehrmacht).

And so far I have not mentioned the Arabs and the Muslims in general, who are anti-Semitic from Mohammed and the Koran, apart from European influence.  It’s not a  pretty picture,  and as many reports attest, its getting worse again.  The Turks attack the Kurds, but there are no liberal-leftist demonstrations in the West, the Burmese attack the Rohingya, but ditto.  But, the Palestinians attack Israel and there are demonstrations against – Israel.  Yes, the only safe place for Jews, notwithstanding all this animosity, is Israel.

Today is Yom Hashoah in Israel, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  I went to Netanya on Tues to hear my friend Eddie Bielawski talk about how he and his family of 10 survived for 3 years in hiding in (1941-4) in Poland.  The story is told in the book he wrote and I edited entitled “Invisible Jews: surviving the Holocaust in Poland.”  One anecdote tells it all, he and his mother were travelling by train from Poland to Austria after the War.  Polish police got on the train to check everyone’s papers.  Seven people were identified as Jews.  They were taken off the train and shot.  Even as a child he knew not to draw attention to himself.

Six million Jews were murdered, most in very horrific ways.   They were part of the overall ca. 50 million people murdered during WWII.  Most of them were innocent civilians.  But, the toll for the Jewish people was most terrible.  Some anti-Semites argue that we make too much of the Holocaust.  I argue that we do not make enough of it.  They want to forget it, or even deny it.  We must never forget or diminish the historic impact of the most terrible crime in history.

Advertisements

Polish Complicity in the Shoah

There is currently a controversy raging over the degree of Polish complicity in the Shoah, the Holocaust of European Jews during WWII.   This was initiated by the passage of a law going through the Polish Parliament and supported by the Government of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party.  The Law seeks to absolve Poland from any official guilt in the murder of its Jewish citizens and to ensure that the many concentration camps that operated on Polish soil will not be termed “Polish Concentration Camps” but rather “Nazi or German Concentration Camps in Poland.”  The difference may be subtle but is important to Poles.

It is true that as a nation the Poles fought the Nazi Germans and that their Army was decimated at the beginning of WWII.  Subsequently Poland was divided and to a large extent opposed Nazi rule.  Polish President Andrzej Duda stated “there was no systematic support from the Polish side for the Holocaust.”  However, the Germans located most of the major camps, including the death camps, Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka and many others in Poland for two reasons.  Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, over 3 million Jews, and also the Poles were renowned for their anti-Semitism.  Many pogroms had taken place in Poland from the Middle Ages through to WWI and therefore the Germans could be confidant that the local population would cooperate in the murder of its Jewish neighbors.  Of course, the Poles were only marginally more anti-Semitic than their neighbors, the Ukrainians, the Lithuanians and Hungarians and others. One might ask why, if these peoples were so virulently Jew-hating, why so many Jews continued to live there for so long?

I happen to be in a good position to have seen both sides of this argument.  I had a friend in London who died a few years ago named Jerzy Lando, who wrote a book called “Saved by my Face,” obviously his blond hair and blue eyes saved him.  He described how many Polish people helped him, how he was an officer in the Polish Home Army and fought in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and how he managed to survive.  However, this is somewhat deceptive, because his father was a wealthy fabric manufacturer who had many Polish friends and who paid  them to hide and feed his son.  Also, when he was ordered to fight for the Home Army he carefully disguised the fact that he was Jewish, in case his fellow Poles murdered him.  Nevertheless, he was an active member of the British-Polish Friendship League.

I also have a friend, Eddie Bielawski, with whom I published a book entitled “Invisible Jews: Surviving the Holocaust in Poland,” which describes how his father and his brothers managed to hide a family of ten people for 3 years in order to survive the War.  During this time they were very clever and also lucky to be able to avoid being turned in and/or murdered by the vast majority of hostile anti-Semitic Poles.

The fact remains that over 3 million Jews lived in Poland before the War, and barely 50,000 survived until its end.  This terrible program of murder and destruction of Jewish men, women and children by the Germans could not have been accomplished without active and enthusiastic Polish participation.  That there were numerous massacres of defenceless Jews by Poles during and after WWII is an established fact.

International Holocaust Day

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, that commemorates the liberation by the Allies of the concentration camp at Auschwitz during WWII, we should reflect on the causes of that great tragedy for the Jewish people.  Certainly the overwhelming cause was the deeply ingrained hatred of Jews that permeated European societies.  This had its roots in Christianity and racial animosity.  There was a prevalent belief among the competitive European national tribes (Germans, Hungarians, Lithuanian, French, Poles, etc.) that the Jews were an untrustworthy and vulnerable group that could be blamed for their problems.  The complexity of the situation has been analyzed in numerous books, of which I highly recommend “The Pity of It All: A Portrait of Jews in Germany 1743-1933” by Amos Elon (2002).

However, in any objective analysis of the then contemporary situation one must conclude that part of the blame lay with the Jews themselves.  We must face the unpalatable facts.  This is not an attempt to transfer the blame to the victim, that has so often been the case in the past, or to ignore the many acts of Jewish defiance, resistance and heroism, for example described in the book “They Fought Back: The Story of Jewish Resistance in Nazi Germany” by Yuri Suhl (1967).  Such groups as “The White Rose” and the Bielsky Brothers have been documented and many found ways to survive under extreme circumstances, see for example “Invisible Jews: Surviving the Holocaust in Poland,” by Eddie Bielowski and Jack Cohen (2017).  But, in fact there was no organized Jewish resistance on what we might call a national or tribal level.

The reasons for this are of course complex.  One major reason was that the Jews were called disloyal by other national groups, and to have organized resistance to them would have confirmed that belief.  This is a common reaction by minorities to accusations of disloyalty, as shown by Japanese Americans during WWII in California (although surprisingly not in Hawaii) where they accepted being transferred to concentration camps (although they were not destined to be murdered).

The Jews were a “liberal” people in the sense that they depended on the brotherhood of man as a defense against precisely the kind of fate that awaited them in Europe.  One of the major factors that inured them to their situation was their religion.  Judaism, like all religions, was an opiate, it emphasized pacifism over aggression, acceptance of fate as a manifestation of God’s will.  Due to their minority status in every country, Judaism and Jewish society became especially and unavoidably complaisant.  The general rubric was “don’t rock the boat,” don’t stick your head above the parapet, “shtil.”  Many will argue that it was impossible under the circumstances for the Jews to organize effective resistance, but the fact of the matter remains that throughout Europe no established Jewish community organization set up an armed resistance group.

A German once told me that the Jews suffered because “when you live among wolves, you must act like a wolf.”  This is the Darwinian view of the situation, “the survival of the fittest.”  In the many nature films seen on TV these days, nature is not a benign and peaceful kingdom, but one in which survival is always at stake in the most violent of ways.  A male lion gets to mate with the females if he can defend himself against all competitors, but in return he must protect his females and his offspring.  Otherwise they will be taken away from him and his cubs killed.  Not all species act like this, some pair off and mate for life.  But, whether or not this Darwinian view is true, the Jews who survived learnt the terrible lesson of the Holocaust.  To be passive in one’s defense is a death sentence.  To accept one’s own national or tribal status and protect it at all costs in this world is essential.  That is the lesson that the Jewish people in their homeland took to heart and hence the IDF is a recognized and fearsome force.

 

 

 

The Man with the Iron Heart

The man with the iron heart” is the title of a recent movie about Reinhard Heydrich and is also the nickname that Hitler gave to him, his favorite protegé.   Heydrich was a naval officer when he was court-martialled for taking advantage of a woman.  He was embittered and then joined the Nazi party.  He rose to become head of SS intelligence and showed his ruthless anti-Semitic character.   Hitler liked him for his dedication to the cause and for his blond blue-eyed Aryan look, something Hitler himself lacked, with his mousey brown hair and silly mustache.

When WWII started Hitler put Heydrich in charge of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile Special Forces units that swept through occupied Eastern Europe murdering ca. 1.5 million Jews.  But because this process was not efficient enough, Heydrich then organized the Wannsee Conference in 1941, in which the program for the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem was revealed.  His aim was to kill all 11 million European Jews.  For his ruthless dedication Hitler appointed Heydrich the “Protector of Bohemia and Moravia” (Czechoslovakia).   In this role he was also known for his extreme ruthlessness in stamping out Czech resistance and was called “The Butcher of Prague.”

Two Czech soldiers serving in the British Army, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik, were chosen to be parachuted behind enemy lines and make their way to Prague, where they cooperated with the resistance in a plan to assassinate Heydrich.  No senior German official had been assassinated by the resistance throughout Europe, partly because the Germans carried out terrible reprisals.  Because Heydrich was so arrogant he took few security precautions, so they planned to shoot him as he was driven one morning down from the Castle into the town.

They managed to do this in June 1942, even against great odds, and Heydrich died later that night.  The reprisals that the Nazis took were indeed terrible, they suspected the village of Lidice outside Prague of having been involved in the plot, and so they murdered everyone in the village, altogether ca. 1,300 people, and burned the village to the ground, a heinous atrocity.  The two Czech soldiers were found and committed suicide before being captured.

This is not an easy movie to watch, its subject matter and action are not entertaining.  But, it is very well made and acted and I highly recommend it.  We should all know what actually happened during WWII, even though mankind has not been able to prevent such kind of events recurring.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

I read the book ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife,” by Diane Ackerman, some time ago and had forgotten much of the detail.  But, the movie of the same name is a very well-directed and beautiful version that retains all the essential elements.  Dr. Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina ran the Warsaw Zoo.  When the Nazis attacked Poland in 1939 at the start of WWII the Zoo was decimated.  After some time the Zabinskis use the facilities that formerly held the animals to hide Jews.  True and very symbolic.  In this way they saved the lives of several hundred Jews.

I have two criticisms of the film, it shows the Nazis as terrible as they were, but no Poles are shown to be anti-Semitic and one should understand that the Zabinskis were exceptions.   Also, the uprising of the Poles in Warsaw in Aug 1944 is shown as if it coincided with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of April 1943.   Not only were they separated in time, but the Poles gave no help to the Jews when the Warsaw Ghetto uprising took place, that ended with the deliberate razing of the Ghetto by the Germans setting it on fire.  The Polish uprising was also suppressed by the German Army with many casualties. Warsaw was one of the most destroyed cities in WWII.

The true story of how the Zabinskis helped save Jewish lives is in some respects inspiring.  Definitely a movie worth seeing. But, we should not get carried away.  They saved hundreds at great peril to themselves.  Yet hundreds of thousands were being massacred.  A small degree of hope against a huge measure of despair.

A Jewish Malaise?

We went to the Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) commemoration at Temple Israel in Netanya, where Rabbi Birnbaum, himself a survivor, always organizes a memorable service.  This year he focused on Jewish resistance to the Nazis, to oppose the prevalent view that “the Jews went like lambs to the slaughter.”  

There are many instances of Jewish resistance that have been documented.  Perhaps the most famous was the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in April, 1943 (for a detailed analysis see “Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto” by Moshe Arens, 2013).  It took the German Army (Wehrmacht) 4 weeks to defeat the Polish Army and capture half of Poland (the other half was occupied by the Soviets under the Nazi-Soviet pact, until Operation Barbarossa when the Germans attacked the Soviets).   It took the German Army 6 weeks to defeat the French Army and capture most of France (except for the southern Vichy region that was a German proxy).   Yet it took the Germans 7 weeks to crush the resistance of a few hundred Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, with ca. 10,000 German troops.  

In Germany itself, under the most adverse of conditions there were two mainly Jewish resistance groups, the Baum Group, that consisted of ca. 100 members.  They set fire to an anti-Semitic German exhibit organized by Goebbels in 1940 in Berlin.  Most of them were caught and tortured and murdered, some of them by decapitation.  There was also the “White Rose” group, mainly students at Munich University who distributed anti-Nazi pamphlets and posters.  They were captured by the Gestapo in 1943 and executed.  

There were many uprisings in Ghettos and concentration camps.  In Sobibor the organized uprising killed most of the German staff and set the camp on fire. Although ca. 300 hundred prisoners got away, ca. 100 were eventually captured and killed.  But, this break-out caused the Germans to close the camp and destroy it.  There were uprisings in many other camps, such as Treblinka where 1,000 prisoners took part, and Auschwitz-Birkenau (see for example “Jewish Uprisings in Ghettos and Camps 1941-44” of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC at  https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005407 ). 

However, one must admit that given the huge numbers of Jews involved (ca. 6 million), the amount to actual resistance was small. Nevertheless there are many reasons for this: 1. The Germans arrested most of the able-bodied men first; 2. The Jews were civilians without military training; 3. The Jews were with their families and tried to save them first; 4. It was almost impossible to obtain any form of arms (the Polish underground refused to sell guns to the Jews even at exorbitant prices); 5. The Germans carried out a ruthless policy of revenge killings, for the murder one SS officer ca. 120 Jews were killed, so that resistance was suppressed.

But, there is another reason.  Some time ago a German acquaintance of mine told me that the reason why so many Jews were killed was because “when you live among wolves you must behave as a wolf.”   Perhaps this was the basis of the Jewish malaise, a passivity in the face of hatred and death, due to hundreds of years of conditioning.  The Jews, having experienced so much hatred and so many attacks and killings and murders, did not recognize that this time it was even more serious, that caught behind enemy lines without any means of protection they were defenceless, which only whetted the murderers’ appetite.   

The Germans, in order to carry out “the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem,” as decided at the Wannsee Conference in 1941, committed huge resources to the task.  Thousands of trains had to be organized, roundups of Jews in every city and village, the use of thousands of guards on the trains and in the camps.  Then there were the SS and the cadre of murderers, including the infamous Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian guards, whose bloodthirsty hatred of Jews knew no bounds (even the SS complained at the horrific “games” they played with prisoners at Auschwitz).   Suppose the Germans had not carried out this plan then, but had waited until after the War (that they expected to win), and had put all these resources into actually fighting the armed enemy, would that have tipped the outcome into the German’s favor.  It was very close, but we shall never know.  At the very least the obsession of the Germans with murdering all of European Jewry added to their vulnerability in prosecuting the War.

In another respect, the Jews were deficient, after the War, there were very few Jewish attacks of revenge.  We should have revenged ourselves on the majority of Europeans (only in Denmark, Bulgaria and Albania were the Jews saved).  So finally we must admit that the European Jews did have a kind of malaise, but it was to have been too civilized and too humane to ever believe that such a plan as “the Final Solution” could ever be hatched and then executed by human beings in the 20th century. Those of us Jews who were lucky enough to have survived this terrible onslaught will make sure not only that it never happens again, but that we will retain our sovereignty in our own State of Israel against all comers and at all costs.  Let our enemies today know this, tell it to the BDS activists and the “Jews for Palestine,” you are fightng a losing battle.   

Escape Tunnels in the Shoah

This is written for Holocaust (Shoah) Memorial Day in Israel, April 24, that commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  Recently an escape tunnel was discovered under the trees and fields of the Ponar Forest outside Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.  It was discovered using modern technology, although its existence had been known about since the end of WWII.  The Ponar Forest was the site of an infamous massacre in 1941, when the Jews of Vilnius and surroundings were rounded up and transported to the nearby forest where they were murdered by Lithuanian fascists usually by shooting or more brutal means. Approximately 100,000 people were killed there!  

Towards the end of the war in 1944, the Nazis were concerned to cover up all instances of the mass murders of Jews, and they selected a group of young Jewish men to help remove all trace of the victims of the massacres at Ponar.  The Jews had in fact been massacred in several large depressions in the earth and then buried.   The terrible job of this brigade was to dig up the remains of the Jews and then burn them and destroy their bones, grind them to dust.  

While they were doing this, day after day, they concocted a plan to dig a tunnel to enable them to escape from their hell.  Using spoons and other implements they dug a tunnel that enabled ca. 20 of them to escape before they were detected.  Most of them were killed in the subsequent search, but a few managed to get far enough away and joined the partisans in the nearby forest. At least one of the survivors, Motke Zeidel, made it to Israel after the War.

Only now many years later did a group of archeologists using ground-seeking radar and electrical resistivity instruments find conclusive evidence of the presence of the tunnel. It is too narrow and delicate to excavate, but the entrance is being prepared as an exhibit by the Jewish Museum in Vilnius (see Smithsonian Magazine, “The Holocaust’s Great Escape” Matthew Shaer, March 2017 p. 42)

In Kaunas (Kovno) the second largest city in Lithuania, the Jews were mainly killed in the Ninth Fort, the last and largest of the forts ringing the city, that had never been completed and had a large central pit.  It was the site of perhaps the first massacre of Jews in WWII on March 18, 1941.  German Jews were sent by train to the east to be exterminated. Looking for places to do this the Nazis came up with the Ninth Fort.  The first 5 trains, carrying ca. 4,500 Reich Jews was sent there and the Jews (men, women and children) were shot by the special Einsatzgruppen and their bodies dumped into the pit and covered.  

Subsequently many other Jews were simply beaten and thrown into the pit, altogether about 30,000 were murdered in this way!  In 1943, fearing the approach of the Russians, the Nazis sent a group of Jewish prisoners to extract the bodies of the Jews and burn them.  A group of Jews began to investigate the subterranean tunnels and structures under the fort. They came to an iron door that led to the outside and managed to drill a hole and get through it.  This was a meticulously planned escape and on Christmas Day, 1943 all 64 Jews managed to escape (see “Escaping the Ninth Fort,” Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust, based on “The Black Book,” eds. Aaronburg and Grossman, Am Oved, 1991).