Fritz Knöchlein

Yesterday was the anniversary of the 1940 Massacre at Le Paradis, in northern France. Trying to reach boats waiting at the port at Dunkirk to evacuate them, about 100 soldiers of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, part of the British Expeditionary Force fighting alongside the French, retreated to a farmhouse at Le Paradis, about 40 miles from the port.

They held off units from Germany’s SS-Totenkopfdivision (Death’s Head division) until they ran out of ammunition, and then tried to surrender. Two soldiers came out of the farmhouse waving a white flag and were mowed down by machine-gun fire from the Germans.

When they tried again, they were led to an open field where all their property was taken from them, then stood up against a barn wall where machines guns on tripods had been placed and where a pit had been dug.  Fritz Knöchlein was the SS-Haupsturmfuhrer and commander of SS-Totenkopf-Infanterie-Regiment 2 who gave the order to shoot the British soldiers. The Germans, as was their custom, then bayoneted any that were not yet dead.

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The massacre site

Miraculously, two soldiers survived. Albert Pooley and William O’Callaghan waited in the rain until dark then crawled out and hid for a couple of days in a pig-sty. They managed to get their wounds tended to, but they had no way to escape and again surrendered to the Germans. This time they were held as POWs, and, in April 1943, Pooley, who had a badly injured leg, was exchanged for some German POWs. When he got back to England, his account of the events was not believed.

But when O’Callaghan returned after the war and confirmed the story, an investigation was opened. A British military tribunal in Hamburg found Captain Fritz Knöchlein guilty of a war crime, and he was hanged at age 37 on January 21, 1949.

In this video, at about the 1:30 mark, you’ll find a story that includes the recollection of Bill Pooley who returned to the site.

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Fritz Knöchlein

Fritz always proclaimed his innocence with the usual progression of Nazi reasoning that went, more or less, along these lines: It never happened. OK, it happened, but I wasn’t there. OK, I was there but not in charge. OK, I was in charge, but I had no choice under the circumstances. OK I had a choice, but I followed orders. OK, I did it on my own, but you did worse and deserved it. You tortured me while in custody. Spare me because I have a wife and family.

Knöchlein was held in the infamous London Cage, and wrote letters of complaint about his treatment there.

In the internet age, it is always possible to explore all “sides” of any issue. This site for example, reiterates Knöchlein’s version:

Knöchlein alleges that because he was “unable to make the desired confession” he was stripped, given only a pair of pyjama trousers, deprived of sleep for four days and nights, and starved. The guards kicked him each time he passed, he alleges, while his interrogators boasted that they were “much better” than the “Gestapo in Alexanderplatz”. After being forced to perform rigorous exercises until he collapsed, he says he was compelled to walk in a tight circle for four hours. On complaining to Scotland that he was being kicked even “by ordinary soldiers without a rank”, Knöchlein alleges that he was doused in cold water, pushed down stairs, and beaten with a cudgel. Later, he says, he was forced to stand beside a large gas stove with all its rings lit before being confined in a shower which sprayed extremely cold water from the sides as well as from above. Finally, the SS man says, he and another prisoner were taken into the gardens behind the mansions, where they were forced to run in circles while carrying heavy logs.

  “Since these tortures were the consequences of my personal complaint, any further complaint would have been senseless,” Knöchlein wrote. “One of the guards who had a somewhat humane feeling advised me not to make any more complaints, otherwise things would turn worse for me.” Other prisoners, he alleged, were beaten until they begged to be killed, while some were told that they could be made to disappear.

That piece goes on to give a long “proof” about how Knöchlein was the wrong guy, and how the real culprit was already dead, and the Brits just needed someone to hold accountable, and poor Fritz was elected, and so on and so forth.

It’s like everything else nowadays. You get to decide for yourself which side of the story you like best, and one is no better than another.

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No True Frenchman

You know the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy? It’s a ploy that makes any argument impervious to contradiction.

If Angus, who lives in Glasglow and who puts sugar on his porridge, is proposed as a counter-example to the claim that “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge”, the “No true Scotsman” fallacy would work this way:

(1) Angus puts sugar on his porridge.
(2) No (true) Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
(3) Therefore Angus is not a (true) Scotsman, and
(4) Angus’ putting sugar on his porridge does not disprove the claim that no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.

The other day, Marine Le Pen, the right wing “National Front” candidate running for President of France said that France wasn’t responsible for the Vél d’Hiv roundup. This was the action of July, 1942,  in which the French, without any help from the Germans, deported 13,000 “stateless” Jews, i.e. those that had fled to France from elsewhere in Europe, seeking French protection from the Nazis.

French police rousted them from their beds, sent 6,000 immediately to Drancy (a transit camp for Auschwitz in the Paris suburbs), and crammed the rest into an indoor bike track in the 15th Arrondisement called the Vélodrome d’Hiver for five days without food, water or toilets, before deporting them to be murdered.  They conducted the round-up to demonstrate to the Germans that they were reliable allies, in agreement with the German goals.

But “the French” didn’t do that, according to Le Pen, who said, “France wasn’t responsible for the Vel d’Hiv. If there was responsibility, it is with those who were in power at the time, it is not with France. France has been mistreated, in people’s minds, for years.” Le Pen wants true Frenchmen to be proud of France. Fair enough.

No, it was the Vichy regime then in power that was responsible, and they couldn’t really be French, because no true Frenchman could have done such a thing. Except that they were as French as any Frenchman has ever been – Philippe Pétain, the “war hero” of Verdun was at the head of the Vichy government, and was a beloved figure enjoying great popularity in France at the time of  the Vél d’Hiv episode.

Petain

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And all the police that conducted the operation were, what, if not French? And all of the citizens looking on as the Jews were taken away were French as well. Some clucked their tongues and shook their heads at the scene, while many jeered and insulted the deportees. But they were all true Frenchmen.

As the years pass, and living memory of the events is gradually extinguished, there is a strong tendency on the part of those who interpret history now to confuse French dislike of or resistance to the Germans with some feeling of goodwill or responsibility toward the Jews. The way I see it, no one wants to be occupied by Nazis, but they might be able to find a silver lining to that cloud: the Christ-killers get what they’ve always deserved, and lots of choice apartments in the Marais become magically available overnight. Furnished, too!

According to this NYT piece,

Ms. Le Pen’s words also flew in the face of over four decades of historical research into the eager collaboration of the wartime French government, which had been installed in the spa town of Vichy. It was the French government’s police chief, René Bousquet — a favorite of the head of the government at the time — who organized the roundup, impressing his German counterparts with his energy.

“Vichy did not have a knife to its throat,” the historian Philippe Burrin wrote of the Vel d’Hiv roundup in his landmark book, “La France à l’Heure Allemande,” (“France Under the Germans”).

“Without the help of the police” — the French police — “the SS was paralyzed,” Mr. Burrin wrote. “The French authorities were entirely disposed to get rid of foreign Jews,” he wrote, referring to the officials’ offer to the Nazis, on that occasion at least, to hand over Jews who were not French citizens.

It always puzzles me that people who advocate for the removal of Jews from public life refuse to acknowledge that others have tried it and succeeded before.  And then call those who mention it liars and slanderers. It’s weird. They say they’d like to do it but are offended by the notion that someone did do it?

The antecedents and founders of Le Pen’s “National Front”, though French, might as well be Nazis. Attempts to explain how they are not Nazis make distinctions without differences. They hated the Jews, who they regarded as “the other” and a threat to French life.  The party was founded by Le Pen’s father,  Jean-Marie Le Pen, a convicted holocaust denier, who famously referred to the Nazi gas chambers as “a detail of history”. Marine finally kicked her father out of the party two years ago, and has been trying to “de-demonize” it, make it less odious and more acceptable to the true Frenchmen, with good success.

I’ll defer discussion of the frightening rise of blatant anti-semitism in France in recent years, and just say that  French sentiment is what it has always been, though the degree of the “blatant” fluctuates. Not much has changed since Dreyfus, Zola, and Herzl, or forever before that, despite the stark lessons of the intervening history.

Marine Le Pen is a true Frenchwoman. She has made it acceptable for French people to think and say things which have not been acceptable to think or say for decades. She has a lot of popular support, and the people who may well vote her in as the next President of France are also true Frenchmen.

Resistance: Masha, Sophie, Mala

Masha

Masha Bruskina was hanged in German-occupied Minsk on October 26, 1941 at age 17, after being paraded through the streets carrying a sign saying, “We are partisans and have shot at German troops”. She wasn’t a partisan and had not shot at German troops. Her crime was that she helped captured Russian soldiers escape from an infirmary where she had volunteered as a nurse by bringing them civilian clothes.

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She was executed along with 16-year-old Volodia Shcherbatsevich and World War I veteran Kiril Trus, both members of the resistance. She liked to read, and had graduated from high school a couple of months earlier with good grades. When she was arrested, she wrote her mother, who she lived with, saying,

“I am tormented by the thought that I have caused you great worry. Don’t worry. Nothing bad has happened to me. I swear to you that you will have no further unpleasantness because of me. If you can, please send me my dress, my green blouse, and white socks. I want to be dressed decently when I leave here.”

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Her body was left hanging for three days before being taken down and buried. All of her family was killed in the Minsk ghetto, and it is unlikely that Masha would have survived the war either.

A plaque at the site of the execution identified her only as “unknown girl” because Soviet authorities did not want to acknowledge her Jewish background. In 2009, her name was added to the monument, which now reads, in Russian, “Here on October 26, 1941 the Fascists executed the Soviet patriots K. I. Truss, V. I. Sherbateyvich and M.B. Bruskina”. There is also a street named for her in Jerusalem.

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Sophie

After a “trial” lasting a few minutes, Sophie Scholl was sent to the guillotine and beheaded at age 22 on February 22, 1943 in Munich for the crime of treason, along with her brother, Hans. She had been a member of The White Rose, a handful of university students who had distributed some anti-Nazi leaflets. There were six leaflets in all and you can read them here.

The White Rose urged resistance to the Nazis, acknowledged their crimes and the complicity of all Germans, and saw that the war was lost, even in early 1943, after the defeat at Stalingrad.

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Sophie had five siblings. She liked to draw, and, like Masha, she liked to read. Her group of friends liked hiking, swimming, skiing, concerts, art , music, and so on. Her father was sent to prison in 1942 for making a remark critical of Hitler. Sophie almost certainly would have survived the war had she not acted as her conscience demanded.

A movie called “Sophie Scholl – the Final Days” was released in 2005, and got an Oscar nomination for the Best Foreign Film.

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Malka

Malka (sometimes “Mala”) Zimetbaum was ordered to be burned alive in the crematorium at Auschwitz at age 26, on September 15, 1944. She may not have been alive when they threw her in, though, as she may have bled to death on the wheel-barrow that carried her there.

These pictures show Mala in 1941 in Antwerp, a sketch of her made in Auschwitz in 1944, and a couple of portrait photos.

She was born in Poland, the youngest of five children in a Jewish family, and had been raised in Belgium. In school, she excelled in math and languages.  She was sent to Auschwitz in September of 1942. She survived for two years in the camp, mainly because of her proficiency in Polish, Dutch, French, German, and Italian. She worked as a translator and courier. She was very well liked and respected by both guards and prisoners, and performed hundreds of kind acts and tried to save as many lives as she could.

Her crime was that she managed to escape Auschwitz with another prisoner, Edward “Edek” Galiński, a Pole who was in love with her.  On June 24th, 1944, Edek dressed as an SS guard using a uniform he had stolen, and escorted Mala through the camp gate under the pretense that she would be installing a sink which she was carrying. Their plan was to alert the outside world about what was going on in Auschwitz. They were free for 12 days and got about 50 miles away, where she was arrested trying to buy bread with gold they had taken from the camp.  Edek was watching nearby and gave himself up as he promised he had wouldn’t leave her.

They were taken to the infamous Block 11 in the main camp at Auschwitz. They tried to pass notes to each other, and Edek tried to sing opera arias near a window where he thought Mala was. They stayed in Block 11 until September 15, when they were taken to Birkenau to be executed on the same day. Galiński was hanged, shouting “Long live Poland!” as he died.

Mala took a razor out of her hair and slashed the veins at her elbows. There are various accounts of the next moments, some saying she slapped a guard’s face with her bloody hand and he grabbed her arm and broke it, then taped her mouth shut. Some said she had shouted at the guard that she would die with dignity while he would die in disgrace.

The people who bandaged her arms tried to do it slowly, hoping she could die on the wheelbarrow taking her to the crematorium, before being thrown into the flames.

Mala had been convinced she would have survived Auschwitz, given her privileged position in the camp and many allies, but she risked everything for a cause greater than herself. The camp was finally liberated four months after her death.  Information about these events came to light during the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann. You can read a little more about Mala here.

What, exactly, didn’t she know?

And when didn’t she know it?

This article in the Failing New York Times, entitled “I Loved My Grandmother, But She Was a Nazi”, really annoyed me.

The granddaughter writing the piece, Jessica Shattuck, is trying to understand what her German grandparents were thinking when they joined the Nazi party in  1937, before it was mandatory. Didn’t her beloved grandmother know what was happening to the Jews?

It boils down to,

 My grandmother heard what she wanted from a leader who promised simple answers to complicated questions. She chose not to hear and see the monstrous sum those answers added up to. And she lived the rest of her life with the knowledge of her indefensible complicity.

Jessica forgot to mention her grandmother didn’t give a rip about the Jews, who, if you believed everything the Führer said (as she explained that she did), were sub-human parasites responsible for Germany’s economic problems and defeat in WWI, and who were trying to drag Germany into another war.

The implication of the “indefensible complicity” thing is that the grandmother regretted her decisions and would have acted differently “had she known”.

First of all, the grandmother never says anything like that at all – the granddaughter invented the “indefensible complicity” idea on her own and is projecting it on her grandmother.  The grandmother’s regret is that Germany didn’t win the war, and Hitler’s promises didn’t come true. Oh, and also that everyone thinks she’s a monster. See, they wouldn’t think that if Germany had won – she’d just be the same sweet old grammy Jessica has always loved.

Secondly, the idea that she would have done something different “had she known” is preposterous. Done something like what? Joined the White Rose? Hidden a family of Jews under her bed for eight years in defiance of the Gestapo?  The fact is, the overwhelming majority of Germans were perfectly fine with Hitler’s idea of a Germany free of Jews. The less they had to “know” about how it would be done, the better for everybody.

Even the people who tried to kill Hitler, like Claus von Stauffenberg, didn’t do it because they objected to the murders of the Jews.  They did it because they saw that Hitler was crazy, that the war was lost, and that they could salvage something of Germany if they got rid of the guy who was ready to sacrifice everyone and everything for his drug-addled fantasies.

Lastly, the main thing to understand is that when a German of that generation says “we didn’t know”, they’re lying.

Maybe it’s true that they didn’t know the precise manner in which the Jews met their demise after they were arrested and disappeared, or after they saw them packed into the transports for “resettlement”.  But this would be a tiny last detail in a twelve-year-long progression of insults and crimes that every German saw going on right before his eyes, every hour of every day from 1933 on.

When you accept someone’s excuse of their ignorance of that last detail, you are agreeing that everything that went before, all of which they certainly did know about, was OK with them. And OK with you.

Shattuck asked her grandmother about Hitler’s endless inspirational speeches vilifying the Jews – didn’t grammy listen to those?  Grammy replied, “Hitler said a lot of things” and anyway she had her own concerns to think about – making ends meet, etc. OK, fair enough. It’s not quite “not knowing”, though.  But I won’t quibble about it.

Did she “not know” of the incessant headlines and cartoons in Der Stürmer harping on the Jews being Germany’s enemy and calling for their execution? Everyone in Germany saw this publication and its circulation absolutely skyrocketed during the years of the Reich. The publication was obscene in its Jew-hate (and Hitler thought didn’t go far enough!)

Anti-semitic cartoons in Der Stürmer

Did grammy “not know” of the removal of Jews from their residences to “Jew houses”, the confiscation of their property, the daily scenes of Jews being made to scrub sidewalks with toothbrushes or having their beards ripped of their faces? Grammy said she didn’t see those things out by where she lived. OK, I get it. Grammy lived in the suburbs with blinders on and ear plugs in for twelve years. And she joined a political movement whose principal goal was the “purification” of Germany without seeing what this meant for the “impure”.  Fine. She’s just a sweet little old lady, so why go on about it?

But here’s what every German knew, including grammy – what every German was required to know to keep their own teutonic hides intact: they were required to know the laws of the land. These laws prevented them from patronizing Jewish businesses, providing Jews with food, socializing with Jews and much much more.

The punishment for Jewish violation of any rule was arrest, interrogation by the Gestapo, and a trip to a concentration camp. If a German helped a Jew in any way or failed to report a Jew who violated a rule, that German was as bad as any Jew and would be punished accordingly.

And to know these laws was to know they were nothing but a pretense for the persecution, impoverishment, and immiseration of all Jews in Germany. This is something every German understood and accepted, even if they didn’t “know about ” the end game.

What follows is a list of some of the laws and decrees that all Germans saw published in the newspapers and heard on radio, and were required to “know” from 1933 on.

March 31, 1933  – Decree of the Berlin city commissioner for health suspends Jewish doctors from the city’s charity services.

April 7, 1933 – Law for the Reestablishment of the Professional Civil Service removes Jews from government service.

April 7, 1933 – Law on the Admission to the Legal Profession forbids the admission of Jews to the bar.

April 25, 1933 – Law against Overcrowding in Schools and Universities limits the number of Jewish students in public schools.

July 14, 1933 – De-Naturalization Law revokes the citizenship of naturalized Jews and “undesirables.”

October 4, 1933 – Law on Editors bans Jews from editorial posts.

May 21, 1935 – Army law expels Jewish officers from the army.

September 15, 1935 – Nazi leaders announce the Nuremberg Laws. Jews could not be German citizens and Jews could not marry Germans. Jewishness was defined a racial characteristic, not a religion.

January 11, 1938 – Executive Order on the Reich Tax Law forbids Jews to serve as tax-consultants.

April 3, 1936 – Reich Veterinarians Law expels Jews from the veterinary profession.

October 15, 1936 – Reich Ministry of Education bans Jewish teachers from public schools.

April 9, 1937 – The Mayor of Berlin orders public schools not to admit Jewish children.

January 5, 1938 – Law on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names forbids Jews from changing their names.

February 5, 1938 – Law on the Profession of Auctioneer excludes Jews from this occupation.

March 18, 1938 – The Gun Law excludes Jewish gun merchants.

April 22, 1938 – Decree against the Camouflage of Jewish Firms forbids changing the names of Jewish-owned businesses.

April 26, 1938 – Order for the Disclosure of Jewish Assets requires Jews to report all property in excess of 5,000 Reichsmarks.

July 11, 1938 – Reich Ministry of the Interior bans Jews from health spas.

August 17, 1938 – Executive Order on the Law on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names requires Jews to adopt an additional name: “Sara” for women and “Israel” for men.

October 3, 1938 – Decree on the Confiscation of Jewish Property regulates the transfer of assets from Jews to non-Jewish Germans.

October 5, 1938 – The Reich Interior Ministry invalidates all German passports held by Jews. Jews must surrender their old passports, which will become valid only after the letter “J” had been stamped on them.

November 11, 1938 – Jews are not allowed to own or carry arms.

November 12, 1938 – Decree on the Exclusion of Jews from German Economic Life closes all Jewish-owned businesses.

November 12, 1938 – Jews may not attend cinemas, theaters, concerts and exhibitions anymore and are also forbidden to manage shops and workshops. Jews may buy food in special shops only.

November 15, 1938 – Reich Ministry of Education expels all Jewish children from public schools.

November 23, 1938 – All Jewish-owned businesses are dissolved.

November 28, 1938 -Reich Ministry of Interior restricts the freedom of movement of Jews. They may not stay in specified areas open to the public anymore.

November 29, 1938 – The Reich Interior Ministry forbids Jews to keep carrier pigeons.

December 14, 1938 – An Executive Order on the Law on the Organization of National Work cancels all state contracts held with Jewish-owned firms.

December 3, 1938 – Driving licenses and vehicle registration documents owned by Jews are confiscated. Jews are forced to sell their businesses and to deliver all jewelry and securities to the authorities.

December 6, 1938 – Jews in Berlin are prohibited from enter specified streets, squares etc.

December 8, 1938 – Jewish professors are forbidden any kind of work at higher schools.

December 13, 1938 – Jews are forced to sell houses, shops and factories for extremely low prices to Non-Jews.

December 21, 1938 – Law on Midwives bans all Jews from the occupation.

December 31, 1938 – Jews may not possess automobiles anymore.

January 1, 1939 – All male Jews are forced to carry the additional given name “Israel”, all female Jews the name “Sara”.

February 21, 1939 –  Decree Concerning the Surrender of Precious Metals and Stones in Jewish Ownership without compensation.

April 30, 1939 – Legal preparations for aggregating Jewish families in “Jew Houses”. Eviction Protection is abolished: Landlords may cancel contracts of Jewish tenants anytime.

August 1, 1939 – The President of the German Lottery forbids the sale of lottery tickets to Jews.

September 1, 1939 – Curfew for Jews, in summer after 9 pm, in winter after 8 pm.

September 29, 1939 – Jews are not allowed to own radios anymore; all wireless receivers must be delivered to the police.

October 17, 1939 – Jews may not participate in civil air raid exercises anymore.

October 28, 1939 – Jews must fix a Star of David on their front door.

October 23, 1939 – Jews in occupied Poland have to wear the “Jew Star” visibly on their clothes.

February 6, 1940 – Jews do not get a purchase permit for rationed clothes and no purchase permits for any woven fabrics anymore.

July 4, 1940 – Jews in Berlin may only shop between 4 and 5 pm.

July 29, 1940 – Jews are not allowed to have telephones anymore.

June 12, 1941 – Jews may declare themselves only as “without belief” when asked for the religion on documents.

July 31, 1941 – Jews may not lend books from public libraries anymore.

September 1, 1941 – All Jews older than six years of age must permanently wear the yellow star visibly on their clothes. They are not allowed to leave their place of residence without permission of the police anymore.

September 18, 1941 – Jews may not use public transport anymore.

December 18, 1941 – The ID cards identifying Jews wounded as soldiers in World War I as severely disabled are confiscated

December 26, 1941 – Jews may not use public telephones anymore.

January 4, 1942 – Jews must deliver all fur coats.

January 10, 1942 – Jews must deliver all their woolen clothes.

February 15, 1942 – Jews may not own pets anymore. They may not give them to Germans. They must kill them.

February 17, 1942 – Jews may not get newspapers by mail anymore.

March 26, 1942 – Apartments of Jews must be marked by a Star of David next to the name plaque at the entrance door.

April 1942 – Jews may not visit Non-Jews in their apartments and houses anymore.

May 15, 1942 – Jews are forbidden to own bicycles.

May 29, 1942 – Jews may get their hair cut by Jewish hairdressers only. June 9, 1942 – Jews must deliver all clothes not belonging to their basic needs.

June 11, 1942 – Jews may not possess tobacco and cigarettes anymore.

June 19, 1942 – Jews must deliver all electrical and optical equipment and similar items, such as heating ovens, boiling pots, vacuum cleaners, water heaters, hair driers, irons, record players and records, typewriters, binoculars, cameras, films etc. Jews may not enter most shops anymore.

June 20, 1942 – All Jewish schools are closed.

July 17, 1942 – Blind and deaf Jews may not wear signs identifying them in street traffic anymore.

September 18, 1942 – Jews may not have meat, eggs, white bread, sweets, fruit, canned fruit and milk.

I forgive you if you just scanned or even skipped the above list – it’s a heavy, depressing slog. If you didn’t read them all, just have a quick look at February 15, 1942. To me that one sums up the German character, the German desire to taunt and inflict needless pain on the Jews, and the sadism and cruelty that every German either reveled in or was complicit with during those years. Including Shattuck’s grammy.

A really excellent first-hand description of daily life for a Jew in Germany during this period is Victor Klemperer’s diaries, “I Will Bear Witness”, finally published in 1995. Klemperer was a Romance language scholar who beautifully and dispassionately described the torments inflicted on the Jews for years before the ultimate outrage.

The decrees were incremental, and just as you got used to one “law”, another was issued to tightened the noose. First, you were arrested for walking through the park, then for walking on the sidewalk outside the park fence, then for walking on the other side of the street bordering  the park, etc. etc. etc.

Interestingly, he says that none of the decrees were as bad as the routine visits of drunken “police” to the Jew houses, during which their meager possessions were turned upside down, and everything from their meals of rotten potatoes to postage stamps, sewing needles, paper, and anything else, of however little value or comfort to the Jews, was stolen or destroyed. And, of course, the already frail and starving residents were kicked, spit on, screamed at, and slapped around for good measure.

Klemperer also objected to Zionism, because it implicitly identified Jews as a distinct group, apart from Germans. He thought himself to be a German to the end.

I think I’ll send a copy to Klemperer’s book to Jessica Shattuck’s grandmother. Maybe it will jog her memory.

Andersonville vs. Belsen

Camp Sumter was the official name of the Confederate military prison at Andersonville, Georgia. It opened for business in late February of 1864 and remained in operation until the end of the Civil War, 14 months later.

Andersonville was needed to hold prisoners of war after the prisoner-exchange agreements between North and South were abandoned for lack of consensus on how to handle black soldiers.

Andersonville quickly became known for its inhumane conditions and high death rate – 13,000 Union soldiers died there in the short time it operated.

It was originally designed for 10,000 prisoners, but the population quickly exceeded 30,000. Plans called for wooden barracks, but none were built as the cost of lumber was too great, so the Union soldiers imprisoned there lived out in the open, using only bits of cloth and whatever sticks of wood they could scrounge for makeshift shelters.

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A small stream ran through the 16-acre site that was supposed to provide drinking water, but it quickly became a cesspool and source of disease, and in the summer it dried up. Rations were barely starvation-level and often over half the inmates reported ill.

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Andersonville Prisoner

The commander of Andersonville, Captain Henry Wirz, was convicted of war crimes and hanged  shortly after the war. In his closing statement, the Judge Advocate General, Joseph Holt, said of Wirz,

“his work of death seems to have been a saturnalia of enjoyment for the prisoner [Wirz], who amid these savage orgies evidenced such exultation and mingled with them such nameless blasphemy and ribald jest, as at times to exhibit him rather as a demon than a man.”

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Henry Wirz

Wirz was executed in Washington, D.C. on November 10, 1865 at the age of 41. His last words, spoken to the officer in charge, were,  “I know what orders are, Major. I am being hanged for obeying them.”

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Execution of Wirz

Here’s a sketch, made by a prisoner, showing some forms of punishment at Andersonville:

andersonville punishment

The “Andersonville Raiders” were inmates who preyed on others by stealing their possessions, terrorizing, and sometimes murdering them. They were a loosely organized group whose numbers have been estimated by various sources to be between 50 and 500, and who were led by a handful of “chieftans”. As a result of their activities, the Raiders were better fed and situated than other prisoners, and had weapons as well, assuring that they could continue their activities with ease.

The activities of the Raiders were ultimately halted by an internal police force organized by Wirz, called the Regulators, and the six Chieftans were executed.

andersonville execution

Execution of Raiders

There are a lot of similarities, I think, between Andersonville, and some of the Nazi-era concentration camps. In particular, Andersonville and Bergen-Belsen seem to me to share many characteristics.

About 50,000 people died at Belsen, perhaps most memorably Anne Frank and her sister Margot, just days before liberation. Like Andersonville, it was originally set up as a prisoner of war camp, and was expected to hold prisoners to be exchanged.

When the British walked into the camp in 1945, they discovered some 60,000 still barely alive, many lying on the ground among the thousands of unburied dead, and hardly distinguishable from them.  Over 13,000 people alive at liberation were too ill to recover.

After liberation, the camp was burned to prevent the spread of Typhus. Belsen had been  a much larger operation than Andersonville, of course, and persisted for years longer. It was the last year or so of operation that, for me, echoes Andersonville the most.

From July 1944 onward the population of the camp swelled from 7300 to the 60,000 at liberation, as Jews still alive in some of the big eastern camps were forced to march into Germany’s interior. These people were already weakened by years of persecution, and arrived in Belsen to find meager rations, no sanitation, little shelter and rampant disease.

They had already been robbed of all their possessions, but the equivalent of the Andersonville Raiders were certainly well-represented among them.

As with Andersonville, there were trials after the war and eleven of the Belsen staff were sentenced to death, including the Commandant, Josef Kramer, who was executed on December 12, 1945. Kramer’s previous post had been Lagerführer at Auschwitz, in charge of managing the gassing of newly arrived transports from May-November, 1944.

kramer under guard

Kramer under guard

Kramer, like Wirz, had a clear conscience, and thought of himself as a scapegoat. He explained to the British interrogating him,

“The camp was not really inefficient before you [British and American forces] crossed the Rhine. There was running water, regular meals of a kind – I had to accept what food I was given for the camp and distribute it the best way I could. But then they suddenly began to send me trainloads of new evacuees from all over Germany. It was impossible to cope with them. I appealed for more staff, more food. I was told that this was impossible. I had to carry on with what I had.

Then as a last straw, the Allies bombed the electric plant that pumped our water. Loads of food were unable to reach the camp because of the Allied fighters. Then things really got out of hand. During the last six weeks I have been helpless. I did not even have sufficient staff to bury the dead, let alone segregate the sick… I tried to get medicines and food for the inmates and I failed. I was swamped. I may have been hated, but I was doing my duty.”

There are similarities between Andersonville and Belsen, but also many differences – too many to address in this post.  Are they morally equivalent? I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Three gynocentric flicks

The French journalist, critic, and novelist,  Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, famously observed, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, or “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Antisemitism is on the march again. In Europe, it’s the same old story – right-wing nationalism is resurgent. But there are a few new elements in the mix, including the condition of rising Muslim populations and their catch-all grievance of Palestinian victimhood. They are abetted by the  “intellectual” left, which has increasingly lost the ability to distinguish between vilifying Israeli policy (OK, if you want to split hairs, “Zionist” policy), and vilifying Jews.

In this country, though, something new seems to be happening. The rash of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers (60 so far this year), and the recent vandalizing of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia has us all on edge. There can be no doubt that Trump’s embrace of Steve Bannon, Breitbart, and the alt-right is a major contributing factor. It’s pretty clear Bannon doesn’t like Jews.

Is this what it felt like in 1933? Just a couple of news stories, but nothing to get panicky over? We don’t want to over-react, but we don’t want this to go unremarked either. What to do?

But you’re tired of hearing me rant about Trump, right? I get it it. Man, he really sucks the oxygen out of normal daily life and social discourse, doesn’t he?  It’s exhausting.

I know – let’s go to the movies!

You know how everyone is always complaining about how there are no good roles for women, and how no movies pass the Bechdel-Wallace test any more?  Well, here are three fairly recent movies I can recommend, each with a strong female character at its center.

And the best part is they’re all about surviving the Nazis! Let’s go watch a couple of these and then we can reflect on Alphonse Karr’s aphorism. D’accord?

Ida (2014)

Phoenix (2014)

Sarah’s Key (2011)

If you haven’t seen these, I won’t spoil them for you (except maybe a little). In each case a young Jewish girl or woman survives the war against all odds. But, to me, the unifying theme of the three is the death not just of the Jews of Europe, but the death of Jewishness itself. Though the women survive, at least for a time, their Jewishness does not.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Europe of today very closely resembles the Europe of Hitler’s dreams. It’s hard to understand the enormity of the crime that was committed: one out of every three Jews alive in the world in 1941 was murdered by 1945. And in some swaths of The Pale, every single last Jew was killed.

Of course, the persecution and killing of the Jews is the thing that shocks and engages us, but it is the death of Jewishness itself that may be the larger crime, and therein lies the ultimate victory of the Germans. Yes, I said Germans. Despite all the retroactive claims of heroism and “resistance” that you hear about from today’s oh-so-liberal Teutons, in the 1930’s trying to separate the “good Germans” from the Nazis was a pointless exercise. It was a distinction without a difference – some people actively participated and others “only” watched.

It’s true that there may be a stray “Jew” here or there that has persevered in Europe, but not one Hitler would ever recognize.  That stray doesn’t dress “like a Jew”, isn’t part of a synagogue’s congregation, doesn’t speak Yiddish (an entire language and literature extinguished!), doesn’t read the “Jewish press”. All those trappings of Jewish life and culture have disappeared. “The Jews” are not a political force, not a cultural force, or really any kind of force, except in the paranoid fantasies of the right, which have survived the decades completely intact, also against all odds.

In the east, in Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Moldova and elsewhere, young people are completely unaware of the history of the Jews or even that  Jews ever lived there, much less comprised 50% of the population in many places.  The small town or “shtetl” of Shalom Aleichem, once the center of Jewish life, is no more. And, more significantly, there is no trace it ever was there to begin with. There are no Jewish schools or libraries, no Jewish businesses, no buildings with Jewish iconography, no birth, death or marriage records.

And almost every Jewish cemetery is gone as well. Like today’s antisemites, the Nazis and their collaborators loved to harass the living Jews, and could not let the Jewish dead rest in peace, either. But unlike today’s antisemites, they didn’t stop at merely turning over the headstones and scrawling their messages of hate. They carted off the stones and used them to pave roads, latrines and basement floors, a practice finally halted in Ukraine in 2013. All traces of Jewish life, and death, were obliterated.

As I read the news of the day, I wonder when will it be time to sound the alarm, and when will it be too late? And, this time around, will the righteous be able to stop it?

Alphonse Karr also said, “Every man has three characters – that which he has, that which he thinks he has, and that which he exhibits.”

Woman in Gold

This beautiful painting by Gustav Klimt, “Bauerngarten”, will shortly go on auction at Sotheby’s in London. It’s been appraised at over $56 million dollars, but Sotheby’s expects it to go for much more.

bauerngarten

Klimt is one of the most important artists of the late 19th and early 20th century,  a leader of the Vienna Secession movement, and revered by Austrians. His primary subject was the female body and some of his work, particularly a ceiling he painted at the University of Vienna, was controversial for being “pornographic”.

sculpture

Today, all his work is much sought after by both collectors and speculators. In 2006, Oprah Winfrey paid $88 million for “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II”, and last summer sold it to a buyer in China for $150 Million.

woman2

In his “golden period”, Klimt used gold leaf in his work, creating some very striking multimedia works, one of the most famous of which is “The Kiss”.

kiss

The most iconic work of this period was know for years as “The Woman In Gold”, which took three years to complete. It hung in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna for some sixty years beginning in 1941, and was regarded as one on the great treasures of Austria and a symbol of Austrian culture.

woman1

You might notice the resemblance of the subject here to the one in Oprah’s oil painting. It is, of course, the same woman, Adele Bloch-Bauer, and the title of the painting, before the Austrians enshrined it, was “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”. It was commissioned by Klimt’s most important patrons and friends, the Bloch-Bauer family of Vienna.

Adele Bauer was born in Vienna in 1881, the youngest of seven children. Her father was the General Director of the Viennese Bank association and the president of the Orient railway company. She married at eighteen to the 35-year-old Ferdinand Bloch, the son of a Prague sugar producer. He grew the sugar business into an important European industrial concern. Adele’s sister was already married to his brother. They had no children and both couples combined their names to Bloch-Bauer.

Adele made their home a salon for intellectuals and artists, and the Bloch-Bauer patronage contributed greatly to the flourishing of Austrian art in the period. The two Klimt portraits Adele commissioned were a small part of their legacy. Adele died suddenly at age 44 of meningitis.

Shortly after the annexation of Austria by the Nazis in 1938, the Germans barged into the Bloch-Bauer home and took all their possessions, including the Klimts.

Ferdinand fled and died in Zurich in 1945.  He had willed the art to his nephew and nieces including Maria Altmann (née Maria Victoria Bloch). Maria married Fredrick “Fritz” Altmann who was taken to Dachau shortly after their honeymoon in 1938 as a hostage to get the Altmanns to transfer their textile factory to the Germans. Maria and Fritz were able to flee with their lives to the U.S. All the property they left behind was taken by Hermann Goering.

Maria became a naturalized citizen in 1945 and worked in the clothing industry. Fritz died in 1954. The story of how Maria was able to reclaim ownership of the Klimts, despite the determined efforts of the Austrians not to return them, is told in the film, “Woman in Gold”. Check it out on Netflix.

Both the Klimt portraits of Adele are currently on display at the Neue Galerie on Fifth Ave. at 86th in NYC. They’ll be there until September when the oil will go to its new owner in China. You have a few months to see them together. See you at the Neue.