Scrapbookpages Blog

March 29, 2014

What was the purpose of the death marches out of the concentration camps?

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, Holocaust — Tags: — furtherglory @ 12:58 pm

Last night, during a conversation with a teen-aged visitor to my home, the subject of the “death marches” out of the Nazi concentration camps came up.  My young visitor had noticed that, on my library shelf, I have a copy of a huge book which gives the several versions of the Anne Frank diary side by side.

The sight of this book prompted my young visitor to mention that she had studied the Anne Frank Diary in school, and that a Holocaust survivor, who had a number tattooed on the inside of her left arm, had recently given a talk at her school.

At this point, I told her that the tattoo was an indication that the survivor had been a prisoner at Auschwitz, because the Auschwitz camp was the only place where the prisoners were tattooed.  This was news to her; the Holocaust survivor had not mentioned this.

Then my young visitor told me that the Holocaust survivor, who spoke at her school, had said that she had been taken on a march out of Auschwitz.  On the march, she had been forced to walk for miles, barefoot through the snow.  When the march ended, the prisoners were allowed to escape, running through the snow, into the arms of soldiers who liberated them.

The story of marching barefoot through the snow resonated with me because many other survivors of Auschwitz have told stories about how the German soldiers, who led the marches out of Auschwitz, walked ahead of the prisoners, tramping down the two feet of snow, so that the women and children could walk better.  The women and children were given a head start, so that they would not have to keep up with the men, who could walk faster.

I have also heard stories about how the women were taken to the clothing warehouses, known as Canada, where they were allowed to select a nice pair of boots for the march.

This is the first time that I have heard that the prisoners were marched barefoot out of Auschwitz.  The women were wearing shoes, while they were prisoners at Auschwitz, but according to this survivor, they were apparently told to take off their shoes so that they could march barefoot through the snow.

Some Holocaust survivors say that the purpose of a “death march” was to kill the prisoners by marching them to death.  Holocaust deniers say that the purpose was to take the prisoners to other camps, where they could be put to work.

I decided to look it up on Wikipedia, where I found a page entitled Death marches (Holocaust).

This quote is from Wikipedia:

Death marches (Todesmärsche in German) refer to the forcible movements of prisoners in Nazi Germany. They occurred at various points during the Holocaust, including in 1939 in the Lublin province of Poland, in 1942 in Ukraine, and between Autumn 1944 and late April 1945 from Nazi concentration camps and prisoner of war camps near the front, to camps inside Germany away from front lines and Allied forces to remove evidence from concentration camps and to prevent the repatriation

The photo below is on the page entitled “Deach marches.” The caption on the photo is this:

Dachau concentration camp inmates on a death march, April 1945, photographed walking through a German village, heading in the direction of Wolfratshausen, Bavaria.

450px-Death_march_from_Dachau

Were the prisoners, shown in the photo above, really marched out of the Dachau camp to “to remove evidence from concentration camps and to prevent the repatriation”? In the photo, it appears that the prisoners are walking through the rain, wearing shoes and some kind of rain gear.

Would marching the prisoners out of Dachau remove the evidence of the Dachau gas chamber?  Wouldn’t it have been easier to blow up the gas chamber inside the Dachau camp?

Why take a chance on one of these prisoners escaping the march, and living to tell about the gas chamber and other atrocities committed at Dachau?

Other sources, including my website, claim that these prisoners were marched out of Dachau to prevent them from killing Germany civilians in the vicinity of the town of Dachau.

Holocaust deniers claim that prisoners were marched out of Auschwitz, not for the purpose of killing them by marching them to death, but for the purpose of taking them to camps in Germany to work.

I wrote about the prisoners being marched out of Dachau on this page of my website:  http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauScrapbook/DachauLiberation/LiberationDay2A.html

 

March 28, 2013

Why did the Jews at Auschwitz march out of the camp with the Nazis instead of waiting for the Soviet liberators?

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, Holocaust — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 8:29 am
Prisoners on a death march out of Dachau

Prisoners on a death march out of Dachau on April 26, 1945

The photo above shows some of the 6,887 Jewish prisoners and Russian POWs, who were marched out of the Dachau concentration camp on April 26, 1945.  Today’s students are taught that the purpose of this “death march” was to kill the prisoners before the camp could be liberated by the Allies.  Note the two German soldiers who are marching with them.  There is no photo of the march out of Auschwitz, but the photo above will give you an idea of how the Auschwitz march might have taken place.

On a similar march out of Auschwitz-Birkenau, on January 18, 1945, the German soldiers marched at the head of the column, tramping down two feet of snow to make it easier for the Jews to march.

I am on the e-mail list of Bradley Smith, a famous Holocaust denier, and today I received an e-mail from him, which included a letter which he had recently sent to Kent State University, where Elie Wiesel was expected to give a talk to the students.

As you may know, Elie Wiesel and his father were allegedly on the death march out of Auschwitz on January 18, 1945.  Elie wrote, in his book Night, that they were given a choice of either marching or staying behind to be liberated by Soviet soldiers.  The Dachau prisoners, shown in the photo above, were not given a choice.  They were marched out of Dachau, so that they could not attack civilians in the town of Dachau, after they were liberated.

I love Bradley Smith and I am a great admirer of his writing.  I read the copy of Bradley’s letter to the University and laughed out loud.  I am quoting from the letter, so as to share it with those who may not be on Bradley’s e-mail list.

Quote from letter written by Bradley Smith to Kent State University:

=====
In his autobiographical book Night, Elie Wiesel writes that in January 1945, when he and his father were both prisoners of the murderous German Nazis at Auschwitz, they were asked by their captors if they would prefer to remain in that death camp, where countless Jews had already been murdered in gas chambers, to await the imminent arrival of their Soviet liberators, or would they rather leave with the Nazi Jew-killers who were abandoning the camp. Elie Wiesel and his dad, talking it over, agreed they would prefer to leave on the death-march retreat with German Nazis dedicated to exterminating Jews as a race rather than wait for their Soviet liberators.

Is there one professor at Kent State University who thinks it might be worthwhile that students consider the significance of this confession? Why not?
=====

I don’t think that Bradley Smith will get an answer to his letter, so I am going to explain to him and to the students, the purpose of the death march out of Auschwitz.

I learned the reason for the death marches from Professor Harold Marcuse, who teaches the history of the Holocaust at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Professor Marcuse wrote the following in a comment on my blog several years ago:

In any case the death marches in 1945 were a largely futile attempt to keep human evidence of and witnesses to atrocities from falling into Allied hands. That rationale hinged on the illusory notion that the Germans would ultimately defend some territory and in some bizarre way “win” the war. When some responsible German officials realized beyond doubt that the war was lost, they drew the “logical” conclusion and burned the marching prisoners alive, as happened at Ohrdruf, Gardelegen and numerous other places. For them apparently, dead evidence was better than alive evidence.

I am assuming that the professors at Kent State University teach the students the same story that is taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Elie Wiesel and his father trusted the Nazis not to burn them alive on the march, so they didn’t stay behind at Auschwitz, when given a choice. If you have ever read Elie Wiesel’s book, you know that Elie and his father survived the burning ditches at Auschwitz on the Night that they arrived.  They expected to survive the burning of the prisoners on the march out of the camp.  They didn’t know what the Soviets might do, so they chose the Nazis instead.

Children were burned alive in a burning ditch at Auschwitz on the night Elie Wiesel arrived

Children were being burned alive at Auschwitz on the night Elie Wiesel arrived

The Jews who stayed behind at Auschwitz found out that they had made the wrong choice because the Soviets didn’t take care of them at all.

After the three Auschwitz camps were liberated, the survivors were on their own. Unlike the concentration camps in Germany, where the liberated prisoners remained in the camps as Displaced Persons and were cared for by the Americans or the British, the Auschwitz prisoners from 29 countries were released to find their own way home.

Primo Levi was an Auschwitz survivor who wrote a book, later made into a movie, about his long journey home to Italy which took him many months. He described how the Jewish prisoners were greeted with hostility in every country along the way.  (Primo Levi was forced to stay behind because he was sick at the time of the death march out of the camp.)

Binjamin Wilkomirski, who falsely claimed to be a child survivor of Auschwitz, wrote in his fake book, entitled Fragments, that there was no liberation. “We just ran away without permission,” he wrote. “No joyous celebration. I never heard the word ‘liberation’ back then, I didn’t even know there was such a word.” Binjamin Wilkomirski also describes this in his book, Fragments: “And the people outside the camp, in the countryside and the nearby town — they didn’t celebrate when they saw us.”

Wilkomirski’s fake book is still being taught in American schools, but it is now called a novel.  Elie Wiesel’s fake book was at one time classified as a novel, but is now being taught in American schools as the Gospel truth.

February 15, 2011

Holocaust survivor awarded Medal of Freedom

Filed under: Holocaust, World War II — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 2:03 pm

I was watching TV today when President Obama was giving out the Medal of Freedom awards to 14 people.  As soon as I heard him say the name Gerda Weissmann Klein, I immediately thought that she must be a “Holocaust survivor” and I was right.  President Obama gave a short speech about her story, including the fact that she had survived “a 350 mile march.”  He didn’t say where the march started, nor where it ended, but he did call it a “death march.”

Here are the exact words that President Obama used to introduce Gerda Weissmann Klein:

By the time she was 21, Gerda Klein had spent six years living under Nazi rule — three of them in concentration camps.  Her parents and brother had been taken away.  Her best friend had died in her arms during a 350-mile death march.  And she weighed only 68 pounds when she was found by American forces in an abandoned bicycle factory.  But Gerda survived.  She married the soldier who rescued her.  And ever since — as an author, a historian and a crusader for tolerance — she has taught the world that it is often in our most hopeless moments that we discover the extent of our strength and the depth of our love.

“I pray you never stand at any crossroads in your own lives,” she says, “but if you do, if the darkness seems so total, if you think there is no way out, remember, never ever give up.”     (more…)

January 10, 2011

Primo Levi — The Story of Ten Days (Jan. 18th to Jan. 27th, 1945)

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 4:51 am

Auschwitz was abandoned by the German SS guards on January 18, 1945 and it was ten days before Soviet troops arrived to rescue the prisoners.  Primo Levi was an Italian Jew, who was a prisoner at the Monowitz labor camp in the Auschwitz complex.  In 1947, Levi wrote a poem entitled “If this is a man,” which is included in a book published in America under the title Survival in Auschwitz, the Nazi Assault on Humanity.

Chapter 17 of the book is entitled, “The Story of Ten Days.”  This is the story of what happened during the ten days that the prisoners were on their own, without the Germans to keep order and feed them.  There are some surprising revelations in this chapter.

Primo Levi had come down with scarlet fever on January 11, 1945 and he had been put into the hospital at Monowitz, so he was not able to join the march out of the camp on January 18, 1945.  He wrote that he was being treated in the hospital with sulpha drugs.

There has been a lot of speculation about why some of the prisoners stayed in the three Auschwitz camps (Auschwitz I, Birkenau and Monowitz) instead of following the fleeing Germans on January 18, 1945. The Holocaust experts believe that the prisoners were marched out of the camp for the purpose of killing them so that they could not testify about the gassing of the prisoners.  They believe that the prisoners joined the march for fear that they would be killed if they stayed behind.

Levi wrote that there were “rumours which had been circulating for some days: that the Russians were at Censtochowa sixty miles to the north; […] that at Buna (Monowitz) the Germans were already preparing to sabotage mines.”

Strangely, Levi did not mention anything about the Germans blowing up the gas chambers at Birkenau.  Levi was a prisoner at Monowitz and perhaps he didn’t know what was going on at Birkenau.

In the “Author’s Preface” to the book, the first sentence reads: “It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German Government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average life-span of the prisoners destined for elimination…”  Primo Levi was never in the Birkenau camp, so he apparently never knew that 450,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed and burned there in only 10 weeks, starting in May 1944.

Levi had arrived in Auschwitz in January 1944.  He had been captured by the Italian Fascist Militia on 13 December 1943, according to his book. He  wrote that he had fled into the mountains to help set up what “should have become a partisan band affiliated with the Resistance movement Justice and Liberty.”  Levi thought that “the admission of my political activity would have meant torture and certain death.”  Remarkably, he wrote that he “preferred to admit my status of Italian citizen of Jewish race.”

So on the first page of Chapter 1 in his book, Levy reveals that he thought he would be killed if he admitted to being a partisan, but not if he admitted to being a Jew.  Yet on page 20, he wrote, with regard to the selections for the gas chamber, that “later a simpler method was often adopted of merely opening both of the doors of the wagon without warning or instructions to the new arrivals.  Those who by chance climbed down on one side of the convoy entered the camp; the others went to the gas chamber.”

Levi wrote in Chapter 17 that the day before the Monowitz camp was to be evacuated, a Greek doctor who was a prisoner himself came to the hospital and told the prisoners that “all patients able to walk would be given shoes and clothes and would leave the following day with the healthy ones on a twelve mile march.” The others would remain in the hospital with assistants to be chosen from the patients who were the least sick.  When Levi asked the doctor what would happen to the sick prisoners, the doctor said that “probably the Germans would leave us to our fate: no, he did not think that they would kill us.”

Levi did not believe the doctor. He wrote that the doctor “made no effort to hide the fact that he thought otherwise. His very cheerfulness boded ill.”

Levi himself had no choice; he was too sick with scarlet fever to join the march.  He was in the ward for patients with infectious diseases.  Even if he had wanted to go on the death march, he would probably not have been allowed to go, for fear of infecting the other prisoners with scarlet fever.  Elie Wiesel was also in the hospital in Monowitz and he chose to go on the march out of the camp.

After the Germans left with 60,000 of the prisoners on the night of January 18th, the last distribution of soup was given to the sick prisoners the next morning.  After that, the prisoners were on their own with no one to cook for them and no one to take care of the central heating plant.  It was 5 degrees below zero.

On page 157 of the paperback edition, Levi wrote that around 11 p.m. on Jan. 18th, “One could hear the roar of the aeroplanes. Then the bombardment began.”  I knew that Monowitz had been bombed several times, but I didn’t know that there were bombs dropped on the very night that the march out of the camp began.

Here is a quote from page 157:

After a few minutes it was obvious that the camp had been struck. Two huts were burning fiercely, another two had been pulverized, but they were all empty. […] The Germans were no longer there.  The towers were empty.

This quote describes the situation after the air raid:

“No more water, or electricity, broken windows and doors slamming to in the wind, loose iron sheets from the roofs screeching, ashes from the fire drifting high, afar. The work of the bombs had been completed by the work of man: ragged, decrepit, skeleton-like patients at all able to move dragged themselves everywhere on the frozen soil, like an invasion of worms.”

After the Germans left, the prisoners in the hospital had nothing to eat except potatoes and turnips.  There were no Germans to bake the bread and cook the soup. There was no clean water and the prisoners had to drink melted snow.

On Jan. 22, the hospital patients went exploring in the SS camp that was immediately outside the electric barbed wire fence.  Levi wrote that the camp guards must have left in a great hurry because the prisoners found plates half full of by-now frozen soup, and mugs full of frozen beer, along with a chess board with an unfinished game.

Throughout the book, Levi had written that there were constant selections made in the hospital.  The patients who didn’t get well in a hurry were sent to the gas chambers.  In Chapter 17, Levi wrote about a seventeen year old Dutch Jew who “had been in bed for three months; I have no idea how he managed  to survive the selections.”  This was Levi’s second time in the camp hospital; he had previously been hospitalized for an injured foot.  In his book, Levi didn’t speculate on why he had not been selected for the gas chamber while he was hospitalized.

By Jan. 23rd, all the potatoes had been eaten.  The next day, Jan. 24, the prisoners in hut 14 of the hospital “organized an expedition to the English prisoner of war camp.”  There they found “margarine, custard powders, lard, soya bean flour, whiskey.”  It was a mile to the English POW camp and Levi and the other sick prisoners were not strong enough to walk there, even though they were starving and were desperate for food.

The Soviet soldiers finally arrived at Auschwitz on Jan. 27th and set up a temporary hospital. There were 12 prisoners in the infectious ward at Monowitz and only one of them died during the ten days after the Germans left.  Another prisoner in this ward died a few weeks later in the Russian hospital.

Here is Levi’s famous poem, “If this is a man”:

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.

In conclusion: This is not a book review, but I must say that I found Levi’s attitude about his imprisonment to be very arrogant.  He criticizes the smallest details about his treatment.  He couldn’t stand the “infernal” German music.  The playing of the German song “Rosamunda” particularly irritated him. Regarding the playing of music, he wrote “the Germans created this monstrous rite.”

Levi didn’t like “that curt, barbaric barking of Germans.”  He refers to “the degenerate German engineer” of the train that was taking him to Auschwitz.  Why was the engineer of the train “degenerate?”  He had allowed water to be drawn from the engine to bathe a three year old girl who was on the train.

Levi had been arrested because he was a member of the Resistance.  As an illegal combatant, he could have been executed under the rules of the Geneva Convention.  There was a war going on.  Yet Levi expected to be treated as if he were at a resort.

At one point, Levi asked if the new arrivals would be given back their toothbrushes.   The prisoner, whom he had asked, told him in French: “you are not at home.”  Levi wrote “And it is this refrain that we hear repeated by everyone: you are not at home, this is not a sanatorium, the only exit is by way of the Chimney.”

He is critical of the signs and pictures showing the prisoners how to keep themselves clean.  He doesn’t like it when he is repeatedly warned not to drink the tap water.  His general attitude is that he hates the Germans even though he was treated well under the circumstances.

I learned from the Wikipedia entry about him that when Levi began to write this book, he wrote the chapter about the Ten Days first.  Apparently, his most vivid memory of his time in the camp was when he had scarlet fever and there were no German doctors to take care of him, and no Germans to keep order and hand out food to the prisoners.  He then began to understand the reason for the strict discipline in the camp.

The place where Primo Levi was imprisoned was the Auschwitz III labor camp, known as Monowitz; it was near a factory called the Buna Werke because it was a factory for making synthetic rubber.

The Monowitz industrial complex was built by Auschwitz inmates, beginning in April 1941. Initially, the workers walked from the Auschwitz main camp to the building site, a distance of 4 to 6 kilometers each way. By 1942, barracks had been built for the prisoners at Monowitz.

The Buna Werke was built in May 1942, six kilometers from the main Auschwitz camp, by the German company called IG Farbenindustrie. At first, it was one of the 40 sub-camps of the main camp, but in November 1943, the Buna sub-camp became Auschwitz III with its own sub-camps.

Monument in honor of the prisoners who died at Monowtiz

The monument to the prisoners who died at Monowitz, shown in the photo above, is located across the street from the ice hockey rink on the eastern side of the town of Oswiecim. According to a book entitled “Auschwitz 1940 – 1945″ which I purchased at the Auschwitz Museum, there were 30,000 prisoners employed by the IG-Farbenindustrie factories at Monowitz, who died during a 3-year period.

Bomb shelter for the SS guards at Monowitz

The photo above shows the ruins of a bomb shelter which the Nazis built near the Monowitz factories. The people on the left in the photo are Polish residents, not tourists. Note the street sign on the left; this building is on an ordinary city street in the town of Monowitz.   The Allies began bombing Monowitz in August 1944.

The barracks where the prisoners lived at Monowitz have all been torn down and replaced by houses.

Barracks at Monowitz, July 1944

In the photograph above, Heinrich Himmler is on the far right; the man in civilian clothes, who is shaking hands, is Max Faust. The barracks for the prisoners are shown in the background; prisoners from the main Auschwitz camp were transferred to the Monowitz barracks at the end of October 1942.

The Polish village of Monowice, which was called Monowitz by the Germans, is 4 kilometers from the site of the factories. Some of the old factory buildings are still standing, although now abandoned, while others are still in use as factories. The concrete wall around the factories, with its distinctive curved posts, can still be seen along the road from Oswiecim to the Krakow airport.

The Monowitz sub-camp was known as Bunalager (Buna Camp) until November 1943 when it became the KL Auschwitz III camp with its own administrative headquarters. Auschwitz III consisted of 28 sub-camps which were built between 1942 and 1944. This area of Upper Silesia was known as the “Black Triangle” because of its coal deposits. The Buna plant attracted the attention of the Allies, and there were several bombing raids on the factories.

When you enter the town of Oswiecim, coming from the Krakow airport, the fence is the first thing you see that tells you that the area around this town was once the home of Nazi forced labor camps, where the Jews worked as slave laborers. The fence stretches for miles and behind it are some factories, built by the Germans, that are still being used today. The factories and the ruins are off limits to visitors; the tour groups do not visit the ruins, and even the private tour guides refuse to take visitors there.

While he was a prisoner at Monowitz, Primo Levi met Lorenzo, an Italian who was a worker at the camp, not a prisoner. For six months, Lorenzo gave Primo extra bread each day, patched up shirts and even wrote a postcard for him to Italy.

Primo Levi as a young man

Regarding his survival at Auschwitz III, Levi wrote on page 132 of his book:

“If there is any point in trying to understand why I should be the one to be saved, out of so many thousands of others, I believe that it was primarily because of Lorenzo. And not necessarily because of his material help. It was much more because his treatment of me, his simple behavior and kindness, reminded me every day that there is still a humane and just world on the other side of the barbed wire fence; that outside the camp there are people with a heart, and that there are pure values; that not everything is corrupt and cruel; that a world without hatred and fear exists out there. It is true that all those are vague at the moment, distant and incomprehensible, but it is worth making the effort to survive in order to get back there.”

January 7, 2011

The Reader — is it a pernicious book and movie?

On her blog, Deborah Lipstadt gives a review of the movie, The Reader, which she labels “A Pernicious Book and Movie.”  You can read her review here.

My opinion of the movie is the compete opposite.  The movie is quite educational; it brings up the subject of the “death march” out of Auschwitz in January, 1945 which I have been blogging about recently.

The Reader, which came out on Christmas Day in 2008, was based on an autobiographical novel by German writer Bernard Schlink. The book was an international best seller; it became very popular in America after it was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for one of her book club selections.  The movie is now out on DVD.

The Reader stars Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz, a pathetic German woman who was working as a street car conductor in 1958; she had formerly worked as a prison guard at one of the sub-camps of Auschwitz. Kate Winslet won the Academy Award for best Actress for her role.

The main character, Michael Berg, who was born in 1943, was played by 18-year-old German actor David Kross as a 15-year-old and by Ralph Fiennes as an older man.

The story of The Reader is about the first postwar generation of Germans, born between 1943 and 1955, and their struggle to come to terms with the crimes committed by their parents’ generation. Sometimes referred to as “the 68ers,” this generation of Germans identified with the victorious Allies and turned against the older generation, whom they viewed as perpetrators or bystanders during the world’s greatest crime, the Holocaust.

In 1995, when the movie begins, it is the 50ieth anniversary of Germany’s surrender in World War II which the 68ers view as their “liberation from the Nazis.” Unlike their parents, the 68ers are ashamed to be German: they don’t fly the German flag, nor sing the German national anthem. Instead, they side with the American occupation and see World War II through the eyes of the victors. It is assumed that the audience knows this and it does not have to be explained in the movie.

The Reader starts off with the Michael Berg character being played by Ralph Fiennes. The first image that flashes on the screen is a white egg cup with two decorative black rings. There is a matching white coffee cup with a black line on the handle. Is this supposed to be symbolic of something? For me, this immediately brought back fond memories of Germany, where soft boiled eggs are typically served in an egg cup. These dishes, which are shown in the opening scene, are typical of the modern style of German furnishings which I saw in 1995 when I visited Germany.

Then the movie quickly shifts into flashback mode: it is 1958 and we see the Michael Berg character now being played by David Kross. Unfortunately, it is not immediately clear that the 15-year-old German boy played by David Kross is the same person as the character played by Ralph Fiennes in the first scenes.

I was impressed by the attention to detail in the 1958 scenes. There is a water heater which uses coal, and one can briefly see the flame under the heater. There is a schrank  (wardrobe) where clothes are hung; German homes had no closets in 1958. There is a down comforter, called a feather bed by the Germans, which could be found in every German home, although down comforters were unknown in America at that time.

I was living in Erlangen, Germany in 1957 and the early scenes of this movie brought back many memories. The city shown in the movie is Neustadt, which has dreary, run down, gray buildings, much like the way Erlangen looked back then. In the book, the city was not named.

In 1958, the older Germans, who were the perpetrators of the Holocaust, didn’t talk about their guilt. On the contrary, they still had pictures of Hitler on their walls and the German veterans of World War II were still singing the Horst Wessel song every night in the beer gardens, even though this was forbidden by the American occupation. However, none of this is pointed out in the movie.

While living in Germany in 1958, I heard more than one older German say: “Hitler was a great man – he got the Jews out of Europe.” Not out of Germany – out of Europe. The Jews had previously been expelled many times from one country or another in Europe, but this was the first time that all of the Jews in Europe had been driven out by one man: Adolf Hitler.

In a trailer for the movie Valkyrie, Tom Cruise says, regarding Stauffenberg’s attempt to kill Hitler, that the conspirators were “taking down the greatest evil ever known,” meaning Nazi Germany. But in 1958, the majority of Germans in the older generation did not consider the Nazis to be the greatest evil ever known; they still thought of Nazi Germany as a paradise.

The first part of The Reader is about Michael Berg’s love affair with Hanna Schmitz, who is old enough to be his mother and in fact, on a holiday trip, she is mistaken for his mother by a waitress. Hanna loves to have Michael read to her from the books that he is studying in school. In the book, it is explained that Michael’s father has written two books about philosophy and that his family’s home is filled with books, but this is not mentioned in the movie.

The second part of the movie takes place years later in the 1960s when Michael is a law school student. His law professor, who hints at one point in the movie that he is Jewish, is conducting a seminar about a trial of female German war criminals, that is taking place in a German court in an unnamed city, an hour’s drive from the University. He asks his students to attend the trial four days a week, and to take notes for him; the seminar is conducted on Fridays.

The defendants are former female guards at Auschwitz and one of its sub-camps near Krakow. They are on trial for crimes committed at the sub-camp and on a “death march” out of Auschwitz. Michael is astonished to see that one of the women on trial is his former lover, Hanna Schmitz, who is now a pathetic shadow of her former self, having aged considerably.

In the movie, Michael’s law professor has previously pointed out to his students that the trials conducted by the German courts are different from the proceedings of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal because the German trials are based on German law. The German courts have to prove individual intent to commit murder, and there has to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

However, the professor does not explain that the military proceedings, which were conducted by the Allies, were based on the new concept of co-responsibility, which means that any person, connected with any of the concentration camps or the Nazi regime, was guilty of participating in a “common design” to commit war crimes, regardless of his or her personal behavior.

The accused war criminals at Nuremberg were chosen, not because their crimes were the most heinous, but because they represented some particular aspect of Nazi Germany. The purpose was to show that all Germans were guilty, even a journalist who wrote anti-Semitic articles for a German newspaper. After the Allied victory over Germany, the only German heroes were traitors like Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who had tried to kill Hitler.

There was a real-life war crimes trial, conducted in Frankfurt, Germany, starting on December 23, 1963 and ending on August 19, 1965, in which 20 SS soldiers who had formerly worked at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps were put on trial. They were all low-level personnel who were not important enough to have been put on trial by the Polish courts after the war.

In 1977, another war crimes trial was held in Frankfurt in which the defendants were two SS men charged with killing Jews in the Auschwitz sub-camp of Lagischa and on a “death march.” The trial in the movie is loosely based on these Frankfurt trials.

In her review of the movie, Deborah Lipstadt wrote:

Note that the Nazi camp guard is portrayed as the poor, simple, caring woman.

Are we supposed to feel sorry for her because she could not read and had “no choice” but to be a guard? She could have been a street sweeper. She did not have “no choice.”

Furthermore, the book and movie suggests that the perpetrators were poor ignorant people. This is such a misstatement of fact and the author, Bernard Schlink, as a German knows better.

Many of the leading perpetrators had Ph.D.s or were clergy and lawyers. They were well educated and quite literate. [In fact, certain section of the party specifically sought out well educated people.]

Lipstadt is correct that some of the perpetrators had PhDs  — for example, the leaders of the Einsatzgruppen.  But I don’t think that there were any female guards at a sub-camp who had a PhD.

Lipstadt’s comment that the fictional character in the movie could have chosen to be a street sweeper illustrates the kind of attitude that contributed to Hitler’s negative opinion of the Jews. There were no Jewish street sweepers in Nazi Germany.  This was a job for the Germans.

The job of being a camp guard had more prestige than the job of a street sweeper.  An illiterate woman in Nazi Germany would not have known, before she took a job as a camp guard, that Auschwitz was a “death camp.”  That was not generally known until after the war.

The British conducted a military tribunal in Lüneberg, Germany in September 1945, at which some of the accused were female guards who had formerly worked at Auschwitz-Birkenau before being transferred to Bergen-Belsen. As a result of these proceedings, a former SS auxiliary guard named Irma Grese became world famous. She was accused of helping with selections for the gas chamber, one of the charges that was also made against Hanna Schmitz in the movie.

Irma Grese was not well educated; she had left school after finishing the 8th grade. Like the Hanna Schmitz character in the movie, Irma Grese was very naive and partly admitted her guilt at her trial. She was hanged at the age of 21 and because of her bravery in the face of death, she has become a heroine to the Neo-Nazis today.

An SS guard that was noted for being uneducated was Hans Aumeier, who was stationed at Auschwitz-Birkenau until he was relieved of his duties by Commandant Rudolf Höss because of his “corrupt practices.” Aumeier was turned over to the Polish Court by American intelligence officers, after first being indicted, but not prosecuted, by an American Military Tribunal at Dachau.

In the movie, Hanna Schmitz confesses in order to avoid revealing her secret shame: she is illiterate.

At the real life Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, the 20,000 people, who attended at least one of the sessions, were appalled by the lack of shame or remorse shown by the defendants. The 68ers, like Michael Berg, couldn’t comprehend why the older generation had committed such crimes. How could anyone justify or forgive the crimes of their parents? Or in Michael’s case, the crimes of a lover who was old enough to be his mother.

From the book, I learned that Hanna was an ethnic German girl living in Rumania before she went to Berlin to get a job at the age of 16. The movie should have explained this because it would have been very unusual to find someone living in Germany who had never learned to read and write.

Regarding the concentration camp guards, Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, testified at the Nuremberg IMT that “We had thousands of guards who could hardly speak German, who came from all lands as volunteers…”

At the trial, Michael finally realizes that Hanna is illiterate and he has to make a choice between keeping quiet, or revealing her secret, which would have resulted in Hanna being given a light sentence of 4 years and 3 months, like the other women on trial. If he comes forward as a witness, Michael will have to divulge his own secret: his affair with an older woman at the age of 15. From what little we have seen, in the movie, of Michael’s straight-laced family, we know that they would not have approved of his affair with an older woman.

Michael decides not to reveal the information that would have helped Hanna; she is sentenced to life in prison, but her secret is safe and so is his.

Here is the back story on one of the crimes committed by Hanna:

After the three Auschwitz-Birkenau camps had been abandoned on January 18, 1945 because the Soviet Army was advancing across Poland, the Auschwitz prisoners were taken on several separate “death marches” to Germany where they were put on trains and transported to other concentration camps. On the way, they stopped at night to sleep in barns or whatever shelter they could find.

In the book, it is explained that the marchers from a sub-camp of Auschwitz, that Hanna was guarding, stopped one night in an abandoned village where the guards slept in the priest’s house while the prisoners were locked inside the church.

During the night, the steeple of the church was hit by a bomb and eventually the whole church went up in flames. There had been plenty of time for Hanna and the other guards to have unlocked the church doors, but the guards had their own problems: The house where they were sleeping had been bombed and there was complete chaos, according to the book.

Hanna and the other female guards were charged with a war crime because they had not unlocked the church to save the women. One woman and her daughter managed to survive by climbing up to the narrow “gallery” of the church and standing with their backs to the wall. The church was apparently made of stone and only the rafters and the wooden church pews burned. The next day, the two survivors were able to escape from the church since the steps to the gallery were still intact, but the doors had burned in the fire.

The book is fictional, but curiously the author did not have the two women, who survived, jump out of a window. What kind of a church has no windows?

The story of the Jewish women being burned to death in a church is reminiscent of what happened during World War II at Oradour-sur-Glane, a French village, where 452 women and children were locked inside a church by German Waffen-SS soldiers and allowed to burn to death in June 1944.

Two women managed to escape from the Oradour-sur-Glane church by jumping out of a window; one of these woman lived to be a witness at the French trial of the SS men after the war. Similarly, the daughter, who survived the fire in the locked church, testified against Hanna and the five other guards in a German court. In the book, the mother had emigrated to Israel and she gave a deposition, but did not attend the trial.

When asked why she didn’t unlock the church and let the Jewish women out, Hanna Schmitz said that her job was to guard the prisoners and keep them from escaping.

This was the same excuse given by the Germans who put prisoners from a death march into an unlocked barn in Gardelegen in April 1945, then shot those who tried to escape when a fire started in the barn.

In the Gardelegen story, the Germans justified their actions by claiming that the prisoners would have raped and pillaged and killed civilians in the town of Gardelegen if they had been allowed to escape. A few of the men in the Gardelegen barn did manage to escape by digging tunnels underneath the walls and doors of the burning barn with nothing but a tablespoon and their bare hands.

During Hanna’s trial, we learn that she first started having someone read to her when she forced young girls at the sub-camp near Krakow to read to her. Other reviewers of this movie have speculated that Hanna was abusing these girls sexually, although this was not mentioned in the book. In the book, the author writes that Hanna selected weak girls to put under her protection, then gave them extra food and excused them from work.

At the trial, the female guards testified that the six of them had to each select 10 prisoners to send back to Auschwitz each month. Hanna would always select the young girls who had read to her. Hanna admits during the trial that 60 prisoners were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz each month to make room for 60 new prisoners to work in the factories of the sub-camp.

Some people might question whether an illiterate, female SS auxiliary guard would have been allowed to make selections for the gas chamber, but this is the same crime that Irma Grese was accused of by female Auschwitz survivors. It is important to note that Irma Grese testified, in her trial, that she learned about the existence of the gas chambers only because the prisoners told her about them. In the movie, it is not explained how the female guards knew that the prisoners, whom they were selecting to send back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, were being gassed.

In her testimony, Hanna mentions that she was working for the Siemens company in Berlin when she answered an ad for guards to work at the concentration camps. In the book, it was pointed out that she was offered a promotion at Siemens, but couldn’t accept it because she couldn’t read, so that’s why she volunteered to be a concentration camp guard. In the movie, Hanna says that she “joined the SS” of her own free will, which was important in establishing her guilt.

When Hanna testified that she had voluntarily chosen to be a perpetrator, that was the proof of her intent to commit murder, which was required for conviction according to German law. It is also why she could never be forgiven by the survivors and by the Germans of Michael’s generation.

The proof of the crime of deliberately allowing the Jewish women to be burned alive in the church consisted of a written report about the incident. The other defendants at the trial all claimed that Hanna wrote the report, and the judge asks Hanna for a sample of her handwriting to compare with the handwriting on the report. Hanna finally confesses that she did, in fact, write the report because she cannot admit that she cannot write anything more than her name. To her, illiteracy is more shameful than the mass murder of innocent Jewish women.

Some reviewers of the movie have questioned the historical accuracy of the Nazis “policing themselves” by doing an investigation of an atrocity which involved writing reports, such as the report about the women being burned to death in the church.

There was a real life incident at the Budy sub-camp of Auschwitz, called the “Budy revolt,” in which 90 French Jewish women were killed by the SS female guards.  According to the official web site of the Auschwitz Museum, “The massacre of the French Jewish women prisoners took place in early October. Using clubs, hatchets, and rifle butts — and throwing some of their victims from the windows in the loft of the building — female prisoner functionaries and SS guards butchered 90 women. The camp administration investigated the incident, but failed to discover the cause.”

While he is trying to decide what to do about his feelings for his former lover, whom he now knows is a war criminal, Michael goes to visit a former concentration camp, which is not identified, but it appears to be the Majdanek death camp near Lublin, Poland.

We see him walking into the shower room at Majdanek where the prisoners had to take a shower before entering the gas chamber in order to warm their bodies to make the gas kill them faster.  (When I visited Majdanek in 1998, there was a sign in the gas chamber building which explained that the shower was for the purpose of warming up the prisoners so that the poison gas would kill them more quickly.)

Then we see Michael enter one of the warehouse buildings at Majdanek where 800,000 pairs of shoes are still stored in wire bins. The warehouse is pitch black and the shoes are barely visible, but a golden light shines on Michael’s head and follows him as he walks deep inside the dark building. This scene brings out the theme of the movie, which is that Michael is an innocent 68er with a light shining down on him because he does not share the guilt of the Germans who murdered 1.5 million people at Majdanek, according to the charges of the Soviet Union at the Nuremberg IMT.

Near the end of the movie, Michael comes to terms with his feelings about the older generation of German war criminals and decides to help Hanna start her life over, after she has served 20 years in prison. But Hanna inexplicably decides to kill herself the day before she is to be released. Where have we heard this story before?

The author of the book seems to have used several true stories to put together his novel: Ilse Koch, perhaps the most famous female war criminal of World War II, killed herself in prison after serving exactly 20 years of a life sentence handed down by a German court which put her on trial in 1947.

Ilse Koch was the “bitch of Buchenwald,” who had prisoners killed so that she could have lamp shades made from their tattooed skin. While she was imprisoned at Dachau, awaiting trial, Ilse Koch became pregnant, but when her son was born, he was taken away from her. Twenty years later, her son came to visit her. The night before another scheduled visit by her son, Ilse Koch killed herself.

In a scene near the end of the movie, Michael goes to the expensive, luxurious New York apartment of the daughter whose testimony had put Hanna in prison for 20 years. Living well is the best revenge, and it seems that the daughter has gotten her revenge for what she suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Hanna finally learned to read and write, while she was in prison, and she made a handwritten will in which she left all the money, that she had earned in 20 years in prison, to the survivor daughter, who refuses to take it, although she does accept the tin canister in which Hanna kept the money. It turns out that the canister is similar to the one that the daughter brought with her to Auschwitz, filled with her keepsakes. The daughter laments that her tin canister was stolen from her and she accepts Hanna’s tea tin as restitution.

Michael tries to convince the daughter to accept Hanna’s money and give it to a Jewish charitable organization that works to combat illiteracy; the daughter comments that there is not much of an illiteracy problem among the Jews.

Hanna was born in October 1922 according to the book. Hanna’s family might have been destitute when she was a child, which would explain her lack of schooling. Perhaps she had to work as a child instead of getting an education.

This is a movie that will make some people uncomfortable because they might find themselves feeling sorry for a German war criminal. The cold, unforgiving, imperious attitude of the daughter at the end of the movie does not show her as the victim, but rather generates sympathy for Hanna who spent 20 years in prison rather than admit that she was illiterate.

Lipstadt’s final comment about the movie is this:

This is a rewriting of history. It is, simply put, soft core denial. It does not deny the reality or the horror of the Holocaust. Not at all. But it does deny who was responsible.

Lipstadt doesn’t say who is responsible, but I think the implication is that every German was responsible, no matter how small a part they played.

Is The Reader really pernicious?  Pernicious means  “causing insidious harm or ruin; ruinous; injurious; hurtful: pernicious teachings; a pernicious lie.”

You can watch it on DVD and decide for yourself.

December 31, 2010

I have unwittingly opened up a can of worms

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 12:16 am

Until just recently, I was not aware of the significance of the evacuation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and the so-called “death march” out of the camp.  When I previously blogged about the “death march” out of Auschwitz, this generated a lot of comments with strong opinions.

A “death march” is usually defined as a long hike from one place to another with the stragglers being shot.  The most famous “death march” during World War II was the Bataan Death March which you can read about here(more…)

The Silver is the New Black Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 306 other followers