world war ii: holocaust

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January 27th 1945: Liberation of Auschwitz

On this day in 1945, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland was liberated by the Soviet Red Army. One of the most notorious camps of Nazi Germany, Jews and others persecuted by the Nazi regime were sent to Auschwitz from 1940 onwards. During its years in operation, over one million people died in Auschwitz, either from murder in the gas chambers or due to starvation and disease. As the war drew to a close and the Nazis steadily lost ground to the Allied forces, they began evacuating the camps and destroying evidence of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed there. The leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, ordered the evacuation of the remaining prisoners at the camp as the Soviet Red Army closed in on the area. Nearly 60,000 prisoners from Auschwitz were forced on a march toward Wodzisław Śląski (Loslau) where they would be sent to other camps; some 20,000 ended up in the Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany. However, thousands died during the evacuation on the grueling marches, leading to them being called ‘death marches’. 7,500 weak and sick prisoners remained in Auschwitz, and they were liberated by the 322nd Rifle Division of the Soviet Red Army on January 27th 1945. Auschwitz remains one of the most powerful symbols of the Holocaust and the horrific crimes committed by the Nazi regime against Jews and numerous other groups.

Mizrahi Jewish People in the Holocaust

The Israeli school system teaches the average 11th grader all there is to know about the Holocaust and World War II, yet seems to nearly neglect mentioning the Holocaust in non European countries such as Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Iraq.
A classmate did a class presentation the other day, talking about her grandmother who’s a Holocaust survivor from Libya. My white, Jewish, American teacher’s response was “oh, i didn’t know the holocaust was there too” or something equally as ignorant.

The Nazi policy didn’t spare Jewish people outside of Europe -  the 400,000 Jewish people in France’s territories in North Africa (French Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia) were included in the number of “the Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe”.
Jewish people in Libya, that was under Italian rule, suffered from Anti Semitism and economic restrictions as Italy’s relations tightened with Germany. In 1942, laws of racial discrimination were activated in Libya, men were recruited to forced labor and Jews were transferred to concentration camps.
The Vichy rule in Algeria from 1940 cancelled the Jews citizenship and activated the same restrictions that applied to the Jews of France.
The Vichy rule in Tunisia was pro Nazi and in 1942, the Nazis occupied 
French Tunisia. The commander of Tunis was then Walther Rauff, who was involved in the development of death gas vans and the Final Solution in Eastern Europe and instituted anti Jewish policies.
Iraq was for a short term under the Nazi allied regime of Rashid Ali Al Gaylani. Among its results was the Farhud which was a pogrom that killed 180 Jewish people.

You will not be taught about Mizrahi Jewish people in the Holocaust, although it is as important to know.

Hermann Goering’s Anti-Nazi Little Brother and Savior of Many.

“I spit upon Adolf Hitler! I spit upon my brother! And I spit upon the entire National Socialist regime!”

—Albert Goering

Perhaps one of the most infamous names of Word War II and Nazi Germany, Hermann Goering was Reichsmarshall of the Third Reich, head of the Luftwaffe (air force), and second in command under Adolf Hitler.  One of the most ruthless Nazi’s in history, he was responsible for the Holocaust and numerous war crimes.  It is a shame that his names should be remembered (albeit in a negative light) while his little brother is all but forgotten, ignored, or unknown to most.

While Albert Goering was the younger brother of Hermann Goering, he led his life in a completely different path than his kin.  Whereas Hermann was a staunch National Socialist who rose to the upper echelons of Hitler’s regime, Albert was vehemently anti-Nazi, and used his position to oppose Nazism in any way he could. Throughout World War II, Albert used his family name to rescue many Jews, dissidents, and any other people who were on Hitler’s death list.   Whenever he was caught by the Gestapo (secret police), he would use his brother’s influence to secure his release. After all, it would be quite a scandal if it was revealed that the Reichsmarshall’s brother was anti-Nazi who helped Jews escape the Third Reich. In one incident SS thugs raided a Jewish owned paint shop, forcing the elderly mother of the owner to sit at the entrance wearing a sign saying, “I am a filthy Jew”. Goering pushed his way through a jeering mob and removed the sign.  When the SS tried to stop him, he merely showed his identification, and they left him alone. One sly way he would have victims of the Nazi’s saved was to create “official” documents ordering the release of said person.  These orders were typed on Goering family stationary and signed simply “Goering”.  Most who received the order believed they were orders from Hermann Goering himself, and thus obeyed the order.

The height of Albert’s resistance against the Nazi’s occurred in 1943 when he was made chief export officer at the Skoda Works factory in Prague.  Albert used his position to smuggle weapons and money to the Czech Resistance, coordinate acts of sabotage, set up Swiss bank accounts for the people he rescued, and organized the escape of many victims of the Nazi government.  In a few incidents, he requested Jewish workers from local concentration camps.  Loading them up in trucks, he would drive them to a secluded location, then set them free.

Unfortunately no good deed goes unpunished. After the war he was arrested by the Allies and charged with war crimes merely for sharing the Goering name.  Originally he was slated to be charged during the Nuremburg Trials, but after a year of imprisonment he was released after those he saved testified on his behalf.  He was then imprisoned in Czechoslovakia for war crimes.  He was released in 1947 when once again those he rescued, as well as Czech Resistance members petitioned the government to set him free. For the rest of his life Albert was unable to make a decent living as his name barred him from gainful employment.  He sunk into a life of alcoholism and depression, dying a pauper in 1966.  Today his name still evokes controversy.  Recent requests for him to be awarded the title "Righteous Among Nations" have stirred debate among the Israeli Government and Holocaust organizations.  He doesn’t even have a grave to honor his memory.

Photo: Map of Poland before 1939

■ World War II is a sensitive subject in Poland, for good reason. They’ve gotten a bad reputation as somehow being involved or responsible for the concentration camps. The truth:

■ Over 50,000+ Polish people gave their lives to save the lives of over 450,000+ Jewish people. More than any other country. Poland is also the highest number of people honored by the Riteous Among Nations.
Out of the 11 million killed in concentration camps, 6 million were Polish.
The reason Poland was even chosen in the first place for the concentration camps was because Poland was the most religiously tolerant in Europe, and thus had the highest number of Jewish people.
The concentration camps were German/Nazi. There was not a ‘Polish Concentration Camp’.

■ Propaganda in the aftermath of the war created the myth. Poland was the only country the Germans enforced the death penalty for aiding a Jew. Not just death for them, but their entire family. Yet still thousands of Polish helped.

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During the Einsatzgruppen trial in Nuremberg, most of the 24 defendants, which dropped to 22, due to the death of one and suicide of another, denied culpability for murder by claiming they weren’t present for the executions to flat out saying it was the first time they heard Jews were killed, but one man provided an unflinchingly honest testimony that lead prosecutor, Benjmain Ferencz, said was the “best explanation for the justification for what they did.” Forty-year-old Otto Ohlendorf was the commander of Einsatzgruppe D from June 1941 until Reinhard Heydrich’s death a year later. Einsatzgruppe D operated in the southern Ukraine following the 11th Army, and the reports indicate the group was responsible for the execution of 90,000 people, though Ohlendorf stated those numbers were likely exaggerated. He testified that when he first received the liquidation order “that in addition to our general task the Security Police and SD, the Einsatzgruppen and Einsatzkommandos had the mission to protect the rear of the troops by killing the Jews, gypsies, Communist functionaries, active Communists, and all persons who would endanger the security,” he protested it: “I pointed out that these were missions which couldn’t possibly be accomplished. It is impossible to ask people to carry out such executions.” However, his concerns lied with the impact it would have on his men, and he responded to the follow-up question of why with: “Well, I believe there is no doubt that there is nothing worse for people spiritually than to have to shoot defenseless populations.” Prosecutor James Heath countered, “If I may be a little facetious in a grim matter, there is nothing worse than to be shot either, when you are defenseless?“ but Ohlendorf remained unfazed in his reply: “Since this is meant ironically by you, I can imagine worse things, for example, to starve.”

Ohlendorf was repeatedly questioned about the necessity of such an order, and he offered the following explanation: “I was under military coercion and carried it out under military coercion knowing that it was given in a state of emergency, and the measures were ordered as emergency measures in self-defense.” Heinrich Himmler tackled its extension to women and children in a 1943 speech: “Then the question arose, what about the women and children? I decided to find a perfectly clear-cut solution to this too. For I did not feel justified in exterminating the men -that is, to kill them or have them killed- while allowing the avengers, in the form of their children, to grow up in the midst of our sons and grandsons.” Ohlendorf’s response mirrored his when the prosecution asked him what threat women and children posed to the security of Germany: “I believe that it is very simple to explain if one starts from the fact this order did not only try to achieve a security but also a permanent security because for that reason the children were people who would grow up and surely being the children of parents who had been killed they would constitute a danger no smaller than that of their parents.” An earlier piece of testimony expanded on his conviction: “I have had no cause, and I still have no cause today to think that any other goal was aimed at than the goal of any war, namely, an immediate and permanent security of our own realm against that realm with which the belligerent conflict is taking place.”

Ohlendorf maintained a strict militaristic manner throughout his cross-examination, refusing to view the extermination order through a personal moral lens, which prompted the prosecution to ask if he surrendered his moral conscience to Adolf Hitler. He replied, “No. But I surrendered my moral conscience to the fact that I was a soldier and therefore a wheel in a low position, relatively of great machinery; and what I did there is the same as is done in any other army, and I am convinced that in spite of facts and comparison which I do not want to mention again, the persons receiving the orders - and all armies are in the same position - until today, until this very day.”

Otto Ohlendorf’s role as one of Hitler’s subordinate pawns earned him the death sentence, and he was executed by hanging on June 7, 1951.

Polish-Jewish Literature: I Had Dream by Itzhak Katzenelson

I had a dream,
a terrible dream:
my people was no more, my people
disappeared.
I rose screaming:
Ah! Ah!
What I have dreamed
is happening now!
Oh, God in heaven! –
Shuddering I shall cry:
what for and why
did my people die?
What for and why
in vain did it die?
Not in a war,
not in battle …
the young, the old,
and women and babies so little – –
are no more, no more:
wring your hands!
Thus I’ll cry in sorrow
both day and night:
What for, my Lord,
dear God, why?

Itzhak Katzenelson (1886-1944) - One of Poland’s Jewish poets and dramatists who wrote in both Hebrew and Yiddish. Prior to World War II he wrote mostly for children. During the war he was consigned to the Warsaw Ghetto and later to the camp at Vitel in France, whence he was sent to Auschwitz where he perished.

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That’s what the emperors had. A man stole something, he’s brought in before the emperor, he throws himself down on the ground, he begs for mercy. He knows he’s going to die. And the emperor, pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go. That’s power, Amon. That is power.

Schindler’s List (1993) dir. Steven Spielberg

Visit to Dachau Concentration Camp

On my way home from a weekend in the Alps, we passed through Munich and I was able to visit Dachau Concentration Camp. I’ve wanted to see one in person since I was very young and began to learn about the Holocaust. 

All these decades later and there’s still a heaviness in the air. The day I went was also very cold and rainy, which only served to underline the misery of the place.

Gate at the entrance to the camp. It means “Work makes you free” or “Work sets you free” (depending on the translation you find, I personally don’t speak fluent German). 

The bunk beds, stacked 3 high, slept several people on each bed. The windows were single-paned and the walls were without insulation. Even in my heavy coat, boots, gloves, and scarf, it was freezing.

View from the bunkhouse.

Inside the gas chamber.