Footage of Jewish history

Here you will find amazing film clips from almost one hundred years of 20th Century Jewish history, including images and testimony from Eichmann’s trial. It is a reminder that, while the Jews wanted Israel as an escape from bloodshed and tyranny, the Palestinians joyfully imagine their lands awash in a sea of blood.

Hat tip: Crossing the Rubicon

UPDATE: More on the blood Palestinians long to have on their hands. And if you click over to this last link, remember Golda Meir: “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”

Cosmic ironies

Note: I originally posted this bit of family history in August 2006. I’m reposting it now, inspired by two things: Ken Burns’ excellent “The War” (I swear the man’s a conservative) and Ahmadinejad’s pretending that the Holocaust’s historical reality is open for some sort of debate. I think both — the one almost sublime, the other evil and ridiculous — are reminders that these stories still need to be told, if not by the first generation, the generation that lived it, then by the second generation, the one that grew up hearing about it.

My mother is a very circumlocutious story teller. She bounces around chronologically and is remarkably free with indefinite pronouns. This means her stories can be a bit difficult to follow. On the plus side — and this is a plus side that completely outweighs the minor difficulties involved in teasing out the facts — her stories are absolutely fascinating. She’s lived an incredible life, as did my father, and she has an amazing memory, both for her own family history and for my dad’s (he’s gone, so he can’t tell me those tales).

Today I got my father’s history, more of it than I’ve ever known before. My paternal grandfather, whom I’ll call Max, came from Roumania (or Russia). He was at one time a successful shopkeeper. Unfortunately, though, he had a terrible gambling problem, and ended up losing his store at a card game. With nothing to keep him in Russia (or Roumania), he ended up in Berlin shortly after the turn of the last century. There he met my maternal grandmother.

My maternal paternal grandmother, whom I’ll call Judith, came from the Galicia region in Poland. Family lore had it that her father was a prominent rabbi or cantor (I incline to the latter, and I’ll tell you why in a bit). When Judith was a youing girl, her mother died. In accordance with Orthodox Jewish law, her father married Judith’s aunt, who then morphed into her stepmother.

At some point in time, this family too moved to Germany. They must have had some money at the time, because they opened a cigarette factory. The factory was successful, and they eventually became quite wealthy. Judith grew to be a beautiful young woman (I’ve seen the sole photograph my father was able to salvage from his youth), but I gather that life in her stepmother’s home was not easy. A couple of half sisters came along (who were also half-cousins), and Judith was pushed into the background.

Unsurprisingly, when Judith met Max, who was quite a dashing young man with a handlebar moustache, she quickly decided to marry him and left the family home. Judith’s family did not cut off contact with her (Max was, after all, Jewish), but they certainly were not warm.

Judith and Max soon had a son (Judah), followed six years later by a daughter (Beatrice) and, after another six years, they had their last child — my father. Life was not good to them. Max was a mediocre breadwinner and, apparently, what little he earned got gambled away. Things became even more difficult in the years between Beatrice’s birth and my dad’s birth, because Germany became embroiled in WWI. A year after the war ended, Judith was pregnant with my father. Faced with a disastrous post-war economy, and with another child on the way, Max went off to America to make his fortune.

Max apparently did fairly well in America. He began to send money to Judith, begging her to buy passage so that she and the children could move to America. The marriage can’t have been a happy one, though, because Judith refused to join Max in America. Instead, in a series of spectacularly stupid moves, Judith routinely took the dollars he sent and converted them, immediately upon receipt, to Deutschmarks. As you may or may not know, post-WWI Weimar Germany suffered from spectacular inflation. One of my father’s earliest memories was seeing women with wheel barrows full of paper money heading to the stores to buy bread. This inflation meant that Judith, instead of sitting on valuable American dollars, immediately converted them into money that, by week’s end, or even by the next day, was worthless.

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself “what about the stepmother with the cigarette factory?” She was no help. She poured her energy, and her money, into her own two daughters, one of whom apparently was one of Germany’s most famous concert pianists. (This is why I think Judith’s father was a cantor, not a rabbi.) Not only that, this pianist was married to one of the best known German-Jewish writers of the 1910s through early 1930s. I’d love to boast about their names, but I don’t know them — that information died with my father.

Since Judith’s family didn’t cut her off entirely, my Dad still had memories of visiting the family mansion and listening to his aunt (who had beautiful hair, he said) play the piano in the parlor for him. When he wasn’t visiting his grandmother and aunt, though, my father lived in a Dickensian slum. His mother had eventually landed in a small apartment over a brothel, which meant that my father learned the facts of life early, and in the ugliest way. His sister and brother, who were so much older than he, fell in with the Communists, who were considered a very reasonable alternative for poor Jews in Weimar Germany.

Eventually Judith couldn’t cope at all, and she applied to her family for aid. Rather than using their wealth to help her directly, they put pressure on a Jewish charity to step forward and help her family. Over the years, this help meant that Judah went to the Jewish school for academically gifted children (where he was lauded as the smartest student in the school’s 200 year history); Beatrice went to a convent school, of all places; and my Dad ended up in a Jewish orphanage.

Although the orphanage’s head was, apparently, a woman with somewhat sadistic tendencies, there is no doubt that the orphanage was a good place for my Dad. It provided stability, good food, and a coherent family comprised of teachers and fellow orphans. Through the orphanage — and again with pressure on the Jewish agencies from his wealthy stepfamily — my father followed his brother to the academic Jewish school, where he acquitted himself well, although not with his brother’s genius.

And then came 1933, and the pressure on the family was on. Judah and Beatrice became more and more intertwined with the Communist party. This put them at two disadvantages with the ascendant Nazis, because they were both Communists and Jews. They did recognize, however, the threat the Nazis were to them. The wealthy stepfamily continued to exist in denial, believing “it can’t happen here.”

Although not a Communist, my father, by 1935, also began to understand that it could indeed “happen here.” The anti-Jewish pressure from the Nazis was increasing daily. The turning point for my Dad was a soccer game. It was a Jewish school vs. Hitler youth game. My Dad’s Jewish team beat the Hitler youth handily on the field. Unfortunately, the Hitler youth — and their parents — beat the Jewish team brutally off the field. Dad’s eyes were both blackened and opened.

In 1935, one of Dad’s teachers, Izzy, approached him with an offer: Izzy had been hired by a group of wealthy Jewish parents who had successfully obtained visas allowing their children to make aliyah. For reasons lost through time, Izzy and his wife, who were childless, were allowed to bring another child, and they chose my Dad. My Dad, alienated from the mother who had abandoned him, the wealthy family that wanted nothing to do with him, and the siblings that saw the Communist party as their real family, said yes.

So it was that, in 1935, my father left Germany and landed on a proto kibbutz in Northern Israel. I say proto, because the land was nothing but a mosquito infested swamp with a couple of shacks. Over the next four years, my father and his fellow kibbutzniks labored day and night to reclaim the land and create a community. They succeeded. My father, however, was not a social man, and the combination of years of communal living, whether in the orphanage or the kibbutz was too much for him. He left for Tel Aviv. Sadly, he had no usable skills for surviving in the “big” city and, by August 1939, was literally starving to death in the streets. War was a blessing. He enlisted the day Britain entered the war, and served with distinction and bravery through 1944, when he was discharged on medical grounds.

But what about the rest of the family? Judah and Beatrice were spirited out through Communist lines. Judah, the genius, ended up as a low-level embittered civil servant in Denmark, living in a slum of his own making. Beatrice eventually ended up in Palestine. At war’s end, however, she announced that East Germany was purified by Communism, and returned to Berlin — East Berlin — where she lived to the day she died. Despite Communism’s manifest failings, she never lost her faith in that “religion. Judith escaped from Germany and ended up in a Belgian convent, where she hid throughout the war. Family mythology has it that the nuns forced her to convert as a condition for keeping her, which may nor may not be true.

And how about those rich ones, the ones who refused to help the family, and who saw to it that my father ended up in the orphanage? They all died in the Holocaust. And that is one of the great ironies, isn’t it? Had they been kinder to my father, more generous and humane, he might have died too. As it was, their insensitivity and selfishness placed him in the orphanage, where he met Izzy, who took him to Palestine, where he survived the War and contributed both to Nazi Germany’s defeat and Israel’s creation.

And one more footnote about Max, the man who went to America. As I said, Max did fairly well in America. In another irony, though, just as the German branch of the family ran out of luck in 1933 with Nazism, so too did Max’s luck run out: he died that year when a streetcar hit him.

That ought to be the end of the story, but it’s not. About five years ago, a client asked me to research an obscure area of probate law. I couldn’t find any local authority, so I expanded my search to cover all cases on the subject, anywhere in America. I generated two hundred hits on the computer database. I was flipping through these hits in a desultory fashion, focused entirely on the legal principles, when my eye got caught on a case name. I gave the name a second look because it was a variant spelling of my maiden name. For the heck of it, I called the whole case up on my computer and began to read.

The case told an interesting story. In 1933, a man named Max died in New York City. His widow, who lived in Germany, asked the German government to act as her agent in the New York probate court. The local representative for Max’s estate, however, protested this move. He pointed out that, by 1938, when the court issued the case I read, Germany had imposed a multi-million dollar fine against all Jews, meaning that it was unlikely to turn over the money to the widow and her children. More to the point, the local representative pointed out — and the German government agency appearing in the New York court conceded — the family had dispersed. The mother was in Belgium, the older son was in Denmark, and the daughter and the “infant” son were in Palestine. On these facts, the court rightly concluded that it would be a travesty to give the money into German keeping and denied the German petition for the money.

I got a very peculiar feeling reading the case, and carefully examined the names of the widow and her three children. I didn’t recognize the widow’s name — Judith — but it couldn’t be a coincidence that the three children shared my aunt’s, my uncle’s, and my father’s names. A phone call to my mother confirmed that Judith was indeed my maternal grandmother and it become very clear that, by sheer dumb luck, out of the huge body of American law, I stumbled across a little piece of my family history and of American-German legal history in the 1930s.

The banality of evil

I blogged earlier about the new album of photographs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the ones showing Auschwitz guards frolicking during their off hours. I’ve got a couple of things to add. The first is a link to the entire album, here. And the second is Roger Cohen’s article, at Germany’s Spiegel Online, which contains this accurate summation of the weird horror these photos elicit in the viewer:

In thinking about the Holocaust, we have grown accustomed to images of the Nazis’ victims: shadowy naked figures on the edge of ditches about to be dispatched by the SS-Einsatzgruppen; huddled wide-eyed children; skeletal human simulacra; piles of bones. Getting the perpetrators in focus is harder.

But here, revealed by these newly discovered photographs, are the German murderers in all their dumb humanity, flirting and joking and lighting Christmas trees, as if what awaited them after the frolicking were just the bus to some dull job in a dental office rather than the supervision of Auschwitz’s industrialized killing machine.

If they were downwind of the camp, did some trace of the acrid-sweet stench of death ever mess with the merry-making? Did the image of a Jewish girl from Budapest being herded toward the gas mar a mouthful? Did conscience stir or doubt impinge? Was it clear that the children had to die in order to eradicate not only a people, but also their memory? Such questions are useless. The facts must speak for themselves.

Ordinary people; horrific crimes

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum received an unusual donation last Christmas:  a photo album taken during the last year of Auschwitz.  But unlike all our other images of Auschwitz, which show the horrors visited on the camps’ victims, this one shows the perpetrators at play.  It’s mind-bending to see images of brutal killers (amongst whom you’ll find images of Mengele) singing songs together, frolicking in the rain, gathering for convivial drink fests, and otherwise enjoying ordinary life.

This album is a reminder, as I noted here, that one of the worst aspects of the Holocaust, for those in the West, is that the perpetrators were people just like us.  We can’t distance ourselves from them simply by saying that they were twisted primitives from an alien culture.  They weren’t.  They were the product of one of Western Civilization’s highest cultures and, even as they were burning the dead bodies of the millions they murdered, they kept on living their ordinary lives — sometimes within a mile or two of the smokestacks.

Why is this Holocaust different from all other Holocausts?

My friend Patrick, who blogs at The Paragraph Farmer, tackles a very difficult question in today’s American Spectator:  Why, in a world that daily reminds us of man’s inhumanity to man, does the Holocaust still stands as the ne plus ultra of the human ability to kill?  It’s a thoughtful article, and one I urge you to read.  In addition to the points Patrick made, I want to add a few things that make the Holocaust unique amongst the atrocities man has always been capable of visiting against his fellow man.  In no particular order:

1.  Culture.  One of the things that made the Holocaust particularly horrible was the culture from which it sprang.  In the annals of Western Civilization, Germany had ascended to the highest peak:  it’s art, literature, music and science were the envy of the world.  That this culture, this culture of all cultures, could do what it did spells out something particularly horrible about the human capacity for evil.  We expect “less civilized” cultures to commit atrocities because we can then distance ourselves from those acts.  When a culture to which we compare ourselves or to which we aspire commits those same atrocities, it reminds us that none of us are safe from the evil that lurks within us.

2.  Science and method.  Consistent with it’s sophisticated culture, the Germans engaged in murder with a single minded scientific fervor that’s never been equaled.  Other cultures engage in mass slaughter in a blunt, almost animalistic way, crudely starving or executing those under their aegis (I’m thinking Communists here, both Soviet and Asian, or the machetes of the Hutus).  The Germans, however, engaged in mass death scientifically, working their way through a variety of methods until they found the most efficient way to kill the most people — and then carefully, scientifically recorded their work with detailed records, including the names of most of their victims.  They also enshrined their “scientific” progress with boastful photographs.  Those same photos reveal another side of the Holocaust, which is that the Germans reveled in killing.  While the Communists as part of their grand socialization plans managed to starve millions and millions of people in Russia, China and Cambodia, they didn’t have people gleefully skinning their victims to make lamp shades, or subjecting them to gruesome scientific experiences as part of the “fun of it all.”

3.  Geography.  Patrick makes a point about localization, namely that the German nation was one killer, and it’s easy to identify and blame one killer, while Communism, an ideology, kills all over.  This is a good point, but I think there’s a different localization point to be made, and that is the fact that Germans went beyond their locality, not in pursuit of a political ideology, a la the Communists, put in pursuit of their genocidal killing strategy.  All other mass murders have been aimed at people within the killing culture.  Hutus killed their resident Tutsis, Turks their resident Armenians, Serbs their resident Bosnians, Light skinned Muslim Sudanese their resident Christians and dark skinned Muslims, Communists of whatever nation killed “state enemies” within their own borders, and so on and so on.  Only the Nazis went on an actual hunt for their victims, trolling through country after country to gather and destroy them.  This too makes the Nazis different from any other mass murderers in world history.

4.  Deniability or the lack thereof.  Most other mass murderers engage in the “deny, deny, deny” approach to mass murder.  As I noted above, the Germans were incredibly proud of what they were doing, and carefully documented everything.  The insanity of the Holocaust deniers aside, there is too much evidence for there ever to be plausible deniability.

5.  The nature of the victims.  The Jews are the people of the Book.  They are verbal people.  In other, non-literate or less literate cultures, the stories of the horrors visited on them quickly devolve into little more than an oral myth, that has no traction.  Jews, by talking, by writing books, etc., keep the story alive.

6.  There were witnesses.  As Patrick pointed out, the hardened Patton was vomiting with the horror of what he saw.  Americans walked into those camps and came out telling the stories.  Communist victims just vanished within the maw of communist countries.  Today, in Africa, while reporters and  NGOs may venture in, there is no big war, that ends with a big discovery.  Those poor dead just dribble way, vanishing into the soil beneath them.
7.  Israel.  Unlike other survivors of mass slaughter who eventually merge into other cultures, taking their memories with them, the Jews have Israel.  Israel, of course, was a community long before the war, but it came into being as a nation in part because of the world’s response to the Holocaust.  I have long thought that Europe’s burgeoning anti-Israeli sentiment has its roots in the fact that Israel is a living reproach to Europe, and the Europeans feel better about themselves if they can denigrate Israel:  “See, the Jews are no better than we are.”  With this psychological need to make themselves feel better, it doesn’t matter to them that the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, a very complex situation indeed, is entirely different from that of Jews on the receiving end of the Nazis single-minded focus on mass race slaughter.

8.  Guilt.  Past genocides mostly took place at times when, sadly, the world hadn’t yet developed the moral capacity to care.  For example, the killing and marginalization of the Native Americans occurred during a time when the whole Western World didn’t have much of a problem with taking land from indigenous people or “killing them before they kill us.”  Likewise, slavery, that other famous form of Western, and especially American, oppression, had been a fixture in the world since time immemorial.  Indeed, there is still slavery all over the Muslim world.  Also, Americans engaged in that mass act of self-sacrifice known as the Civil War in part to purge themselves of slavery.  In this they differed from the Nazis who did not use War to purify themselves of a moral evil but, instead, used war to embrace that evil.  And the sad fact is that the morally developed Western World knew what was going on:  It knew in 1933 when Hitler started enacting the race laws.  It knew in 1938 with Kristallnacht.  It knew when panicked Jews began banging on Western doors begging for escape.  It knew when reports started circulating (only to be quashed by the Times), that in all countries the Nazis entered, Jews were being slaughtered in situ, or being rounded up and transported to death camps.  The world knew and it closed its eyes and plugged its ears.  There are still people living who knew what was going on or who should have known, and who did nothing.  They are a reminder to us of the power of passivity, not for good but for evil.

9.  Jews a perpetual victims.  This is a point Patrick made in his article, but I think it deserves repeating here.  The Holocaust hits us in the face because, at the time, it seemed to be the culmination of centuries of persecution.  Even as Western Christians finally seemed to be shaking off the yoke of anti-Semitism, the Russians began engaging in it wholeheartedly, not so much as a religious imperative but more as a cultural imperative.  That too seemed to be dying away (thanks, in significant part, to the safety valve of America), only to have the Holocaust come along, bringing anti-Semitism to a ferocious height no one in the past could have imagined.  That should have been the end of it all, but it isn’t.  The Arab world, which enthusiastically supported Hitler, is making the same noises again that Hitler did then, is killing people because they are Jews, and is talking about annihilation, just as Hitler talked and then attempted.  The Holocaust won’t go away because very evil people keep making sure it sticks around.

Those are my nine ideas about the Holocaust’s preeminence, despite the fact that both the 20th and (so far) the 21st Century have seen other, and even bigger, acts of mass slaughter.  If you have anything to add, please do so.  I know that you, my readers, will keep any comments on this sensitive subject polite and thoughtful.

Obsessing on the horrors of the past

As I’ve noted before, my mother spent the war years interned in a Japanese concentration camp in Java.  These camps were not Nazi death camps, but they were no picnic either, with a horrible attrition rate from disease, starvation, overwork and abuse.  (See here for more information about one of the camps my Mom was in, Tjideng.)  My Mom (obviously) survived the camp but, for decades, it also seemed as if she had survived the devastating depression that so quickly enveloped some camp survivors, especially survivors of the death camps.  People have always commented on her energy, and she brought that energy to bear on child rearing, running a home and art.  She talked about her experience in the camps, but didn’t obsess about those experiences.  Indeed, she was very forgiving towards the Japanese, even though they never paid reparations, on the ground that there is a difference between a “traditional” concentration camp aimed at segregating civilians, no matter how brutal it is, and a Nazi death camp, aimed at genocide.

It’s been surprising and sad, therefore, that in the past few years, my mother has been obsessing more and more about her concentration camp years.  I had naively thought that, as those years recede in the past, and as she finds herself in a secure, comfortable environment, the terror of those years would diminish.  Instead, she can’t stop talking about the horrors visited upon her in her youth.  I have been sympathetic but, as I said, confused by what struck me as counterintuitive mental behavior.  It turns out, though, that Mom’s memories, and her inability to block some of the worst ones, are completely consistent with her age.  Psychiatrists and psychologists who work at Jewish Homes for the Aged, which have large numbers of Holocaust survivors, have discovered that age weakens our ability to screen unpleasant memories:

In recent years, a body of research has sprung from the lives of Holocaust survivors like Kane as caregivers and mental health professionals work to understand and alleviate the pain of old age and remembered trauma. But when she first began to relive her past, the territory was largely uncharted.

“There has never been a group of genocide survivors live to this age in history,” said Paula David, editor of the manual “Caring for Aging Holocaust Survivors.” Their experiences offer a rare window into the confluence of trauma and aging.

One clear lesson from this shrinking group, whose median age is more than 70, is that “resilience ages, too,” David said, “and diminishes along with hearing and vision.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging has the largest population of Holocaust survivors in the West, according to nursing home officials. There were 63 such patients at latest count, although that number could rise to nearly 90 when a new building opens later this summer.

Although every Holocaust survivor is different, Kane’s end-of-life experiences are a good illustration of the kinds of things they can go through, said Chaya Berci, the Jewish Home’s executive director of nursing.

As people age and their grasp on the present weakens, events from the distant past can seem as real as anything unfolding today. For those who lived through severe early trauma, the memories that come rushing back are often of their most harrowing experiences.

Certainly I see the truth of this as I watch my mother.  It’s so sad.  These people have finally found safety and security, and they are incapable of enjoying it because they are assaulted by the ghosts of their pasts.

Huckabee and the Jews

After reading my post about Huckabee, my friend the Soccer Dad directed me to an Israel Matzav post about Huckabee’s visits to Israel and to Yad Vashem. Reading that post, I can only conclude that (a) Huckabee recognizes Israel as a nation amongst nations and (b) that Huckabee has correctly understood that one of the main messages to take away from the Holocaust is that bad things happen when good people do nothing.

If you liked this post, vote for it at Patrick Ruffini’s 2008 Huckabee wire by clicking here.