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

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

A Wise Man Fighting For a Better Society

Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn. ISBN 978-3-499-50671-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Moses Mendelssohn, one of the most influental thinkers of the Enlightenment, is exercising a growing fascination upon me. Stephen Tree’s book is a short and concise account of Mendelssohn’s life and his difficult position in Germany. As a philosopher he had many admirers and patrons, but as a Jew he had few rights as a citizen. Intellectually he certainly was superior to most of his contemporaries, but as a Jew he was an easy target for base Anti-semitic attacks.

However, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s birth not even the Nazis succeeded in erasing the memory of one of the greatest German Jews. Mendelssohn’s defence of the immortality of the soul, his ideas about the relation between religion and politics, expressed in his work “Jerusalem”, his effort to modernize Judaism and to reconcile it with rationalism and his lifelong fight for a peaceful co-existence of Jews and Christians rank among his most important contributions to the intellectual life in Europe during the 18th century. When I come to think of it, we could do with a few Mendelssohns to clear out the fog in some politicians’ minds and prevent them from compromising our social and economic future. And it will not be the last time you will hear of Moses here on this blog.

When he was a young man, Moses Mendelssohn took harpsichord lessons and frustrated his teacher with his inability to keep time. Here is a piece performed with utmost precision, written by a contemporary of Mendelssohn: Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major:

Time to Compose, Time to Rejoice

Following the Mendelssohn Family

Diane Meur: La carte des Mendelssohn ISBN 978-2-253-06894-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Being an author is no trivial thing. When I was young, very young, I had the fantasy of becoming such an author. I believed I had a message and I wanted to write a book about it. I quickly realized my message was trivial – something about youth and rebellion – and once I had understood how much patience is required to research source material, to organize the work and to actually write a book, I was dissuaded to write anything exceeding in length my MA thesis to finish my studies.

Unlike me, Diane Meur didn’t back away from the challenge. She researched the ups and downs of the lives of the Mendelssohn family, starting with the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and following a millions streams flowing from that genealogical source. She got confused by all the material as one could have predicted, she dropped the project, took it up again, drifted away from the subject and came back – and in the end she wrote a lovely book less about the Mendelssohn family and much more about her discovery of the Mendelssohn family, allowing every now and then for a detour, narrating her emotions, her daydreams, her philosophical musings.

Experts on the Mendelssohn family will not discover much new information, but any reader interested in a non-scientific exploration of the life of Mendelssohn the Philosopher, Mendelssohn the Composer, Mendelssohn the Jew turned Protestant turned Catholic, Mendelssohn the Composer’s Sister, Mendelssohn the Banker etc. will find Meur’s book both informative and entertaining. A good read, a good gift too. Thank you, dad!

And as you may expect, there will be no book review without a music suggestion. And since we had Fanny Mendelssohn now twice in a short time on that other blog of mine, I will honour today Felix with his Symphony No. 5 in A minor (Op. 56) “Scottish”:

Soul-searching far, far away from home