About Being Led to the Nazi Slaughterhouse

hilberg shoah

Raul Hilberg: Die Vernichtung der europäischen Juden (Translation by Christian Seeger, Harry Maor, Walle Bengs, Wilfried Szepan; English title: The Destruction of the European Jews) ISBN 978-3-596-24417-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Raul Hilberg’s scientific study of the Holocaust, first published in 1961, ranks among the best works about this difficult subject of all times. It is easy to see why: The author consulted tens of thousands of source documents, from original Wehrmacht and SS paperwork to the records of the Nuremberg War Criminal Tribunals. The level of detail of this study makes it a valuable tool for historians and political scientists. The level of detail makes it also a challenging, at times exhausting read.

If you decide to read this book, be warned: Hilberg describes the three distinct phases of the destruction of the European Jews – expropriation, concentration and finally the killing – without resorting to any emotional language. There is no dramatic element that softens the impact that the account of how a well-organized bureaucracy meant to systematically kill millions of people may have on the reader’s mind. The neutral description of the planning and execution of the confiscation of stocks, gold, jewels, houses, furniture and personal belongings, of the deportation from all territories under Nazi control, of the ever-growing apparatus of the SS and finally of the running of concentration, labour and death camps – all this makes Hilberg’s study a brutal book.

The German edition counts some 1000+ pages, and it would be a futile effort to try to summarize the content of the three volumes. I will instead focus on an aspect that was new to me. Something that became a hard-to-chew-on food for thought. According to Hilberg, there was hardly any Jewish resistance. The Jews, whatever their origin, did not put up a fight before being led to the slaughterhouse. Actually, if you permit the allegory, they readily lined up in a disciplined queue, encouraged by the elders of their respective council.

Hilberg has a psychological explanation that I wouldn’t have though of: 2000 years of European anti-Semitism had taught the Jews to assimilate, to accommodate, to submit to the stronger. They had survived prosecutions, expropriations, discriminations and expulsions before. Under the Nazis, it wouldn’t be different, many experienced leaders thought. Give in a little, buy the Nazis off, suffer silently, be patient and forthcoming, and after some hassle they will leave us alone.

What the Jewish communities initially did not realize, was the fact that the Nazis actually wanted to go the anti-Semitic way down until its very end: the physical destruction of all European Jews. They couldn’t imagine that the Nazis would build an administrative system able to kill all Europeans Jews and would be quite willing to use it. When the first news of horrible crimes being committed in a little Polish town called Auschwitz filtered back to the ghettos or to countries occupied by German forces, people found it hard to believe. And the well-planned Nazi deception campaign was successful in entertaining the myth that the Jews would be resettled or sent to labour camps, where they would be fed and clothed.

Centuries of submission had taught European Jews not to resist, to obey and to believe in their survival however discriminating the Nazi measures would turn out to be. The lambs ultimately trusted the wolves and their sweet talking. Herein lies the tragedy of Europe’s Jews, and perhaps it may explain why some of Israel’s politicians today have this “We can trust nobody except ourselves” reflex. Israel, the old and new home of Judaism, is seen as the only place where Jews could feel safe. The unwillingness to compromise, the “all-or-nothing” intransigence may have their roots in the Holocaust. Perfect safety in Israel is an illusion of course, because the creation of Israel untied a bundle of other security problems. But this idea may have its origins in the shattered Jewish illusions about mankind after the Holocaust. Many have questioned the possibility of God after Auschwitz, even more have question the idea of trusting non-Jews.

When I was done reading the three volumes of the German edition, I realized that if the Nazis share the main responsibility of the destruction of the European Jews, the widespread and at times virulent anti-Semitism in the past centuries played a crucial factor to model the mindset of both the perpetrators and their victims. An aggravating factor is the fact that the Allied powers fighting Hitler did nothing to stop the Holocaust. The rescue of the Europeans Jews was no strategic priority. For this reason I believe that the Holocaust’s last chapter has not been written yet if it ever will be written. Future generations will judge us on how well we Europeans learned the lessons of an act of unparalleled cruelty, of a crime whose dimensions even Hilberg’s 1000+ pages of scientific analysis can only sketch. They will assess how well we fought anti-Semitism in Europe after Word War II. And how well we fought any other form of discrimination.

Is it appropriate to speak about music in the context of the Holocaust? I should think so. Some thought that after Auschwitz neither poetry nor music would be possible. But such an attitude would hand over victory to the Nazis posthumously. In 1967 Dmitry Shostakovich has written a violin concerto in C-sharp minor that might stimulate your mind to reflect the value of a human life: yours and your neighbour’s:

Paranoid Feelings as the Sun Sets on the Countryside

From Emigration and Expulsion to Extermination

aly_endloesung

Götz Aly: “Endlösung” Völkerverschiebung und der Mord an den europäischen Juden (English title: Final Solution: Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews) ISBN 978-3-596-29756-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ As you may have observed, my interest in Judaism and more specifically in the genesis of the Holocaust and its meaning for the Jews and us today has been growing. The more I read, the more I see how many facets the subject has and how much I still do not know. The German historian Götz Aly has published already in 1995 a much applauded study with a very special focus: How the Nazis’ idea to regroup all European citizen of German origin inside the Reich lead to the expulsion of the Jews of their homes and ultimately to their death.

Before World War II, people of German descent lived in Poland and Russia, in the Balkans, in Italy, in the Baltic Republics and on the Black Sea coast. Heinrich Himmler’s idea was to move all these people into Germany. They would live in the houses of the expelled Jews and in the homes of those Poles who would be expelled from the Polish territories annexed by Germany and incorporated into the Reich. The new German settlers would inherit the Jews belongings, the Jews’ confiscated money would serve as their starting capital. An ambitious plan. The trouble was that there never were enough suitable homes or transport capacities to transfer millions of people from their original home to somewhere else, inside or outside the enlarged Reich.

Aly has consulted many original documents as far as they are still available. He also had to interpret many of these documents as the Nazis progressively started to use neutral terms to hide what would become known as the “final solution”: the extermination of all Jews in Europe. Initially, the plan was to group the Jews temporarily in ghettos and later in a huge, closed community in Eastern Europe, somewhere in the conquered territories of Poland and the Soviet Union. These plans came to nothing as the Germans did not achieve a decisive victory over the Soviet Union. The conquered areas were not big enough or not suited for settlements and chaos ensued. The Germans from outside the Reich were already on the move, but the Jews and the Poles had not yet left.

Intermediate solutions had to be found. Mental asylums and hospitals for disabled persons became available as the Nazis proceeded to kill this group of people. It was a temporary solution only, but it gave the SS a first occasion to test efficient killing methods like the use of carbon monoxide and later the insecticide “Zyklon B”. Another plan to resettle the Jews in Madagascar faltered when it became evident that the Germans would not be able to win decisively over the British-French alliance and thus control the sea lanes and France’s colonies in Africa. More chaos ensued. It was not helped by the fact that Nazi bureaucracy was at times paralysed by conflicting priorities (like the Wehrmacht needing trains to move tanks), by infighting, sheer incompetence and clashes between top brass like Himmler and Hans Frank, the ruler of occupied Poland, the “Generalgouvernement”.

This book is a fascinating read, but it is a tough one too. To approach the logic of killing millions of humans from the bureaucratic or administrative angle, is a challenge both for the author and for the reader. Unfortunately Aly loses himself sometimes in minute details which doesn’t help the purpose of explaining “how” the Nazis gradually began to see in the killing of millions of Jews the only way to deliver on their promises to the German people. Voluntary emigration had not fully worked, displacement and concentration shifted the “problem” east, but since the East lacked the space to accommodate millions of Jews, the Nazis – and with them the Jews – were caught in a trap.

“The internal logic of the Nazi state evolved in a tense climate caused by huge transformation and expansion plans, unstable temporary solutions and limited resources”, Aly writes. “This lead to practical constraints, high expectations and the need for action on the background of rassist values well-anchored in the German population.” And he states that the ideas the Nazis developed were absolutely rational and not really far-fetched. Which means that such an event as the Holocaust could repeat itself under similar circumstances. A horrifying idea.

Despite the very matter-of-fact tone of the book, reading it was an emotional endeavour. Actually Aly’s rational approach made the madness of the Holocaust more palpable than any personal account, with all the emotions such a narrative would transport. The desperation, the loneliness, the lack of options of the Nazis’ victims made me think of the bleak perspective Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winter Journey” sketches:

Wandering to the Point of No Return

“Their life is short, their numbers are infinite.”

Primo Levi: Ist das ein Mensch? (Translation by Heinz Riedt, English title: If This Is a Man) ISBN 978-3-424-12395-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ How can you think the unthinkable? How can you speak about the unspeakable? Primo Levi did both. Between 1945 and 1947 he wrote down what he saw, heard, smelled, tasted, felt and thought in Auschwitz. He had been deported from his Italian homeland in 1944, and the Nazis had planned to kill him slowly by having him work himself to death. They almost succeeded to destroy both his body and his soul. Luck and his will to live made it possible for him to survive until the German janitors fled from the advancing Soviet army.

“To succumb is the easiest way out”, Levi writes. “All you need to do, is to execute all orders, to eat no more than the ration [attributed to you] and to obey the discipline at your workplace and in the camp. Experience has demonstrated that one will survive only exceptionally beyond the time span of three months.” Those who succumb “have all the same story, or rather they have no story at all […] Their life is short, their numbers are infinite.”

Levi’s memories of his time in a Nazi concentration camp are to date the most impressive testimony of the Holocaust that I have read. Levi’s narrative style is resolutely non-dramatic. This sobriety is a result of his profound reflection about humanity: What defines man? How could humans do this to others? Levi tries to understand what cannot really be understood: the Germans’ mass killing of Jews, political opponents, mentally deranged people, disabled people, Roma and Sinti.

The many Levi saw die, “populate my memories having a presence but no face; and if I could sum up in one picture all the misery of our time, I would pick one that is familiar to me: a defeated man, his forehead lowered, his shoulders hunched, and with a face and eyes that show not the hint of a thought.” A living dead on the way to fade away without leaving a trace.

Levi isn’t angry. “I never hated the German people, and if I had, I would be cured by now. I cannot understand or accept that man is being judged for what group he belongs to instead of being judged for what he is”, he quotes from a letter to his German translator. That would mean repeating the Nazi logic. Levi’s wish is to testify, and specifically the translation of his book into German was meant to trigger a feedback, which would allow Levi to understand the Germans. At least that was Levi’s hope.

Levi witnessed how thousands of human beings were stripped of all that defined them as humans: their name, their honour, their religion, their belongings, their physical force and finally their life. And this is the key issue: the easiness with which the Holocaust seemed to have happened, with thousands of willing Germans and non-Germans – the Kapos – playing their little part in a huge machine. Can something similar happen again? In my opinion yes, if circumstances are right. There are easy victims and easy perpetrators. Add populism, hate-speech and a functioning burocracy… Dehumanization doesn’t take much.

In 1961, the Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko published a poem with the title “Babi Yar” remembering the victims of one of the largest war crimes committed by the Germans during World War II. It inspired Dmitry Shostakovich to write his Symphony No. 13:

Mass Murder and a Lesson in Morality

A Magic Book about the Magic of Books

Cornelia Funke: Tintenherz ISBN 978-3-79150465-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ My daughter loves books, and this makes me extremely happy. I am so glad she shares the reading passion of both her parents. The world of books is such a fascinating one. It stimulates our fantasy, it touches our emotional side, it keeps us thinking and we may even learn something new while having fun. Occasionally, my daughter brings home a book I adore right after the first pages. “Tintenherz” is such a novel.

“Tintenherz” narrates the moving adventure of a girl named Meggie. Meggie loves books just like her parents. Her mother has disappeared when she was very young and her father Mo is a bookbinder. They often change places and it feels like a flight. Is it? You will find out. One night a strange guy in ragged clothes shows up: He addresses Mo’s father as “Magic Tongue” while Mo calls him “Dust Finger”. Meggie is baffled. She was not supposed to eavesdrop on her father and now she discovers one of his secrets. Are the two men part of some secret conspiration? You will find out.

The two men talk about a book, and the following day Mo and Meggie leave the house and seek refuge in the house of Meggie’s aunt Elinor, a famous and only slightly excentric book collector living in Italy. But things turn out differently as imagined. Meggie is to stay with Elinor while Mo intends to bring a certain book to a man named “Capricorn”, the very book he wanted to hide from “Capricorn”. Right from the beginning you know this man is evil. He is as evil as a writer can invent him. And he has been looking for Mo’s book for a long time as it holds the secret that links Mo, Meggie and most of the other characters on the novel. A thrilling adventure with a surprising end is about to begin, an adventure that shows all the magic of the world of books.

This is a great novel not only for children, but also for adults. It’s fun, it’s emotional, it let’s adults dive back into childhood, which is not always as innocent as it may appear retrospectively. And while you discover the magic of books, you may as well discover the music of magic in Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé”:

Dancing with the Nymphs on Lesbos

Meeting the Master of Metamorphosis

Thomas Mann: Lotte in Weimar ISBN 978-3-596-90402-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A curious thing happened to me lately. I was half-way through this book and I felt reluctant to share it with you. Bizarre. That’s not me. The book had cast a very special spell upon me, its language, the absence of any action, the long descriptions, the multi-layered message – I felt like keeping it all to myself. I had the feeling that me diving into this book was something too intimate to be shared. Very bizarre.

My reluctance however vaporized later, so here we are for another review of one more novel by the German writer and Nobel prize laureate Thomas Mann. I love Franz Kafka for some reasons and I love Thomas Mann for very different reasons. And of course I love Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, that goes without saying. The nmain idea of the novel is to portray Goethe i his many facets and his many apparent contradictions.

Different witnesses testify about the aged writer in intimate conversations with Lotte, Goethe’s first love, the woman who inspired his novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”. Lotte, almost as old as Goethe, has come to Weimar to see the man who immortalized her, and her visit causes a sensation in the little town. The inhabitants venerate the master of German literature, and everybody wants to see the woman who inspired Goethe’s fictional Lotte. Each of those who gain access to Lotte sees the writer through a different lens, and their testimony gives the real Lotte a way to gauge her visitors and prepare for the meeting with Goethe, a meeting that she has been looking for, a meeting she is apprehensive of at the same time.

In these conversations, Thomas Mann picks up a couple of subjects he has written about in other works. One is the German-French antagonism in politics and aesthetics, that soured the relations between the two countries during the 19th century. It reflected among others a presumed difference in national characters and in types of morality, the subject that permeates Mann’s essay “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man“. Mann, through the words and thoughts of Goethe himself, also attacks the Romantic Zeitgeist of the first half of the 19th century in Germany, a time when writers, painters and musicians were rebelling against the ideals of the Weimar Classic era and against Goethe’s generation.

Mann portrays Goethe through several levels of conflicts: personal, social, artistic and political. What I find remarkable is Mann’s talent in creating the illusion of reporting from the 19th century in the language of Goethe’s time. It may appear a little cumbersome, but it gives the novel a singular authenticity. It is no longer Mann telling the story, the characters themselves seem to be reporting live from the Weimar of 1816 and push the story forward. As I said, there is hardly any real action, but Mann was a clever story-teller creating tension, stretching the patience of the reader to the limit and beginning a new chapter with a new angle on Goethe just at the right time. Wonderful!

Goethe appears as a tyrant in personal affairs and as a political man: He doesn’t think too much about the freedom of the press, he appears as a law-and-order proponent, and his admiration for Napoleon even after the latter’s fall knows no bounds. He is open to flattery by the rulers, seems to look down on women, he is easily seduced by the comfort a public office provides and strictly opposed to any revolutionary ideas of the youth. In Mann’s portray, Goethe is shown as a politically conservative and anti-democratic person while asking at the same time for a high degree of tolerance for his own liberal lifestyle and the freedom of his own literary and scientific ambitions.

In his own introspection, Goethe justifies his desire to live, to enjoy, to create as the only way to transcend death – physical, moral and spiritual death. This end seems to justify any means, the exhibition of other people’s intimacies in literary works included. The great master also touches a highly sensitive subject: Germany’s identity. Goethe’s distance to Germany mirrors Mann’s distance to his home country. They both do not really trust their contemporaries. Goethe was wary of the young Romantic revolutionaries, while Mann abhorred the Nazis who had taken over the country and forced him to flee. The big question in 1816 and in 1939, when “Lotte on Weimar” was published, was: Who can legitimately claim to represent Germany? And who may legitimately claim to represent Germany today? The embattled chancellor Angela Merkel? The populistic nationalists from the AfD-party? Mann’s novel proves to be unexpected food for thought!

There are a few more surprises in this novel, which I will not reveal as I do not want to spoil your reading pleasure. Goethe and Lotte first meet in a stiff and semi-public context, seen through the eyes of Lotte, and a second time in a more intimate context. Mann demonstrates his excellence as narrator here. The emotional showdown between the two characters is sublime, a witty conclusion, thrilling to read, revealing Mann’s deep affection for the fate of two imagined human beings with their contradictions, their faults, fears and sacrifices. “Emotions are everything that is”, Goethe at some point confesses, and their metamorphosis is his own personal obsession.

Both Thomas Mann and the Romantic composer Robert Schumann were big fans of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Schumann composed an overture inspired by Goethe’s epic poem “Hermann and Dorothea”:

Schumann, Heroism and the Fate of Refugees