Posts by Timothy Boyce

Profiles in Courage: Adolfo Kaminsky

Share

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day—a time to commemorate the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

What better way to commemorate their memory than to celebrate one of the heroes of the Holocaust, who risked their lives to save the Jews and others.

Question: How does an 18-year-old boy, whose formal education ended at age 13, a boy whose life experiences were limited to: 1) selling hosiery, 2) working in an aircraft factory, 3) working for a clothes dyer and dry cleaner, and 4) working at a dairy, have the skills to save a life during the Holocaust?  And not just one life, but thousands of lives—by some estimates up to 14,000—most of them Jewish?

Answer: By becoming a forger.

Adolfo Kaminsky was born October 1, 1925 in Argentina, a member of a nomadic family that saw his Russian-Jewish parents initially flee the Tsarist’s pogroms in late 19th-Century, landing in France.  In 1917 France expelled the family, suspecting they sympathized with the Bolshevik Revolution, whereupon they fled to Argentina.  There, Adolfo, the second of four children, was born.  In 1932, armed with Argentinian passports, the family returned to France (following a stay in Turkey), ultimately settling in with relatives Vire, Normandy.

Adolfo Kaminsky

Adolfo quit school at age 13 to help his struggling family financially. He first tried selling hosiery with his uncle, who was too overbearing, so he began working in an aircraft factory instead.  When France fell to the Germans in the summer of 1940, the factory was seized and all the Jewish workers summarily fired.

Not yet even 15 years-old, Adolfo answered a want-ad to become an apprentice to a clothes dyer.  Soon the apprentice—through trial and error, experiments at home, and reading chemistry textbooks—was handling the most difficult cases for his master, making even stubborn stains magically disappear.  Thoroughly smitten with chemistry and the world of color (he had set up his own lab at home) Adolfo took a weekend job to work with a chemist at a local dairy.  There he learned how to test the fat content of butter as follows: he would add methylene blue to the cream and measure how quickly the lactic acid dissolved the color.  In that way he learned that lactic acid could erase Waterman blue ink, the kind used on French identity cards.

In 1943, Kaminsky’s family was arrested and detained for three months in Drancy, France, a transit camp for Jews slated to be sent to death camps, primarily Auschwitz.  Fortunately, the Nazis still respected the family’s Argentinian passports, and they were released after three months, but prudence dictated that they get false identity papers.

Adolfo was tasked with obtaining the necessary forged papers from the French Resistance.  In the process the Resistance learned about Adolfo’s facility with chemicals, leading to this colloquy:

“You know how to remove ink stains?”

“Yes,” Adolfo answered, “That’s even my specialty.”

“But what about indelible ink?”

“There’s no such thing.”

Soon, young Adolfo was spending all his time heading a secret laboratory located in an apartment building in Paris’ Latin Quarter, dissolving Jewish names on existing identity documents and substituting new, Gentile-sounding names. (The lab’s occupants posed as artists to explain away the chemical odors emanating from the apartment.)

As Adolfo’s skill increased, so did the demand for his services.  He learned how to “age” paper; to make letterheads; to create type fonts and watermarks; and to fashion his own official looking rubber stamps.  No request was refused.  One time Kaminsky and his fellow forgers received an emergency request.  Three hundred Jewish children needed new 1) birth certificates, 2) baptismal certificates and 3) ration cards—900 documents in all.  As Kaminsky explained: “The math was simple.  In one hour, I made 30 fake documents.  If I slept for one hour, 30 people would die. . . .  So I worked and worked until I passed out.  When I woke up, I kept working.  We couldn’t sleep.  We finished the documents just in time.”

The work was mentally demanding—one lapse or error could result in the holder’s imprisonment or death, and physically demanding—Kaminsky would eventually go blind in one eye from always peering through a magnifying glass or microscope.  Nor was there any glory in his work—no one could know the forger’s own identity.  Hanging over all his work was the constant risk of detection—and certain death—if caught.  Above all he was haunted by “the people I couldn’t save.”

Kaminsky continued forging documents for a variety of causes—some controversial—for many years after the war ended.  But he never questioned the value of his work during World War II.  In one interview he stated:

“When you have the chance to save even one human life, you must.  It’s elemental.”

Adolfo Kaminsky died January 9, 2023, at his home in Paris, aged 97.

Perhaps Kaminsky’s final words are the most important lesson we should remember on Holocaust Remembrance Day: “Of course, everything I did was illegal.  But when something legal is against humanity, you have to fight.”

Adolfo Kaminsky

The Warsaw Ghetto (Part II): Deportations Recommence

Share

In an earlier blog (here) I described the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto, and its partial liquidation beginning on July 22, 1942 and lasting until September 21, 1942, resulting in the deaths of 250,000—300,000 Jewish inhabitants, all as described in the diary of Mary Berg.

By January 18, 1943, nearly four months had passed without a single deportation (Treblinka was being kept busy by deportations from other Jewish ghettos in Poland, including Tom Buergenthal’s Kielce Ghetto).  On that date, Mary and her family were moved to an internment camp in France.  And on the same day those remaining behind were left to face renewed deportations.  Here is how The Holocaust Encyclopedia describes the events:

“On 18 January 1943 a second wave of deportations began.  This time Jews who were ordered to assemble in the courtyards of their apartment buildings refused to comply and went into hiding.  The first column that the Germans managed to round up in the early hours, consisting of some 1,000 people, offered up a different kind of resistance.  A group of fighters . . . armed with pistols, deliberately infiltrated the column, and when the signal was given, the fighters stepped out and engaged the Germans in hand-to-hand fighting.  The column dispersed, and news of the fight soon became common knowledge.  The whole action lasted only a few days, by which time the Germans had rounded up about 5,000-6,000 Jews from all parts of the ghetto; after the events of the first day hardly any Jews responded to the German order to report.

The fact that the action was halted after a few days, and that the Germans had managed to seize no more than 10 percent of the ghetto population, was regarded by Jews and Poles alike as a German defeat. . . .   [T]hese deportations had a decisive influence on the ghetto’s last months.  The Judenrat and the Jewish police lost whatever influence they still had; the fighting organizations were the groups that were obeyed by the population.  The Jewish resistance also impressed the Poles, and they now provided more aid to the Jewish fighters.  The ghetto as a whole was engaged in feverish preparations for the expected deportations.  The general population concentrated on preparing bunkers. . . .   Much thought went into the planning of the sophisticated entries and exits of the subterranean hiding places. . . .   Water, food, and medicines to last for months were stockpiled.”

While it is appropriate to focus on the heroic actions of the poorly armed but highly motivated resistance fighters of the Warsaw ghetto, one should not lose sight of the enormous human suffering even those few days in January 1943 produced.  According to historian Martin Gilbert, among those deported were 150 doctors and all the patients at the ghetto hospitals.  The crowds also included a well-known cantor of pre-war Warsaw, Meir Alter, and Alter’s father.  On the way to the Umschlagplatz, the transit assembly area, Alter fils supported Alter pere, who was blind and moved with difficulty.  When the SS escort asked why the old man did not walk by himself, Alter explained that his father was blind.  “The Nazi fired a shot, ‘killing the blind man instantly. . . . ‘”

Similarly, on January 19, when the Germans once again entered the ghetto, David Wdowinski went into hiding.  Again, there were the familiar German voices, the heavy footsteps, the alarming hammering, according to Wdowsinski.  As he later recalled:

“A child began to cry.  Fright, alarm—we’ll be betrayed.  The mother closed her hand tightly over the child’s mouth and nose.  The crying stopped.  The child was quiet, very quiet.  The German went away.  The quiet child was a little bluish and from his mouth issued a small stream of bloody foam.  It was never to cry again.  So went a Jewish child into another world.”

To be continued.

January 13, 1942: Odd Nansen Becomes a Hostage

Share

Odd Nansen: Self-Portrait

On this date 81 years-ago Odd Nansen was ordered, by the local sheriff and two Germans, to accompany them to Oslo “for questioning.”  He would soon learn the truth—the authorities had no interest in questioning him, and no intention of releasing him from their grasp.  His crime? None.  Nansen was never accused or convicted of any wrong-doing or anti-German activity (even though he was in fact involved in the Resistance).  Instead, he learned of his new status: hostage.

The taking of hostages in wartime is as old as antiquity—a means of ensuring obedience by the local civilian population.  The major difference the Nazis brought to the taking of hostages was the ruthlessness with which they implemented and enforced their hostage-taking activities, which encompassed every country they occupied.

As early as August 19, 1940, William L. Shirer was broadcasting that the German military commander of the Netherlands had issued another warning against continued acts of sabotage.  If they continued, the general warned, collective punishment would be levied, not only against the perpetrator, but also the town in which the perpetrator lived “and hostages [will be] taken.”

Similarly, in Nansen’s case, it was the commando-style attacks by the British against Norway—Operations Anklet and Archery, which provoked Reichskommissar Josef Terboven (Hitler’s personal representative in Norway) to order in January 1942 the arrest of twenty of the most prominent citizens of the country—preferably ones with ties to the royal Family—as hostages.

The life of a hostage was precarious in the extreme—as it depended, not on the actions or behavior of the hostage him- or herself, but upon the actions of others.

In Mary Berg’s diary for June 10, 1941, she notes that the Polish underground was enforcing its own laws against collaborators, as well as the resulting retaliation by the Germans:

“The famous Polish moving-picture star, Igo Sym, who collaborated with the Nazis, was executed recently by the patriots.  The Nazis posted red placards all over the city, promising a reward of ten thousand zlotys for the delivery of the “traitors.” Meanwhile, a few hundred prominent Poles have been imprisoned as hostages and some of them have been shot.”

In France, which generally had a weak and ineffective resistance organization early in the war, 471 hostages were nevertheless shot in an eight-month period (September 1941—May 1942).  In general, however, the further east in Europe one traveled, and the longer the war lasted, the more vicious the reprisals against hostages became. For example, to quell an incipient uprising in Serbia in mid-1941 (as the Russian invasion increasingly required all of Germany’s resources) Hitler personally ordered between 50 and 100 hostages be shot for every German soldier killed.

Similarly, by late 1943, Greece experienced a spasm of extreme violence directed against hostages.  As historian Mark Mazower relates in Hitler’s Empire, on December 4, 1943, 50 hostages were shot in Aigion.  The next day another 50 hostages were hanged at the Andritsa rail station.  A few days later, on December 13, the entire male population of Kalavryta—over 500 men—were killed in reprisal for the kidnaping and killing of German soldiers by nearby partisans.

Thus, it is perhaps something of a miracle that Odd Nansen never knew of such wanton killings and survived his 40-month incarceration—until the war’s final days—without facing any such reprisals, for his own sake, and indeed, for ours as well.   Otherwise, we might never have Nansen’s masterpiece, From Day to Day, to offer us a unique, and uniquely insightful, look into the inner workings of the German concentration camp system.

Note: In one of the ironies of history, on January 13, 1942, the very same day that Odd Nansen first entered a Norwegian prison cell, the governments of nine German-occupied countries (Norway, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Poland and Yugoslavia) met at St. James’s Palace in London and issued a joint declaration (the St. James’s Palace Declaration on the Punishment for War Crimes) that those found guilty of war crimes would be punished after the war.

The very first recital of their declaration reads: “Whereas, Germany, since the beginning of the present conflict which arose out of her policy of aggression, has instituted in the Occupied countries a regime of terror characterized amongst other things by imprisonments, mass expulsions, the execution of hostages and massacres.” The declaration was the first joint statement of goals and principles by the Allied Powers during World War II, later to be superseded by the Atlantic Charter and still later by the Declaration by United Nations. The Norwegian signatories were Terje Wold, Minister of Justice, and Trygve Lie, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and, after the war, first Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Did those guilty of war crimes receive the punishment they were promised by the St. James’s Palace Declaration? The Lagerkommandant of Grini, Alfred Zeidler, was sentenced after the war to life imprisonment, but was released in 1953.  Anton Kaindl, Commandant of Sachsenhausen (1943-45) was also sentenced to life imprisonment, by the Russians, and died in the Gulag in 1948.  Max Pauly, Neuengamme’s Commandant in 1945, was sentenced to death in May 1946, and hanged later that year.  Josef Terboven died by suicide in May 1945 rather than surrender.

2022 Year-End Potpourri

Share

“None the less we bid it welcome, and once more fix our hopes, our burning wishes, and our ache of longing on the new year.  The news is excellent, and all things considered there seems every reason to take a rather more cheerful view of things after all.” (From Day to Day, January 2, 1944)

Thus did Odd Nansen feel at the start of 1944, and so I also feel at the start of 2023—all things considered, there seems every reason to be cheerful.

Here’s a few thoughts on various year-end matters that I thought worth mentioning, as we fix our burning wishes on the new year.

SEVENTH DISTRIBUTION GOES OUT

Recently I was able to send to each of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and HL Senteret, the Norwegian Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities their 50% share in the royalties and speaking fees I earned this past year related to Odd Nansen’s diary.  To date my cumulative distributions now top $26,000.

DEVOTION

Before the Christmas holiday I was able to see the movie Devotion (which I had previously written about here). Frankly, I was somewhat ambivalent about seeing the movie version of Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown—could it really stand up to the book version (most movies don’t in my opinion).  The film begins by noting that it is “inspired” by the story of Jess and Tom, and there are some film scenes that clearly do not follow the actual events, but overall the film had the same powerful impact that the book version did.  If you get a chance to see this drama, go, but bring tissues.

TOM BUERGENTHAL AND SERENDIPITY AGAIN

Recently my wife and I were invited to dinner at a friends’ house, to meet a new couple who had recently moved into town—Bonnie and Jeff.  Jeff, being the excellent attorney that he is, had already Googled our names to get some background on us.  Once we were all settled with a glass of wine, Jeff confessed to being curious why I was so involved with matters relating to World War II, the Holocaust, diaries, etc.  I explained how it all started with a memoir I had read back in 2010, about a young Jewish concentration camp prisoner whose life was ultimately saved by Odd Nansen, and how this prisoner later emigrated to the U.S. and became a world-famous expert on human rights, serving as a justice on the International Court of Justice at The Hague.  By this time Bonnie’s attention was rivetted to my story.  Q: What was this man’s name? A: Thomas Buergenthal.  Q: Does Tom have three sons? A: Why, yes, he does.

Well, it turns out that Bonnie and her younger sister Shannon were classmates with Tom’s  youngest two sons, all while they were attending the Country Day School in—of all places—Costa Rica in the late 1970s.  To add to the coincidence, Shannon is married to a lawyer who attended G.W. Law School—and who of course had Tom as a professor!

In all my travels and presentations, I have now met people who 1) were born in the same village in Czechoslovakia as was Tom, 2) attended the same high school in Patterson, NJ with Tom, 3) went to the same undergraduate college (Bethany College in West Virginia) as Tom, although not in his class, 4) who attended NYU Law School with Tom, and now this.

It is a very small world indeed!

FRIDTJOF NANSEN IS EVERYWHERE

This week I received an email from an old friend, Diana, a brilliant attorney who was recently seconded to her firm’s Singapore office for a short tour of duty.  Diana explained that she was awaiting a meeting at Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower for her work permits.  Just outside of the Ministry of Manpower sits another office, of the Norwegian company NHST Worldwide, a global media company.  Diana just had to share with me the writing she saw above NHST’s office entrance:

So while Fridtjof may have never made it to Singapore, Singapore knows Nansen!  If you readers ever spot Nansen memorabilia in your travels (including but not limited to the North Pole) please send them along to me and I’ll be happy to share.

And so, on the advice of no less a role model than Fridtjof Nansen, let us all go FORWARD into the New Year with confidence and hope.

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL!

Profiles in Courage: Lauritz Sand

Share

Lauritz Sand. Drawing believed to be by Odd Nansen’s friend Per Krohg.

Lauritz Sand was born in Trondheim, Norway on October 1, 1879.  Like Odd Nansen, Sand was artistic, and like Odd Nansen, he studied architecture.  When his artistic career failed to get off the ground, he elected to pursue a military career instead, with the Royal Dutch East Indies Army.

Following his retirement from the military in 1906, Sand turned to managing plantations in the Dutch East Indies, becoming the superintendent of the Anglo-Dutch Plantations in 1922.

Sand returned to Norway in 1938.  Soon after the German invasion in April, 1940, he began to apply his military and managerial skills to resistance work.  He was an early member of the military intelligence organization XU (which he may have had a hand in naming), for which he mapped German military installations in Norway.  When XU was infiltrated by the Nazis, Sand was arrested in September 1941, and brought to the notorious Victoria Terrace for interrogation.  Despite extensive and repeated torture, he gave only a one-word answer to all questions put to him: Nei (No).

Eight months after Sand’s arrest, here’s how Odd Nansen describes his friend’s condition inside Grini Prison:

“Easter Eve!  Thanks to high-mindedness and generosity we had only one hour’s extra work today.  This was an Easter gift to the prisoners, which was announced on parade at one o’clock.  The prisoners showed a commendable mastery of their rejoicing: a pale smile brushed as it were over the tired faces.

We held a short entertainment in the hospital this afternoon.  All the patients were lying or sitting out in the long corridor.  The “stage” was just outside Sand’s door.  Sand’s?  Or was it the ghost of Sand I saw there, propped up in the bed with pillows?  A white-haired, emaciated old man, staring in front of him and sucking mechanically at the pipe he could just hold onto with the hand that was free from bandages and plaster.

He nodded faintly to me when I sat down; I nodded back; it struck me there was something familiar about the man.  Thus I slowly recognized him, feature by feature.  It was actually the Sand I knew, the Sand I had lunched with almost daily last spring and summer.  Last summer he was going around brisk and springy.  Now he was a broken man; his eyes sat deep in his skull; his cheeks had fallen in; his neck and chin had dried up and contracted.  I saw that he could not move. The only living thing about him was his eyes, deep down in their sockets.  I don’t know what the gangsters have done to him, and I don’t want to ask.  It must be an atrocious thing that can change a man so.  His arm was broken in two places, all the fingers of his right hand were out of joint, his whole body seemed an affliction.  He got part of this treatment at the Terrace, part of it here.  And it is known who are guilty.  I don’t know how I managed to perform this evening, only that I got up in my turn and repeated Norsk sang, by Collett Vogt, to Sand, to Sand alone, and tried to put into it all I felt he was a martyr for.  I had such a desire to tell him right out that I was burning with pride to be his countryman.  But there was a guard standing motionless outside his door, and I could see he understood Norwegian; he was following the program with his face.  When I had said the poem, I moved; I couldn’t sit any longer facing Sand’s door and looking at him.  I was to sing some lively songs for the patients, and how was I to get through them with Sand before my eyes?  The hell of the German concentration camp is no longer in Germany alone.  It makes one shiver to think what may happen before this nightmare is done with.  It’s said they told Sand that as soon as he recovers they will smash him to bits again until he talks.” (Saturday, April 4, 1942)

Lauritz Sand recuperating in bed. Note the pipe in his left hand.

Eight months later, Sand was still recovering in the Grini Prison hospital:

“Truth to tell, holidays in prison soon lose their charm.  There’s miserably little to do.  I can’t lie sleeping all day, and this morning I took refuge with Sand up in the hospital for a couple of hours.  He likes a chat, likes to be “received again” among the living.  He is now decidedly in a fair way to get better.” (Saturday, December 26, 1942)

In the closing days of the war, Sand was notified that, as a result of his continued intransigence, he would be executed by firing squad on May 17, 1945.  Only Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, spared him from this fate.

Although Lauritz Sand never fully recovered—physically or mentally—from his four-year ordeal, he devoted himself for the remainder of his life to working on behalf of war veterans.  And, miraculously, despite all the abuse he had experienced, Lauritz Sand lived for another eleven years, dying 66 years ago today (December 17, 1956) at age 77.

King Haakon did not forget Sand’s service.  He visited Sand in November 1945 while he was still recuperating in the hospital, and made him a Knight of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav. 

In 1952, four years before his death, a bust of Sand, now legendary as “Norway’s most tortured man,” was unveiled just outside the gates of Grini Prison. It contains a single-worded inscription: NEI.   King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav attended the ceremony.

Bust of Lauritz Sand.

I think we can join in with Odd Nansen when he observed in his diary on Sunday, March 3, 1942: “There is a Norwegian we can take off our hats to.”

Lauritz Sand with his Order of St. Olav (and his pipe).

Happy Birthday Odd Nansen

Share

Odd Nansen

Odd Nansen was born 121 years ago today, making this (at least in Hobbit-speak) his twevlety-first birthday.  Whatever the year, it is always an occasion to remember and commemorate.

In remarks given by then U.S. President John F. Kennedy at a fundraiser held on November 29, 1962 for the benefit of a yet-to-be-built National Cultural Center, he observed:

“Art knows no national boundaries.  Genius can speak in any tongue, and the entire world will hear it and listen.  Aeschylus and Plato are remembered today long after the triumphs of imperial Athens are gone.  Dante outlived the ambitions of 13th Century Florence.  Goethe stands serenely above the politics of Germany, and I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for the victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”*

I am equally certain that after World War II has become as a relevant as the Peloponnesian War, Odd Nansen’s contribution to the human spirit will still be remembered and commemorated.

*Following Kennedy’s assassination, almost exactly one year after these remarks were delivered, Congress passed legislation to rename the cultural center the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  The Kennedy Center officially opened September 8, 1971.

Anti-Semitism in America

Share

On this day in 1951 Thomas Buergenthal first set foot on American soil.  He was 17 years-old.  During a good part of those 17 years Tom had successfully defeated the Nazis’ best efforts to murder him, whether through the liquidation of the Kielce Ghetto, internment in Auschwitz-Birkenau, or participation in the Auschwitz Death March.

But all that was now behind Tom, and he was eager to start a new life in America, his new home, a country that had been so instrumental in vanquishing the scourge of Nazism, and thus ending the suffering of so many.

One thing Tom most likely never imagined in his wildest dreams back in 1951 was that seventy-one years later anti-Semitism would be alive and well in America, and that a former president of the United States, who is also a current candidate for a future presidency, would be entertaining virulent anti-Semites in his home.

My purpose here is not to dwell on the manifold moral failings of The Former Guy, but to ask each of us to look in the mirror.  In doing so I would ask each of us to reflect on part of a blog I originally wrote five years ago:

In a fascinating, insightful and highly readable new book, Why: Explaining the Holocaust, author Peter Hayes concludes his inquiry with three “broad implications for all citizens.”  Second among these is that “the Holocaust illustrates the fundamental importance and difficulty of individual courage and imagination.”  Certainly, Odd Nansen possessed the requisite courage and imagination.  But Hayes goes on to remark that bravery alone is not enough: “wit, wiliness, shrewd judgment, persistence, and creativity in challenging evil are also indispensable.”  Again, Nansen’s diary is replete with examples of these traits as well.

Hayes’ book is broken into a series of chapters, each of which addresses one question central to the Holocaust: Why the Jews?  Why the Germans? Why murder? Etc.  One question Hayes does not tackle (probably because it would require its own book) is why some people became villains, and yet others, like Nansen, became heroes.

When we pontificate today that “we must never forget the Holocaust” or “we must never let it happen again,” implicit in our statement is the firm belief that we would never participate in such evil; we would never support a program like the Nazis.  And yet millions of Germans, Austrians, and Sudeten Czechs joined the Nazi Party, and millions more collaborated with them in occupied and allied countries.

Perhaps—perhaps—one can understand the allure which the Nazi ideology (and jobs) held for the down-and-out mechanic or the failed farmer (which is what Heinrich Himmler, the greatest mass murderer of all time, was before the war).

But how could educated German doctors, subject to the Hippocratic Oath (“do no harm”), willingly engage in the so-called T4, or Euthanasia Action, killing the disabled (71,000–80,000 murdered by August 1941, and many more after that as well)?  How could “many eager lawyers,” dedicated to the rule of law, willingly act “as middleman in the sale of Jews’ assets, and the numerous willing graspers for their medical and legal practices, their artwork, their houses and apartments, their furniture and carpets”? How could German professors, leading some of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, permit the Nazi minister of education to order them: “From now on, it is not up to you to decide whether something is true, but whether it is in the interests of the National Socialist Revolution”?

So, how could we have withstood the subtle coercion exercised by, and the enticing blandishments offered by, the Nazis had we lived in that time and place?

Hayes does provide a significant clue, when he writes, “Resistance is never easy and seldom comfortable, and compassion has to be practiced in order to hold up when challenged.” (emphasis mine).  The Odd Nansen depicted in his diary (1942–1945) is the same Odd Nansen who voluntarily put his career on hold in 1936 to form a relief organization for stateless Jewish refugees.  He undertook the task knowing it would be difficult, frustrating and often daunting, especially in the face of indifference and official governmental anti-Semitism.  Is it surprising, then, that Nansen managed to survive the crucible of World War II with his humanity intact?

If today we flatter ourselves that we can be indifferent to suffering in our midst, if we can ignore the plight of those less fortunate, or of powerless minorities (like the Jews of the 1930s), if we can turn our backs on the lessons of the beatitudes, will we really be ready, if and when we are ever tested in a conflict as horrible as the Holocaust? The lessons of history suggest otherwise.

 

 

The Warsaw Ghetto (Part I)

Share

“Today I attended a concert by Vera Gran. . . .  She sings classical songs and modern songs by the young composer Kuba Kohn, a product of the ghetto.  His music expresses all the sadness and resistance of the ghetto.  It has a new and original note that could only be born in this atmosphere of suffering, torture, and dogged endurance.” (Diary of Mary Berg, December 14, 1941)

Today marks the 82nd anniversary of the official establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest Jewish ghetto created by the Nazis during World War II.  Over 400,000 Jews (equal to approximately 30% of the total prewar population of Warsaw) were confined to an area of roughly 1.3 sq.mi., representing about 2.4% of the total prewar area of metropolitan Warsaw.

Warsaw Ghetto

Before it was all over, and the Ghetto finally destroyed by the Nazis in retaliation for the Warsaw Uprising (April—May, 1943), virtually all of the Ghetto’s inhabitants—noncombatants all—would be dead.

To put the scale of this tragedy into some perspective, the Jewish death toll in the Warsaw Ghetto alone is equivalent to:

  • 100 times the number of Allied troops killed on D-Day;
  • Over 20 times the number of Americans killed during the entire Battle of the Bulge, America’s deadliest battle in World War II;
  • All American soldiers killed during World War II.

One of the reasons so little has been written about the Warsaw Ghetto is that so few survived the experience—less than 1% of the initial inhabitants.  As one historian observes: “The heroic struggle and suffering of the Jews in the Polish ghettos constitute one of the most tragic and least known chapters of the war.”

Fortunately, a diary written by 15 year-old Mary Berg (born Miriam Wattenberg), spanning the period October 10, 1939 to March 5, 1944, offers a detailed and poignant, picture of life inside the Warsaw Ghetto. Mary’s family had been living comfortably in Lodz, Poland (her father was a successful art and antique dealer) when the war began on September 1, 1939.  When Lodz came under attack the family fled to Warsaw, which soon also came under German bombardment.  After 27 days of increasing punishment, Warsaw surrendered, and Poland became an occupied country.  By the following July, Mary writes that a de-facto Jewish Quarter has developed in part of Warsaw, beyond which one dares not go, on pain of being “hunted by the Germans or attacked by Polish hooligans.”

Five months later, in November 1940, rumors began to circulate that the Jewish Quarter would soon be isolated and its residents locked in.  Even then—more than a year of living under Nazi rule, many Jews did not fully realize the extent of their predicament:

“Some people say that this will be better for us, because the Germans will not dare to commit their crimes so openly and because we will be protected from attacks by Polish hooligans. But others, especially those among us who escaped from the Lodz Ghetto, are aghast: they have already tasted life in a secluded Jewish quarter under German domination.” (November 2, 1940)

At the time the Warsaw Ghetto was established, the Wannsee Conference—which would coordinate and implement the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”—was still more than a year in the future.  Moreover, the major killing centers, such as Treblinka and Auschwitz, had not yet been built.  Nevertheless, life in the Ghetto became a constant struggle for survival, and the Nazis seemed more than willing to let starvation and disease take its toll.

The official per capita food ration was set below subsistence levels.  Those with some financial resources—like Mary’s family—could resort to the black market.  A well-established smuggling operation began almost as soon as the nine-foot-high, barbed-wire-topped, brick walls enclosing the Ghetto went up.

On the other hand, those without such resources simply starved:

“On Leszno Street in front of the court building, many mothers often sit with children wrapped in rags from which protrude red frost-bitten little feet.  Sometimes a mother cuddles a child frozen to death, and tries to warm the inanimate little body.  Sometimes a child huddles against his mother, thinking she is asleep and trying to awaken her, while, in fact, she is dead.  The number of these homeless mothers and children is growing from day to day.” (November 22, 1941)

Even those with some resources found the ever-increasing price of smuggled goods put most food items beyond their reach:

“Only a few people in the ghetto are still eating normally: the managers of public kitchens, the very wealthy, and the food smugglers.” (February 2, 1942)

In such a weakened state, in such crowded conditions, and without all but the most rudimentary medical supplies, disease festered in the Ghetto.  As Mary observes on the first anniversary of the enclosure:

“Of the former one hundred students in our class,* only about twenty-five remain.  Many are unable to pay the tuition fees and a great number have perished of typhus.” (November 15, 1941)

By mid-1942, 83,000 Jews would be dead, victims of disease and starvation.

Apparently, even this murder rate was not sufficient for the Nazis—things needed to be speeded up.  But as bad as conditions were, even Mary, despite all she had witnessed, could not conceive that the ultimate aim of the Nazis was to wipe out the Ghetto entirely:

“[M]ost people think that a pogrom like the one in Lublin cannot happen in Warsaw, because there are too many people here.**  According to official figures, there are 450,000 inhabitants in the ghetto, but actually there are many more, because this number does not include the unregistered fugitives from provincial towns and the loads of Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria.  It is estimated that the total is really more like 500,000.  To exterminate such a number of people seems impossible, inconceivable.” (May 8, 1942)

Inconceivable, so Mary thought.  But then again, Mary had not—could not—conceive of a Vernichtungslager—an extermination camp.  A place like Treblinka.

On July 22, 1942, the Grossaktion Warschau (Great Action Warsaw) began.

Umschlagplatz

Each day, Ghetto inhabitants were rounded up, marched through the Ghetto, assembled at the Umschlagplatz station square, and crammed into boxcars—5-6,000 victims per day, for 60 days (July 23—September 21), all ostensibly for “resettlement in the East.”  In reality, the victims were transported 50 miles to Treblinka, recently completed and equipped with gas chambers disguised as showers, and capable of murdering entire transports at a time.  Adam Czerniaków, head of the Judenrat, the Jewish Council charged with operating the Ghetto, chose to die by suicide at the inception of the Grossaktion rather than be party to such deportations.

In the space of 60 days, somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 men, women, and children were sent to Treblinka and gassed.

Fortunately, Mary possessed one advantage that few others in the Ghetto had.  Her mother, Lena, had been born in the United States, and thus was an American citizen, a status which gave the entire Wattenberg family protection and privileges.

Accordingly, on July 19, 1942, Mary, along with other American citizens and foreign nationals, was moved to the Pawiak prison, also located within the Ghetto.  Conditions there were rough—overcrowding, poor food, etc., but at least the inhabitants of Pawiak were excluded from the Grossaktion. Nevertheless, from her vantage point Mary could witness the daily scenes of terror as the deportations continued, involving many of her closest friends.

The deportations ceased after September 21, leaving approximately 63,000 Jewish inhabitants remaining in the Ghetto. The respite was short-lived, however, for on January 18, 1943, the Aktion commenced once again.  On that same date Mary, her family and other foreign internees were transported from Pawiak to an internment camp in Vittel, France. More than a year later, she and her group were finally exchanged for German prisoners being held in the United States.  She arrived safely in New York City on March 16, 1944, where her diary ends.

And yet, much like Tom Buergenthal, Mary Berg remained haunted by the past:

“After four years of that nightmare I found it hard to enjoy my freedom at first.  I constantly imagined that it was only a dream, that at any moment I would awaken in the Pawiak and once again see the aged men with gray beards, the blooming young girls and proud young men, driven like cattle to the Umschlagplatz on Stawiki Street to their deaths.” (March 5, 1944).

Mary Berg

TO BE CONTINUED.

*A number of informal—and illegal—schools were established in the Ghetto, where “every subject is included in the curriculum.”

** Approximately 30,000 of the 34,000 Polish Jews in the Lublin Ghetto were sent to their deaths at the Belzec extermination camp between March 17, 1942 and April 11, 1942.  A few individuals managed to escape the liquidation, and made their way to the Warsaw Ghetto.  This undoubtedly explains why Mary mentions the issue in her diary one month later.

Marit Greve 11/8/28–3/26/21

Share

Today is Marit (Nansen) Greve’s birthday.  Were she still alive she would be 94 years-old.

I have written extensively about my very special relationship with Marit (here, here, here and here), which I need not repeat again.

Let me simply say that I take comfort in the following words which I once happened upon:

To live in the hearts of those who loved you is not to die.

R.I.P kjæreste (dearest) Marit.

My last image of Marit, holding a US Senate Commendation for Odd Nansen’s work on behalf of refugees, received January, 2021.

Delusions: Popular and Otherwise

Share

At 8 o’clock on the evening of October 30, 1938, millions of Americans were settling in by their radios.  It was the golden age of radio, and they were looking forward to hearing one of the most popular programs, NBC’s Chase and Sanborn Hour.  Among the highlights of the variety show was ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his sidekick dummy, Charlie McCarthy.  (Charlie had been carved in the image of a Chicago newsboy Bergen knew.)

Meanwhile, over at CBS, a low-budget upstart program featuring the 23-year-old prodigy Orson Welles (not to be confused with Sumner Welles) was still trying to make a name for itself.  Welles had first appeared in show business a few years earlier as the voice of Lamont Cranston, otherwise known as The Shadow. Thereafter he quickly became involved in acting, directing and producing.

A Young Orson Welles

Welles’s four-month-old “Mercury Theatre on the Air” staged dramatic presentations of popular literature for its Sunday evening broadcasts, including such works as Treasure Island and Jane Eyre.  With the approach of Halloween, and with the world still jittery from the threat—narrowly averted—of war over Czechoslovakia weeks earlier, Welles decided that a presentation of H.G. Wells’s 1898 science fiction fantasy, The War of the Worlds, would be just the ticket.

But how to dramatize a work about a Martian invasion of Great Britain?  And accomplish this in less than one week?  On October 27, with only three days to go, Welles’s theatre troupe was still struggling with their adaptation, which, everyone agreed, had the makings of a terribly dull show.

Finally, someone had a brainstorm.  Why not make the show sound like a simulated news broadcast of a current event, complete with “news bulletins” breaking in on the “regular programming.”  The Martian invasion would also be moved from Victorian England to nearby New Jersey—Grovers Mill to be exact.

Despite subject matter that was so far-fetched that it would seemingly need no further disclaimers, Welles’s program duly began with an explanation that the events depicted in the forthcoming show were purely fictional.  And this disclaimer might have been sufficient were it not for one idiosyncrasy of the listening public.

As noted, the Mercury Theatre couldn’t hold a candle to the Chase and Sanborn Hour.  NBC’s variety show boasted a listening audience estimated at almost 10 million, compared to a paltry 1 million who tuned into the Mercury Theatre.  As William Manchester writes in The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932—1972, “when it came to a choice between great theater and listening to [Edgar] Bergen talk to himself, most Americans preferred Bergen.”

So, at precisely 8:00pm Bergen and Charlie McCarthy opened the show for NBC, while Welles opened his show—complete with disclaimer—to a much smaller audience.

Then, something unexpected happened.

The Mercury Theatre on the Air at work

At precisely 8:12pm McCarthy and Bergen finished their opening skit.  What followed was either a musical act or a commercial for Chase and Sanborn coffee (accounts vary).  According to Manchester, millions of listeners in response spun their dials to CBS to hear what was playing there, and broke in on what appeared to be live reporting of some strange goings-on in New Jersey.  The “reports” became ever more dire until an anguished announcer blurted out:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make.  Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable conclusion that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.”

Two-thirds of the way through the program there was a break (instead of the more typical break at 30 minutes), where the disclaimer was once again repeated to the audience.  But, according to Manchester, “that didn’t matter anymore.”

“Before the break hundreds of thousands of screaming Americans had taken to the streets, governors were begging their constituents to believe that martial law had not been declared, and the churches were jammed with weeping families asking for absolution of their sins before the Martians came to their town.  ‘For a few horrible hours,’ [a later Princeton University study] concluded, ‘people from Maine to California thought that hideous monsters armed with death rays were destroying all armed resistance sent against them; that there was simply no escape from disaster, and that the end of the world was near.’”

Grovers Mill–Still Standing

Of course, all this panic seems rather preposterous in retrospect; we can all enjoy a chuckle at the gullibility of Orson Welles’s listeners 84 years ago today.  As critic Alexander Woollcott later wrote to Welles, “This only goes to prove . . .  that the intelligent people were all listening to the dummy, and all the dummies were listening to you.”  But on a more serious side, American sociology professor Theodore Abel, writing in his journal only three days after the event (November 2, 1938) concluded:

“[I]t is amazing that thousands have apparently not reflected at all as they listened in. . . .  Thousands saw flames, heard firing, and smelled gas. . . .

It was demonstrated that:

1. Theatrical demagoguery has appalling dangers and is enormously effective.

2. Popular education is a failure in the life of individuals.

3. Thousands are incredibly stupid, and lack nerve.

4. It is easy to start a mass delusion.

5. Primeval fears lie under the thinnest surface of the so-called civilized man.”

Are we any less susceptible to popular delusions today?  Millions of Americans proudly boast of their belief in QAnon.  As I write this, the husband of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives had his skull fractured from someone steeped in conspiracy theories. A man is in prison for firing an assault rifle in a Washington, DC pizza parlor in the misguided belief that it was the site of a child abuse ring.  A former correspondent for the CBS news show 60 Minutes has alleged that the current administration is participating in the trafficking of children, and has compared Anthony Fauci to Josef Mengele.  And haven’t we all heard preposterous claims regarding the efficacy of COVID vaccines?

It’s hard not to conclude that many Americans today are as deluded, if not more deluded, than any of those gullible radio listeners 84 years ago.

If that is not truly scary to contemplate this Halloween, then I don’t know what is.

PS: Despite a firestorm of criticism from government officials and embarrassed listeners, neither the New York Police Department nor the FCC could find where Welles had broken any law.  In fact, his prank catapulted Welles overnight to fame—and a Hollywood contract.  Less than three years later Welles would write, produce, and star in Citizen Kane, considered one of the most famous movies of all time.

Upcoming Events

Share

Book Signings

  • February 22, The Adult School, NJ*
  • February 26, 2023: Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, NJ
  • March 28, 2023: Shalom Club, E. Windsor, NJ
  • March 29, 2023: Kemmerer Library, Harding Twp., NJ
  • March 30, 2023: Institute for Learning, New Haven, CT
  • March 31, 2023: Institute for Learning, New Haven, CT
  • May 15, 2023: Polhogda, Lysaker, Norway
  • * = Virtual

People are talking


"A thousand thanks for your most wonderful lecture on your beautiful and informative book. What a labor of love you have undertaken for the world. . . . I still regard the lecture as one of the most perfect I have ever heard, and since I became 84 in the past week, that amounts to many thousands, mostly in an academic atmosphere."

- Nan Bentley Director, Wednesday Forum University Unitarian Church Seattle, WA

For more posts please see our archives.

Archives

On This Date

< 2023 >
February
SMTWHFS
   1234
567891011
12131415161718
19
  • Count Folke Bernadotte’s meets with Himmler to negotiate the release of Scandinavian prisoners
202122232425
262728    
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history