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Surviving Extermination

Throughout Europe in the 1940s, the complete annihilation of European Jewry was one of the foremost goals of any of the German occupied states. To minimise the Holocaust and claim that the planned murder and execution of the Jews was completely a Nazi responsibility is nothing short of a lie. The Holocaust was supported not just by the Nazis, but by local body governments, by everyday peoples, by housewives and even children. The indoctrinated hatred of the Jewish peoples throughout Europe was rife and many people, legitimised by the Nazi government, harassed and murdered Jews. The most infamous death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Auschwitz Camp II, received Jews from Upper Silesia, Slovakia, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Italy, all of which would not have been possible without the explicit help of everyday citizens within those cities.

Once in Auschwitz, just as it was in any of the other death camps, death was inevitable. In the original documents that J.A. Topf und Söhne (J.A. Topf and Sons was the construction company responsible for the crematoriums at Birkenau) provided to the German Command, is the statement that the furnaces they designed would effectively cremate 4,756 corpses per day.

Yet within the vast figure, of almost 6,000,000 executions, there were people who managed to escape the German killing apparatus. Eventually these people, often a long time after the fact, began to tell their stories. Yesterday I had the privilege to meet three of these people and listen to their harrowing tales.

Daniel Gold (Lithuania).

Daniel was born in Šiauliai, Lithuania in 1937. In 1941, the Germans occupied Lithuania, and the Jews of Šiauliai were enclosed in a ghetto. Two years later, the German Aktions were carried out and people not strong enough to work were taken away and liquidated, this included all the old as well as the children. Amazingly, Daniel managed to hide in a potato cellar with his cousins during the Aktion. Daniel spoke about the fear that he experienced that day. The tiny space that they were hiding in was so cramped that David, who was six at the time, and his cousins had to stand, pressed into each other in silence throughout the day. They could hear the drunk Lithuanian soldiers clearing the properties around them: furniture breaking, dogs barking, crying mothers and their children, gun shots, soldiers singing and celebrating their successes. Trapped in silence, with little air, the children who were unable to leave were forced to defecate where they stood.

Hidden away for the next year within the ghetto, Daniel managed to escape alongside his two cousins and his aunt and uncle, two days before the ghetto was fully liquidated. Hiding with a Lithuanian family, Daniel survived the Holocaust and was eventually reunited with his father who was liberated from Dachau by the US 7th Army. His mother did not survive.

Yehudit Kleinman (Italy)

Yehudit was an Italian Jew living with her mother and grandmother when one night, her mother received a phone call that left her ashen. Without telling Yehudit what was happening, her mother packed several suitcases and then took Yehudit, alongside her grandmother to the local civic offices. Once there, Yehudit – who had still not been told anything – described the oppressive nature of the room. German officers stood around a man seated at a desk who was writing down information. There was a very real sense of fear and panic in the room, but people were for some reason, following the orders they were given. When Yehudit and her family arrived at the desk, she was very surprised to see her Christian neighbour standing alongside the man at the desk. Suddenly, the desk clerk looked at Yehudit and asked her who she wanted to go with, pointing at both her mother and the neighbour. Yehudit was only 6.

Yehudit looked first at her mother and was confronted with a fear and look that she could never forget. Her mother’s face was grim and determined, ashen and deathly, hostile and unwelcoming. In a split second decision, Yehudit somehow knew that her mother was no longer an option and signalled that she wanted to go with her neighbour. Immediately German soldiers forcibly removed Yehudit’s mother and grandmother from the room while holding back the six year old. Amid the cries and panic, Yehudit was pulled in by her neighbour. Without even an embrace or a goodbye, Yehudit found herself without her family. She would never see her mother, or her grandmother, again.

Dropped off at a Catholic convent, Yehudit pretended to be a Christian and once the war was over, was found by a Jewish organisation who relocated her to an orphanage in Israel.

Rena Quint (Poland)

As a three and a half year old girl in Poland, Rena was one of the first people to encounter the Nazi ghettoisation of the Jews in 1939. Originally from a family who owned a nice house in Piotrkow, the forced settlement of the Jews in her area meant severe crowding with very little food, medicine, and heating. With entire families forced into single rooms, typhus soon became rampant. Within these conditions, the families were held together by the women as many men were forced into the labour camps.

Just before she turned six, she experienced her first German Aktion. Sometime after midnight, German troops rounded up the families and herded them through the streets, whipping the women and children like they were animals. They were then crammed into the local synagogue with 2,000 other people and Rena can remember the sounds of shooting and crying in the streets around her. Anyone who couldn’t fit into the room was taken out into the Radomsk forest where they were forced to dig the ditches that ultimately became their graves. While in the synagogue, Rena noticed a man, Rena wasn’t sure if it was an uncle, motioning for her to run out the door. Despite the fear that was engulfing her, Rena ran out the door with the man. She doesn’t know how she ran, or whether her mother pushed her, but that was the last time she saw her mother, brothers and her extended family. They were taken to Treblinka and the gas chambers where their bodies were piled into open pits and burnt. To this day, she still wonders what her mother was thinking as ran out the door.

The man she had run out with eventually took her to her father, but what was he to do with her? Girls were useless. So her father cut her hair short and dressed her in boys clothing. He changed her name from Fredgia to Froyim and told her that she was to say that she was ten and could work. She then spent the next while working in the class factory as a boy until she was taken to Burgen-Belsen where, sitting amongst a pile of copses, she was liberated by the British in 1945.

During the Holocaust, all of Rena’s family were killed by the Germans. Remarkably, she eventually found herself in the USA with a loving family who renamed her Rena.

Daniel, Yehudit and Rena

In all, these survivors were the lucky ones. In many areas of Europe, no Jews survived the atrocities that befell their people. Yet in spite of all the horrors that Daniel, Yehudit and Rena faced, there remains within them a beautiful expression of humanism. While I am positive that many survivors succumbed to the evils they lived through, these three people exhibited a remarkable sense of peace that belied their journeys. Humour coupled with pessimism, and a journey defined by hope was evident in all of their stories, but by far the greatest light that shined from these people was their successes. Ultimately, Yehudit – whom I spent the afternoon with – found her ultimate success in revenge. The ability to marry and have children became symbolic of her victory over the Nazis who tried to destroy all the Jewish children. In this way, every Jewish child born became symbolic of the Nazi failure and the hope of a new Jewish nation.

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Dealing with the Holocaust

Felix Nussbaum, “Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card”, 1943

Dealing with the Holocaust has always been a numbers game for myself as someone who loves history. But the problem with numbers are that they hide the grave realities of the people who made up those vast figures. When one speaks in millions, the individual, the personal story, the private grief and anguish gets lost in the figures. So it has been the goal of Yad Vashem to delve past the numbers and reveal the people behind the numbers.

Over the past few days, we have been taken on a personal journey into the lives of the Jewish people, the people destined for liquidation, whose choices were ultimately choiceless. On this journey, we have read poems, diaries and literature, all of which reveal the people and their struggles as the faced the inevitable – death under the Nazi apparatus.

Needless to say, it has been a struggle. How did an almost entire group of people seemingly go willingly towards death and the deaths of their families? Where was the fight, where was the resistance, where was the resolve to try and avoid death? The brutal tragedy of the Holocaust is that there was no room to fight. Survival often depends on our ability to compromise, and for a people whose deaths were ultimately unavoidable, compromise existed through a variety of facets alien to us today. But for the Jewish people caught deep within the folds of the Third Reich’s industrialised executions, constant compromise was all they had.

However, deep within these actions and the fingers that clawed at life, the Jewish people still found humanity within their plight. To defy a regime with violence often only ended in the senseless murder of families and neighbourhoods. To defy a regime with life was a revenge that was far more fulfilling. In this fashion, many Jewish people chose to confront their impending doom through a concerted effort to remain human, to remain Jewish.

It is within this quiet confrontation that we are able to witness the real beauty and humanism of a people who were in an environment where death fast became a normalised part of life. A diary, prayers throughout the day, a smuggled instrument, a poetry reading, a comforting embrace all became avenues through which the doomed Jewish nation managed to hold onto their humanity and resist – even for brief moments – the dehumanisation that was afforded by the Nazis.

Through reading the literature and viewing the art, we are gifted the voices of those who were silenced in crowded, blackened rooms where every breath betrayed life. Here within the words of the living, we encounter the victim and we shrug off the narrative provided to us through the Nazi administration. By viewing the literature, we pay homage to the memory of not just the artist or author, but the people and populations that they represented. We ensure that those condemned and left voiceless can be heard and understood.

Night – Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016)*

The beloved objects that we had carried with us from place to place were left behind in the wagon and, with them, finally, our illusions.

Every few yards, there stood an SS man, his machine gun trained on us. Hand in hand we followed the throng.

An SS came toward us wielding a club. He commanded:

“Men to the left! Women to the right!”

Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever.

I kept walking,

my father holding my hand.

* Elie Wiesel survived the Holocaust having been interred in both the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. His mother and sister were murdered in Auschwitz while his father died in Buchenwald. He is the author of 57 books.

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Antisemitism, A Very Quick Trip Through Time.

For the Jewish people throughout history, violence, oppression and mistreatment has painted their historical narrative. The past few days our eyes have been opened by some of the most well respected lecturers in Jewish cultural and literary history who have come in to educate to us.

Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) Illustration of Blood Libel of Simon of Trent

Historically, the Jewish diaspora into Europe and throughout Asia created small pockets or enclaves of Jewish settlements alongside Christian and Muslim communities. These small pockets were characterised by communities of people that largely stood out from the local populations. This was because the Jewish faith and customs singled Jewish people out as different – they ate differently according to kosher laws, they practiced Judaism and their lingua franca was distinct, with the development of Yiddish sometime around the 9th or 10th centuries.

Obviously, when you stand out in stark contrast to the rest of a red-necked, partially inbred society where it was fair game to marry your cousins, eyes are going to be raised. It wasn’t long before the Jewish communities found themselves at the start of a long period of ostracism within the greater society. Moreover, this ostracism was only aided by institutions such as the Catholic Church. St Augustine himself promoted the mistreatment of Jews but encouraged people to refrain from killing them. Indeed, the early church encouraged the humiliation of the Jews so that they might convert to Christianity and embrace Jesus.

Some of the forms of humiliation and ostracism these communities faced ranged from the forced ghettoisation of the communities through to legal measures being put in place to ensure that the Jewish people were kept separate (or safe, or both – see Pope Paul IV). Some of these legal measures included bans on Jewish people from owning land, inter-marrying, or working in professions primarily held by the locals of an area. Ironically, banned from agricultural work the Jewish community were forced into mercantilism, tax collection and money lending to survive. This is turn led to many of the superstitions and generalisations that have negatively affected the community over the last millennium.

At a more sinister level, superstitions surrounding the Jewish religious observances began to be raised. In Europe especially, the insidious myth known as the ‘blood libel’ resulted in pogroms against the Jewish communities. Blood libel was the belief that Jewish communities would capture and kill Christian children and use their blood in religious ceremonies, particularly during the Jewish celebration of Passover. Retaliation for suspected blood libel was harsh and more often than not, without trail. Throughout the middle ages and beyond, hundreds – if not thousands – of Jewish people were routinely beaten, lynched, hanged or burnt to death as a direct result of this fear and hatred.

Following these dark periods of time, the next significant change for the Jewish peoples occurred in the industrial revolution. Suddenly, with increased urbanisation, Jewish merchants found that their businesses started to prosper. With a cultural tradition of being multi-lingual, self-sufficient and well-traveled (through constant relocation to more favourable conditions), Jews found themselves becoming upwardly mobile within the developing middle classes. Yet, by the time of the early 20th Century, despite their contributions to science, music and literature, Jewish people were still subjected to ridicule, sanctioned humiliation, and persecution.

Advertisement for antisemitc propaganda exhibition, Munich, 1937.

This persecution changed when the Nazi Party came to power in 1933. The major change instigated by the Germans was the concept of the Jewish peoples as a distinct ethnicity. This new way of thinking had serious repercussions. No longer able to ‘fix’ their evil ways and convert to Christianity, Jewish people were tainted by the inescapable nature of their own blood. This dramatically changed the way Nazi propaganda addressed the stereotypical Jew. Now the Jews began to be portrayed as a parasite among the population and that any marriage to a Jew could only result in the poisoning of the German master race.

German Anti-Semitic cartoon, Der Stürmer, 28 September 1944: Vermin – Life is not worth living, when one does not resist the parasite. Never satisfied as it creeps about. We must and will win.

It was these prejudices that the Nazi party preyed upon, exaxerbated, and used to implement the Final Solution, the state sanctioned and systematic execution of the Jewish peoples throughout Europe and Asia.