One of the apartment buildings at the
HKP complex. (photo from Richard Freund)
Nearly three-quarters of a century after the Shoah ended, we are still learning about aspects of what happened. For example, the documentary The Good Nazi tells the little-known story of a Nazi from Vilna who tried to rescue more than 1,200 Jews. It airs on VisionTV Jan. 21, and again April 29.
In 2005, Dr. Michael Good sought out Prof.
Richard Freund of the University of Hartford to tell him about Maj. Karl
Plagge, a Nazi who oversaw a military vehicle repair complex that was used as
cover for 1,257 Jews in Vilnius (Vilna). Good described how his father, mother
and grandfather were saved within this complex, and later wrote about it at
length in his 2006 book The Search for Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews
(Fordham University Press).
While interesting to Freund, who works within a
department known for its Holocaust studies, nothing further came of that
meeting. That is, until 2015.
By then, Freund had directed six archeological
projects in Israel and three in Europe on behalf of the university, including
research at the extermination camp at Sobibor, Poland. In 2015, he was in
Lithuania doing research on a Holocaust-era escape tunnel, adjacent to the
Great Synagogue of Vilna. He and his team had brought with them specialized
equipment that enabled non-invasive examination of the ground and walls, and
they offered it to anyone wanting to do such research. The Vilna Gaon State
Jewish Museum came calling, and brought Freund to a site on the outskirts of
Vilna, where he was told about Plagge.
Of that moment, Freund told the Independent,
“I’m sitting there and I say, ‘Karl Plagge? I know that name!’”
Freund connected with survivor Sidney Handler,
who was 10 years old when he hid from the Nazis in the work camp. After the
Nazis left in July 1944, Handler was forced to move dead bodies, and could
point out decades later where 400 Jews were buried.
“We could have gone through the entire 20 acres
and not located exactly where that was,” said Freund.
Using scanners, thermal cameras, radar and
other methods, Freund’s team discovered and recorded the various hiding places,
also called malinas. Under Plagge’s plan, Jews had built malinas in building
crevices, behind the walls, to keep out of sight when Nazis came to “liquidate”
The garage (repair shop) was dubbed HKP. It was
on Subocz Street and is likely the only Holocaust-related labour camp left
completely intact. Until recently, people had been living in the two six-floor
buildings, which comprised 216 apartments.
Freund reached out to filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, telling him how important it was to document the site, the story, and reveal it to the world. Things were made all the more pressing when Freund and Jacobovici discovered that developers were going to demolish the site. Fortunately, before this happened, Jacobovici took a film and photographic crew to HKP, in January 2018.
The Turning of Plagge
In 1941, Karl Plagge was placed in command of
the HKP 562, a unit responsible for repairs of military vehicles damaged on the
eastern front. Plagge experienced something of a pang of conscience – he hadn’t
signed on to genocide. He made the decision to leverage his position and use
Jews as “slave labour” for HKP, pleading the case to his superiors that, if
Jews didn’t work there, there would be no one to fix the vehicles.
Virtually none of the 1,200 Jews was knowledgeable
in fixing cars; they were accountants, lawyers, hairdressers, academics, cooks
and others. They all learned various HKP tasks on the job, and Plagge somehow
convinced the Nazi SS that every single one of them was necessary for HKP.
Even though the entire charade was met with a
barely tolerated wink and nod by Nazi brass, Plagge had a deep (and correct)
hunch that their patience would eventually wear thin.
Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS,
announced, in the summer of 1943, that he wanted every Jew in Eastern Europe
eliminated, irrespective of whether they were contributing to the war effort in
a work camp. So, with Plagge’s approval, his workers carved out malinas in the
walls of the buildings and in attic rafters.
As the Soviet Red Army approached the outer
edge of Vilnius in June 1944, it was a sign that the Allies were nearing
victory. In this context, on July 1, 1944, Plagge made an impromptu
announcement in front of an SS commander and the Jewish workers, who gathered
to listen. He explained that his unit was being transferred westbound and,
though he requested his labourers be allowed to join, his superiors wouldn’t
permit it. All of this was code for the Jewish prisoners to take cover. Roughly
half of the workers – some 500 of them – hid away in malinas or ran from the
camp, while others decided to stay.
When Nazi troops took over the camp two days
later, 500 Jewish workers appeared for roll call, and were killed. It took the
Nazis three more days to comb the camp and the surrounding area for any
survivors, eventually finding roughly 200 Jews, all of whom were shot.
When the Soviets finally took over Vilnius
later that week, approximately 250 of HKP’s Jews in hiding emerged.
When the war was over, Plagge returned home to
Darmstadt, Germany, where, for the next two years he lived quietly, until he
was brought to court as a former Nazi. Somehow, word traveled to a displaced
persons camp in Stuttgart, a three-hour drive away, where many survivors of HKP
had ended up. In Plagge’s defence, the survivors sent a representative to
testify to the court in the hopes the charges would be overturned.
The testimony resulted in a favourable judgment, and Plagge received the status of an exonerated person. In 2005, after evidence and survivor testimony, Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre posthumously bestowed the title Righteous Among the Nations on Plagge.
The Good Nazi was produced in Canada for VisionTV by Toronto-based Associated Producers. Jacobovici was writer and executive producer, Moses Znaimer executive producer, Bienstock producer and co-director, Yaron Niski co-director and Felix Golubev line producer/executive producer.
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in
more than 100 publications around the world.
The theme of Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018), the new book by eminent English historian Mary Fulbrook, is justice. Or, rather, injustice, as she exposes how ex-Nazi perpetrators, and bystanders to their murderous policies, have evaded (and continue to evade) due process and acknowledgment of moral responsibility for their (in)actions.
Every level of strategy open to these criminals and cowards is exposed in Reckonings. Fulbrook reveals all the political, psychological, pragmatic, legal (and illegal), scapegoating, self-serving, self-exculpatory, “we were victims too”-type excuses by which the morally corrupt and unconscionable avoid due process and personal liability.
Fulbrook rightly says, at the end of Reckonings, “there can be no answer to the questions of why and how cruelty on this scale was possible.” So, what, she asks, can the “honest” historian do? Her answer sums up the well-realized objective of this magisterial new book: “Historians can clarify patterns of involvement in and responsibility for Nazi persecution and explore the implications both for those who lived through it and those who came after.”
Nazi criminality is, of course, a hugely complex historical issue, but Fulbrook’s strategy is simple and direct: it is to “reconstruct the ways in which wider social and political developments intersected with individual lives” such that “large numbers of people were mobilized in service of a murderous cause.”
Reckonings is rich with such exploration of “individual lives,” both of persecutors and bystanders, and it rings also with the agonizing accounts of dozens of victims, among whom Fulbrook gives frequent and welcome voice to the rarely referenced persecuted sub-groups of homosexuals, and victims of Nazi euthanasia policies.
Fulbrook’s central focus is, however, justice: justice failed and justice delayed, delayed by silence, by endless rationalization, by foot-dragging, by the pollution of the legal system by former Nazis (described as “themselves swimming in a sea of guilt”) and, no less disturbing, by the pragmatics of (primarily American) Cold War strategists, anxious not to offend a potential ally against the Soviet Union.
Reckonings is unusual history in its welcome lack of “normal” arm’s-length objectivity: Fulbrook is uncompromisingly fierce in her condemnation of those who were responsible for this “maelstrom of murder.” Throughout the book, she remains directly and openly angry, and determined to “nail down” these murderous ignoramuses, just-following-orders immoralists and “I knew nothing” liars. One feels the heat of Fulbrook’s grit and determination: each page rings out with a loud, “they will not get away with this as long as I can help it.”
Reckonings is divided into three parts. Part One, the most “traditional” part of the book, explores the various sites of this “maelstrom of murder,” beginning with Auschwitz, but moving carefully beyond, to less and less better-known killing centres, especially in southern Poland – where there were many forgotten violent “microcosms of violence,” as she calls them.
Part Two is, as Fulbrook’s title suggests, the heart of the book: here, the focus shifts to the attempts to bring perpetrators (both men and women) to justice. She lays out the proceedings of the various major trials – Auschwitz, Sobibor, Belzec, Dachau, Hadamar, the Einsatzgruppen trial, etc., right up to the present – but also includes trials relating to perpetrators of euthanasia and other crimes. She outlines, in fascinating detail, the differences between the ways that East and West Germany approached bringing Nazis to justice: the former being famously more diligent than the latter, leading to a flood of ex-Nazis to the more “tolerant” West in the early years after the war. This flood included all the euthanasia personnel, who left their families behind in the GDR to escape justice. (The West accepted the “just following orders” defence; the East did not. About 400,000 people benefited from this and similar lax standards in the West.)
The third part, “Memories,” is about how survivors remember, and how Nazis forget. It combines a plangent exploration of the personal experiences of individuals living around the world who have survived persecution – most of whom have never received compensation or recognition – with accounts of how perpetrators and their minions managed (and still manage) to cover their tracks, and how this evasion affects their children and grandchildren.
The most memorable chapter of this final part is called “The Commemoration of Shame.” She notes here how the “shame” of the perpetrators is almost always buried in the sea of guilt-ridden commemoration throughout Germany, as is the pain of forced and slave labourers, the acknowledgement of which would still have legal (compensation) ramifications for German industry. Fulbrook also notes here that it wasn’t until 2014 that the first memorial appeared for the victims of Nazi euthanasia policies.
Reckonings ends in despair. “So few perpetrators brought to account; so little justice.”
Ian Kershaw has written that “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate but paved by indifference.” Fulbrook reveals that the road from Auschwitz is not a whit less hateful and, certainly, no less met by indifference.
Graham Forst, PhD, taught literature and philosophy at Capilano University until his retirement and now teaches in the continuing education department at Simon Fraser University. From 1975 to 2010, he co-chaired the symposium committee of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
University of Ottawa’s Prof. Jan Grabowski delivered the Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia Nov. 15. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Jan Grabowski, a University of Ottawa professor who is a leading scholar of the Holocaust, delivered the annual Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia Nov. 15 – the same day he filed a libel suit against an organization aligned with Poland’s far-right government.
The Polish League Against Defamation, which is allied with the country’s governing Law and Justice Party, initiated a campaign against Grabowski last year, accusing him of ignoring the number of Poles who saved Jews and exaggerating the number of Jews killed by their Polish compatriots. Grabowski’s book, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, won the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research. An English translation of an even more compendious multi-year analysis undertaken by a team of researchers under Grabowski’s leadership will be published next year. His Vrba lecture provided an overview of some of the findings in the new work. It is a harrowing survey that brought condemnation from Polish-Canadians in the Vancouver audience.
The new book, which does not yet have an English title, is a work of “microhistory,” Grabowski said. Holocaust studies is one of the fastest-growing fields of historical research, he said, partly because it got off to a slow start and really only picked up in the 1980s. Much of the written work being completed today is in the area of survivor memoirs, second- and third-generation experiences, including inherited trauma, and “meta-history,” the study of the study of the Holocaust.
“This assumes that we actually know what has happened,” he said. Grabowski maintains there is still much primary research to be done. “We are still far away from knowing as much as we should about this, one of the greatest tragedies in human history.”
There are millions of pages of relevant historical documentation almost completely untapped – primarily in provincial Polish archives, police records and town halls – that spell out in detail the often-enthusiastic complicity of Poles in turning on their
Jewish neighbours. By combing through these previously ignored records, Grabowski and his co-authors have amassed evidence of widespread – and eager – involvement of Polish police and other Poles in assisting Germans to identify, hunt down and murder Polish Jews.
The work has been met with official condemnation. Earlier this year, the Polish government adopted a law that would expose scholars involved in the study of the Holocaust to fines and prison terms of up to three years. The criminal component of the law, including imprisonment, was rescinded after international backlash, but the atmosphere around Holocaust inquiry in Poland remains repressive.
Grabowski said that the “explosion of right-wing extremists, xenophobia and blatant antisemitism” in Poland is related to the “undigested, unlearned and/or rejected legacy of the Holocaust” – the fact that Polish society has, by and large, refused to acknowledge the wounds of the past or to deal with its own role in the extermination of three million of its Jewish citizens between 1939 to 1945.
The concept of microhistory, which is the approach Grabowski’s team uses, is not local history, he said, “it is an attempt to follow trajectories of people.” He instructed his researchers to focus on the exact day, often hour by hour, when liquidation actions took place in hundreds of Polish shtetls and ghettoes. To do so upends a conspiracy of silence that has existed for decades.
“Why the silence?” he asked the audience. “There were three parts to the silence. One was the Jews. They were dead. They had no voice … 98.5% of Polish Jews who remained under German occupation, who never fled, died. You have a 1.5% survival rate for the Polish Jews. So, the Jews couldn’t really, after the war, ask for justice, because they were gone.”
The communist regime that dominated Poland for a half-century after the war was viewed not only as a foreign power inflicted on Poles from the Soviet Union, Grabowski said, “but, more importantly, as Jewish lackeys – that was a term that was used.
“So, it wouldn’t really stand to have trials of those accused of complicity with the Germans for murdering the Jews,” he said. “That would only confirm the widespread accusations that the communists were here doing the Jewish bidding.”
The third factor in the silence were the interests of Polish nationalists, whose ideology is inherently antisemitic, and who are the dominant political force in the country today.
While clearly not all Poles were collaborators, it would have been impossible for almost anyone in the country to claim ignorance of what was happening.
“Mass killing was taking place in the streets,” the professor said. Researchers found bills of sale charging city officials for the sand municipal workers needed to cover the blood on sidewalks.
“When you say that blood was running in the streets, it’s not a metaphor, it’s just a description of what really happened,” he said.
In some ghettos, as many as half the Jewish population was killed on the day of the action, with massive participation from Polish society.
“One area more, one area less,” he said. “Usually between 10 and 20% of Jews were slaughtered simply in order to frighten the remaining 80% to go to the trains, to be herded to the trains,” said Grabowski.
In Poland’s smaller communities, centuries of Jewish and Polish social, commercial and civic interactions did not result in camaraderie – on the contrary.
“The deadliest places of all [were] small shtetls, small towns, where anonymity was not available when the authorities were not far away,” he said. In one instance, a Jew in hiding heard his neighbour assure the Nazis he would return with a hatchet to help them break into the hiding place seconds before the door was axed down.
In another example, Grabowski described in minute detail the atrocities committed by Germans, Poles and Ukrainian recruits in Węgrów, a town in eastern central Poland with a Jewish population of about “10,000 starving Jews who have been terrorized for nearly three years and now the final moment has come.”
Rumours of liquidation swirled for months, as Jews fleeing neighbouring communities brought narratives of destruction. In the day or two before the liquidation, wives of Polish military and other officials rushed to their Jewish tailors, shoemakers and others craftspeople to obtain the items they knew would soon become unavailable.
“With mounting panic, people started to prepare themselves for a siege,” said Grabowski. “They built hideouts to survive the initial German fury, they started to seek out contacts on the Aryan side of the city, looking for help from former neighbours, sometimes friends and former business partners.”
On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1942, Polish officials in the town were instructed to assemble horses, wagons and volunteers. A cordon of Nazis and collaborators surrounded the city at intervals of no more than 100 metres.
The mayor of the town wrote: “Jews who woke up to the terrible news ran like mad around the city, half-naked, looking for shelter.” The same leader noted that, when the Germans demanded he produce volunteers to help with the task of rounding up their Jewish neighbours, he feared he would not be able to meet their needs.
“Before I was able to leave my office, in order to assess the situation and issue orders for the removal of the bodies,” the mayor testified, “removal of the bodies had already started. There were carts and people ready. They volunteered for the job without any pressure.”
For Jews, the Germans were to be feared, but their Polish neighbours were also a threat.
“The greatest danger was not associated with the Germans, but with the Poles,” said Grabowski. “Unlike the former, the latter could easily tell a Jew from a non-Jew by their accent, customs and physical appearance.”
Poles were rewarded with a quarter-kilo of sugar for every Jew they turned in.
“The searches were conducted with extreme brutality and violence … the streets were soon filled with crowds of Jews being driven toward the market square, which the Germans had transformed into a holding pen for thousands of ghetto inmates,” he said.
On the streets, “the cries of Jews mixed with the shouts of the Germans and the laughter of the Poles,” according to an eyewitness.
“All of this was done in a small town where everybody knows each other,” said Grabowski. “It’s not only the question of geographic proximity, it’s social proximity. These people knew each other.”
People were taking clothes, jewelry and other possessions from the dead bodies. A husband would toss a body in the air while the wife pulled off articles of clothing until what was left was a pile of naked cadavers.
“They even pulled out golden teeth with pliers,” said Grabowski. A court clerk responded defensively to accusations that the gold he was trying to sell was soaked in human blood. “I personally washed the stuff,” he protested.
The prevalence in the Polish imagination of a Jewish association with gold partly accounted for the actions.
“This betrayal, due to widespread antisemitism and hatred of the Jews, was combined with the seemingly universal conviction that Jewish gold was just waiting to be transferred to new owners,” Grabowski said. “The myth of Jewish gold was so popular and so deeply rooted among Poles that it sealed the fate of [many Jews].”
The historical records indicate many Poles saw no need to cover their collaborationist tracks. Police and others who took it upon themselves to aid the Nazis without pressure defended their actions.
One policeman, after the war, depicted the killing of Jews as a patriotic act, one that saved Polish villagers from the wrath of the Nazis, who would have learned sooner or later about Jews in hiding and who then, he claimed, would have burned down the entire village.
As efficient as the Nazi killing machine was, Grabowski contends it could not have been as effective without the enthusiastic complicity of so many in Poland and other occupied countries.
“It was their participation that, in a variety of ways, made the German system of murder as efficient as it was,” he said.
With trepidation, Grabowski and his fellow researchers followed the documents and met with people in the towns. They would review documents from a 1947 trial, for instance, then go to the village in question.
The entire village would be conscious of its war-era history, he said. And the people who are, decades later, ostracized by their neighbours are not those who collaborated in the murder of Jews.
“The person that is ostracized is the family who tried to rescue the Jews, because they broke a certain social taboo and it still visible 75 or 76 years after the fact,” he said.
“Every time I present a speech to a Polish audience, the question of Polish righteous is presented as if it is a fig leaf behind which everyone else can hide.”
In the question-and-answer session, Grabowski shut down a persistent audience member who identified as Polish and who took exception with Grabowski’s research, arguing that Poland has more Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem than any other country.
“Every time I present a speech to a Polish audience, the question of Polish righteous is presented as if it is a fig leaf behind which everyone else can hide,” said Grabowski, who was born and educated in Warsaw. “The thing is, do you know how many Jews needed to be rescued? Poland had the largest Jewish community and using today Polish righteous as a universal and, let’s say, fig leaf behind which situations like I described here can be hidden is absolutely unconscionable. I protest against any attempt to overshadow the tragedy of Jewish people [with] the sacrifice of very, very few Poles.”
While Poland’s far-right government removed the mandated jail sentence for anyone found guilty of “slandering” Poland or Poles with complicity in Nazi war crimes, acknowledging the participation of Polish collaborators in the Holocaust remains a civil offence and Holocaust scholars in the country – and in Canada – face death threats and intimidation.
In introducing Grabowski, Richard Menkis, associate professor in the department of history at UBC, paid tribute to Rudolf Vrba, a Slovakian Jew who escaped Auschwitz and brought to the world inside information about the death camp, its operations and physical layout. Vrba, with fellow escapee Albert Wetzler, warned in 1944 that Hungarian Jews were about to face mass transport to the death camps. The news is credited with saving as many as 200,000 lives.
Vrba migrated to Canada and became a professor of pharmacology at UBC. He died in 2006.
The Vrba lecture alternates annually between an issue relevant to the Holocaust and an issue chosen by the pharmacology department in the faculty of medicine.
In spring 2015, at Luneburg Regional Court in Germany, the trial of Oskar Groening, “the bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” began. Nineteen-year-old Torontonian Jordana Lebowitz, a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, was among those who witnessed the proceedings. The young adult book To Look a Nazi in the Eye: A Teen’s Account of a War Criminal Trial (Second Story Press, 2017), written with award-winning author Kathy Kacer, is about what Lebowitz experienced before, during and after the trial.
The book has different components and is not structured like a usual biography or historical account. It includes Lebowitz’s recollections as told to Kacer, as well as selections from Lebowitz’s blog, which the then-teen wrote for the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Toronto about the trial. Numerous Holocaust survivors, now living in Canada, speak about their experiences at Auschwitz. They also traveled to Germany for Groening’s trial.
Lebowitz shares her concerns about going to Germany and readers learn how she made the trip come about. After almost every chapter, there are excerpts of Groening’s testimony that Kacer has based on news articles and interviews, as there were no transcripts from the trial itself. These sections allow readers to know what Groening was thinking as his claims were being assessed by the court. Charged with being complicit in the deaths of more than 300,000 Jews, he was eventually found guilty.
Lebowitz epitomizes how individuals from my generation should act. Her main goal was to ensure that the experiences of Holocaust survivors would be recorded so that future generations would be able to access them, and learn from them. Her main purpose in going to the trial was to witness this history and make sure that future generations would know it, too.
Lebowitz had been to Auschwitz on a March of the Living trip. The program takes students from around the world to Poland and Israel, so they can see firsthand and learn about the Jewish communities that once existed in Europe and the tragedy of the Holocaust that wiped almost all of them out. It was on March of the Living that Lebowitz met Holocaust survivor Hedy Bohm, with whom she became close friends. Bohm was imprisoned in Auschwitz for three months and testified in the trial against Groening.
As the bookkeeper at Auschwitz, Groening not only witnessed many Jews coming off the trains, but confiscated their possessions as they arrived. He was not tried for being a murderer, but for helping the Nazis murder Jews. The German government wanted Groening’s trial to occur, as they wanted Nazis who were still living to be brought to justice, even if it was many decades later.
Lebowitz heard about the trial from Bohm, and then set to figure out how she could attend it. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre agreed to fund the trip if she would blog her experience in the courtroom for others to read and follow as the trial was taking place. She managed to convince her parents she could handle what she would face on the trip during the trial, and Thomas Walther, the prosecutor, helped Lebowitz find a place to stay in Germany and procured a pass to allow her into the courtroom.
To Look a Nazi in the Eye is powerful in part because it reveals the compassion Lebowitz initially felt for Groening, in his frailty, sitting in the courtroom each day. He recounted heartbreaking stories of what had transpired in the camp. But, while Lebowitz believed at the start of the trial that he was truly sorry for what he had done, Groening’s stories began to change, and not for the better. He also said he was not guilty because he did not personally hurt or exterminate Jews.
As her daily accounts progress, there are humourous moments that balance out the horrific stories about Auschwitz. For example, purses and paper were not permitted in the courtroom. In order to blog, however, Lebowitz needed a notepad and pen. So, she snuck toilet paper and a pen that was hidden in a place the security guards would not find during a body search. Her persistence paid off, and Lebowitz managed to take notes each day. That her family and others read her blog posts gave her some assurance that she was succeeding in her mission of helping keep the history alive and relevant.
One part of To Look a Nazi in the Eye that is amazing is how Lebowitz interacts with the Holocaust survivors. Bohm, Bill Glied and Max Eisen were among the survivors who attended the trial and were brave enough to recount their experiences at Auschwitz. For them, and others, it was a duty to their family and themselves to ensure that some form of justice was achieved. At first, they seem pretty hesitant of a younger individual being at the trial, but later open up to Lebowitz more. Seeing a person from a younger generation advocating for this cause made them happy, in a sense.
Since returning to Canada, Lebowitz has remained involved in Holocaust remembrance. As the book’s website notes, she “came to understand that, by witnessing history, she gained the knowledge and legitimacy to be able to stand in the footsteps of the survivors who went before her and pass their history, her history, on to the next generation.”
Chloe Heuchert is a fifth-year history and political science student at Trinity Western University.
“I wanted to leave,” replied Groening again in a voice that had grown increasingly hoarse. “I asked for a transfer to the front.”
Was it Jordana’s imagination or was Groening faltering under the strain of the trial and the intense cross-examination? She hadn’t noticed it before, but he looked decidedly weaker at this point in the proceedings than he had looked in the beginning. His face was haggard, his shoulders slumped, and his hands trembled.
Finally, Thomas [Walther] gathered his notes together and stood in the centre of the courtroom. “Behind me sit the survivors who are here to testify, along with their descendants,” he said. “I ask you, Herr Groening, did you ever think when you were in Auschwitz that the Jewish prisoners might stay alive and eventually have their own children?”
Groening shook his head and closed his eyes. When he finally responded, his voice was faint. “No. Jews did not get out of Auschwitz alive.”
Who could shoot at close range two million children, women and men who were standing at the sides of graves they had just been forced to dig? And then, when this process proved inefficient, who could herd four million more into cement bunkers and drop cyanide pellets on top of them? Were they monsters?
“Monsters do exist,” Primo Levi once said, “but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.”
Christopher Browning, in his famous 1992 study of Holocaust perpetrators, Ordinary Men, came to the same appalling conclusion: the killers were simple, middle-class working men, “believing Christians” from all walks of life (including thousands of priests and seminarians), just witlessly and anxiously “following orders” and blindly obeying peer pressure, not, in most cases, virulent antisemites.
The controversial nonagenarian scholar Guenther Lewy, the author of Perpetrators: The World of the Holocaust Killers (Oxford University Press, 2017), and son of a camp survivor, begins his new study of Holocaust perpetrators with the same question: “How could such terrible deeds happen in the heart of Christian Europe and among a nation known for its poets and thinkers? What had converted so many seemingly ordinary people into killers, willing participants in what is the worst crime in modern history?”
Lewy’s study is the first English-language volume to make use of the 49-volume collection of 929 German trial records of Holocaust perpetrators recently published by the University of Amsterdam (it is not made clear why the records were not published in Germany). He also draws upon an enormous accretion of “previously untapped” sources such as the 50,000 letters and diaries of Wehrmacht soldiers recently released by German archives, as well as victim recollections and, most importantly, hundreds of trial records of Nazi functionaries, beginning in Nuremberg in 1945 and continuing to the present day. Of the 1,200 citations in the 25-page bibliography and the 600 footnotes, by far most of them are from the late 1990s to the present.
Lewy’s conclusion is similar to Levi’s and Browning’s: the perpetrators were not characteristically sadists or psychopaths, or even necessarily antisemites, but simply obtuse followers of orders, vassals to peer pressure, or simply “ordinary people” trying to advance their careers.
Lewy’s graphic details and conclusions will be familiar to readers of Saul Friedlander’s monumental Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination (2007), but Lewy’s access to the most recent documentation brings some new and important facts to light.
First, the whole notion of a “clean Wehrmacht” can now be dismissed. Lewy proves conclusively that there was close contact between the Wehrmacht and the SS and particularly the 38 “Totenkopf” (“Death’s Head”) divisions of the Waffen-SS: new evidence shows that Jews were “squarely in the crosshairs of the Wehrmacht” and that the number of members of the Wehrmacht who took part in the murder of Jews “is in the tens of thousands.”
Second, Lewy’s close study of the new material available allowed him to conclude that “not a single person who asked to be relieved [from duty in the killing squads] was tried by a military court” and, in fact, “most of their requests were granted.” Lewy found 85 cases of Wehrmacht soldiers who refused to shoot civilians: all were simply transferred to other duties. The significance of this finding, of course, is that it puts the lie to the excuse frequently made by the killers that they “had no choice” and “had to follow orders.” (Lewy points out, significantly, that Yad Vashem has in fact recognized 45 Wehrmacht soldiers as “saviours of Jews.”)
In the sixth chapter of Perpetrators, “Flawed Justice,” Lewy makes his most significant mark. Here, Lewy reveals that, of the 200,000 or so former Nazi killers who, through 2005, were investigated by German authorities, fewer than 10% had charges brought against them; and, of these, only half were convicted. Light sentences were the norm; and only eight of the 2,000 former members of the Einsatzgruppen investigated received life sentences. Most of these examples of “flawed justice,” Lewy concludes, had to do with the fact that so many judges were “tainted” as former party members, and that German law (unlike Canadian law) distinguished between perpetrators and accomplices, usually finding the latter innocent, as they were “only following orders,” that they were only “tools” or were not “unseemingly zealous” in their murderous actions. (Two years ago, German courts finally adopted Canadian/American style “common design,” sharing the guilt between perpetrators and accomplices.)
In his final chapter, “Explaining the Holocaust,” Lewy concludes that nobody, ultimately, can simply give up his freedom. Situation, genetics, conditioning are all significant, but “they do not dictate or determine character.” In fact, recalling how anxiously in 1945 the Nazis strove to cover up what they had done led Lewy to conclude that “even Hitler and the members of his immediate entourage probably knew deep down that they were doing wrong.”
And, as Lewy concludes, in his last sentence, “The fact that so few avoided evil orders remains an ineradicable blot on an entire German generation and a cross that their descendants continue to bear.”
Perpetrators is a valuable addition to a long story, one which may never be conclusively told.
Graham Forst,PhD, taught literature and philosophy at Capilano University until his retirement and now teaches in the continuing education department at Simon Fraser University. From 1975 to 2010, he co-chaired the symposium committee of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
A scene from United Players’ production of Taken at Midnight, which is at the Jericho Arts Centre until Nov. 26. Seen here are Brian Hinson as the Nazi Dr. Conrad and Suzanne Ristic as Irmgaard, Hans Litten’s mother. (photo by Nancy Caldwell)
As a Jew, a lawyer and a child of a Holocaust survivor, I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of Hans Litten until I saw United Players’ production of Taken at Midnight, which runs to Nov. 26 at Jericho Arts Centre.
Litten was a brilliant young Jewish-German lawyer, known for his defence of opponents of the Nazi movement. In 1931, he had the audacity to subpoena Adolf Hitler as a witness in the trial of four Nazis charged with murder, and subjected him to a grueling three-hour cross-examination, exposing the Nazi party for what it really was – a murderous bunch of thugs. Litten called Hitler “a cross between Baron Munchhausen and Attila the Hun.”
Unfortunately for Litten and the world, within two years Hitler was in power and he started to exact his revenge on his opponents. At midnight on Feb. 28, 1933, after the Reichstag (German parliament) fire, Litten, along with thousands of others, was arrested or, as the Nazis euphemistically called it, taken into “protective custody” at a series of concentration camps. Litten became known as “Hitler’s personal prisoner” – the cocky Jewish lawyer who had dared to expose the Fuhrer’s weaknesses – and, over the years, was subjected to brutal torture and unspeakable degradation as punishment. Despite the valiant efforts of his mother, Irmgaard, to obtain his release over the five years of his incarceration, Litten ultimately committed suicide in Dachau in 1938, which was a bit messy for the Nazis, as they wanted their political prisoners to die accidentally or naturally, not by taking their own lives.
The irony is that Litten was not technically Jewish. His mother was not Jewish and his father had converted to Christianity (to make things easier). As Litten says in the play, “I am an atheist Jew and, prior to that, I was an atheist Lutheran.” Of course, that made no difference to the Nazis, who went back three generations to ferret out Jewish blood.
Playwright and filmmaker Mark Hayhurst’s 2010 BBC films The Man Who Crossed Hitler and To Stop a Tyrant planted the seeds for this staged work. It had its West End (London, England) debut in 2014. Reviewers called it a “masterpiece of theatre not to be missed.” Now, United Players has taken on the formidable task of presenting this gripping story to Vancouver audiences. From the minute you walk into the theatre, the dark, shadowy, stark set – an elevated wooden platform fronted by barbed wire positioned between two floor-to-ceiling red banners emblazoned with black swastikas – is a harbinger of the grim things to come.
The entire cast, mostly comprised of veteran actors, is stellar and, as an ensemble, makes this a truly remarkable theatrical experience. Particular mention has to be made of the two main protagonists – Suzanne Ristic as Irmgaard and Sean Anthony as her son. Ristic is sublime in her portrayal of this strong, heroic woman who takes on the Gestapo establishment in a relentless battle to free her son. She often takes centre stage to talk directly to the audience, thereby breaking down the fourth wall, making for a very intimate encounter. And Anthony plays his difficult role with dignity, yet shows uncompromising defiance. We ache as we watch his physical and mental decline – his transformation from ordinary citizen to bloodied, head-shaven prisoner; a business suit to the striped concentration camp uniform, replete with the obligatory yellow Star of David.
Supporting, but not lesser, performances come from the rest of the cast.
Brian Hinson as Dr. Conrad, Irmgaard’s Gestapo contact, portrays a man of culture and intelligence who appreciates this feisty woman and appears to feel affection for her. The scene where they share an ice cream on a summer’s afternoon in a park seems incongruous, juxtaposed against the darkness of this play. Yet it speaks to some form of humanity even in the worst of times.
Litten’s cellmates – Erich Muhsam, an anarchist (played by Richard Hersley) who refers to Hitler as “the Austrian transvestite,” and Carl von Ossietzky, a newspaper editor and winner of the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize (played by Jewish community member Michael Kahn) – show the camaraderie and trust that can evolve from difficult circumstances. The triumvirate produces an amusing reenactment of Hitler’s cross-examination, providing an island of levity in their sea of despair.
Douglas Abel plays Fritz Litten, Hans’ father, as a calm counterpoint to his wife’s intense persona. John Harris, with his posh English accent, is Lord Clifford Allen, an English diplomat, patrician and pacifist who Irmgaard seconds in her quest for her son’s freedom. Allen is able to secure a meeting with Hitler to discuss the matter, but to no avail. Allen’s political attitude highlights the European appeasement zeitgeist of the early 1930s – that Germany was just experiencing growing pains and Hitler was an effective statesman, not a threat to the world. If only it had been so.
The play provides an historical lesson in the rise to power of the fascist Nazi regime and the consequences of speaking truth to power, but, at its heart, it is the story of the love of a mother for her son and her fight, at great personal risk, to try and save him.
As director Michael Fera, states in his notes, this is “an informative and deeply engrossing play about the high price paid for resisting tyranny,” and is as relevant today as it was in 1933. “People are living it now, again. History is repeating itself in many ways.”
Taken at Midnight is a tough watch and an emotional ride but well worth a trip to the Jericho Arts Centre. Kudos to artistic director Andree Karas for having the courage to stage this work. The show runs to Nov. 26, Thursdays to Sundays, 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinées Nov. 12, 19 and 26. For more information, visit unitedplayers.com or call 604-224-8007, ext. 2.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
Last weekend, in Charlottesville, Va., hundreds of white supremacists, Ku Klux Klanners, neo-Nazis and other racists and antisemites rallied and brought violence to the hometown of Thomas Jefferson.
The images that emerged are bone-chilling. Men (mostly) carrying torches, swastikas and Confederate flags, screaming the ugliest epithets imaginable against African-Americans, gays and Jews. When the city of Charlottesville eventually ordered the racists to disperse (the racists were authorized to rally until things got violent), one of them got in his car and rammed it through a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one young woman and injuring many. The violence could have been infinitely worse, it should be noted, as scores of racists in battle fatigues were seen carrying combat weapons on their way to the rally, as is their Second Amendment right in that open-carry state.
Anyone who spent any time on social media or watching cable news in the succeeding days knows that the events and the issues raised by the rally and the preceding march through the University of Virginia have been assessed from multiple angles. The delayed and impotent response of President Donald Trump has been singled out as among the more worrying aspects.
The president of the United States responded by blaming “many sides” for the violence, an appalling equivocation that diminishes the office even further than the depths to which he has debased it in the past eight months. Items of Trump paraphernalia, notably “Make America great again” caps, were prominent among the racist ralliers and some commentators think the president’s remarks were tempered so as not to upset a political base that includes the very worst elements in American society.
David Duke, the former head hood of the KKK, said the rally was a step toward fulfilling Trump’s promises and, after Trump’s bland statement on events, Duke crowed that, essentially, his guy is in the White House. Meanwhile, Maxine Waters, an African-American congresswoman and outspoken critic of Trump, dubbed it the White Supremacists’ House.
The American Civil Liberties Union advocated for the right of the racists to express themselves and, while Canada has different laws and customs around this, we would not contest the idea of racists expressing themselves peacefully, primarily because suppression can metastasize bad ideas the way mold grows in darkness. The answer to bad speech, we have been arguing in this space for decades, is not no speech, but more speech. Indeed, many Americans and others have been motivated by their revulsion at events in Charlottesville to recognize the racial and cultural problems it represents, and have engaged in the civil discourse on the side of good.
We admit, though, that free speech works best when decent people are in leadership. So, for instance, when white supremacists and neo-Nazis rally and murder, a U.S. president should arouse the country’s best instincts as the leading voice for unity in diversity and basic human decency. That didn’t happen after Charlottesville.
Also, police preparations may have been inadequate. When African-Americans have peacefully marched in recent years, militaristic counter-measures have been put in place, as in Ferguson, Mo., after the shooting death of Michael Brown. In Charlottesville, gun-swinging, fatigue-festooned, swastika-waving white people were met with limited police presence, to the extent that they were permitted to physically attack counter-protesters.
An additional factor – perhaps the only one not adequately hashed over – is the subdued reaction to the antisemitism permeating the event. The poster for the rally featured a Magen David about to be smashed by a sledgehammer. A recurring chant at the rally, premised on the idea of white culture being subsumed, was “You will not replace us … Jew will not replace us!” Seig heil salutes and chants of “blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan, were part of the show.
The president notwithstanding, most American leaders have condemned the racism of the event, but condemnations of antisemitism in particular have been far less prominent in the aftermath. Hopefully, people feel that their statements against bigotry encompass antisemitism; less optimistically, perhaps there is a feeling that, while other forms of hatred are anathema to American ideals, displays of antisemitism are less surprising and, therefore, less requiring of explicit denunciation. This is something that needs further consideration and discussion.
If, as former president Barack Obama was fond of saying (quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” Charlottesville may turn out to be a positive turning point in a long and tragic history of racism, antisemitism and xenophobia in America. Optimists among us hope that the political awareness of erstwhile apathetic Americans will be awakened by the sight of torch-wielding Nazis in American streets – and spurred to action by the fact that this reality doesn’t elicit swift and strong condemnation from the most powerful person in the country and, indeed, in the world.
As Canadians, we have our own shameful history of racism and antisemitism to reckon with and should not allow ourselves any smugness when assessing our neighbour’s current spasm of hate. The passing of German-Canadian Holocaust-denier and Nazi-sympathizer Ernst Zundel this month in Germany – to which he was extradited in 2005 and convicted for inciting racial hatred – and a scan of Canadian web commenters around these subjects remind us that we remain far from some bigotry-free beacon to the world.
Still, it is only when these things are out in the open that they can be challenged and debunked. So, as debilitating as it may be to see and hear these ugly ideas and actions, it gives us the opportunity to counter them – if, unlike the president of the United States, we choose to do so sincerely.
Interior perspective of The Evidence Room, with models of an Auschwitz gas column and gas-tight hatch, plaster casts and a model of a gas-tight door. (photo by Fred Hunsberger, University of Waterloo School of Architecture)
Visitors to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) will see an obscene display among the collections of dinosaur fossils, Egyptian mummies and suits of armour – a scale model of a gas chamber of the kind used at Auschwitz, where more than one million Jews were murdered between 1942 and 1945.
The Evidence Room exhibit, as it is named, consists of white plaster replicas of elements of the Nazi death camp murder machine, including the steel mesh columns through which pellets of Zyklon B insecticide were lowered to asphyxiate the prisoners locked inside the gas chambers. Similarly, it depicts the heavy door, which was bolted from the outside.
The exhibit features a reproduction of the original architectural drawings prepared by German architect, engineer and SS-Sturmbannführer Karl Bischoff, who served at Auschwitz as chief of the Central Construction Office of the Waffen-SS.
Visitors to ROM will note the meticulously planned airtight seal around the gas chamber’s door to prevent toxic leaks, and the grill-covered peephole that allowed dignitaries to watch the prisoners die.
“To understand this room … we first have to acknowledge that it’s related to the most murderous place,” said the exhibit’s creator, Robert Jan van Pelt, at a ROM Speaks lecture on June 27.
Van Pelt’s grisly display is the first in a ROM series intended to engender discussion of contemporary issues. And the issue here is forensic architecture, a relatively new field that uses planning and design tools to understand human rights abuses, in this case genocide.
For van Pelt, a Dutch-born architect who teaches at the University of Waterloo, The Evidence Room represents the culmination of two decades of work.
Van Pelt served as an expert witness during a trial, in London in 2000, in which Holocaust-denier David Irving unsuccessfully sued Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt for libel after Lipstadt, in a book, called out the pseudo-historian’s falsehoods. Irving famously quipped “No holes, no Holocaust.”
Van Pelt testified that indeed there were apertures in the gas chambers’ ceilings through which poison pellets were dropped. His testimony led to his 2002 book The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial.
The 592-page volume greatly impressed Alejandro Aravena, curator of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. The Chilean, who was awarded architecture’s Pritzker Prize for his work transforming slums and making architecture a tool of justice and social change, commissioned van Pelt to create an exhibit explaining the workings of an Auschwitz gas chamber. A model was on display at last year’s Venice Biennale.
In preparing for the current exhibit at ROM, van Pelt – together with colleagues Donald McKay, Anne Bordeleau and Sascha Hastings – wrote a supplementary book, The Evidence Room, published by the New Jewish Press in association with the University of Toronto’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies.
“It is difficult to imagine the details of a gas chamber, where humans were locked in to die,” says one Holocaust survivor quoted in van Pelt’s new book. “One has to feel the double grates that protected the bucket filled with poison pellets from the desperate hands of the condemned, peer into the bucket, imagine the pellets melting away, the poison oozing out of them.
“I knew a good deal about the Auschwitz-Birkenau murder factory,” says the survivor, “but the gas column really shocked me. Because of what I had read about people thinking they were going into a shower room, I had always imagined the gas being dispersed by sprinklers. Touching that construction had a profound effect on me – a new visceral recognition all these years later.”
And what of the pristine white plaster van Pelt and his architecture students used to build the reproduction?
For me, it jarringly evoked a sense of peace and innocence. But, as well, it called to mind that those murdered in the gas chambers defecated and urinated as they died and that Sonderkommandos (a special unit of slave labourers who removed gassed corpses and hauled them to the crematoria) had to whitewash the gas chambers after each usage.
Mykhailo Chomiak edited a Ukrainian-language Nazi newspaper in occupied Poland. It happens that Chomiak was the maternal grandfather of Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister.
This fact is a matter of historical record, but apparently Russian operatives were shopping the story around as if it were fresh – and as if they believe Canadians will hold Freeland, and perhaps by extension the Liberal government, responsible for Chomiak’s past.
A writer on the Canadian online media outlet rabble.ca went so far as to accuse Freeland of a cover-up, which is nonsense, since she was acknowledged for her help editing an article on the subject that was written 20 years ago by her uncle, John-Paul Himka, an historian.
Freeland called it “public knowledge that there have been efforts, as U.S. intelligence forces have said, by Russia to destabilize the U.S. political system.… I think that Canadians, and indeed other Western countries, should be prepared for similar efforts to be directed at us.” She is absolutely correct. Russia almost certainly was involved in the U.S. presidential election and may indeed be responsible for the fact that Donald Trump is now in the White House.
Nevertheless, it seemed like a missed opportunity for Freeland not to use the chance to acknowledge some of the complexities and complicities around her grandfather’s history.
Let’s step back for a moment and realize that Canadians are relatively fortunate that, whatever enormous sacrifices Canadian families made during the Second World War, the war itself never reached our shores. For families in Europe at the time, many of whose descendants are, through immigration, now Canadians, the war impacted every aspect of civilian life. Possibly millions of people are responsible for acts of heroism or betrayal that are lost to history. Had it not been for the writings of a member of her own family, Freeland’s grandfather’s story might have been another largely forgotten piece of that war’s far-encompassing awfulness.
Who can estimate how many Canadians have ancestors who engaged in complicity (or worse) with Hitler’s regime, or with Stalin’s, or with any number of less-renowned tyrants and bad ideologies worldwide? We do not rest from seeking redress for the worst crimes during history’s worst times, but behaviours that do not constitute war crimes have rarely received the full attention of the media and public that Chomiak’s case has garnered in the past days. And we certainly do not – and should not – place any blame at the feet of grandchildren for events that took place before they were born. Freeland has done absolutely nothing wrong.
Still … she could have done something better. She could have (and perhaps by the time you read this, she will have) turned this into a teaching moment for Canadians.
The parents or grandparents of some Canadians may have chosen to, or been forced to, engage in actions we see as abhorrent. We cannot change the past. But we can potentially make a better future by acknowledging it, openly identifying wrongs and committing ourselves to better actions than that exhibited by some of our forebears. As examples, present-day Canadians have begun a process of reconciliation around the genocide perpetrated against indigenous Canadians, and Canadian governments have apologized for actions against Japanese-Canadians and the passengers of the Komagata Maru and the MS St. Louis.
In Freeland’s case, she is right to warn Canadians that Russia is attempting to undermine the credibility of our country’s foreign minister. But she should go further and insist that no Canadian – whether the country’s top diplomat or a new Canadian who was sworn in as a citizen yesterday – is guilty of acts undertaken by their grandparents. A few words about the complexity of historical memory could also be helpful. And it would be valuable for the federal government to make a firm public declaration that blackmailing or smearing a Canadian based on the acts of an ancestor will fail in its mission.