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

“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 Perpetual Fate, a Perpetual Disgrace

Roth, Joseph: Juden auf Wanderschaft (English title: The Wandering Jews) ISBN 978-3-423-13439-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Reading Kafka, reading about Kafka and reflecting the fate of the Jews from Eastern Europe – it’s all part of the same story. Kafka was an assimilated Jew living in Prague, and during World War I, thousands of Jews from Russia and Galicia fled to what would later become the Czech Republic. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was suffering defeat after defeat on the Eastern front, and former Austrian outposts were overrun by Russian troops, forcing the local Jews to flee. Russia was no friend of the Jews. Neither was Prague.

Joseph Roth (1894-1939) , a writer turned reporter, narrates the story of the Eastern Jews, despised by their assimilated cousins in Western Europe and most of the rest of Europe. Filthy, poor, dishonest, uneducated – thise were Jewish prejudices against Jews, gladly taken up by anti-Semitists anywhere in Europe. “The Wandering Jew”, published in 1927, is a disturbing book, even after so many years. So little has changed. If you look at the current stereotypes attributed to refugees from Syria, Irak, Afghanistsn, Libya… you know where they stem from. And Anti-Semitism of course is alive and kicking.

Roth’s book is brutal when it comes to describe how Eastern Jews have been treated since the late 19th century and up to 1933, a date after which all Jews in Europe risked to run a common fate: annihilation. This is balanced by his description of the Eastern Jews’ communities, their industriousness, their internal solidarity, their faith, the rich cultural traditions, their unshakable will to live and their courage to pursue their luck in foreign countries, whatever price they may have to pay.

The wandering of the Jews – for up to the foundation of Israel they lacked a true fatherland in a territorial sense – pushed them to seek a political and ideological home: Palestine. Not just a territory, no, a political concept, a dream. Zionism, the logic consequence of more than 1000 years of European Anti-Semitism, the way out of the eternal dilemma: assimilation or discrimination? It’s hard to say what was worse in Roth’s eyes since he showed little sympathy for the superficial Western bourgeois society of which he was a product. Roth studied in Lviv and Vienna, he later lived in Vienna, Berlin and Paris.

Roth explains it all very well, and any honest reader looking at the refugee debate in Europe, President Trump’s idée fixe about a protective wall on the Mexican border or the Middle East shows that the so-called Western civilizations use stereotypes and concepts in their debates almost identical to those used some 100 years ago. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the biggest fool of all? Speaking about fools, Roth taught me something I didn’t know yet. Every Stetl had its Batlen, a storyteller, a joker or, as Roth puts it, somebody who reflected useless ideas. I sense a subversive element here and I love this kind of social subversion. Watch and listen to the Batlen, for he speaks the truth!

The laconic style in which Roth describes life in a Stetl, the relationships among Jews and between Jews and gentiles and between the Jews and God made me smile occasionally. These descriptions appear funny like in “funny little people” – the Hobbits come to my mind. Actually, there is nothing funny about them. The stoicism with which the Eastern European Jews supported their internal political and cultural divisions and the hostility of the environment is remarkable. It hides the earnest that filled these people’s minds. Roth says the Jewish people can be punished by God, but never abandoned.

Finally, in the context of Eastern Jews settling in Berlin, Roth mentions something important: “Everything is improvised […] One must always be ready to move and carry one’s few belongings, some bread and an onion in one pocket, the Tefillin in the other. Who knows whether one will not be forced to wander again in the next hour.” From German Jews I occasionally hear that, once more, “the suitcases are packed”. In the light of a revival of Anti-Semitism in Germany, this is no surprise. It certainly is a disgrace. At the same time it would appear that it never has been different: a perpetual threat, a perpetual disgrace. And this text grows longer and longer, and it’s message will reach, once more, the wrong audience…

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, qis celebrated with a prayer, the Kol Nidrei. Max Bruch and Arnold Schönberg have set it to music:

A light is sown for the repenting sinner

Jew or Viennese or Both?

Eva Menasse: Vienna ISBN 978-3-442-73253-1 (translated into English under the same title) ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Vienna from the beginning of the 20th century through two World Wars until today – what a marvelous setting! The story of a Jewish family – how promising! Those were my thoughts when I read about Eva Menasse’s novel “Vienna”. The Austrian writer apparently draws on autobiographical material, and narrating the fate of a Vienna based Jewish family throughout the 20th century could have been the occasion to draw a critical portrait of Vienna’s society, its latent anti-Semitism and xenophobism, to explore the moral choices a Jewish family faced under the regime of Adolf Hitler and during the confusing time immediately after World War II.

All these issues come up, focused through the lens of the narrator searching for his own identity in this family, in this town, in this country. But the novel lacks a coherent structure. It follows a historical timeline, but the beginning already is confusing. Too many characters are introduced at the same time, you never quite now what time the narrator is referring to at a specific moment. Later the story is at times repetitive, the episodes seem unrelated to each other and my reading pleasure was regularly thwarted by these experiences. Furthermore the story lacks active elements that propel it forward, there is no tension, no culmination point the story is leading to.

The family members have both Christian and Jewish roots and their quest for identity is the central element of the novel. This however gets blurred by 1001 anectodes, funny at times, but distracting from the main issue. The question of “who is the better Jew” and whether one can belong to the Viennese society as a Jew or only as a Christian remains unanswered.

On the positive side I freely admit that the main characters and the difficult family relationships and interactions are masterfully sketched, wonderful miniatures peppered with intense Jewish humour that made me laugh more than once. A book pleasant enough, but Thomas Mann has set a very high standard with “The Buddenbrocks” in the field of German family sagas, and compared to this masterwork, “Vienna” remains unsatisfying.

While I read the novel I explored the works of the composer Max Bruch and his Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor captures some of the sadness I felt when I imagined the characters of the novel in their struggle for their identity:

Natural elegance – of rocks and music

Being a Jew – a choice, a fate, a burden?

Paul Spiegel: Was ist koscher? Jüdischer Glaube – Jüdisches Leben. ISBN: 978-3-548-36713-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️  As regular visitors to this blog and my classical music blog know, religion is a subject that occupies my mind a lot. The recent uproar against the US president’s initiative to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the ensuing anti-semitic and anti-zionist protests compelled me to educate myself about what it means to be a Jew, to be a Jew in Israel, to be a Jew of the diaspora, i. e. living outside Israel. I wanted to know how these people live, how the Jewish religion evolved over time, how it relates to Christianism and Islam. All this with the question in mind where the hate against Jews comes from and how it could be overcome.

Paul Spiegel’s introduction to the Jewish religion and the Jewish “way of life” – they can’t be seperated actually since religion permeates life from birth to death in one way or another – gave me some valuable first answers. I have more books on Judaism on my bookshelf, thanks to my fellow blogger Juna Grossmann, but this one was a good start. Paul Spiegel chaired the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, the over-arching association of Jews in Germany, for many years and did a lot to improve the mutual understanding of Jewish Germans and Gojim. This book is perhaps the essence of his lifelong mission.

Spiegel explains in detail and with a lot of humour all the moral obligations of a faithful Jew. Belonging to God’s Chosen People amounts to quite a burden, it would appear. He presents the different traditions, hard to understand for an outsider, and retraces the long anti-semitic track record of the Catholic church. Spiegel also deals with deliberately spread fake news and conspiracy theories about Jews and the difficulties that arise from cultural assimilation of Jews in Western Europea societies.

The two faces of assimilation – the danger to loose one’s identity and the chance to bypass anti-semitic discrimination – seem to me to be a particularly tragic fate of Jewish communities. Two composers come to my mind in this respect: Felix Mendelssohn, who did not like the family name “Bartholdy” that his father adopted, and Max Bruch:

United we pray

A light is sown for the repenting sinner