Category Archives: Holocaust

Old Europe Ain’t What She Used to Be…

…Isn’t that a blessing?

 

This is not the first time that the movement of migrants into her parts is changing the character of the many diverse societies on the continent. It has been happening for millions of years. So why are some people pretending that the current status quo needs defending? Of course, there are elements that must be defended at all cost. Those include the rule of law and human rights which have been hard-won from the forces who would subject us. Some things are just not up for negotiation.

We have only to look at the two world wars in the 20th century to recognize what must be fought for and how precious peace is.

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On 27th January Holocaust Memorial Day was celebrated worldwide. For the uninformed, this year is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops (1944). The truth about the heinous crimes Hitler’s Germany had been committing in murdering innocent Jews, Communists, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma and anyone else who opposed the regime became a fact that could no longer be ignored or denied. This crime was the culmination of what happens in a country where basic human rights are flaunted and the rule of law replaced with jack-boot justice. In coming years the world would also find out about the genocides committed by Stalin and co. One can debate at length which of the two dictators murdered more innocent people, but that question is academic.

The nature of authoritarianism has altered in the course of those 70 years. Rather than institutionalized terrorism from pseudo-elected governments, now terrorism is diffuse, existing in cells – some sleeping until woken for duty, and supported by internet recruitment of the next suicide bombers or IS warriors. It is impossible to combat effectively.

On 7th January the long automatic rifle of terrorists’ justice reached out to Paris and murdered 17 people – some random as in the Jewish supermarket, some targeted as the journalists at Charlie Hebdo. Do they really believe that we of this western civilization will surrender our freedoms just because they kill people they consider to be committing crimes against Allah and Mohammed?

Personally, I find it extremely difficult to understand why these Islamists think they have the right to terrorize the modern world and transport it back to the Middle Ages. For them, tolerance is an unkown concept. And quite honestly, they aren’t thinking this through. Were they to succeed in destroying the West, they would lose the internet tools that serve them so well. They would also have to give up their cell phones, their SUVs and all their modern weaponry. What if the source of their bankrolling (oil?) was no longer raking in the money to finance it all? They fail to recognise that these amenities exist only because of the freedom of ideas, speech, press and a lot of capitalism.

Of course, there have been positive side-effects from the Paris attacks. Mainstream Muslims are speaking out and disowning terrorism. And indeed, we must be very careful not to judge all Muslims by the actions of a few radicals. As they have said, those terrorists are not genuine Muslims. They are instumentalizing the religion for evil ends.

As a result of the attacks, tens of thousands – in France, millions of people – took to the streets to march and express their solidarity with the victims and their families. This all comes at a time when, in Germany, some groups have appeared on the scene to defend German culture from becoming inundated by foreign influences. The high number of foreigners is supposedly endangering the country as we know it. The largest center for this is the eastern city of Dresden, a city with a comparatively low percentage of people with migration background. Is this anxiety because of the 40 years during which east German society had little contact with the outside world?

Similar groups have sprung up across Germany, but their demonstrations are comparatively small and the turnout is totally outnumbered by the demos of those opposing them and marching for a “colorful” Germany. These anti-immigrant demos were reported in the foreign press . Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to consider it newsworthy to report on the opposing demos. That is disturbing!

However, I have been heartened in my belief that Germany and a large portion of its citizens are opening their arms to receive the refugees streaming in from such diverse places as Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Serbia. Our newspapers are filled with articles on local private initiatives to find housing, furnishings and clothing for these people.  Private citizens organize get-togethers to welcome them into the communities. And for those who intend to settle, they are offering German courses. Everyone knows: language is the key to integration.

This help for the refugees is not just coming from one segment of society. Young and old are pitching in. In fact, many of the older generation who experienced being driven out of their homes in Poland or Czechoslovakia after the war and were forced to build a new life in western Germany, are especially open to helping. In the late 1940s and early 1950s they were in the same boat, arriving with nothing more than a few meager possessions. Now they are returning the favor – passing it forward, so to speak.

Europe is changing, developing. Nothing is perfect, to be sure, but to stand still would be fatal.

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Filed under civil rights, Europe, German History, Holocaust, human rights, Terror, World Wars

Wolf Blitzer’s Journey

The CNN correspondent uncovers his roots

The Peace Bridge author, me in other words, has just watched the amazing journey that CNN’s Wolf Blitzer undertook to uncover his roots. It took him far back to Auschwitz where his grandparents were murdered but his parents survived, and then to Buffalo, NY, actually Kenmore, where I also spent most of my childhood. We went to the same high school – Kenmore West. He graduated 2 years before me in 1966.

At Ken West there was a large contingent of really bright Jewish kids in my classes and I was always in awe of their intellectual development – far beyond mine, that was for sure. But at the tender age of 15-17, I had no idea about their backgrounds, that some of them must have been children of Holocaust survivors. In the late 60s I had only just about heard of the Holocaust and no way would it have occurred to me to make any connections between it and the Jewish kids in my classes.

But I do wonder if it was my memories of those bright kids, like Wolf Blitzer, that left me with a permanent historical fixation on the Holocaust, where some of the brightest and most productive members of European society were murdered. It may well be this that led me to write a story about a Jewish family trying to overcome the late and lasting consequences of Hitler’s Reich.

I am thankful to Wolf’s film for bringing this connection home to me. Better late than never! On a more upbeat note, I loved that he, too, when on a visit back to Buffalo, also goes on a pilgrimage to Anderson’s Custard and Ted’s Hotdog Stands on Sheridan Drive. Funny, the things you take with you on life’s journey.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MaiaIdjcK8

 

 

 

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Filed under German History, Holocaust, Remembering, Roots

The Warsaw Pact Takes on New Meaning

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When we were visiting Warsaw a week ago, I had no idea we were just missing Barak Obama’s arrival. After five days there, spent delving more deeply into the history of Poland in general and Warsaw in particular, I appreciate the President’s confirmation of the resolve of the US and NATO to defend, if necessary, Poland and the other former Soviet satellite states which are, indeed, now members of NATO. For the Ukraine crisis has certainly given the countries at our eastern outposts a mighty case of the jitters. And for good reason: Promises are one thing, carrying through can be quite another.

Warsaw is a city resurrected – by its own strength and resolve – from the ashes of World War II. Although under Soviet dictatorship, the citizens immediately started to rebuild their city, not a modern incarnation of it, but as it had been, as they had loved it before 1939.

Before / After

Before / After

After a visit to the Warsaw Rising Museum, which presented blow-by-blow the city’s last-ditch struggle to survive, I came away realizing that it wasn’t just the Germans and the Russians who raped Poland. In September 1939 when the country was invaded first from the west by the Germans and then from the east by the Russians, Poland’s allies – Great Britain and France – did not lift a finger. They were powerless; they could only let the invaders have their way.

With its low plains, Poland had always been an easy target for armies to march across. Napoleon certainly took advantage of that. And its geopolitical location between three greedy empires (Austro-Hungary, Russia and Germany) made it a tempting target. Thus in 1795 Poland became the tragic victim of its geography and topography. It was divided into pieces, like a cake, between Austria, Germany and Russia. Only at the end of the First World War did it reappear on the map as a sovereign nation.

In 1939 the German National Socialist regime was determined, once and for all, to quash Polish identity. One element of that was leveling Warsaw. In their perception, that would destroy their national identity. By 1945, 90% of Warsaw had been bombed and burned out. But they underestimated the will of the people to stay Polish, as evidenced by their final uprising in the summer of 1944. They went down but they went down fighting.

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Aerial view of a city devastated

 

During the war, the Polish government was in exile in London; Polish troops fought side-by-side with the British, French, Americans, Canadians and others. What remained of their airforce flew with the RAF. They fought bravely and believed when the war was won that they would get their country back.

At Yalta, a seaside town in then (and now once again!) Russian Crimea, in February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin set the framework for the post-war political landscape of Europe. Poland was already occupied by Russia. The western allies, again, did not have enough strength to counter Stalin’s drive to secure his sphere of influence. Poland was left to Stalin. The rest is, obviously, history. My conclusion: Poland was f***ked, repeatedly, not only by her enemies but also by those she thought her friends.

Let’s hope and pray that the USA, within the scope of the NATO alliance, does in fact, this time, defend Poland and the other former Iron Curtain countries from Vladimir Putin’s latest version of Russian egomania and paranoia, should this become necessary. The rest of western Europe must move on from its tentative measures and show more backbone. For with one eye on 20th century history, it is easy to understand the nervous twitch from which Poland and her eastern neighbors are lately suffering.

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Filed under Cities, Fiction and Other Truths, German History, Great Britain, Holocaust, Politics, Remembering

Holocaust Memorial Day

…was yesterday. Just in case it passed you by; just in case your awareness of what happened is a bit sketchy, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum can fill in the gaps in your education. Please follow this link:

As a permanent resident of Germany this subject is never far away from consciousness.

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Filed under Fiction and Other Truths, German History, Holocaust, human rights

REMEMBERING AND FORGETTING

Workshop in Wiesbaden, 26 April 2013

Yesterday marked the 80th anniversary of the Nazi book burnings that started on May 10, 1933 and demonstrated Hitler’s determination to destroy any form of expression that did not conform to his world view. The workshop I attended was aimed at thinking about how to sufficiantly commemorate this tragedy, but it developed into a much broader discussion.

From afar I have been tracking the activities in Wiesbaden for years. Voraciously I’ve read the newspaper articles covering the organized events commemorating the local persecution of the Jews during Hitler’s Third Reich, their humiliation, their banning from professional and civic life, then their eventual deportation to be murdered in concentration camps in the east.

Most of these acts of remembrance have been – and continue to be – planned in conjunction with Wiesbaden’s Aktives Museum Spiegelgasse für Deutsch-Jüdische Geschichte in Wiesbaden (www.am-spiegelgasse.de) (Active Museum Spiegelgasse for German-Jewish History).

This museum does not consider itself just a Jewish museum. Located in one of the city’s most ancient buildings that is situated in the historic center of Jewish life, this museum is not a static place for visitors to passively take in exhibitions, but a smaller space offering changing exhibitions (also often at other venues), archives and a library for research.  And it is, as its name states, very active, creating an interface between the communities and organizations that make up Wiesbaden. It functions as an integrating force between varied religious confessions and between the young and old.

One of the museum’s major – and most visible – projects: is the ceremonial laying of Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks), bronze paving stones set in the pavement in front of the houses where deported Jews once lived.

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The service held on 4 September 2011 at the cattle ramp aside Wiesbaden’s main train station from where the Jews had to report for deportation. A candle was lit for each of the 1500 deportees. A visiting Israeli said the Kaddish.

As a recipient of the museum’s newsletter, I have kept an eye on their activities without participating. Although my interest in all things involving German-Jewish history is evident in the novel I wrote (The Peace Bridge), I’ve always found many excuses for remaining an observer, not the least of which is that I live a half hour away from Wiesbaden. A pathetic excuse.

When I received an invitation via the Active Museum to a workshop on the culture of remembrance (co-sponsored by six different Wiesbaden organizations), I decided to end my passivity and sign up. On a rainy Friday afternoon a diverse group of seventeen (age span ca. 18 – 70) gathered to talk about how the horrendous events that occurred during the Nazi regime can/should be commemorated. The main focus was on the upcoming eightieth anniversary of the book burnings which began under Hitler on 10 May 1933 (just three months after he came to power).

Could there be a greater symbol of the attempt to ban free thought from the world than the burning of books?

What kind of a commemorative event could sufficiently relate the significance of this act to the internet generation coming of age in the 21st century? Can they even imagine the possibility of losing the right to free expression and publication?

However, the focus of the workshop shifted very quickly to a re-think of the act of commemoration in general. How can it be carried out without it becoming an empty ritual? How can the youth of today be included in remembering historical events that they either don’t know or care about, or would perhaps rather forget? And how do we build a bridge from that past to make it relevant to the present? The afternoon ended with a lot of open questions.

One could denounce such workshops as “debating societies” with little practical use. But as my years of observing the Wiesbaden scene has shown me, there are a lot of people in the sponsoring organizations (including the Active Museum) who go to great lengths to find the ways and means of remembering an infamous past so that it might never happen again. My hat off to them!

We never did get around to talking about the forgetting part of the workshop title. I’ve concluded it isn’t an option.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

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Filed under German History, Holocaust, Politics, Traditions

Hannah Arendt – the Film / the Thinker

When I was checking the listings for the cinema in our little town on Friday, I discovered that small miracles do occasionally happen. They were actually screening a film aimed at an audience older than 17 and with an IQ greater than that, too. The film Hannah Arendt, directed by Magaretta von Trotta and staring Barbara Sukowa had, through some miracle, made it around to our neck of the woods.

For the uninitiated, Hannah Arendt was a German political philosopher (1906 – 1975) and a Jew who had to flee the country in 1933. Reading about her academic career, you can hardly escape coming to the conclusion that she was seriously a genius. After the war she and her husband were able to emigrate to the US where they both became respected professors in New York City universities.

Her book Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, which she wrote after reporting on the trial in 1961, caused a hornet’s nest of trouble for her, especially among the Jews. The subtitle of said book was The Banality of Evil.

I JUST FOLLOWED ORDERS

She judged Eichmann to be a totally mediocre man, not a monster at all. He’d sent millions of Jews to their death by, in his mediocrity, doing his job to the letter as he was ordered to. This by no means meant that he was innocent. He was a “Schreibtischtäter” – a desk criminal who masterminded train schedules to get people to their death on time. Arendt recognized the irony in this; for her, this characterized the Nazi way of doing business. Each bureaucrat was a cog in a wheel – each in itself banal – seen as a whole, the cogs and wheels added up to a death machine. They did their jobs without thinking (probably the most important word in Arendt’s vocabulary) about what they were doing or about the consequences.

Banality that murdered was not what the Jewish public wanted to hear. Nor did they want to hear Arendt’s take on how the Jewish councils in the concentration camps actually assisted the Nazis in achieving their end solution.

Eichmann was dully convicted and condemned to hanging, a result Arendt found just. But when her book was published in the US in 1963, she faced a storm from both close friends and the greater Jewish community. They accused her of being completely insensitive and unfeeling. They were, of course, missing the point of her analysis: that “normal” human beings were capable of participation in such inhuman endeavors. But the Jews in 1963 were just too close to the pain of the Shoah to appreciate the irony she saw.

It took the rest of us 50 years to catch up with achieve the distance she had as a great thinker less than 20 years post-Holocaust.  Arendt’s analysis of the banality of evil is one I can understand without allowing the deeds of Nazi criminals to appear as anything but abhorrent.

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Filed under Endings, Holocaust, Politics