From Emigration and Expulsion to Extermination

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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

Walking Around in the House of Suffering

George Szirtes: The Photographer at Sixteen ISBN 978-0-85705-853-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Quite a bewildering book. Szirtes sketches a portrait of his mother, and he sketches it with little sympathy. He is interested, but distant. Portraying a stranger. How little he knew when he started the journey back in time, trying to understand her. How much remained unclear when he was done. Right at the beginning, he says about his parents: “They were my parents. They did not speak. I did not ask.” Strangers. I always felt it was more cruel to be with people that do not communicate than to be lonesome. Silence works both ways: offensive as a weapon, defensive as a shield. But silence is always a challenge for a child. Just like a “no” , that perhaps might become a reluctant “yes”.

The portrait of the mother betrays the son. It is intentional. “The Photographer at Sixteen” is a hybrid: part portrait, part memoir. Death is never very far. Nor is desperation. Szirtes language is blunt, laconic. And if father-son-conflicts have inspired more than one novel, drama or poem, the relationship between mother and son is no less… no less what? Cruel? Fascinating? Parents, be they male or female, who pass their unfulfilled social ambitions on to their children are a terrible burden. They want you to have a happy life or what they consider a happy life. As for your wishes, they usually are secondary.

“She had suffered history, now history had to redeem itself through the future.” The future of young George and his brother. Their mother had survived the Nazi concentration camps, and the family had fled Hungary after the Soviet repression of the uprising in 1956. History, suffering, the will to survive, ambitions past, present, future – Szirtes offers a remarkable insight into his family’s story stretching “from Cluj or Koloszvar, also known as Klausenburg” to Wymondham. The elements he reveals give his mother and his relation to her a more precise contour: admiration for his mother’s beauty and her sense of chic, respect for her will-power and ambition, mixed with a healthy dose of scepticism about her choices, her priorities.

Changes in the society of Szirtes’ adopted home country and his mother’s declining health account for the souring relation between a challenging mother and rebellious son. The UK was a safe haven, but not heaven. Delusions, disappointments, a feeling of alienation leading to a certain bitterness – does that sound familiar? Brexit is the final episode of something that started back then in the 60s and is coming to its conclusion in our days. And it had and still has a profound impact on the individual’s life.

What struck me, was the effort invested by the Szirtes family in creating a maximum distance between them and their original Jewish identity. The Holocaust and the prevailing anti-Semitism may have justified such an attitude in Hungary, but not in the UK. To me it looks like fleeing from oneself. And what identity is to be found instead? A post-World War II British identity? If Britons struggled with this concept – they still do – how could a family of Hungarian exilees of Jewish descent possibly succeed?

What I appreciated most about the book, is the fact that Szirtes does not shy away from showing us how little he knows of the biography of his mother. By extension he says that we can only have a fuzzy idea of some person’s identity, changing over time and with the source of our information about that person. How little we know about even those who seem close to us. “I am interested in her, so I go on inventing a truth I can believe in … The trick is to invent the truth.” This book is about composite identities: what others see in us, what we see in us, what we try to make others see in us. Man is a confusing species.

I recently came across a composer who first had to flee the Nazis and seek refuge in the USSR, where a decade later he was arrested by the Soviet authorities who sensed a “Jewish cosmopolitan conspiracy”, whatever that might have been. In 1940 Mieczyslaw Weinberg wrote his String Quartet No. 2:

A Quartet Written on the Way to Tashkent

The Übermensch in Search of His Soul

David Khara: La trilogie Bleiberg (English title: 1. The Bleiberg Project 2. The Shiro Project 3. The Morgenstern Project) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-2290149942 The plot is quickly told: Aytan Morgenstern is a Mossad agent tasked to hunt down war criminals. In the first part of the Bleiberg trilogy he  sets out to triumph over a international criminal organisation that facilitated in the past the rise of Hitler and in the Nazis’ wake gruesome medical experiments undertaken by the SS to create the Aryan Übermensch.

Agent Morg’s personal fate is linked to those experiments, the link is a key element of his determination to fight his mysterious opponent. His enemy – the Consortium – however is not a shadow of the past, it determines the present too because it controls pharmaceutical companies and research labs and under th guidance of Viktor Bleiberg it tries to manipulate genetically a substantial part of the earth’ population – the Bleiberg project is at the center of the first part of David Khara’s riveting trilogy.

The second part – the Shiro Project – has a related background, the horrifying Japanese experiments in Manchuria during World War II. Nonetheless it follows a different line. Morgenstern has to team up with a killer of the Consortium. Biological attacks shake Moscow and the Czech Republic and threaten the Consortium’s economic interests. The virus used by the attackers came from a lab controlled by the Consortium and, being a criminal organisation, the mess requires an in-house solution. It kidnaps a person dear to the Mossad agent and blackmails him into cooperation. This framework allows the French writer to sketch the complex personality of Aytan Morgenstern.

While the first novel is abundant with violent action, fast-paced and a descent into Dante’s inferno recreated my mankind, the second novel is more subtle, interesting psychological and philosophical questions are integral part of the plot and emphasize the idea of the writer to see what mankind can learn from the past. It also tries to cast a definition of heroism very different of what you might imagine from a standard Mossad agent character.

The last volume – The Morgenstern Project – picks up a thread of the first volume: overcoming man’s natural physical and psychic limitations through technology. Transhumanism is the keyword – fusing man’s body with sophisticated technology to produce super-humans. Aytan Morgenstern – victim and benefactor of Bleiberg’s experiments – is being chased by people interested in his exceptional strength, intelligence and fighting capacities. The Consortium, the CIA, the Pentagon – all the usual suspects are involved and again a lot of action is seen e.g. in down-town New York. The head of the Consortium – Cypher – is the mastermind behind a diabolical plan that Morgenstern is beginning to decrypt, and the agent is more resolved than ever to neutralize the threat emanating from the Consortium

Morgenstern gets a lot of help in the last volume of the trilogy : two former colleagues, two characters from the first volume and a mole inside the Consortium. Furthermore the Mossad officially has broken of all contact to the “former agent Morg” to give him additional operational leeway. All seems to work according to the plan – but whose plan? Is Morgenstern being manipulated? If so, to what end? I will not spoil anyone’s pleasure by giving away the key to the mystery and let you enjoy the 983 pages up to the very last.

While Khara definitely wrote a work of fiction, the three volumes touch some very real issues: Man’s ambition to rule over others. Man’s temptation to abuse of its power. Man’s greed and vanity leading to the abolition of moral values. Man’s ability to inflict harm and man’s ability to suffer. Repentance is a thought that came to my mind several times while I read this page-turner. At times I had to get away from the fascinating plots to ponder the implications of man’s many failings in the world of today. In 1881, the German composer Max Bruch set to music a jewish prayer of repentance: Kol Nidrei, the Adagio for Cello, Op. 47.

A light is sown for the repenting sinner

Guilt, confessions and a murderous violin

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Jaume Cabré: Confiteor (English title: Confessions) ISBN: 978-2-330-02226-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ The focal point of this novel is a violin built in the 18th century in Italy: the very first “Storioni”. A violin of an extraordinary quality and of exceptional value. A dangerous violin as betrayal, theft and murder follow it from its birthplace in Cremona through the Nazi extermination camps to Franco’s Spain. Its dark secret comes to haunt the young Adrià, violin student and precocious humanist, as his father is killed. It continues to haunt him as it drives a wedge between him as a successful humanities scholar and his Jewish wife Sara. An extremely thrilling novel with many facets, however it requires a certain patience as Cabré jumps from one temporal level to the next, voluntarily blends the characters, the events and the contradictory feelings. An interesting technique, but…

The novel is full of musical references: Brahms, Bruckner, Bartok, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Schubert. But as a link to the novel I picked Pablo de Sarasate’s “Spanish Dances”, representing everything that young Adrià hates about his violin lessons:

In love with a German violinist