HOLOCAUST STORIES – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I was born in New York City in 1949, just a few years after the end of WWII. My parents and grandparents, all Jewish, lived through WWII hearing horror stories about Jewish persecution and the concentration camps. They genuinely feared that if Germany won the war, a distinct possibility for much of the war, the ‘final solution’ for the Jews would spread all around the Nazi-controlled world. It was a scary time for everyone, but particularly for Jews, even in America.

My grandmother’s sister, Rachel had stayed in Russia, with one other sister, while her siblings and eventually her parents emigrated to the United States. They lived close to the western border, so when Hitler broke his pact with Russia and invaded, their town was one of the first to be taken. This was before the Russian army had even begun to mobilize. The Jews in their town were rounded up and put in the synagogue. The building was set on fire and anyone who tried to escape was shot.

Rachel’s oldest son was in school in Moscow at the time his family was murdered. After the war, organizations were formed all over the world to help Jews locate relatives and friends who were missing after the war. My grandmother spent years searching for her nephew, but no trace of him was ever found.

My grandmother as a young child (between her parents) with her siblings

My mother and grandmother were obsessed with the Holocaust when I was growing up. They read everything they could find on the persecution of Jews, and particularly about the concentration camps. I was given graphic books about the camps at around nine or ten years of age. Way too young, in my opinion.

But I also learned about the camps in another, more personal way. Two Czechoslovakian, identical twin sisters named Irina and Elena were good friends of my parents. They told us lots of stories about their time in concentration and work camps, including Auschwitz.

They were sixteen years old when they and their parents were put in overcrowded cattle cars, squashed together with other terrified Jews, and shipped to Auschwitz. They had no food, water or bathrooms for several days. People were crying and screaming. People got sick and died. The smells were unbearable. They arrived at the camp in horrible shape, physically as well as emotionally.

There was a line of Jews being processed into the camp. Dr. Joseph Mengele was at the front of the line with a whip which he used to indicate if a person should go to the left into the camp, or to the right, directly into the gas chambers.

He also picked people out of the line to be subjected to his horrible, sadistic ‘medical’ experiments – all done without anesthesia.

Dr. Josef Mengele, also called “The Angel of Death”

Irina and Elena tell how their lives were saved by a camp guard. The guard recognized that the girls were twins. He also knew that Dr. Mengele loved to do experiments on twins. This guard’s wife was also a twin so he took pity on the girls. He whispered to them that they should say that they were a year apart in age. Bewildered, the girls did as they were told and were sent to the camp, saving their lives. They also threw away their eyeglasses so they would be judged healthy and ready to work, thus avoiding the gas chamber.

I don’t remember all their stories about the camps. I remember that they were separated from their parents and didn’t know if they were even still alive till the end of the war. I also remember that a good friend of theirs, also a teenager, got sick. They tried to nurse her back to health. They even gave her part of their meager rations of food. But she died anyway and they were crushed.

They told us that they tried very hard to preserve some of their Jewish traditions – a reminder of life outside the camps. They feel this helped preserve their sanity and gave them the strength to survive. They and a few other friends would save up pieces of their daily bread so they could sneak off and have secret Shabbat ‘dinners’ and celebrate Passover at a makeshift Seder. They managed to find something to use as a tablecloth and maybe a candle, to make these celebrations as real as possible.

They were liberated by the Americans and the British at the end of the war. Miraculously, their parents survived (they had also been separated in the camp) and they were reunited. They were emaciated and weak and their heads had all been shaven. They went back to Czechoslovakia and began to recuperate and start a new life. Their hair began to grow back, which was a huge deal for the still young twins.

Tragically, Elena’s new life was cut short in 1948. She was arrested for being a communist, turned in by a ‘friend’. The Czech authorities shaved her head again and threw her into prison for another year. She had emotionally survived the camps but this was too much for her to handle. She had a complete mental breakdown in prison. She was mentally very fragile for the rest of her life. She went up and down emotionally and had many periods of serious meltdowns and crises. Her sister was at her side through all her problem periods, even when they lived in different parts of the world. They remained close the rest of their lives.

I made sure that my children understood the Holocaust, but in an age-appropriate way. When my daughter, Sarah, was around seven, we were in Germany and we visited the Dachau Concentration Camp, which is now a museum to the Holocaust. We answered any questions she had but didn’t push too much information on her. She came across a photo that got to her on a visceral level. It showed a child being torn away from its mother and the mother and child were frantically reaching for each other. Sarah was horrified when she realized that children were being separated from their parents. That’s what she could relate to at her age and it made an indelible impression on her.

Dachau Concentration Camp as a museum today

Both my children are adults now and know a lot about the Holocaust and World War II. Hopefully, they will make sure that their children never forget.

Hopefully, no one will forget.

INTOLERANCE: REEL AND REAL – Garry Armstrong

A friend today posted a review on Facebook about the film, “Schindler’s List” which he had just seen for the first time, 25-years after the acclaimed movie’s release. My friend talked about the film’s haunting power, its narrative about one man’s brave quest to save a number of Holocaust victims from death.

It’s based on a true story and Schindler holds a special place in Israel for his efforts.

Charlottesville rally

Stephen Spielberg said he made the film to honor its hero, Oscar Schindler and remember all the Holocaust victims, those who were saved and the many who weren’t.

The film — with current headlines about neo-Nazi and white-supremacist rallies in the United States and elsewhere — feels more relevant than ever. The recent attacks on Synagogues in Pittsburgh and anti-semitic incidents in Massachusetts — leave people wondering: “Have we forgotten?”

Wounds are raw from last year’s ugly Charlottesville KKK rally that claimed one life and left our President issuing comments about “perpetrators on both sides.”  Antisemitism and racism continue to be headline stories more than 75-years after millions gave their lives in a war that should have ended those injustices.

Obviously not. There have been a few “message” movies that deal with those still festering issues which many insist no longer exist. Dissidents say it’s more “fake news” from the liberal media.  So many ostriches with their heads in the sand.

The other night I revisited the movie “Crossfire” which was released by RKO in 1947, the year before the more acclaimed “Gentlemen’s Agreement” was released. This drew public attention and “surprise” about Antisemitism in post-war America.

“Crossfire” is an excellent, understated film about this virulent subject matter. Its director, Edward Dmytryk (a victim of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s infamous “Blacklist) used the plot of a small group of GI’s, just mustered out of the war and trying to fit back into society.

Circa 1955: Studio headshot portrait of Canadian-born film director Edward Dmytryk (1908 – 1999). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

They encounter a friendly civilian at a bar who listens to their complaints about readjustment and offers sympathy where others just tune them out. One of the GI’s — lonely for his wife and exhibiting PTSD symptoms — is befriended by the civilian who invites him home for drinks and quiet conversation.

The other soldiers – uninvited — crowd into the apartment and lap up the booze.  One of them, a very obnoxious vet — sneers at men who avoided combat, who got rich running banks and law practices. He looks at one of his confused pals and yells: “Jews, man! You know those people! They get rich while we fight and die. Jews!”

The civilian referred to as “Sammy,” is tolerant. Veteran actor Sam Levene who played many similar roles is perhaps overly patient with the bigoted GI. This is Robert Ryan in one of his most chilling villain roles.

Robert Ryan

The secondary plot has “Sammy” murdered by one of the GIs. The PTSD soldier is fingered as the suspect but we know better. Robert Young, in a pre “Father Knows Best” role, plays the tough, weary cop who sifts through all the alibis. This is one of Robert Mitchum’s early films. He is excellent as the soft-spoken, no-nonsense veteran who is suspicious of the venomous Ryan character.

Ryan is ultimately outed as he rants about “those people.” He gets what he deserves and is gunned down during a police chase on a rainy New Orleans Street.

The final scene with Young and Mitchum in conversation about Ryan’s demons ends quietly as they go their separate ways, both wondering what World War Two was really all about.

Robert Mitchum

In an early 1970s interview, Robert Mitchum remembered “Crossfire.” He was in Boston shooting “The Friends Of Eddie Coyle,” so I had the good fortune to spend a long afternoon into the evening over drinks with “Mitch.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, Mitchum recalled what it was like working in the 1940s, especially with “The Blacklist” hovering over Hollywood. He said some pals urged him not to do “Crossfire” because it would hurt his career.

“Mitch” grinned at me “You know what that was all about, Don’t ya?”   I nodded.  Mitchum continued, “There were so many hateful bastards —  there were always dissing Negroes (he looked at me and I nodded an ‘okay’) and Jews. They always thought I was with them. I had a few fights and dumped a few jobs because I couldn’t stand the two-faced bastards.”

Robert Mitchum, older portrait

I looked at Mitch and confirmed: “Not much has changed.” He shook his head sadly and ordered another round.

That was almost 50 years ago. No, not much has changed.  Not on the silver screen or in real life.

IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS – ERIK LARSON

IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS

Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

I have rarely been more conflicted about a book than I was about this one. It was gripping, sometimes mesmerizing. Simultaneously appalling and annoying.

William Dodd was made ambassador to Hitler’s Germany because no one else wanted the job — and because they didn’t want to put a “real” ambassador in a lose-lose position.

From the outset, it was the intention of Dodd’s bosses that he should fail. The U.S. government never had any intention of supporting him, of stopping the Nazi rise, or curtail the personal power of Adolph Hitler. You need to understand this in order for the rest of the story to make sense, if indeed it could be said to make sense.

The indifference and callously entrenched antisemitism of US State Department officials and their resulting tolerance for the atrocities of the Nazi government is hard to stomach.This is not an image of our government that would make anyone proud to be an American.

The failure of all western nations to do anything to stop Hitler while they could have done so with relative ease, is difficult to fathom. Their choice of Dodd, who was considered an amateur and not “one of the club” was an incredibly cynical move by the U.S.

Most of the people in the book are awful in one way or another. Dodd, the ambassador, ultimately grows to become, in his own way, heroic. He saw what was happening and tried — within the very limited power of his position — to do what he could. That no one listened to him is part of the tragedy. Dodd’s daughter, on the other hand, is a feather-headed self-absorbed brat. She is like a case of hives. The more you scratch, the more you itch.

Everyone acts in bad faith to one degree or another. Even more hard to bear are those who failed to act, failed to respond to Dodd’s repeated pleas for aid. Usually, it wasn’t because they didn’t believe him (although some didn’t), but because the majority of them were hardened anti-Semites who thought Hitler would rid Europe of the menace of Communism while wiping out the Jews. He didn’t get rid of Communism, but he did a pretty thorough job of wiping out European Jewry. Historically, I guess that would make the glass half full?

How revolting is it for me to learn this? I always rejected my mother’s suspicions on this score as paranoia. I refused to believe my government could allow — encourage — the genocide of an entire people. Sometimes, discovering mom was right is not heartwarming. This is one of those times.

To put the cherry on this dessert, the State Department’s little plot to allow Hitler enough latitude to “take care of the Jews” also led us into to the bloodiest war in human history, a conflict in which more than 30 million people — military and civilian — died.

The banality of evil has never been more terrifying. Read it and weep.

Evil intentions never produce good results. This book offers the ultimate cautionary tale.

Daily Prompt: Freedom of Facebook – Serendipity’s my little world

I believe in freedom. I don’t just say that. I mean it. I believe everyone has the right to express his or her opinion, no matter how uninformed or stupid.

I do not believe our society should allow — or worse, encourage — the spewing of hate in public. Facebook has become the poster child for bigots, supporting the vicious outpourings of ignorant and mean-spirited people. When I first signed up for Facebook, there was much on it in which I was uninterested, but there were also many people expressing reasonable opinions, telling stories of their lives and the lives of others. It was a way to link up with people I hadn’t seen in years, find out what was going on in lives being lived far away. It was fun.

Freedom is meant to be a good thing, not all ugliness and hatred.
Freedom is meant to be a good thing, not all ugliness and hatred.

Then it changed. The 2012 Presidential election brought out the worst in many people. Diatribes and postings full of hate and threats (implied and explicit) of violence. I started blocking people. It made my stomach churn and still does. There is no room in my personal space for bigots, racists and hate-mongers. I frankly don’t care whether or not they have a legal right to spread their vicious invective. There is, above all, a thing we call “right and wrong” … and that stuff is wrong by any standards. Worse, the proliferation of this ugliness affects how the world perceives us — in a very negative way. It polarizes dialogue and keeps people and parties in their separate corners. You cannot have a functional body politic if people cannot speak to each other. If we hate everyone who is different from us, we don’t see them as human. That’s a terrible thing. I don’t see anything good coming of this.

My blog is my world. I own it. I have control over it. I do not allow argument for argument’s sake. The trolls will never control my website. I do not allow personal attacks of any kind and the mere hint of racism will get that person banned forever. I may not be able to control Facebook, but I can control this space and I do.

My opinion of Facebook? It is what it is, the populist bulletin board for the world. I go there to play a few mindless games and see what some of my friends (the real ones) are doing. See who has posted pictures of family, babies, friends, dogs and all that stuff. I cross-post my blog to Facebook, so technically I guess I’m considered active, though I very rarely post anything directly there.

It’s a good place to go and find out what people are yelling about these days, what the current hot-button issues are. What kind of craziness is currently afflicting our world. The people who rant on Facebook would no doubt rant somewhere else if they didn’t have Facebook so perhaps it’s better that they have it — a public venue — than to be forced into the dark corners where they would fester and become even more evil than they already are, though that is hard to imagine.

Should Facebook enforce their own guidelines? They should. Morally and ethically, they should. They aren’t strict guidelines and are only likely to weed out the most extreme of their clients.

Will they? I doubt it. They’ve gotten too big. They lack the personnel to monitor their site. It’s become a monster. I suspect eventually it will self-destruct.

In the meantime, it’s the place where the crazies hang out. Like wild dogs, maybe they will eat each other and leave the rest of us alone.

– – –

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Tony Judt

Published: September 5, 2006; 960 pages
Available as an audiobook from Audible.com

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945Tony Judt passed away in 2010 year from cancer. He was born and raised in Great Britain, but was a professor at New York University for more than 20 years. This is not his only book, but in many ways, it is the book he spent his life preparing to write.

He believed the role of an historian is not to merely offer “facts” and let the reader decide what it means. He strongly believed that historians are obligated to set the record straight, to strip away the pleasant stories by which we cloak the ugly truths we’d rather not face.

Thus he undertakes the debunking and de-mythologizing of modern European history. He tears the clothes off the historical emperor, showing the blatant lies that comprise the myth of French resistance, the “neutral” Swiss, the open-minded anti-Nazi Dutch. Laid bare is an ugly legacy of Antisemitism and hatred. I found it painful and personal.

The problems of the book and it’s strengths are the same. Although Dr. Judt follows a more or less chronological path from World War II to the present, he does not do it the typical “timeline” way but rather follows threads of thought, traveling from events to political development, thence to parallel cultural developments in cinema, theater, television and the arts.

If the book has a serious flaw, it is that there is so MUCH of it. I felt at times that I was back at school and should be taking notes.

If you are Jewish and lost family during the Holocaust, this will stir up a lot of stuff that hurts. The depth and breadth of European anti-Semitism and indifference to the shockingly successful destruction of European Jewry is stomach-churning stuff. I knew the facts, but I didn’t grasp the full extent, the breadth and depth. It was a raw and deeply disturbing reminder that with all our flaws, the USA is inherently a better place than the old countries of Europe. They wouldn’t agree I’m sure, but I don’t care.

Español: Mapa de las expulsiones de los judíos...
Expulsion of Jews throughout Europe 1100 through 1600 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is plenty of hatred here, especially recently, but we don’t have hundreds — thousands — of years of institutionalized discrimination and bigotry. Hatred stands outside our approved norms and though there are plenty who embrace it, our constitution, customs and laws consider it wrong.

This is analysis and criticism, not straight history. Tony Judt had a lot of strong opinions. You may not like them and may find them hard to swallow, but this book offers a valid, if ugly, perspective on World War II and the world that emerged in its aftermath.

It is serious reading, but never dull. If you make the commitment to read it, after you are done, you will have learned much and may wonder how much of what you thought was absolute truth is nothing more than modern mythology.