Posts tagged Martin Gilbert

“There are things worse than war.”

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So wrote Odd Nansen in his diary entry dated April 3, 1942, eighty years ago today.

Nansen had just finished describing in his dairy an episode where 50 men, ordered to report in their civilian clothes, think they are about to be released (as an Easter gift), only to learn at the last moment that they are all instead being sent to a place that is “ten times worse than Grini, for the very homestead of evil, for Germany, for a concentration camp in Germany.”*  Here’s the full context of his observation:

“Out in the world, movement is obviously slow but certainly in the right direction.  It’s just the damnable time it takes, days, weeks, months, years! and fateful days, weeks, months, years!  Many will succumb.  Each day costs hundreds of lives.   But one must harden oneself and not think like that. There are things that are more important than that the individual should live through it.  There are things worse than war.”

As I point out in my annotations, Nansen used very similar language in a speech he once made in Appleton, Wisconsin, during a 1939 speaking tour of America to generate support for Finland in its war with Russia: “There are things in this world worse than war, fates worse than being victims of war.”

Martha Gellhorn

Interestingly, American journalist Martha Gellhorn was actually in Finland at the same time as Nansen’s speech, reporting for Collier’s.  Simultaneously, her first novel, A Stricken Field, had just been published in the United States.  It is a thinly disguised recounting of her earlier, 1938 reporting experience for Collier’s in Prague, Czechoslovakia.  The novel’s heroine, a reporter named Mary Douglas, witnesses the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the British and the French at the Munich Conference.  There, Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain all agreed (without consulting Czechoslovakia) to allow Germany to annex certain areas of Czechoslovakia.  In the novel, Mary is drawn (in the words of Gellhorn’s biographer, Caroline Moorehead) to “the fate of the refugees: the frightened Jews and the dissidents who had recently fled Austria and Germany and now had nowhere to go,** the Czech soldiers who had never had a chance to fight the Germans, and the other Czech nationalists about to be destroyed by the Gestapo and the Sudeten Nazis.”

Facing these dismal, demoralizing prospects, Mary asks herself, “why didn’t they fight?”  There is no shame “to be brave and too few.”  Sure, war is stupid, something to be loathed, “and from what I have seen of war I cannot recommend it, but if it were my country, I would want to fight or wait in my house for the bombs, or take it however it came to me.  She thought: they can destroy men other ways than with high explosive. When they have destroyed the men, with this peace, they have destroyed the women too.  There are worse things than war.”

And what, in the eyes of Odd Nansen and Martha Gellhorn, could be worse than war?

On the very same day, April 3, 1942, that Nansen recorded those words in his diary, a deportation of German Jews to the newly established death camp at Belzec took place.  The almost 1,000 deportees, all of whom would be murdered, included 129 Jews from Augsburg, in Bavaria.  According to British historian Martin Gilbert:

“With that deportation from Augsburg, the once one-thousand-strong Jewish community came to an end.  It had been founded more than seven hundred years earlier, in 1212, and in the fifteenth century had been a centre [sic] of Jewish culture.”

There were some things worse than war in the 1940s; there are some things worse than war today.

 

* Almost exactly eighteen months later, on October 6, 1943, Odd Nansen would also find himself in Sachsenhausen, a German concentration camp.

** Like Tom Buergenthal and his family.

August 2, 1944: Tom Buergenthal Enters Auschwitz

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Auschwitz

 

Seventy-seven years ago today Thomas Buergenthal, age 10, entered Auschwitz-Birkenau along with his parents.  Originally the site of a Polish army barracks (inhabited briefly by Jan Karski), Auschwitz was developed by the Nazis into the largest and deadliest concentration/extermination camp ever.  Approximately 1.1 million people—the population of Salt Lake City or Memphis—were murdered there.  Of this number, almost 1 million were Jews.

In Buergenthal’s memoir, A Lucky Child, he writes that he was “lucky” to get into Auschwitz.  This is not meant to be facetious.  In many respects the worst day at Auschwitz was the first, for that typically meant a so-called selection at the railroad disembarkation ramp.  Here, those who could not be expected to work under grueling camp conditions—children, the aged, invalids—were separated from the rest and sent directly to the gas chambers.

Often times, if the camp was approaching full capacity (an elastic concept), even the able-bodied were sent directly to be gassed.  While I have done no study of the survival rate at the ramp, a few anecdotal examples provide some guidance.  In Martin Gilbert’s book Kristallnacht, he writes about the aftermath of the pogrom which occurred on November 9-10, 1938: “[I]n February [1943] . . . a thousand [German Jews] . . . were deported to Auschwitz . . . from Breslau, of whom 994 were sent straight to the gas chambers.”  Later he notes: “On 2 March 1943 one of the largest single deportations to Auschwitz took place: 1,500 Jewish men, women and children from Berlin.  Of them, 1,350 were sent to the gas chambers on arrival.”

Thus, just getting into Auschwitz was something of a victory.  “Had there been a selection, I would have been killed before ever making it into the camp,” Tom admits.

How did he escape the dreaded section?  We’ll never know the exact reason, but Tom’s surmise is no doubt correct: “The SS officers . . . probably assumed, since our transport came from a labor camp, that children and others had already been eliminated in those camps.”  Perhaps also the small size of Tom’s transport did not warrant a full-blown selection process.

Escaping a selection, however, while critical, was only half the story.  Now Tom had to find a way to navigate the crucible of Auschwitz—“the last place on earth many of the prisoners sent there were destined to see.”  Disease, starvation, exhaustion, and murder were just some of the dangers every prisoner faced every day.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents in happier days

Tom was instantly separated from his mother at the ramp, and, but for one brief glance through the wire, he was not to see or be reunited with her for almost two and a half years.  Tom’s father was also sent away in late October 1944, first to Sachsenhausen, and later to Buchenwald, where he would perish in January 1945.  Now Tom was all alone.

How did he manage?

For several years leading up to August 1944, in the Kielce Ghetto and elsewhere, Tom was getting an education of sorts from his parents: “the essentials of survival.” In Auschwitz and later in Sachsenhausen, Tom continued to learn “the tricks I needed to survive.”  Many other prisoners, by contrast, were thrust into Auschwitz directly from normal, middle-class environments without the benefit of such “training.”  They could hardly be expected to adapt overnight to brutal camp conditions.  One thinks of Anne Frank, whose final diary entry (August 1, 1944) was one day prior to Tom’s arrival.  She went from living in the comparative safety of her annex on the date of her arrest (August 4, 1944) to the maelstrom of Auschwitz a few short weeks later (September 6, 1944).  She, her sister Margot, and her mother Edith were all dead less than six months later.

Whatever the combination of factors—bureaucratic oversight by the Nazis, the innate or inculcated survival skills of a young child, or some other favorable alignment of the stars, on August 2, 1944, Thomas Buergenthal proved once again to be ein Glückskind—a lucky child.

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