Dachau: The bitter fruit of a terrible evil, in full color

Color is an interesting thing.  I long ago realized that the 1920s and 1930s seem further away for me, visually, than the pre-modern era.  The difference is color.  When I think of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, even though the images are frozen, they still are in living color.  Color gives them a vitality that makes them immediate:

Jan van Eyck Virgin and Child

Looking at that lovely Jan van Eyck, don’t you feel as if you could touch the Baby Jesus’s blonde hair or stroke his pink skin, or that you could bury your hands in Mary’s cloak and feel the warm fabric across your fingers?  They may be still, but they’re real.  Van Eyck stopped the moment for you, but you know that, when you’re not looking, their chests will rise and fall, and that the baby will turn towards Mary, and she will wrap her warm, loving arms around him.  Color matters.

Conversely, look at this photograph from the 20s:

1920s flappers
It’s not just the clothes that separate us from those dashing ladies.  It’s also that they’re the wrong color.  They’re not the color of living flesh.  Instead, they’re the colors of death and the grave.  Although the highlights and shades are there to give us dimensionality, they still look peculiarly flattened and unreal.  Their frozen quality will continue long after we turn our eyes away from them.

So it is with too many images of WWII.  Although it took place during the lifetime of many people who are still living, those of us who came of age after the war have a hard time seeing it as more than chilling historic pictures.  We have to keep reminding ourselves that these were real people who fought, and killed, and suffered, and died.  Many of us probably think “That can’t happen here.”  We think this not only because we foolishly believe that our Constitution, without further effort on our parts, is strong enough to protect us from tyranny, but also because a part of our brain says, “Did that really happen anywhere?”  Of course, we know that it happened at a specific place (Europe) and over a specific period of time (1933-1945), but those colorless images distance us from the humanity of the people involved.

Which is why you should watch this short color video showing the liberation of Dachau:

The dead are real people; the Germans dragged into the camp to see what their statist ideology had wrought are real people; the surviving prisoners, with such faint hope in their eyes, are real people.  It’s a terribly disturbing video because it drags us out of our 21st century American complacency and forces us to acknowledge that real people committed unbelievable heinous acts against other living, breathing, full-color human beings.

The New York Times’ dirty history regarding the Holocaust

She’s a high school senior, but damn! if she doesn’t give a stunningly good talk about the way in which the New York Times, despite knowing about the Holocaust, not only downplayed it, but effectively kept American policy away from helping Europe’s besieged Jewish population:

There is no anti-Semite worse than a Jew.  (See als0 Liberty Spirit’s J’Accuse!)

Hat tip:  Richard Baehr

Yom Hashoah

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day that was once a memorial day, a day of looking back, but is now a chilling tocsin of what the future might hold.  Everywhere in the world, antisemitism is on the rise.  Nor is this the cold, clinical antisemitism that once characterized England — the kind where people would sniff at someone and say “Oh, he’s a Jew.”  Jews might be socially ostracized and subject to petty humiliations, but they were not tortured, killed, or denied civil rights by their own government.

All over the world today, including in England, Jews are facing a worldwide rise in violent antisemitism that his not just a “chill,” is a scary, furnace-like heat.  (I keep mentioning England because it has swung more violently than any other European country from an “I don’t care” view of Jews to a blood-thirsty hatred for Jews and Israel.)  I don’t have the heart or the time to detail the attacks.  I will share with you a video showing what happens to Jews when the world turns on them, with the background music being an extremely rare recording of Bergen-Belsen survivors signing the “Hatikvah.”

By the way, David Goldman (Spengler) has the good news, which is that Jew hating-societies are dying off, because off low birth rates.  Jews stand for life (“I say to you, choose life“), so it’s not surprising that these cultures embrace death, their own and other’s.  The problem, of course, is that these dying cultures can still cause a lot of trouble as they grapple with their own convulsive death throes.

With Republicans in their line of sight again, Democrats revert to Nazi tropes

The one thing that’s been nice about Obama’s presidency is the fact that the Democrats ramped down their Nazi rhetoric.  It used to be that you couldn’t open a Leftist web page without hearing that Bush and Cheney were Nazis, and that every Republican policy initiative promised to create a new Holocaust.

Sadly, the impulse to cheapen oneself and the Holocaust in one fell swoop was dormant, not dead.  Now that the Republicans have fielded a viable presidential candidate, the Democrats are once again talking about Nazis and Big Lies and Holocausts.  Jeff Dunetz, at Yid With Lid, explains just how horrible this tic-like comparison is, insofar as it destroys our ability to understand one of the greatest atrocities in history, even while it degrades our own political discourse.

Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) *UPDATED*

As a Jew, the Holocaust is always with me.  When I whine about something (which I often do), I’m instantly stricken with guilt because I know that, 70 years ago, across Europe, women with lives similar to mine (middle-aged, middle-class) were suddenly pitched into a nightmarish maelstrom from which there was no escape.

Am I shlepping heavy groceries from the car?  At least I have food.  Do those new shoes I bought pinch my feet?  Not only am I shod, but my shoes haven’t been stripped from my body as a preliminary to herding me into a gas chamber.  Am I feeling a bit ill or suffering a migraine?  I could be laboring in the quarry at Mauthausen, starved, diseased, abused, and alone.

I don’t have survivor’s guilt.  I have second-generation survivor’s guilt.  On the one hand, I know how lucky I am and how blessed my life is.  On the other hand, I can never, ever escape the mental images of those who thought they had my luck, only to see it vanish as if it had never happened.

We only think we’re not on the volcano’s edge.  We all are.  It’s just that some of us have lives that allow us to pretend the sulfurous fumes aren’t actually rising up around us.  I may not live a Hobbesian life at this moment, but there is actually very little between me and a moral entropy that threatens violence and horrible death.

One day a year, we take the inchoate guilt and anxiety that plague most Jews (and many non-Jews?) and declare it an official remembrance day.  That day is Yom Hashoah.  With every passing year, there are fewer people alive who have first hand memories of the Holocaust.  It is therefore up to us to carry the torch and try, through the act of memory, to beat back the darkness surrounding us.

Here is my post on the Holocaust, one that looks at those who lived through it, those who escape from it, and those who were pitched into a Pacific, rather than European, Holocaust.

Here is Bruce Kesler’s post about the village that saw his family’s end.

Here is The Political Commentator’s post.

And here is a link to a book that Bruce recommended: Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. The book isn’t actually about Europe as a whole.  It’s about a specific geographic area bounded by Germany and the Soviet Union, but one that tellingly did not include Germany itself or the core Soviet States.  It was in this territory, Belarus, Poland, the Ukraine, etc., that the Nazis and the Soviets put into effect the greatest killing effort in human history, something that would not be seen again until Mao visited his Great Leap Forward on his own hapless Chinese people.

In this geographic area — the Bloodlands of the title — the Soviets and the Nazis systematically starved, shot, gassed, and creatively killed millions of fellow Europeans, many of whom the Nazis shipped in from far-flung geographic points.  The victims’ crime?  They were enemies of the state, whether because they were Jews, gypsies, farmers, POWs from the opposing side’s armies, political dissidents, political ignoramuses, or anything or anyone else the state feared.

The book’s lesson is clear from the first page:  While one can easily find individuals with no conscience, an individual’s reach is limited.  That’s not the case when it comes to a start whose citizens allow it to seize unfettered power.  A state that has no conscience (and when does a state collective ever have a soul?) can too easily become a killing machine.

When savvy people figure out that I’m a conservative, they often ask why.  I think they are surprised when I don’t launch into a long discourse about policies and goals.  I say only one thing:  “I fear anything that consolidates too much power.  The bigger an entity, the more mischief it can do.  I like to keep political power reasonable diffused.  A government should be big enough to be useful, but not so big that it becomes both unstoppable and very dangerous.”

UPDATEBenjamin Netanyahu’s Yom Hashoah speech.

Man’s inhumanity to man *UPDATED*

I’ve long had a conflicted emotional relationship to Poland.  I know that Poland bore the brunt of the first official Nazi invasion in WWII, back in August 1939.  I also know that the Poles suffered horribly under the Soviets.  In the modern era, it was the Poles whose bravery exposed the weaknesses in and started the destruction of the Soviet system, and the Poles have been a staunch American ally in the post-Cold War world.

All that I know, and yet I’ve never been able to forgive them for the fact that Jewish genocide in Poland worked so well because so many Poles were gleeful and enthusiastic participants in the process.  There was a reason why the most successful death camp of all (Auschwitz) was in Poland.  The Germans knew that the local population would be more amenable to its presence than would be true in other nations.  Other nations showed themselves willing to give their Jews away (the French, the Dutch, etc.), but they still might balk at mass slaughter on home ground.  The Poles wouldn’t. (One could say that the other nations were hypocritical, and the Poles were not, but that’s a post for another day.)

Of course, that held true for so many Slavic and Baltic nations — and it turns out that Yad Vashem has been paying attention to all those little, regional killing fields and death camps.  There’s a heart wrenching article in today’s New York Times about a project to document the local killings.  This is an extremely important project because it helps to explain what we still see today:  neighbor turning on neighbor, whether in Serbia or Rwanda, or somewhere else in the world.

UPDATEEric‘s fact-filled comment deserves to be up in the post:

I just had to come to the defense of Poles regarding the Holocaust.  Poles were essentially given a bad rap by the Communist.  I know this is not a prevailing wisdom, especially among my fellow Jews.  But the World War 2 history is a hobby of mine, and I am especially interested in the Jewish resistance.  So, I researched the subject.  The better known ZOB (Jewish Combat Organization) indeed did not get much support from the Polish Home Army.  The ZOB came into being only in mid-1942, and the Poles considered them a bunch of leftist demagogues.  But there was another organization, ZZW (Jewish Military Union).  That one was an integral part of the Polish Home Army, starting from late fall of 1939.  They received weapons and ammo from the Poles.  They were also as big in numbers and much better trained than ZOB.  Unfortunately most of their leaders were killed in action during the Ghetto Uprising.  And the Polish officer to whom the ZZW leader reported was jailed by the Communists after the war.  Just as a side note, his name deserves to be mentioned: Henrik Iwanski.  He lost both sons and a brother in action during the Ghetto Uprising and was heavily wounded himself.  Another interesting tidbit is that the Polish Auxiliaries were not used by the Germans against the Jews during the Ghetto Uprising.  The Germans brought in the Lithuanians.

I would recommend the book “Two Flags” by Marian Apfelbaum, the nephew of the ZZW leader.  Sorry, for the plug, but here is my review of the book:
http://conservativlib.wordpress.com/2007/10/07/two-flags-the-untold-story-of-the-warsaw-ghetto-uprising-and-its-relevance-today/

I suspect that the reason why the majority of the death camps were in Poland was the simple fact that that was where the majority of the European Jews lived.  The French were by far worse than the Poles, and the French Government has finally admitted it recently:
http://littlegreenfootballs.com/article/32818_France_Finally_Admits_Role_in_Holocaust

A Holocaust story that’s true

You’ve no doubt read about the false Holocaust love story that’s caused Oprah such anguish.  I have a real story for you.  I knew the players and can speak to their veracity.

Harry’s parents were able to get him out of Germany during the late 1930s.  By that time, he’d already suffered mild brain damage from being beaten by a gang of Hitler youths, but while it impaired his speech, it affected neither his intelligence nor his moral sense.  Harry spent the early war years in England and then joined the British military, spending the later war years fighting the Nazis.

At the end of the war, Harry returned to Germany to find his parents.  He learned that, shortly after the war started, they’d been snatched from their home and taken first to Dachau, where they survived long beyond what anyone would have expected from two middle-aged, middle-class Jews, and then to Auschwitz, where they died in the gas chambers.

Their survival in Dachau was because of their shop girl.  When they were arrested, Lotte, a German girl who loved them dearly, moved to the town nearest Dachau and found work there.  Every day, she gathered together food and, at extraordinary risk to herself, smuggled it to Harry’s parents.

When Harry learned what Lotte did for his parents, he vowed to care for her.  Since he was young, healthy and a skilled mechanic, there was every reason to believe he could fulfill this vow.

Harry finally located Lotte living in some distress in the chaos that was post-war Germany.  Although she was a good decade older than he was, and he remembered her only vaguely from his childhood, he married her immediately and cared for her to the end of her days.

When I met them, they were in their 50s, and presented at first as a rather typical, ponderous German couple.  There was nothing to distinguish them from any other older Germans you might meet touring America.  The only truly noticeable things about them were (a) how much older she was and (b) how solicitous he was.  It was only later, when I Iearned their true story, that I realized I’d been in the presence of moral greatness, his and hers both.

Proportionate response *UPDATED*

With regard to Iran, Israel is currently facing two options.  It can launch a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, which will allow Israel to survive intact while inflicting minimal loss of life or property against Iran.  Alternatively, it can allow Iran to take a preemptive strike against Israel (which would be a nuclear strike), which will result in the complete destruction of Israel and her people.  Faced with that choice, what would you do?

I’m thinking of that because my friend the Bald-Headed Geek directed my attention to Bob Federman’s article about the situation facing Israel.  Whether in the old paper media or the new blogosphere, there are regular articles about the existential risks facing Israel, but everybody in European and American politics seems to ignore them.

I’m sure they’ll ignore this one too (pity, really), but that probably won’t matter to Israel.  Federman’s point is that, with Olmert gone, Israel will almost certainly act on the two lessons she learned from the Holocaust:  When a nation says it intends to destroy you, believe it; and you can’t trust anyone other than the Jews to take care of the Jews — and that’s true no matter how well-intentioned others are.  America, for example, is a good friend to Israel, as are most American citizens.  Nevertheless, without feeling the existential pressure that is an everyday feature of Israeli life, it’s almost impossible for America to respond appropriately to Israel’s security needs.

I leave you with some of Federman’s thoughts:

As each day passes, it becomes more obvious that Iran’s real intention is to develop nuclear weapons. Why does Iran need nuclear weapons? Iranian leaders have given us the answer- they seek the destruction of Israel- yet the world has chosen to ignore it.

Unfortunately, some analysts naively believe that Iran’s threats to Israel are a recent innovation of the current President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The truth is that the goal of the destruction of Israel has long been a fundamental pillar of Iran’s foreign policy. Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, said in a sermon on Iranian television on December 15, 2000, “Iran’s position, which was first expressed by the Imam Khomeini and stated several times by those responsible, is that the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted from the region.”

However, there is no doubt that Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has taken this madness to a new level. His repeated calls to “wipe Israel off the map” were also accompanied by a government sponsored conference titled “A World Without Zionism” (October, 2005). His most recent outrage was calling Israel “a stinking corpse” on the occasion of its 60th birthday.

Israelis cannot ignore these threats and for good reason. They know that Iran backs its threatening words with deeds. This became evident during the summer of 2006. Following the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, proceeded to fire 4,000 rockets into the cities of northern Israel. These rockets, which were supplied by Iran, sent a clear message to every Israeli: When Iranian leaders speak of the destruction of Israel, they need to be taken for their word.

UPDATE: Just to remind you what Israel is dealing with when it comes to Iran and nuclear weapons.

Rest in Peace, oh Righteous One

From today’s news:

Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who saved thousands of Jewish children during World War Two by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto, died in the Polish capital on Monday after a long illness, local media said.

[snip]

Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev said: “Irena Sendler’s courageous activities rescuing Jews during the Holocaust serve as a beacon of light to the world, inspiring hope and restoring faith in the innate goodness of mankind.”

Using her position as a social worker, Sendler regularly entered the ghetto, smuggling around 2,500 children out in boxes, suitcases or hidden in trolleys.

The children were then placed with Polish families outside the ghetto, created by Nazi Germany in 1940 for the city’s half a million strong Jewish population, and given new identities.

But in 1943 Sendler, who led the children’ section of the Zegota organization which helped Jews during the war, was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo.

She only escaped execution when Zegota managed to bribe some Nazi officials, who left her unconscious but alive with broken legs and arms in the woods.

Yad Vashem makes pictures available on the internet

Today’s news about yesterday:

In honor of Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day, marked in Israel on Thursday, Yad Vashem expanded its Internet presence this week by opening an online database containing nearly two-thirds of the 200,000 photos in its archives.

[snip]

Earlier this week, Yad Vashem launched two YouTube sites. The English version includes sound bites from President Bush and French President Nicholas Sarkozy on their visits to the memorial.

“I would hope that as many people in the world come to this place, it would be a sobering reminder that evil exists and a call that when we find evil we must resist it,” President Bush says.

The YouTube clips also includes short video testimonies of survivors, among them Zanne Farbstein. She and her two sisters were among 1,000 women who were the first Jews to arrive at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.

Auschwitz was the Nazis’ largest concentration camp. It is estimated that up to 2.5 million people were murdered or died there.

“I worked sorting clothes and I found Father’s prayer shawl. There were five crematoria. They burned day and night. Transports kept arriving and there was no room in the crematoria, so the children were thrown into pits and burned – little children…Alive!” Farbstein recalled in one video.

“We were all sick, so we would drag each other to work. Until one morning my older sister Edith said: ‘You know what? I can’t go on any more. Enough!’

“I cried. I shouted. Nothing helped. I had torn shoes. She had good shoes. She said to me, ‘Let’s exchange shoes.’

“So we went to work. When we returned, she was no more,” Farbstein said. She and her other sister were in Auschwitz together for three years, waiting for death every day, she said. “That was the worst part: the fear.”

Farbsten says she never would have believed that she could live a normal life – marrying and having children and grandchildren. “Sheer joy!” she says.

You can find the photo archive here.

Judge not lest you be judged

A few days ago, I posted about the rise in antisemitism around the world. One of my readers, who I know is a good and kind woman, decried this trend, but then said something interesting: “And now many Jews insist that we hate Muslims to support them. [snip.] [E]very anti-Islamic article posted makes it that much harder to side with the Jews. No one should be forced to side with one ethnicity over another.” In other words, if I understand her correctly, by bad-mouthing Muslims, Jews are making themselves look bad and are therefore less sympathetic.

(This statement is not unique to this reader, and I don’t want any of you to pick on her. She’s part of a larger trend, and this trend definitely deserves consideration. Indeed, I am grateful to her for being honest so that we can discuss this matter. Any personal attacks against her are strictly off limits and I will delete them as soon as I can.)

The view my reader expressed seems to be a variation on two Biblical principles: “Judge not lest you be judged” and “turn the other cheek.” I’ve always understood these doctrines to apply to the individual, not to the state, and to mean that, within a civilized society, people have to avoid the sins of hypocrisy and should strive to get along with their neighbors. Multiculturalism, however, elevates these Biblical precepts to national policies that insist that victims of threats or aggression may not defend themselves. As one commentator said, in many circles, it is now worse to judge evil than to do evil. (I’d like to give attribution to that speaker, but I can’t find his name anywhere. He’s a British lecturer, if that helps any of you come up with his name.)

I’m actually happy to judge evil — because I know, with certainty, that I am not evil. That is, I don’t have to worry that, in judging others as evil, I might in turn be judged. I can cast rhetorical stones because, while I have my petty sins (I’m lazy, a bit hot-tempered, and I’m greedy when it comes to chocolate), I am not evil. The same holds true for Jews. As a group, they have the same foibles as the average run of citizens, but they are not, collectively, evil. They do not aim their guns intentionally at children, they do not use children to hide their own guns, and they do not revel in the deaths of children. Jews can judge those Muslims who got what they asked for (Gaza) and then launched more than 5,000 rockets into Israel, with the intent to kill civilians. Jews can judge those Muslims who have as their religious doctrine the requirement that the desired end of days be triggered, in part, by the slaughter of Jews. We are allowed to judge when we see evil.

I actually attribute this naive belief that all people are innately good — a belief that, in the modern era alone, should have given way in the face of the Nazi death camps, in Pol Pots killing fields, in Mao’s Great Leap Forward, in the Soviet Union’s lengthy auto-genocide — to a surprising source: Anne Frank. Since the 1950s, every single reasonably educated American has read Anne Frank’s luminous diary. And most American teachers — certainly mine, when I was in junior high school — spent an inordinate amount of time reiterating to us Anne’s most famous words, written on July 15, 1944, exactly two years after she and her family went into hiding to escape the Nazis:

It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. [Emphasis mine.]

Thanks to those words, just about every Western school child learns that “people are truly good at heart.” I think it was that sweet sentiment that my reader had in the back of her mind when she left her comment. In that world view, if everyone is good, it does indeed lessen the virtue of one group of people if they imply that another group of people may not, in fact, be “truly good at heart.” The problem is that Anne Frank was completely and totally wrong.

Before I get into the global wrongness of Anne’s position, it’s useful to understand the context in which Anne wrote those words, as well as to remember what happened to Anne within days of writing them. As Anne freely admited in the next sentence following her famous thought, she wrote those words because she needed to give meaning to a life spent in hiding and a world that had devolved into sadistic chaos.

Two weeks after writing her homage to human kind’s innate goodness, because of a tip from an informer, the Annex’s residents were rounded up by the Nazis and shipped off. Here’s what happened to them: Mr. Van Daan was gassed immediately on his arrival in Auschwitz. Mrs. Van Daan was shuffled from Auschwitz, to Bergen-Belsen, to Buchenwald, to Theresienstadt, and finally to another unknown camp where she apparently died shortly before war’s end. Peter van Daan survived a death march from Auschwitz to Mauthausen, only to die three days before the camp was liberated. Mr. Dussel, after having spent time in either Buchenwald or Sachenhausen, died in Neuengamme a few months after being arrested. Mrs. Frank died in Auschwitz from starvation and exhaustion. As for Anne and Margot:

Margot and Anne Frank were transported from Auschwitz at the end of October and brought to Bergen-Belsen concentrationton camp near Hanover (Germany). The typhus epidemic that broke out in the winter of 1944-1945, as a result of the horrendous hygienic conditions, killed thousands of prisoners, including Margot and, a few days later, Anne. She must have died in late February or early March. The bodies of both girls were probably dumped in Bergen-Belsen’s mass graves. (From the Afterward to The Diary of a Young Girl : The Definitive Edition, published by Anchor Books Doubleday in 1996)

Anne Frank did not die peacefully or gracefully. Instead, her last days on earth were a nightmare of cold, hunger, loneliness and fear:

Anne was briefly reunited with two friends, Hanneli Goslar (named “Lies” in the diary) and Nanette Blitz, who both survived the war. They said that Anne, naked but for a piece of blanket, explained she was infested with lice and had thrown her clothes away. They described her as bald, emaciated and shivering but although ill herself, she told them that she was more concerned about Margot, whose illness seemed to be more severe. Goslar and Blitz did not see Margot who remained in her bunk, too weak to walk. Anne said they were alone as both of their parents were dead.

Why am I emphasizing all this? Because I want to make it clear that Anne Frank was wrong. People are not innately good. Her words were whistling in the dark, written to give herself faith and courage under terrible circumstances. They cannot and should not be used as a yardstick for measuring human being’s natural state. And for Liberals to cling to this “ideology” moves beyond optimism into self-destruction.

Anyone who has children knows that, while they have a tremendous capacity for love, and have within them the seeds for reason and kindness, their innate state is more Lord of the Flies than anything else. Children are naturally violent, greedy and jealous. What tempers children is a society’s externally imposed value system. And these value systems don’t spring out of whole cloth. They are the results of centuries of give and take, violence, refining, and thought.

In a chauvinistic way that I’m not even going to bother to defend, I think our modern Judeo-Christian value system is one of the best ever created — and it’s not innate, it’s learned. I’ll go even further here: I don’t like the current fundamentalist Islamic value system, with its denigration of women, Jews, and non-Muslims, and its obsession with visiting extreme physical violence (and I include beheading and other slaughters) on those so denigrated.

I don’t think we in the West are innately good, or that those in the fundamentalist Islamic Middle East are inherently bad. I do think, however, that we have the better value system, and that it’s terribly dangerous for people to put their faith in Anne Frank’s touching but misguided words about humans’ innate goodness. Worse, this is not merely the misguided approach of a single good and kind person. Instead, a vast portion of the American population has bought into a teenage girls’ “whistling in the dark” musings and now tries to impose this naive view on American (and Israeli) foreign policy, hampering those countries’ ability to protect themselves against those whose value system calls for its enemies subjugation and death.

Footage of Jewish history

Here you will find amazing film clips from almost one hundred years of 20th Century Jewish history, including images and testimony from Eichmann’s trial. It is a reminder that, while the Jews wanted Israel as an escape from bloodshed and tyranny, the Palestinians joyfully imagine their lands awash in a sea of blood.

Hat tip: Crossing the Rubicon

UPDATE: More on the blood Palestinians long to have on their hands. And if you click over to this last link, remember Golda Meir: “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”

Cosmic ironies

Note: I originally posted this bit of family history in August 2006. I’m reposting it now, inspired by two things: Ken Burns’ excellent “The War” (I swear the man’s a conservative) and Ahmadinejad’s pretending that the Holocaust’s historical reality is open for some sort of debate. I think both — the one almost sublime, the other evil and ridiculous — are reminders that these stories still need to be told, if not by the first generation, the generation that lived it, then by the second generation, the one that grew up hearing about it.

My mother is a very circumlocutious story teller. She bounces around chronologically and is remarkably free with indefinite pronouns. This means her stories can be a bit difficult to follow. On the plus side — and this is a plus side that completely outweighs the minor difficulties involved in teasing out the facts — her stories are absolutely fascinating. She’s lived an incredible life, as did my father, and she has an amazing memory, both for her own family history and for my dad’s (he’s gone, so he can’t tell me those tales).

Today I got my father’s history, more of it than I’ve ever known before. My paternal grandfather, whom I’ll call Max, came from Roumania (or Russia). He was at one time a successful shopkeeper. Unfortunately, though, he had a terrible gambling problem, and ended up losing his store at a card game. With nothing to keep him in Russia (or Roumania), he ended up in Berlin shortly after the turn of the last century. There he met my maternal grandmother.

My paternal grandmother, whom I’ll call Judith, came from the Galicia region in Poland. Family lore had it that her father was a prominent rabbi or cantor (I incline to the latter, and I’ll tell you why in a bit). When Judith was a young girl, her mother died. In accordance with Orthodox Jewish law, her father married Judith’s aunt, who then morphed into her stepmother.

At some point in time, this family too moved to Germany. They must have had some money at the time, because they opened a cigarette factory. The factory was successful, and they eventually became quite wealthy. Judith grew to be a beautiful young woman (I’ve seen the sole photograph my father was able to salvage from his youth), but I gather that life in her stepmother’s home was not easy. A couple of half sisters came along (who were also half-cousins), and Judith was pushed into the background.

Unsurprisingly, when Judith met Max, who was quite a dashing young man with a handlebar mustache, she quickly decided to marry him and left the family home. Judith’s family did not cut off contact with her (Max was, after all, Jewish), but they certainly were not warm.

Judith and Max soon had a son (Judah), followed six years later by a daughter (Beatrice) and, after another six years, they had their last child — my father. Life was not good to them. Max was a mediocre breadwinner and, apparently, what little he earned got gambled away. Things became even more difficult in the years between Beatrice’s birth and my dad’s birth, because Germany became embroiled in WWI. A year after the war ended, Judith was pregnant with my father. Faced with a disastrous post-war economy, and with another child on the way, Max went off to America to make his fortune.

Max apparently did fairly well in America. He began to send money to Judith, begging her to buy passage so that she and the children could move to America. The marriage can’t have been a happy one, though, because Judith refused to join Max in America. Instead, in a series of spectacularly stupid moves, Judith routinely took the dollars he sent and converted them, immediately upon receipt, to Deutschmarks. As you may or may not know, post-WWI Weimar Germany suffered from spectacular inflation. One of my father’s earliest memories was seeing women with wheel barrows full of paper money heading to the stores to buy bread. This inflation meant that Judith, instead of sitting on valuable American dollars, immediately converted them into money that, by week’s end, or even by the next day, was worthless.

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself “what about the stepmother with the cigarette factory?” She was no help. She poured her energy, and her money, into her own two daughters, one of whom apparently was one of Germany’s most famous concert pianists. (This is why I think Judith’s father was a cantor, not a rabbi.) Not only that, this pianist was married to one of the best known German-Jewish writers of the 1910s through early 1930s. I’d love to boast about their names, but I don’t know them — that information died with my father.

Since Judith’s family didn’t cut her off entirely, my Dad still had memories of visiting the family mansion and listening to his aunt (who had beautiful hair, he said) play the piano in the parlor for him. When he wasn’t visiting his grandmother and aunt, though, my father lived in a Dickensian slum. His mother had eventually landed in a small apartment over a brothel, which meant that my father learned the facts of life early, and in the ugliest way. His sister and brother, who were so much older than he, fell in with the Communists, who were considered a very reasonable alternative for poor Jews in Weimar Germany.

Eventually Judith couldn’t cope at all, and she applied to her family for aid. Rather than using their wealth to help her directly, they put pressure on a Jewish charity to step forward and help her family. Over the years, this help meant that Judah went to the Jewish school for academically gifted children (where he was lauded as the smartest student in the school’s 200 year history); Beatrice went to a convent school, of all places; and my Dad ended up in a Jewish orphanage.

Although the orphanage’s head was, apparently, a woman with somewhat sadistic tendencies, there is no doubt that the orphanage was a good place for my Dad. It provided stability, good food, and a coherent family comprised of teachers and fellow orphans. Through the orphanage — and again with pressure on the Jewish agencies from his wealthy step-family — my father followed his brother to the academic Jewish school, where he acquitted himself well, although not with his brother’s genius.

And then came 1933, and the pressure on the family was on. Judah and Beatrice became more and more intertwined with the Communist party. This put them at two disadvantages with the ascendant Nazis, because they were both Communists and Jews. They did recognize, however, the threat the Nazis were to them. The wealthy step-family continued to exist in denial, believing “it can’t happen here.”

Although not a Communist, my father, by 1935, also began to understand that it could indeed “happen here.” The anti-Jewish pressure from the Nazis was increasing daily. The turning point for my Dad was a soccer game. It was a Jewish school vs. Hitler youth game. My Dad’s Jewish team beat the Hitler youth handily on the field. Unfortunately, the Hitler youth — and their parents — beat the Jewish team brutally off the field. Dad’s eyes were both blackened and opened.

In 1935, one of Dad’s teachers, Izzy, approached him with an offer: Izzy had been hired by a group of wealthy Jewish parents who had successfully obtained visas allowing their children to make aliyah. For reasons lost through time, Izzy and his wife, who were childless, were allowed to bring another child, and they chose my Dad. My Dad, alienated from the mother who had abandoned him, the wealthy family that wanted nothing to do with him, and the siblings that saw the Communist party as their real family, said yes.

So it was that, in 1935, my father left Germany and landed on a proto kibbutz in Northern Israel. I say proto, because the land was nothing but a mosquito infested swamp with a couple of shacks. Over the next four years, my father and his fellow kibbutzniks labored day and night to reclaim the land and create a community. They succeeded. My father, however, was not a social man, and the combination of years of communal living, whether in the orphanage or the kibbutz was too much for him. He left for Tel Aviv. Sadly, he had no usable skills for surviving in the “big” city and, by August 1939, was literally starving to death in the streets. War was a blessing. He enlisted the day Britain entered the war, and served with distinction and bravery through 1944, when he was discharged on medical grounds.

But what about the rest of the family? Judah and Beatrice were spirited out through Communist lines. Judah, the genius, ended up as a low-level embittered civil servant in Denmark, living in a slum of his own making. Beatrice eventually ended up in Palestine. At war’s end, however, she announced that East Germany was purified by Communism, and returned to Berlin — East Berlin — where she lived to the day she died. Despite Communism’s manifest failings, she never lost her faith in that “religion.” Judith escaped from Germany and ended up in a Belgian convent, where she hid throughout the war. Family mythology has it that the nuns forced her to convert as a condition for keeping her, which may nor may not be true.

And how about those rich ones, the ones who refused to help the family, and who saw to it that my father ended up in the orphanage? They all died in the Holocaust. And that is one of the great ironies, isn’t it? Had they been kinder to my father, more generous and humane, he might have died too. As it was, their insensitivity and selfishness placed him in the orphanage, where he met Izzy, who took him to Palestine, where he survived the War and contributed both to Nazi Germany’s defeat and Israel’s creation.

And one more footnote about Max, the man who went to America. As I said, Max did fairly well in America. In another irony, though, just as the German branch of the family ran out of luck in 1933 with Nazism, so too did Max’s luck run out: he died that year when a streetcar hit him.

That ought to be the end of the story, but it’s not. About five years ago, a client asked me to research an obscure area of probate law. I couldn’t find any local authority, so I expanded my search to cover all cases on the subject, anywhere in America. I generated two hundred hits on the computer database. I was flipping through these hits in a desultory fashion, focused entirely on the legal principles, when my eye got caught on a case name. I gave the name a second look because it was a variant spelling of my maiden name. For the heck of it, I called the whole case up on my computer and began to read.

The case told an interesting story. In 1933, a man named Max died in New York City. His widow, who lived in Germany, asked the German government to act as her agent in the New York probate court. The local representative for Max’s estate, however, protested this move. He pointed out that, by 1938, when the court issued the case I read, Germany had imposed a multi-million dollar fine against all Jews, meaning that it was unlikely to turn over the money to the widow and her children. More to the point, the local representative pointed out — and the German government agency appearing in the New York court conceded — the family had dispersed. The mother was in Belgium, the older son was in Denmark, and the daughter and the “infant” son were in Palestine. On these facts, the court rightly concluded that it would be a travesty to give the money into German keeping and denied the German petition for the money.

I got a very peculiar feeling reading the case, and carefully examined the names of the widow and her three children. I didn’t recognize the widow’s name — Judith — but it couldn’t be a coincidence that the three children shared my aunt’s, my uncle’s, and my father’s names. A phone call to my mother confirmed that Judith was indeed my maternal grandmother and it become very clear that, by sheer dumb luck, out of the huge body of American law, I stumbled across a little piece of my family history and of American-German legal history in the 1930s.

The banality of evil

I blogged earlier about the new album of photographs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the ones showing Auschwitz guards frolicking during their off hours. I’ve got a couple of things to add. The first is a link to the entire album, here. And the second is Roger Cohen’s article, at Germany’s Spiegel Online, which contains this accurate summation of the weird horror these photos elicit in the viewer:

In thinking about the Holocaust, we have grown accustomed to images of the Nazis’ victims: shadowy naked figures on the edge of ditches about to be dispatched by the SS-Einsatzgruppen; huddled wide-eyed children; skeletal human simulacra; piles of bones. Getting the perpetrators in focus is harder.

But here, revealed by these newly discovered photographs, are the German murderers in all their dumb humanity, flirting and joking and lighting Christmas trees, as if what awaited them after the frolicking were just the bus to some dull job in a dental office rather than the supervision of Auschwitz’s industrialized killing machine.

If they were downwind of the camp, did some trace of the acrid-sweet stench of death ever mess with the merry-making? Did the image of a Jewish girl from Budapest being herded toward the gas mar a mouthful? Did conscience stir or doubt impinge? Was it clear that the children had to die in order to eradicate not only a people, but also their memory? Such questions are useless. The facts must speak for themselves.

Ordinary people; horrific crimes

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum received an unusual donation last Christmas:  a photo album taken during the last year of Auschwitz.  But unlike all our other images of Auschwitz, which show the horrors visited on the camps’ victims, this one shows the perpetrators at play.  It’s mind-bending to see images of brutal killers (amongst whom you’ll find images of Mengele) singing songs together, frolicking in the rain, gathering for convivial drink fests, and otherwise enjoying ordinary life.

This album is a reminder, as I noted here, that one of the worst aspects of the Holocaust, for those in the West, is that the perpetrators were people just like us.  We can’t distance ourselves from them simply by saying that they were twisted primitives from an alien culture.  They weren’t.  They were the product of one of Western Civilization’s highest cultures and, even as they were burning the dead bodies of the millions they murdered, they kept on living their ordinary lives — sometimes within a mile or two of the smokestacks.

Why is this Holocaust different from all other Holocausts?

My friend Patrick, who blogs at The Paragraph Farmer, tackles a very difficult question in today’s American Spectator:  Why, in a world that daily reminds us of man’s inhumanity to man, does the Holocaust still stands as the ne plus ultra of the human ability to kill?  It’s a thoughtful article, and one I urge you to read.  In addition to the points Patrick made, I want to add a few things that make the Holocaust unique amongst the atrocities man has always been capable of visiting against his fellow man.  In no particular order:

1.  Culture.  One of the things that made the Holocaust particularly horrible was the culture from which it sprang.  In the annals of Western Civilization, Germany had ascended to the highest peak:  it’s art, literature, music and science were the envy of the world.  That this culture, this culture of all cultures, could do what it did spells out something particularly horrible about the human capacity for evil.  We expect “less civilized” cultures to commit atrocities because we can then distance ourselves from those acts.  When a culture to which we compare ourselves or to which we aspire commits those same atrocities, it reminds us that none of us are safe from the evil that lurks within us.

2.  Science and method.  Consistent with it’s sophisticated culture, the Germans engaged in murder with a single minded scientific fervor that’s never been equaled.  Other cultures engage in mass slaughter in a blunt, almost animalistic way, crudely starving or executing those under their aegis (I’m thinking Communists here, both Soviet and Asian, or the machetes of the Hutus).  The Germans, however, engaged in mass death scientifically, working their way through a variety of methods until they found the most efficient way to kill the most people — and then carefully, scientifically recorded their work with detailed records, including the names of most of their victims.  They also enshrined their “scientific” progress with boastful photographs.  Those same photos reveal another side of the Holocaust, which is that the Germans reveled in killing.  While the Communists as part of their grand socialization plans managed to starve millions and millions of people in Russia, China and Cambodia, they didn’t have people gleefully skinning their victims to make lamp shades, or subjecting them to gruesome scientific experiences as part of the “fun of it all.”

3.  Geography.  Patrick makes a point about localization, namely that the German nation was one killer, and it’s easy to identify and blame one killer, while Communism, an ideology, kills all over.  This is a good point, but I think there’s a different localization point to be made, and that is the fact that Germans went beyond their locality, not in pursuit of a political ideology, a la the Communists, put in pursuit of their genocidal killing strategy.  All other mass murders have been aimed at people within the killing culture.  Hutus killed their resident Tutsis, Turks their resident Armenians, Serbs their resident Bosnians, Light skinned Muslim Sudanese their resident Christians and dark skinned Muslims, Communists of whatever nation killed “state enemies” within their own borders, and so on and so on.  Only the Nazis went on an actual hunt for their victims, trolling through country after country to gather and destroy them.  This too makes the Nazis different from any other mass murderers in world history.

4.  Deniability or the lack thereof.  Most other mass murderers engage in the “deny, deny, deny” approach to mass murder.  As I noted above, the Germans were incredibly proud of what they were doing, and carefully documented everything.  The insanity of the Holocaust deniers aside, there is too much evidence for there ever to be plausible deniability.

5.  The nature of the victims.  The Jews are the people of the Book.  They are verbal people.  In other, non-literate or less literate cultures, the stories of the horrors visited on them quickly devolve into little more than an oral myth, that has no traction.  Jews, by talking, by writing books, etc., keep the story alive.

6.  There were witnesses.  As Patrick pointed out, the hardened Patton was vomiting with the horror of what he saw.  Americans walked into those camps and came out telling the stories.  Communist victims just vanished within the maw of communist countries.  Today, in Africa, while reporters and  NGOs may venture in, there is no big war, that ends with a big discovery.  Those poor dead just dribble way, vanishing into the soil beneath them.
7.  Israel.  Unlike other survivors of mass slaughter who eventually merge into other cultures, taking their memories with them, the Jews have Israel.  Israel, of course, was a community long before the war, but it came into being as a nation in part because of the world’s response to the Holocaust.  I have long thought that Europe’s burgeoning anti-Israeli sentiment has its roots in the fact that Israel is a living reproach to Europe, and the Europeans feel better about themselves if they can denigrate Israel:  “See, the Jews are no better than we are.”  With this psychological need to make themselves feel better, it doesn’t matter to them that the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, a very complex situation indeed, is entirely different from that of Jews on the receiving end of the Nazis single-minded focus on mass race slaughter.

8.  Guilt.  Past genocides mostly took place at times when, sadly, the world hadn’t yet developed the moral capacity to care.  For example, the killing and marginalization of the Native Americans occurred during a time when the whole Western World didn’t have much of a problem with taking land from indigenous people or “killing them before they kill us.”  Likewise, slavery, that other famous form of Western, and especially American, oppression, had been a fixture in the world since time immemorial.  Indeed, there is still slavery all over the Muslim world.  Also, Americans engaged in that mass act of self-sacrifice known as the Civil War in part to purge themselves of slavery.  In this they differed from the Nazis who did not use War to purify themselves of a moral evil but, instead, used war to embrace that evil.  And the sad fact is that the morally developed Western World knew what was going on:  It knew in 1933 when Hitler started enacting the race laws.  It knew in 1938 with Kristallnacht.  It knew when panicked Jews began banging on Western doors begging for escape.  It knew when reports started circulating (only to be quashed by the Times), that in all countries the Nazis entered, Jews were being slaughtered in situ, or being rounded up and transported to death camps.  The world knew and it closed its eyes and plugged its ears.  There are still people living who knew what was going on or who should have known, and who did nothing.  They are a reminder to us of the power of passivity, not for good but for evil.

9.  Jews a perpetual victims.  This is a point Patrick made in his article, but I think it deserves repeating here.  The Holocaust hits us in the face because, at the time, it seemed to be the culmination of centuries of persecution.  Even as Western Christians finally seemed to be shaking off the yoke of anti-Semitism, the Russians began engaging in it wholeheartedly, not so much as a religious imperative but more as a cultural imperative.  That too seemed to be dying away (thanks, in significant part, to the safety valve of America), only to have the Holocaust come along, bringing anti-Semitism to a ferocious height no one in the past could have imagined.  That should have been the end of it all, but it isn’t.  The Arab world, which enthusiastically supported Hitler, is making the same noises again that Hitler did then, is killing people because they are Jews, and is talking about annihilation, just as Hitler talked and then attempted.  The Holocaust won’t go away because very evil people keep making sure it sticks around.

Those are my nine ideas about the Holocaust’s preeminence, despite the fact that both the 20th and (so far) the 21st Century have seen other, and even bigger, acts of mass slaughter.  If you have anything to add, please do so.  I know that you, my readers, will keep any comments on this sensitive subject polite and thoughtful.

Obsessing on the horrors of the past

As I’ve noted before, my mother spent the war years interned in a Japanese concentration camp in Java.  These camps were not Nazi death camps, but they were no picnic either, with a horrible attrition rate from disease, starvation, overwork and abuse.  (See here for more information about one of the camps my Mom was in, Tjideng.)  My Mom (obviously) survived the camp but, for decades, it also seemed as if she had survived the devastating depression that so quickly enveloped some camp survivors, especially survivors of the death camps.  People have always commented on her energy, and she brought that energy to bear on child rearing, running a home and art.  She talked about her experience in the camps, but didn’t obsess about those experiences.  Indeed, she was very forgiving towards the Japanese, even though they never paid reparations, on the ground that there is a difference between a “traditional” concentration camp aimed at segregating civilians, no matter how brutal it is, and a Nazi death camp, aimed at genocide.

It’s been surprising and sad, therefore, that in the past few years, my mother has been obsessing more and more about her concentration camp years.  I had naively thought that, as those years recede in the past, and as she finds herself in a secure, comfortable environment, the terror of those years would diminish.  Instead, she can’t stop talking about the horrors visited upon her in her youth.  I have been sympathetic but, as I said, confused by what struck me as counterintuitive mental behavior.  It turns out, though, that Mom’s memories, and her inability to block some of the worst ones, are completely consistent with her age.  Psychiatrists and psychologists who work at Jewish Homes for the Aged, which have large numbers of Holocaust survivors, have discovered that age weakens our ability to screen unpleasant memories:

In recent years, a body of research has sprung from the lives of Holocaust survivors like Kane as caregivers and mental health professionals work to understand and alleviate the pain of old age and remembered trauma. But when she first began to relive her past, the territory was largely uncharted.

“There has never been a group of genocide survivors live to this age in history,” said Paula David, editor of the manual “Caring for Aging Holocaust Survivors.” Their experiences offer a rare window into the confluence of trauma and aging.

One clear lesson from this shrinking group, whose median age is more than 70, is that “resilience ages, too,” David said, “and diminishes along with hearing and vision.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging has the largest population of Holocaust survivors in the West, according to nursing home officials. There were 63 such patients at latest count, although that number could rise to nearly 90 when a new building opens later this summer.

Although every Holocaust survivor is different, Kane’s end-of-life experiences are a good illustration of the kinds of things they can go through, said Chaya Berci, the Jewish Home’s executive director of nursing.

As people age and their grasp on the present weakens, events from the distant past can seem as real as anything unfolding today. For those who lived through severe early trauma, the memories that come rushing back are often of their most harrowing experiences.

Certainly I see the truth of this as I watch my mother.  It’s so sad.  These people have finally found safety and security, and they are incapable of enjoying it because they are assaulted by the ghosts of their pasts.

Huckabee and the Jews

After reading my post about Huckabee, my friend the Soccer Dad directed me to an Israel Matzav post about Huckabee’s visits to Israel and to Yad Vashem. Reading that post, I can only conclude that (a) Huckabee recognizes Israel as a nation amongst nations and (b) that Huckabee has correctly understood that one of the main messages to take away from the Holocaust is that bad things happen when good people do nothing.

If you liked this post, vote for it at Patrick Ruffini’s 2008 Huckabee wire by clicking here.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.  The war ended 62 years ago, and the vast majority of the survivors and perpetrators are dead.  Why do we still care?

Is it, as the Muslims want the world to believe, a Zionist ploy to garner the sympathy vote in world politics?  Aside from the fact that such a ploy, if it existed, is failing miserably, only someone utterly incapable of understanding the human condition would either advance or believe that kind of logic.

Is it so Jews can glory in their “special” victim status?  There may be an element of that, because Jews have been victimized for racial/ethnic/religious reasons in a way that is still unparalleled.  There have been other mass killings genocidal killings but either the numbers haven’t been as “impressive” (Armenians, Tutsis) or the other killings, while “boasting” way more impressive killing numbers, haven’t reflected a determinedly genocidal goal to stamp out an entire race of human beings (communist excesses, everywhere).  But I still don’t think that’s the answer.

So why do we still make a big deal of the Holocaust?  I think we do because it was the Germans who did it.  And I don’t mean by this that we should make Germans suffer to the third and fourth and umpteenth generation, no matter that these generations have no blood on their hands.  Modern Germans are no more culpable than modern Americans.

No.  That it was the Germans who did it matters because they were considered at the time, by themselves and by many others around the world, to be the world’s most civilized nation.  Their culture gave birth to unparalleled levels of cultural beauty and scientific knowledge.  They were friendly, organized, sophisticated, thoughtful, musical — you name it.  And they were the ones who came up with the idea to wipe out an entire race — not just to purge it from their geographic boundaries, as nations have done forever, but to hunt this race down at every point on the earth and destroy it.  And they bent their extraordinary capabilities to that task — their science, their organizational skills, everything.

And if the Germans, the sophisticated, charming Germans, could do that, any nation can.  Massacres are not reserved to decaying cultures and tribal people.  It can happen here.  So we remember — we refuse to forget — to make sure that it doesn’t happen here.

Another, more personal side to Holocaust Remembrance

[I haven't had the chance to think this busy weekend, let alone blog.  For some reason, though, I can't get out of my head the WWII stories of a few people I met, long after the war, when they were old and gray.  I'm therefore resurrecting this post because I think it tells a story that shouldn't be forgotten.]

While the Holocaust is an uneraseable blot on human history, it certainly revealed the character, not only of the bad guys, but also of the good. Longtime readers of my blog will recognize this post, which I first did a little over a year ago. It’s a story, I think, that can’t be told too often, so forgive me for publishing it again.

Harry was one of the best people I ever knew. He wasn’t witty or educated or wise — indeed, many considered him a bit of a buffoon — but he was an unusually kind, ethical man.  Not only that, through one of those quirks of fate, his honorable life intersected with that of Miriam, a woman of rare bravery and resourcefulness. (I’ve changed all names but for Harry’s, to protect the privacy of those still alive, but the story is true, word for word.)  Although their lives didn’t touch until long after the war, I’ve used Harry as my starting point for both their stories.
Harry and his sister Esther were born to a Jewish shopkeeping family in Berlin sometime during or immediately after World War I. They lived an ordinary middle class life until 1933, when their world ended. The family tried to keep going for a while, but in 1935 they could no longer pretend to normalcy. It was in that year that Harry was attacked by some Brown Shirts and beaten around the head so badly he suffered permanent neurological damage. When I met him forty plus years later, the left side of his face drooped, and he had some speech difficulties. Additionally, he had an endearing goofiness that drew people to him, coupled with a complete lack of cynicism.   Luckily, his parents were able (God knows how) to send Harry to England and Esther to what-was-then Palestine (now Israel).

Unfortunately, Harry and Esther’s parents couldn’t get themselves out of German. They remained there and were eventually rounded up by the Nazis and taken to Dachau. I think they must have been very good and nice people, because their German shop girl, Gretel, followed them to Dachau. That is, she didn’t immure herself in the camp with them, but she moved into the town and bent all her energies to keeping them alive — something she did at great risk to herself. Sadly, she failed, and Harry and Esther’s parents were two more people destroyed by the Holocaust.

After the war, Harry, who had served with distinction in the British military despite the handicaps caused by the beating he received, came back to Germany looking for his parents. He learned that they had died in a concentration camp, but he also learned about Gretel’s efforts to keep them alive. He then went looking for Gretel, and discovered her living in great destitution. Although he barely remembered her from his childhood — and she was much older than he was — Harry offered to marry her and care for her for the rest of her life. She accepted.

Either naturally, or as a result of her war experiences, Gretel was a sickly woman, and Harry knew that marriage to Gretel would not be easy — and it wasn’t. Nevertheless, as I can attest, Harry was a devoted and loving husband until the day Gretel died, more than thirty years later.

Meanwhile, in Palestine, Harry’s sister, Esther, met and married Alex, one of my parents’ friends. Alex and his brother, Max, had spent the war years in the British military. After the war, Max met Miriam, a Holocaust survivor. Miriam’s story is a book in itself.

Miriam was from a middle-class Jewish family in a suburb of Prague, in Czechoslovakia. When the Germans came, she and her family were rounded up. Indeed, Miriam’s entire school was rounded up. She once showed me a picture of her first or second grade class at school, 35 sweet, round-faced children, and told me she was the only survivor.

The Nazis immediately killed her father, but Miriam, her mother and her sister were sent to Therezienstadt. From there, the three of them were shipped to Auschwitz.

On their arrival at Auschwitz, Miriam and her family were put in line to pass Mengele’s review. Miriam, all of 14 years old, immediately noted that the old, the very young, and the sick, were sent off to Mengele’s left, while the healthy went to his right. When she reached Mengele, he told her sister and mother to go right. He then looked at Miriam, who is very sallow, pronounced the word “jaundice,” and directed her to the left. Miriam spoke up: “Dr. Mengele, I’m healthy. Look at the whites of my eye — they’re not yellow. I can work.” Mengele looked her over again, saw that she was indeed capable of working, and redirected her to the right.

By the time Miriam got out of the line for the gas chamber, however, she’d lost her mother and her sister. As you may or may not know, Auschwitz was enormous — it was a huge complex of death and labor. For the next two years, Miriam, a young teen, survived alone in Auschwitz, without ever finding her family. As the war was wrapping up, though, Miriam was transferred to Bergen-Belsen.

Bergen-Belsen, while it did not have gas chambers, was in many ways worse than Auschwitz. Auschwitz was hell, but at least it had organizing principles that gave people something to hang onto. Bergen-Belsen was pure chaos — a stinkhole of mud, death and disease (it was here that Anne Frank actually died).

Surprisingly, in the midst of this Dante-esque Hell, Miriam was reunited with her mother and sister. Miriam eventually ended up in Israel, where she met Max (whose brother Alex married Esther, who is the sister of Harry, the man about who started this post).

Fast forward to the 1980s. Harry and Gretel lived in Germany; Miriam and Max lived in Israel; Alex and Esther lived in America. None had children. At the beginning of the 1980s, Alex (Miriam’s brother) died, and Esther (Harry’s sister) died less than two weeks later.

Alex and Esther had written reciprocal wills, each leaving his (or her) half of the marital estate to the other, with the survivor of the two leaving his (or her) combined estate to his (or her) sibling. This meant that when Alex died, everything went to Esther. And when Esther died less than two weeks later, everything went to Harry. Harry, however, thought this wasn’t fair. He knew that, had Esther lived long enough to change her will, she would have left half of her estate to Alex’s brother and his wife (Max and Miriam). So Harry did something unheard of: he announced that he was, as he said, “done with beating through the bushes” and he was going to give half the estate to Max and Miriam. The estate lawyers were agog. They had never heard of something like this before, and did not even believe it could be done as a matter of law.

With pressure from Harry, and the cooperation of the Probate Court, however, it was done, and Max and Miriam duly inherited half the estate. My family lost contact with Harry years ago, and I’m sure he’s died. However, whenever I think of a righteous man, Harry — who married an older woman he didn’t know or love, because he owed a debt to her, and who gave up half of a valuable estate because it was the right thing to do — springs to mind. And when I think of someone who survived the inferno of the Holocaust, my mind always goes to his sister-in-law Miriam, the the young girl who faced down Dr. Mengele. (She, by the way, is still alive, although she is by now completely infirm because of injuries she suffered in the camps.)

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A great lady

To my shame, I only sort of paid attention to the story of Irena Sendlerowa, the Polish Catholic nurse who saved 2,500 Jewish children, was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, and escaped death by minutes through a well-placed bribe.  Fortunately, the Webloggin editor was on the case, and he’s written a lovely tribute to Sendlerowa, a true heroine.