Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) begins tonight. This year, I’ve collected a selection of oddments – thoughts, articles, and a new book – to share.
First the thoughts, in no particular order:
1) Discomfort over the Shoah haunted the Israeli psyche for decades after the end of World War II. The inability to comprehend the scope and savagery of the Shoah made the Eichmann trial a pivotal event for young Sabras, who came to understand two things: that Jews did not willingly queue up to die; and that the monomaniacal pursuit of their end was a higher priority for some Nazis (like Eichmann) even than winning the war.
2) Isn’t it strange that at the same time that the Arab world blames European guilt for the Shoah for the creation of the State of Israel, they deny it ever happened? (PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s “doctoral dissertation” contended that the Shoah was wildly exaggerated and that Zionists worked with the Nazis to murder Jews, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad denies the Shoah ever happened, but promises to finish the job himself.)
3) Had there been an Israel, the impact of the Shoah on the Jewish population (then and now) could have been dramatically reduced. Had the British not reneged on every promise made to the Jews in Mandatory Palestine, there would have been an Israel much earlier. Had the Jews actually been given the promised territory from the Jordan to the Mediterranean for the establishment of the “Jewish home,” Israel might still have had to fight its defensive wars against hostile Arab countries, but the homegrown Palestinian Arab terrorism would likely have been lessened rather than allowed to fester in now-disputed territory.
Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein, Portrait of a Young Woman Drawing
Now on to more substantial things. There have been two articles in the past month in the Jerusalem Post (8 April and 22 April) about Nazi-looted paintings being returned to their rightful heirs. Two paintings have been returned to the heirs of the Rosauer family in Vienna, one by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein (1788-1868) and the other by Johann Baptist Lampi the Elder (1751-1830), both having been in German museum or government custody. In addition, a landscape painting by Gustav Klimt is being returned to the grandson of its former Jewish owner by the Austrian Museum of Modern Arts. (The heir to the Klimt painting has offered to help fund an expansion of the museum as a gesture of gratitude.)
In other news, a Toronto couple was recently featured on the Regis and Kelly Show. Husband and wife met at Bergen-Belsen as teens when the 16-year-old girl saw the half-dead 18-year-old boy moving underneath a pile of dead corpses, extracted him, and nursed him for weeks. They became separated when he woke up one day, saw no one around, and crawled to the nearest road where he was picked up by the British. They met up later in Toronto, where each had gone to live, and the rest is history. The couple, married over 60 years, are the parents of four, grandparents of 11, and great-grandparents of one. It’s definitely not everyone who, when asked where they met their spouse, can answer, “Under a pile of corpses.”
How much is too much to spend on a wedding gown? Some brides spend hundreds, others thousands. (Mine was given me by a friend, but I still had to fork out the dough for alterations and a veil.) So how does two pounds of coffee beans and a packet of cigs sound, in exchange for enough white silk to make a wedding gown and a white shirt for the chattan? That’s what it cost Lilly Friedman’s fiancé, Ludwig, when the two of them decided to get married while living in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp. The gown was later worn by Lilly’s sister at her wedding, then by a cousin. Friedman says she lost count of how many brides wore the gown after 17. It now hangs in the Bergen-Belsen Museum.
Alice Herz-Sommer, 107, and the oldest survivor of the Shoah, credits music with saving her life. Although she lost her husband, family, and friends, she and her son (one of only 130 children to survive Terezin) survived and later made their lives in Israel and London. Here is a trailer for a film entitled, “They Played For Their Lives,” in which Herz-Sommer and others attest to the power of music to lift spirits, to restore dignity, and to preserve life.
Deborah Lipstadt’s new book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, entitled The Eichmann Trial, is being published at the 50th anniversary of the trial’s beginning. Since the most prominent book published on the subject to date is Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann In Jerusalem, comparisons are both inevitable and instructive. Arendt is reported as having had her mind made up about the trial before arriving (e.g. that Eichmann was not a vicious anti-Semite, that the Judenrate, Jewish councils, bore much of the responsibility for sending Jews to their deaths, and that the purpose of the trial should have been to administer justice, nothing else), while Lipstadt (perhaps because of her own day in court against an anti-Semite) sees the trial as having more than a simple juridical purpose. Its impact on Israeli society, the effect of having survivors not directly connected with Eichmann testify about what happened to and around them, cannot be underestimated, she says. Both Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and Gideon Hausner, the chief prosecuting attorney, set out to teach young Israelis about their people’s history through the trial. With her decades of additional perspective, access to certain documents made available only in the last decade (including a memboir written by Eichmann in prison), and a more compassionate understanding of the uneven playing field between Nazis and Jews, Lipstadt offers a very different account of events. Her book also focuses more on the mechanics of the trial, a step-by-step unfolding of events, where Arendt (who did not attend every session of the trial) focused much less on the process of the trial, and acted more as commentator than reporter. For those unfamiliar with how the trial unfolded, Lipstadt’s is undoubtedly the more informative of the two books. (I found Arendt’s background on each European country’s attitude and behavior toward the Jews to be instructive and interesting to compare, contrasting Denmark’s effort to save every Jew to the unrestrained violence in Romania, which exceeded in hysteria even the Nazi’s.) Here is a Jerusalem Post editorial about the book and below, a video of Lipstadt talking about the trial.
I read recently that there is a movement afoot to recognize the righteousness of Jews who worked to save other Jews in the Shoah. Until recently, Yad Vashem has declined to do this, reasoning that while the risk to non-Jewish rescuers makes for a simple criterion to recognize them, the same criterion cannot apply to Jewish rescuers, since they were all slated for extermination. Alas, I cannot locate the article on the Jerusalem Post’s totally unhelpful website, but gleaned that that policy will soon come to an end, and a way has been found to identify and recognize Jewish rescuers officially. Since Jews helped one another survive, resist, and escape in thousands of ways, large and small, from sharing a crust of bread, to stealing prayerbooks from the kapo’s private rooms, to assassinating Nazis and their collaborators, it will be interesting to see what criteria are formulated for this new (and much belated) form of special distinction.
On the road to becoming a traditional Jew, I read stacks of books about the Shoah. While I learned something new from nearly every one of them, the ones which still stand out in my mind are Alfons Heck’s A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days when God Wore a Swastika and The Burden of Hitler’s Legacy, autobiographical works about his boyhood in Germany when he was inducted into the Hitler Youth and became part of the machinery of Nazi Germany. As an adult, Heck met Helen Waterman, a Jewish survivor of the Shoah, and together they traveled the lecture circuit, providing perspective from both sides of the barbed wire fence about life in the Third Reich. The second book is Rena Kornreich Gelissen’s Rena’s Promise, a firsthand account of a Jewish teen’s survival with her sister. Details which have stayed with me since reading it 14 years ago include her description of her peaceful, religious home, in which she would lovingly shave her mother’s head (her mother was a sheitl-wearer); her and her sister’s separation from their family at Auschwitz and assignment to “Kanada,” the clothing sorting detail, during which they found themselves one day sorting clothes belonging to their aunt, uncle, and cousins (by which they learned that they had been gassed); their selection as subjects for Mengele’s experiments on women, which they escaped by simply marching out of line to a building where they changed clothes, then got themselves reassigned to another work detail; and throughout the tale, the reinforcement of the observation made by a guide from Yad Vashem on our own tour of Poland, that people who had someone to live for had much greater odds of survival than people who went through the Shoah alone.
No single post can possibly contain all there is to say on this subject. If anyone has come across links to helpful websites or blogs, or has any books or resources to share, please feel free.
May our enemies continue to be thwarted.
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