The Shoah and America’s Shame – Ken Burns’ sorrowful masterpiece

And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying
Paul Simon, American Tune

Ken Burns is a documentary maker and storyteller without equal. All his films are masterpieces of American history. I’ve watched much if not most of his work. They are among the most unforgettable histories I’ve ever viewed, high up in what I’d consider the pantheon of the genre, alongside The Sorrow and the Pity, The Battle of Algiers, Salvador and Waco – Terms of EngagementThe Civil War raised the bar so high that very few documentary filmmakers have reached it, with its mix of surviving photographic images (in an style that Apple now promotes as its “Ken Burns Effect”) and the mesmerizing recitation of diaries, letters home, and official communications. The West confronted his country’s enduring creation myth with an honesty balanced by empathy. The Dustbowl was breathtaking in its images, its narrative and the spoken testimonies it presented. The Vietnam War was a relentless, harrowing story told in pictures and the witness of the people ground zero of a a conflict that has been called “chaos without a compass”.

The US and the Holocaust is Burns’ latest film. It does not make for easy viewing being a searing indictment of America’s response to the catastrophe that was approaching for European Jewry. It’s a significant exposition centred on just how much evidence was accessible to Americans during that appalling time, and asks just why rescuing Jews was no priority, except for those few individuals who actually took risks to help. As Burns observed: “There is an American reckoning with this, and it had to be told. If we are an exceptional country, we have to be tough on ourselves and hold ourselves to the highest standard. We cannot encrust our story with barnacles or sanitise our history into a feel-good story”. As historian Rebecca Erbelding suggests, “There is no real perception in the 1930s that America is a force for good in the world or that we should be involved in the world at all. There is no sense among the American people, among the international community, that it is anyone else’s business what is happening in your own country”. There is indeed a disconnect between America’s self regard as the land of the free and the “light on the hill”, and the cold reality – and realpolitik – of its actual record at home and abroad. There is a none too subtle irony in the titles Burns has chosen for each two hour episode, drawn from extracts from the poem by Emily Lazarus that adorns the base of The Statue of Liberty (see below).

Burns work reminds us that historical memory in America, Europe, and indeed Australia is often like a sieve. Give it a good shake and only the big chunks are left. The story of the US’ public opinion and government policy regarding the worsening plight of European Jewry during the nineteen thirties and the a second World War is not one of those. When I posted an article about the film on Facebook, many Americans commented that they were unaware of their country’s disregard and outright obstruction. Burns has opened a crack that has let the light in.  

The quotations cited above are from a review published recently in the Weekend Australian which I have republished below – it is an excellent and quite detailed account of the issues and the incidents featured in this sorry tale, and I cannot better it. But I will note one distinctive feature of Ken Burns’ documentaries – his skill at recounting unfolding stories which he interweaves through the ongoing narrative, drawing viewers inexorably in and acquainting them with the characters, their hopes and their fears, and ultimately, their fates be these tragic – alas. in the most part – or fortunate.

In The Vietnam War, I followed the journey of an eager and patriotic young soldier, Denton “Mogie” Crocker, as he roved out from mall town USA to the battlefields of Indochina. I recount it. in The Ballad of Denton Crocker – a Vietnam elegy. In America and the Holocaust, there is the story of Anne Frank’s family as they sought asylum in the USA from the moment the the Nazi regime started to come down hard on Germany’s Jewish community. We all know how that ended for Anne and her sister. There is also the saga of what Hollywood called “the voyage of the damned”, the subject of an overwrought and overacted feature film, which nevertheless was based upon the actual voyage of the SS St.Louis which departed Hamburg with nearly a thousand desperate but hopeful travellers, but was refused entry into American and Canadian ports, and returned eventfully to Rotterdam where Britain, Belgium, France and the Netherlands gave them shelter. The latter three were conquered by the Wehrmacht in 1940, with harrowing consequences for those passengers who settled there, but a half of the St. Louis’ human cargo survived the war, predominantly those who were permitted to settle in Britain. 

On a personal note, whilst I am myself of Irish descent, Catholic and Protestant in equal measure on each side, my wife’s father’s family were Jews from eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia and experienced the same travails as those described in Burns’ film. Many, including her father’s elderly parents, perished in the death camps, and are memorialised the Yad Vashem shrine of remembrance in Jerusalem – which I have visited many times. Others managed to leave Germany, including her father, who settled in London, where she was born, and her uncle who a  lawyer who left Germany in 1933 after the promulgation of the infamous Nuremberg Laws, who settled in England and  and then made Aliyah to Palestine, ending his days in Haifa, in an independent Israel. Others headed westwards to Latin America in the hope of securing entry to the US from there.

Epilogue. Antisemitism, the devil that never dies

It has been said, with reason, that antisemitism is the devil that never dies. And yet, is antisemitism a unique and distinct form of racism, or a subset of a wider fear and loathing insofar as people who dislike Jews rarely dislike only Jews?

Fear of “the other” is a default position of our species wherein preconceptions, prejudice and politics intertwine – often side by side with ignorance and opportunism. it is no coincidence that what is regarded as a dangerous rise in antisemitism in Europe, among the extreme left as much as the extreme right, is being accompanied by an increase in Islamophobia, in racism against Roma people, and indeed, in prejudice in general, with an increase in hate-speech and incitement in the media and online, and hate-crimes.

We are seeing once again the rise of nationalism and populism, of isolationism and protectionism, of atavistic nativism and tribalism, of demagogic leaders, and of political movements wherein supporting your own kind supplants notions of equality and tolerance, and the acceptance of difference – the keystones of multicultural societies. It is as if people atomized, marginalized and disenfranchised by globalization, left behind by technological, social and cultural change, and marginalized by widening economic inequality, are, paradoxically, empowered, energized, and mobilized by social media echo-chambers, opportunistic politicians, and charismatic charlatans who assure them that payback time is at hand. These days, people want to build walls instead of bridges to hold back the perceived barbarians at the gates.

© Paul Hemphill 2023 All rights reserved

From Little Sir Hugh – Old England’s Jewish Question

Also, on American history and politics, My country, ’tis of thee- on matters American

The New Colossus

     Emily Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Ken Burns’ “The US and the Holocaust” tells of a shameful past

Graeme Blundell, The Weekend Australian, 11th March 2023

A scene from The US and the Holocaust
A scene from The US and the Holocaust
The latest documentary series from Ken Burns’s Florentine Films, The US and the Holocaust, is inspired in part by the US Memorial Museum’s “America and the Holocaust” exhibition. The series was developed with the assistance of the museum’s historians (many of whom appear in it) and its extensive archives.

It’s a significant exposition centred on just how much evidence was accessible to Americans during that appalling time, and asks just why rescuing Jews was no priority, except for those few individuals who took the risk to help.

For Burns, the series is the most important work of his professional career.

“There is an American reckoning with this, and it had to be told,” he says. “If we are an exceptional country, we have to be tough on ourselves and hold ourselves to the highest standard. We cannot encrust our story with barnacles or sanitise our history into a feel-good story.”

The US and the Holocaust was originally supposed to be released in 2023 but Burns accelerated production by several months, “much to the consternation of my colleagues, just because I felt the urgency that we needed to be part of a conversation”. That conversation for Burns and his colleagues is about “the fragility of democracies” and demonstrating how, “we’re obligated then to not close our eyes and pretend this is some comfortable thing in the past that doesn’t rhyme with the present”.

The filmmaker is fond of quoting Mark Twain’s, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes,” and like all his films he wants this one to rhyme with the present.

“We remind people that it’s important that these impulses are not relegated to a past historical event,” Burns says. “It’s important to understand the fragility of our institutions and the fragility of our civilised impulses.”

As Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, a significant voice in Burns’s documentary, says with some alarm in the series, “The time to stop a genocide is before it starts”.

And Peter Hayes, also a revered historian, says, underling the subtext of the documentary, “exclusion of people, and shutting them out, has been as American as apple pie”.

The three-part, six-hour series is directed and produced by Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, two of his long-term collaborators, and beautifully written by another Burns regular, Geoffrey Ward. As always Burns manages to find major actors to play the parts of his central characters in voice over, including Liam Neeson, Matthew Rhys, Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep, Werner Herzog, Elliott Gould, Joe Morton and Hope Davis.

And like so many of Burns’s films it’s narrated in that mesmerising way by Peter Coyote, who Burns calls “God’s stenographer”. Coyote is able to voice such complex ideas with authority and empathy, often with a kind of beguiling liturgical intonation.

Stylistically recognisable and cinematically audacious, Burns’s memorable documentaries (many of which he has co-produced with Lynn Novick) include The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The War, The National Parks, The Dust Bowl, Prohibition, Country Music and more recently Hemingway. He constructs a compelling narrative by using almost novelistic techniques, imaginatively selecting archival material, photographed in his now famous way, immersing us in photographs, developing characters and arranging details around their stories.

The filmmakers present their story in this new series across three overflowing episodes in six challenging, engrossing hours: the first The Golden Door (Beginnings-1938); the second Yearning to Breathe Free (1938-1942); and the final The Homeless, Tempest-Tossed (1941-).

There are two parallel storylines that continuously reverberate off each other – the American side details the history of American anti-Semitism, the notion of “race betterment” and the evolving immigration policy; the German narrative arc deals with the way hatred of the Jews sprouted over time, how the Nazis pursued the end of Jewish intellectualism, and of course the process of their extermination.

The first episode covers the period from roughly the end of the 19th century to the late 1930s, a historical background that delivers context and perspective for the complex narrative that follows.

A scene from The US and the Holocaust
A scene from The US and the Holocaust

It’s broken by a short pre-titles sequence that involves new archival material from the centre of Frankfurt in 1933 of Otto Frank, father of Anne, Hitler having been in power for some months. Otto is desperate to get his family to America, but in the absence of an asylum policy, Jews seeking to escape Nazi persecution in Europe had to go through a protracted emigration procedure. It’s an unanticipated and surprising piece of the Franks’s story highlighting an American connection to the Holocaust.

(It’s a lovely, if distressing, example of the way Burns likes compelling personal narrative to wrap his ideas around, finding “characters” who become involved as events dictate.)

There was limited willingness to accept Jewish refugees. America did not want them, as Coyote says. Frank would continue to apply when they moved to Amsterdam but his immigration visa application to the American consulate in Rotterdam was never processed.

As the filmmakers later show so tragically, existence for European Jews became a deadly, exhausting pursuit of passports, identification cards, transit visas, and affidavits. As the journalist Dorothy Thompson, who features in the series, said, “For thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death.”

We then cut to a beautiful period film sequence of the Statue of Liberty, Mother of Exiles, surrounded by slowly floating clouds, and a beautiful reading of the famous poem by 19th-century poet Emma Lazarus printed on a bronze plaque mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

But the Golden Door, which gives the title for the first episode, had begun to close. The filmmakers take us back through history at quotas and the favouring of northerners over immigrants from southern or eastern Europe. Asians were largely locked out by the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

A so-called “racial abyss” was feared by Americans as the new century began; white people feared they would be outbred by the newcomers and their offspring. The white Protestant majority at the end of 19th century was certain that unless things changed they were about to be replaced.

A part meeting with a sign reading "Kauft nicht bei Juden"- Don't buy from Jews.
A US Nazi Party meeting with a sign reading “Kauft nicht bei Juden”- Don’t buy from Jews.

A “mordant sentimentalism” was blamed by some for the US becoming “a sanctuary for the oppressed”, and “suicidal ethics” were leading to the extermination of the white people.

Helen Keller called it “cowardly sentimentalism” and Henry Ford, the series reveals, blamed Jews “for everything from Lincoln’s assassination to the change he thought he detected in his favourite candy bar”. He even published a hugely successful newspaper to triumphantly publish anti-Semitic harangues.

Jews were dismissed as “uncouth Asiatics” and the hogwash “science” of eugenics, the theory that humans can be improved through selective breeding of populations, was promulgated by conservationist Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race. The filmmakers show how it evolved and thrived in response to America’s changing demographics.

It was a concept taken up by Hitler who also admired America’s expansion across the continent from east to west, brushing aside those who were already there. This was manifest destiny. “The immense inner strength of the US came from the ruthless but necessary act of murdering native people and herding the rest into cages,” he wrote. His dream was of territorial expansion and Germany would in time conquer the wild east of Europe he believed. “Our Mississippi,” he said, “must be the Volga”.

Jews, scapegoats for centuries, watched as anti-Semitism was normalised in the US, in and out of Washington. Burns and his colleagues closely follow the complex manoeuvrings of President Roosevelt as he coped with the anti-immigrant xenophobiaas well as a wilful, and for many, all-consuming obsession with white supremacy.

As historian Rebecca Erbelding suggests, “There is no real perception in the 1930s that America is a force for good in the world or that we should be involved in the world at all. There is no sense among the American people, among the international community, that it is anyone else’s business what is happening in your own country”.

The series unfolds with Burns’s typical elegance: the stylised organisation of personal anecdote, Coyote’s sonorous narration, erudite, subdued commentary from historians and some ageing witnesses to atrocities, an elegiac soundtrack from Johnny Gandelsman, and gracefully realised visual documentation.

Much of the German archival footage is not unfamiliar but some new sequences horrify and disturb deeply. SS soldiers parade in the streets, chanting “When Jewish blood spurts off a knife, everything will be all right”. And the midnight book burnings on May 10, 1933, are a frenzied, phantasmagoria of volumes hurled into bonfires, including the works of Jewish authors like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud as well as blacklisted American authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller.

The series is an extraordinary piece of work, resonant and at times frightening. As historian Nell Irvin Painter says, “Part of this nation’s mythology is that we’re good people. We are a democracy, and in our better moments we are very good people. But that’s not all there is to the story”.

The US and the Holocaust is streaming on SBS On Demand.

Actor, director, producer and writer, Graeme Blundell has been associated with many pivotal moments in Australian theatre, film and television. He has directed over 100 plays, acted in about the same number, appeared in more than 40 films and hundreds of hours of television. He is also a prolific reporter, and is the national television critic for The Australian.

2nd September 1939 – the rape of Poland (1)

As we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War, with Germany’s unprovoked invasion of Poland on 2nd September, and Britain and France’s declaration of war on Germany the day after, let us bow our heads for the victims of Nazism.

The term ‘Holocaust’ generally refers to the systematic and industrialized mass murder of the Jewish people in German-occupied Europe – called the Shoah or ‘catastrophe’ by Jews. But the Nazis also murdered unimaginable numbers of non-Jewish people considered subhuman – Untermenschen (the Nazis had a way with words!) – or undesirable.

Non-Jewish victims of Nazism included Slavs who occupied the Reich’s ostensible lebensraum – living space, or more bluntly, land grab (Russians – some seven million – Poles, another two – Ukrainians, Serbs and others in Eastern Europe caught in the Wehrmacht mincer; Roma (gypsies); homosexuals; the mentally or physically disabled, and mentally ill; Soviet POWs who died in their tens of thousands; Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians who defied the regime; Jehovah’s Witnesses and Freemasons; Muslims; Spanish Republicans who had fled to France after the civil war; people of colour, especially the Afro-German Mischlinge, called “Rhineland Bastards” by Hitler and the Nazi regime; leftists, including communists, trade unionists, social democrats, socialists, and anarchists; capitalists, even, who antagonized the regime; and indeed every minority or dissident not considered Aryan (‘herrenvolk’ or part of the “master race”); French, Belgians, Luxemburgers, Dutch, Danes, Norwegians, Albanians, Yugoslavs, Albanians, and, after 1943, Italians, men, women and young people alike, involved with the resistance movements or simply caught up in reprisals; and anyone else who opposed or disagreed with the Nazi regime. See below, Ina Friedman’s The Other Victims of the Nazis and also, Wikipedia’s Victims of the Holocaust

The Nazis, with a little help from their allies and collaborators, murdered (there is no other word) an estimated six million Jews and 11 million others In camps and jails, reprisals and roundups, on the streets of cities, towns and villages, in fields and in forests, and in prison cells and torture chambers. And in the fog of war, the dearth of accurate records, and the vagaries of historical memory, the actual number is doubtless higher – much higher.
Lest we forget …

Worldwide, over seventy million souls perished during World War II. We’ll never know just how many …

DEATHS BY COUNTRY  

Country Military Deaths Total Civilian and Military Deaths
Albania 30,000 30,200
Australia 39,800 40,500
Austria 261,000 384,700
Belgium 12,100 86,100
Brazil 1,000 2,000
Bulgaria 22,000 25,000
Canada 45,400 45,400
China 3-4,000,000 20,000,000
Czechoslovakia 25,000 345,000
Denmark 2,100 3,200
Dutch East Indies 3-4,000,000
Estonia 51,000
Ethiopia 5,000 100,000
Finland 95,000 97,000
France 217,600 567,600
French Indochina 1-1,500,000
Germany 5,533,000 6,600,000-8,800,000
Greece 20,000-35,000 300,000-800,000
Hungary 300,000 580,000
India 87,000 1,500,000-2,500,000
Italy 301,400 457,000
Japan 2,120,000 2,600,000-3,100,000
Korea 378,000-473,000
Latvia 227,000
Lithuania 353,000
Luxembourg 2,000
Malaya 100,000
Netherlands 17,000 301,000
New Zealand 11,900 11,900
Norway 3,000 9,500
Papua New Guinea 15,000
Philippines 57,000 500,000-1,000,000
Poland 240,000 5,600,000
Rumania 300,000 833,000
Singapore 50,000
South Africa 11,900 11,900
Soviet Union 8,800,000-10,700,000 24,000,000
United Kingdom 383,600 450,700
United States 416,800 418,500
Yugoslavia 446,000 1,000,000

WORLDWIDE CASUALTIES*

Battle Deaths 15,000,000
Battle Wounded 25,000,000
Civilian Deaths 45,000,000

*Worldwide casualty estimates vary widely in several sources. The number of civilian deaths in China alone might well be more than 50,000,000.

Read also, in In That Howling Infinite: Righteous Among the Nations and Las Treces Rosas – Spain’s Unquiet Graves 

The Other Victims of the Nazis

Ina R. Friedman

Fifty years after the end of World War II, few people are aware that Jews were not the only victims of the Nazis. In addition to six million Jews, more than five million non-Jews were murdered under the Nazi regime. Among them were Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, blacks, the physically and mentally disabled, political opponents of the Nazis, including Communists and Social Democrats, dissenting clergy, resistance fighters, prisoners of war, Slavic peoples, and many individuals from the artistic communities whose opinions and works Hitler condemned.1
The Nazis’ justification for genocide was the ancient claim, passed down through Nordic legends, that Germans were superior to all other groups and constituted a “master race.”

Who constituted this “master race?” Blue-eyed, blond-haired people of Nordic stock, or “Aryans.” As such, they had the right to declare who was worthy of life and who was not, who was to be maimed by sterilization or experimented upon in the interest of attaining racial purity, and who was to be used as slave labor to further the Nazi empire.

In the world the Nazis wished to create, Jews and Gypsies were to be eliminated as racially, socially, and physically defective. The deaf, the blind, the physically disabled, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and alcoholics were either to be sterilized or killed simply because they were viewed as “genetically defective.” Slavic people, though labeled racially inferior by the Germans, would be allowed to exist as slaves in order to supply the Nazis with free labor. Criminals, political enemies of the state, and homosexuals were pronounced socially undesirable and subject to the will of the Nazis.

Barely two months after attaining power, the Nazis laid the constitutional foundation for Hitler’s dictatorship with the passage of the Enabling Act on March 24, 1933. This legislation was subtitled “The Law to Remove Stress from the People and State.” It gave Hitler the right to pass any law without the approval of the Reichstag. In effect, the implementation of this law allowed the Nazis to completely ignore the civil and human rights previously guaranteed by the German constitution.

In addition to passing laws legalizing their denial of human rights, the Nazis began a press and radio propaganda campaign to portray their intended victims as rats, vermin, and Untermenschen (subhumans). Inmates of concentration camps were listed as Stuecks (pieces), with assigned numbers, rather than being permitted the dignity of a name. If a German gave these victims a thought, he was to think of them as animals.

Although belief in the theory that one race was superior to others was not unique to Hitler and the Nazis, the enthusiastic support given to Nazis by all facets of German society, particularly the scientific community, was unique.2 Geneticists, scientists, doctors, and anthropologists from the internationally acclaimed Kaiser Wilhelm Institute cooperated in the process of experimenting on human beings to prove the theory of a master race. Spurious experiments to “show” the inferiority of non-Nordic groups such as blacks, Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and others were conducted. Teachers embarrassed Jewish and Gypsy children by directing so-called scientific efforts that included measuring the sizes of their heads in order to prove so-called “mental deficiencies.” Other efforts by the scientific community included certifying that sterilization or annihilation was necessary for “undesirable groups.”

In 1943, Professor Eugen Fischer, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics, and Eugenics, wrote to a German newspaper: “It is a rare and special good fortune for a theoretical scientist to flourish at a time when the prevailing ideology welcomes it, and its findings immediately serve the policy of the state.”3 Professor Fischer’s “good fortune” included creating an environment that allowed Dr. Mengele and others who took the Hippocratic oath the right to experiment on human beings and to murder them in the “interest” of science. This included the experiments Mengele performed on Jewish and Gypsy twins in Auschwitz, injecting them with chemicals and germs. If one twin died, the other twin was murdered to compare their physiognomy.

In efforts to breed a master race, more than 300,000 German Aryans were sterilized and countless numbers were gassed, under a law passed on July 14, 1933, the “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring.” In his book Murderous Science, Dr. Benno Mueller-Hill notes that the aforementioned statute provided for compulsory sterilization in cases of “congenital mental defects, schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis, hereditary epilepsy . . . and severe alcoholism.”4 This included the blind and the deaf, even those who became deaf or blind from illnesses such as scarlet fever or from accidents.

A few years ago, on a trip to Germany, I interviewed deaf people who had been sterilized by the Nazis. In one case, a nine year-old girl had been removed from her school and taken to a hospital by the principal for sterilization. “When I came to,” she said, “I found my parents by my bed weeping.” To prevent them from protesting, the state had not notified them beforehand.

The Nazis also had a significant impact on the lives of black children, who were the offspring of German women and African soldiers stationed in the Rhineland after World War I. Many of these so-called “Rhineland Bastards” were picked up from the streets or from classrooms and sterilized, often without anesthesia. Due to the application of the “Law for the Prevention of Off-spring with Hereditary Defects,” which was passed in 1933, approximately 400 of these children were deprived of their right to reproduce.

Homosexuals were often given the choice of sterilization, castration, or incarceration in a concentration camp. This treatment was “legaquot; because of a law passed in 1871, under paragraph 175 of the German penal code, making homosexuality a criminal offense.5 Under the Nazis, thousands of persons were persecuted and punished on the charge of homosexuality. Many were sent to concentration camps, where they had to wear a pink triangle (rosa Windel).

When the war broke out in 1939, Hitler ordered the elimination of the severely retarded because they were “useless eaters.”6 Operating from headquarters at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin, the “T-4” program took the retarded to extermination centers and gassed them with carbon monoxide. In two years, from 1939 to 1941, more than 50,000 persons were killed in this program. In 1941, the Bishop of Muenster protested these gassings, and they were stopped. However, the victims had served their purpose as guinea pigs in the refinement of the use of gas for the mass killing of Jews and Gypsies. The lessons learned in these earlier executions were used in the death camps.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler had made known his antipathy toward Christianity. Reverence would be shown to Hitler and not to the traditional symbols of Christianity. Statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary would be banished and, in their place, the Fuehrer’s photographs would be displayed. The Old Testament was to be discarded as “a Jew book full of lies,” and Mein Kampf would supersede the New Testament. In place of the banished cross would stand the swastika.

Both the priests and ministers who spoke out against the Nazis were labeled “political opponents,” and “enemies of the state.” Many of these dissenters were sent to Dachau concentration camp, where a special barracks was set aside for religious leaders. This isolation was to keep the clergy from giving solace or rites to the rest of the prisoners. In the camps, the clergy, like other inmates, were used as slave laborers and in medical experiments.7 Of the 2,270 priests and ministers from nineteen occupied countries who were interned in Dachau, 1,034 perished.

The handful of Catholic priests in Germany who protested the actions of the Nazis was also punished. For example, Provost Bernard Lichtenberg of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin was arrested, imprisoned for two years, rearrested at the end of his sentence, and shipped to Dachau. He died en route.

In 1938, when Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber of Munich, a leader of the Catholic hierarchy, protested the persecution of Jews, the Nazis attempted to burn down his house.

Most clergymen either did not read Mein Kampf or ignored its foreshadowing of things to come, and thus the majority of Germany’s religious leaders supported Hitler’s nationalistic ambitions. Yet there were those among the religious community who did challenge the Nazis. Out of 17,000 Protestant clergy, three thousand were Evangelical Lutherans who opposed the Nazis. Some of the members of the group were arrested and sent to concentration camps-never to return. Others worked quietly in their opposition. Some spoke out because of Hitler’s attacks on the church, and a few because of his actions against the Jews.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, though few in number, also were seen as a threat to the Nazis. Not only did they oppose war and refuse to fight, but they also urged others not to serve. In addition, Witnesses refused to salute the flag or to say “Heil Hitler.” To a Jehovah’s Witness, saluting the flag or any authority other than Jehovah God is the same as worshipping idols.

Along these lines, my book The Other Victims: First Person Stories of Non-Jews Persecuted by the Nazis relates the story of the Kusserow family. Not only the parents, but also their eleven children, were punished for being Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1936, when the father, Franz Kusserow, refused to renounce his religion, he was put in jail until the end of the war. Two sons were executed because they refused induction into the army. Another son was incarcerated in Dachau, where he contracted tuberculosis and died shortly after the war. The three youngest children were sent to reform school for “re-education.” Mrs. Kusserow and the older girls were taken either to prison or to concentration camps.

The Gypsies, like the Jews, were condemned by the Nazis to complete annihilation for being racially impure, socially undesirable, and “mentally defective.”8 The persecution of Gypsies was not new in Germany. A “Central Office for the Fighting of the Gypsy Menace” had been established in 1899. In 1933, a plan to put thirty thousand Gypsies aboard ships and sink the ships in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean was abandoned, but many Gypsies were sterilized under a law that permitted the sterilization of “mental defectives.” In Dachau, Gypsies were used in experiments to test the amount of salt water an individual could drink before death occurred. At least half a million Gypsies were murdered by the Germans in the gas chambers, in experiments, or in general round-ups.

Although the Nazis declared Polish people Untermenschen, or subhumans, thousands of Polish children who were blond haired and blue eyed were separated from their families and sent to Germany to be raised in German homes as Aryans. The dark-haired, dark-eyed sisters and brothers remaining in Poland were to be taught only simple arithmetic, to sign their names, and to offer obedience to their German masters. Their purpose in life was to serve as slaves for the German empire. Anyone caught trying to give further instruction to Polish children was to be punished. Despite the ban on education, secret schools flourished in attics and basements.

Because of the ideological and racial antipathy toward Russian Communism, between two and three million Russian prisoners of war were purposely starved to death by the Nazis. Others were shipped in cattle cars to concentration or extermination camps. Most died of disease, exhaustion, or starvation.

No article on the non-Jewish victims would be complete without mentioning the first opponents of the Nazis: Germans who happened to be Communists or Social Democrats, judges and lawyers, or editors and journalists who had opposed the Nazis. They were the first to be arrested.

As soon as the Nazis came to power, the goal of eliminating all opposition took primacy. Trucks and police vans raced up and down the streets arresting any threat to Nazi rule, including those members of the artistic community who demanded cultural freedom. Books were burned. Authors and artists were either imprisoned or purposely denied the ability to earn a livelihood.

Even telling a joke about Hitler could lead to a death sentence. The evening before he was to give a concert, pianist Robert Kreitin remarked to the woman with whom he was staying, “You won’t have to keep Hitler’s picture over your mantle much longer. Germany’s losing the war.” The woman reported him to the Gestapo. The day of the concert, he was arrested and executed.

A few years ago, I conducted interviews in Germany for a biography, Flying Against The Wind: The Story of a Young Woman Who Defied the Nazis. The young woman, Cato Bontjes van Beek, was one of the few Germans to resist the Nazis. While she opposed the regime, her favorite cousin, Ulrich, supported Hitler and joined the Storm Troopers. Everyone I talked to described her blond-haired, blue-eyed cousin as “a sweet and sensitive person, an artist and a poet.”

“How was it possible,” I asked Cato’s mother, “that Ulrich was so fanatical about Hitler? He came from the same background as Cato.”

“When Ulrich looked in the mirror,” she said, “he saw the Master Race.”

It was people like Ulrich, along with the scientists and the judges who administered Nazi “justice,” who gave Hitler the manpower and the consent to murder six million Jews and five million non-Jews.

Although Hitler is dead, the theories that he espoused remain alive. With the modern tools being developed by biologists and other scientists, it is important for young people to be made aware that knowledge can be manipulated and turned into tools of destruction.

In every generation, educating the young is an awesome task. Today, with new scientific advances, the rapid spread of knowledge through computer networks, and the ability to alter the material being transmitted, it is more important than ever that students learn to think for themselves. Part of that learning process should include the devastating effects of prejudice. A true understanding of the history of the Holocaust would make that lesson clear.

Notes
1Susan Bachrach, Tell Them We Remember: The Story of the Holocaust (Boston: Little Brown, 1995), 20.

2 Nora Levin, The Holocaust. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968), 11-15

3 Eugen Fischer, Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (Germany) March 28, 1943.

4 Benno Mueller-Hill, Murderous Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 28.

5 Richard Plant, The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals (New York: Holt, 1986), 211-19.

6 Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 1986), 46.

7 Barbara Distel, Dachau (Bruxelles: Comité International de Dachau, 1985), 11.

8 Ian Hancock, The Pariah Syndrome (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Karoma Publishers, 1987), 63-6

9. BibliographyBethge, Eberhard. Costly Grace: An Illustrated Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.Forman, James. The Traitor. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1970.Friedman, Ina. The Other Victims: First Person Stories of Non-Jews Persecuted by the Nazis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.—–. Flying Against the Wind: The Story of a Young Woman Who Defied the Nazis. Brookline: Lodgepole Press, 1995.Hancock, Ian. The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution. Ann Arbor: Karoma, Inc., 1986.Hanser, Richard. A Noble Treason: The Revolt of the Munich Students Against Hitler. New York: Putnam, 1979.Kanfer, Stefan. The Eighth Sin. New York: Random House, 1978.Lukas, Richard C., ed. Out of the Inferno: Poles Remember the Holocaust. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1989.Mueller-Hill, Benno. Murderous Science: Elimination by Scientific Selection of Jews, Gypsies, and Others. Germany 1933-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.Plant, Richard. The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals. New York: Holt, 1986.Ramati, Alexander. And the Violins Stopped Playing: A Story of the Gypsy Holocaust. New York: Watts, 1986.Snyder, L. Louis. Hitler’s German Enemies: Portraits of Heroes Who Fought the Nazis. New York: Hippocrene Press, 1990.Wise, Robert. The Pastors’ Barracks. Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1986.

Ina R. Friedman is the author of The Other Victims: First Person Stories of Non-Jews Persecuted by the Nazis (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), which was cited in 1991 as one of the “Best Books” of the American Library Association-Young Adult Division. Her latest book, Flying Against the Wind: The Story of a Young Woman Who Defied the Nazis, is a biography of a German Christian who resisted the Nazis (Brookline, Massachusetts: Lodgepole Press, 1995).

Howlinginfinite.com

Righteous Among the Nations

During the Shoah, the biblical word for ‘the destruction”, and today, the standard Hebrew word for The Holocaust, the Nazi’s progress towards the Final Solution was aided and abetted by governments, armies, auxiliaries, officials, and individuals in the many countries that fell under the Axis thrall between 1939 and 1945. But there were also many, many people of goodwill and extraordinary courage from all walks of life who risked their lives and often, those of their families and friends, to protect Jews from persecution, and to save them from capture, deportation and extermination. untold numbers perished along with their charges. Many survived, as did thousands of Jews.

As of January 1, 2016, the 26,120 people from over fifty countries have been honoured by the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Centre. These are The Righteous Among the Nations. 

For Oscar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, and the ‘Righteous Gentiles’.
In the words of the Talmud, “he who saves a life, saves the world entire”

We said “the worst is over”,
When the laws began to bite,
And our people crouched in silent fear
That fiery crystal night.
When they burned down the synagogues
And made Jews wear the star.
“this madness will not last”, we said,
“Nor reach us where we are”.

And we said “the worst is over”,
Bought the optimistic line.
We shared the hopes of millions,
Prayed for peace in our own time.
And we listened to our elders,
And we kept our fears controlled.
And we thought the worst was over.
Until the panzers rolled.

Then we thought the worst was over
When our army laid down arms.
And we went back to our daily lives,
Dismissed as false alarms
The rumours that these conquerors
Would wipe us from this earth.
It didn’t take us long to learn
What such false hope was worth.

Still, we thought the worst was over
When they made us wear the star,
And gathered all our people
From their townships near and far.
And they forced into ghettos
And set guards upon the gates.
We had seen worse persecution
In the history of our faith.

But we knew the worst still to come
As we watched the trucks appear.
And whispered talk of death camps
Gave dark substance to our fear.
When they sent in dogs and soldiers
To cull those trapped inside,
The ghetto was a station
On the road to genocide.

In the world beyond the wire
None could hear our people crying
As silence like a curtain fell
And cloaked a nation’s dying.
The ears of men were stricken deaf,
The eyes of men were blind
As the free world’s incredulity
Built the wall we died behind.

But we believed that at the hour of death,
When all our hopes had gone,
From the ranks of Gentiles
A just man would soon come.
He would part engulfing waters
With bold deeds and sleight of hand.
He would lead a tortured people
To a safe and promised land.

And, we believe
That when all doors are bared against us,
He will come.
When all hands are raised against us,
He will come.
When no man will defend us,
He will come
Into our darkest day.
He will walk up to our sepulcher
And roll the stone away.

Yes we believe
That in the hour of our worst torment,
He will come.
Like an angel in the darkness,
He will come.
When all our hope is dying,
He will come.
And in our blackest day,
He will walk up to our sepulcher
And roll the stone away.

Featured Image, from Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre

Oscar Schindler's grave, Mount Zion, Jerusalem

Oscar Schindler’s grave, Mount Zion, Jerusalem