THE RATLINE: LOVE, LIES, AND JUSTICE ON THE TRAIL OF A NAZI FUGITIVE by Philippe Sands

The twisting tale of the career and flight of Otto von Wächter sounds like something that would make a superb film or a TV box set. Photo / Horst Wächter

(Otto Wachter)

Who was Otto Wachter?

According to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal at the conclusion of World War II he served as Hans Frank, the Governor-General of occupied Poland’s deputy, the Governor-General of Krakow, and a number of other positions in the SS and SD in Austria.  He was indicted for mass murder of at least 100,000 people, if not thousands upon thousands more.  Wachter is the subject of Philippe Sands latest book, THE RATLINE: LOVE, LIES, AND JUSTICE ON THE TRAIL OF A NAZI FUGITIVE, the “Ratline” was an organization that Wachter and the likes of Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Mengele, Klaus Barbie, and countless others used as an escape route out of Europe as the war ground to a close.  Sands builds upon his previous book EAST WEST STREET: ON THE ORIGINS OF ‘GENOCIDE’ AND ‘CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY” were he wove together the story of his quest to uncover family secrets in the Ukrainian city of Lviv in the 1940s and the Nuremberg tribunal after World War II.  The route Sands describes, known as the “Ratline” was popularized in Frederick Forsyth’s THE ODESSA FILE, and thoroughly researched by Uki Goni, an Argentinian researcher in his book, THE REAL ODESSA and other monographs exploring how Nazis were able to avoid justice, the most important of which was Gerald Steinacher’s NAZIS ON THE RUN.  These works among many other titles uncover the role of the Vatican, the governments of Argentina, the United States, Switzerland among a host of countries each for its own reasons assisted former Nazis in their attempts to avoid prosecution.

Sands, a British and French lawyer, and Professor of Laws at the University College London is the author of seventeen books dealing with international law, many of which focus on the concept of genocide.  In his latest effort Sands traces the life of Otto Wachter, with special emphasis on his marriage to Charlotte Wachter, as he rose through the Nazi Party ranks, first in Vienna and later in Germany landing in his positions in occupied Poland.  After recounting his subjects’ Nazi career, he follows his attempts to avoid justice as he meanders his way employing the Ratline from 1945 to 1949.   Sands research is noteworthy as one of his main sources was through the relationship, he established with Wachter’s fourth child, Horst.  Through a series of interviews that resulted in a 2013 article for the Financial Times, Sands was able to extract a great deal of documentation dealing with the family from his mother’s diary, copiously kept from 1925, except at times when it came to the atrocities her husband was involved in.   But what must be kept in mind during Sands’ quest to decipher the life of a man on the run, and his wife’s attempts to help him; can be described as some sort of a “Nazi love story!”

Lawyer, humanitarian, and writer Philippe Sands. (Wikimedia Commons)

(Philippe Sands, author)

Horst was adamant during their many conversations that his father had done nothing wrong.  Horst argued that “his father was not responsible for any crimes…Rather, he was an ‘endangered heretic’ in the National Socialist system, opposed to racial and discriminatory actions applied in the German-occupied territories of Poland and Ukraine.”  His father was “an individual, a mere cog in a powerful system, part of a larger criminal group.”  Horst did not deny the horrors of the Holocaust and saw the process as criminal, but he did not think his father’s actions were criminal.

Sands does a remarkable job piecing together Wachter’s personal life and SS/SD career.  He takes the reader through the important events in Europe culminating with the Anschluss (union) between Austria and Germany and the role played by Horst’s god father Arthur Seyss-Inquart who served as Chancellor of Austria after it was taken over by Hitler’s forces.  Following the Anschluss, Wachter’s career advanced rapidly as he starts out as a lawyer in the Criminal Division of the SD ending up as Governor of Krakow were he implemented the creation of the Jewish ghetto for the city, the execution of numerous Poles, and advanced the process of Jewish deportation to the concentration camps.

Sands interest in Wachter is deeply personal as his grandfather, Leon Bucholz who lived in Lemberg, Galicia was deported from the city to his death during the Holocaust.  Between 1942 and 1944 Wachter was installed as Governor of the District of Galicia and supervised the city of Lemberg and probably signed the death warrant of Sands’ grandfather.

Horst Wächter

 Horst Wächter: ‘I do not return the objects for me, but for the sake of my mother.’

The most important  aspect of the book revolves around the 1945-1949 period.  This period comes to light once Horst agreed to make available his mother’s archive.  After the material was digitized Sands had access to “8677 pages of letters, post cards, diaries, photographs, news clippings, and official documents.” This required a painstaking act of reconstruction and interpretation that evolved over a number of years.  The result was detailed information how Charlotte Wachter assisted her husband even though she believed she was under surveillance.  Charlotte Wachter was the only reason Otto survived along with the vast network that supported him in the Austrian mountains in the Lower Tauerin area.

What becomes clear as the narrative unfolds is no matter how much documentation to the contrary concerning his father’s culpability in the death of thousands, Horst refuses to accept his guilt.  No matter how many interviews with people who were involved, scholars etc., Horst remained adamant.  As Otto Wachter came down out of the mountains and left for Rome in late April 1949, he took on the identity of Alfredo Reinhardt and would make his way to a monastery in Rome called Vigna Pia where Catherine Wachter sent money, clothes, and other survival necessities.  After living in the monastery for three months, Otto Wachter would die of a liver ailment leading to Sands’ investigation of how he died.  Horst was convinced that he was poisoned, probably by the Soviet Union, or perhaps by the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, or even the Americans.

The last third of the book is spent analyzing Otto’s death.  What emerges is documentation of the role of a number of individuals, two of which stand out, Bishop Alois Hudal and SS Major Karl Hass.  It is clear from the evidence that Hudal was a focal figure in the escape of a number of important Nazis employing the “Ratline” and contacts within the Vatican.  Hass is an example of former Nazis that were used by the United States after the war in the developing Cold War with the Soviet Union.  Interestingly, he would escape and turn up working for the United States Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) on Project Los Angeles in Rome recruiting spies to be used against the Italian Communist Party.  It is clear from the evidence that  Otto was in contact with Hass right before he died.  Horst was certain that Hass might have been the double agent who murdered his father.

Black and white portrait photograph of Hudal

(Alois Hudal)

As Sands investigates the last three months of Otto’s life, he pieces together his movements and who assisted him with life’s necessities and the forged documents to survive.  What cannot be questioned is that Charlotte Wachter, Nazi acquaintances, and others from the Vatican were Otto’s prime enablers, many of which facilitated the “Ratline” for others like Walter Rauff, Joseph Mengele, Franz Stangl, Erich Priebke, Karl Hass, and others.  In effect Otto Wachter walked in the footsteps of his “old Nazi comrades.”

Sands has composed a remarkable historical detective story, bordering on a “thriller.”  Through the life of the Wachters, the Nazi “Ratline” comes into full focus, in addition to how Otto Wachter’s actions, a man who oversaw numerous atrocities during the war was not accepted by his son Horst.  As a result, the book has a great deal to offer about the mindset of a Nazi murderer, but also the lengths people went to, to allow him to maintain his freedom.

(Otto and Charlotte Wachter and their children))

HITLER: A GLOBAL BIOGRAPHY by Brendan Simms

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(Adolf Hitler)

At the outset of his new biography of Adolf Hitler, Brendan Simms points out that by 2000 over 120,000 books and articles have been written about the Nazi dictator.  The question then must be asked, why another?  Simms states in his introduction to HITLER: A GLOBAL BIOGRAPHY that conjecture concerning Hitler’s motivations that resulted in his rise to power, reorienting Germany toward Nazi domestic and foreign policy, and his ultimate defeat that have been examined since the 1950s by the likes of Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest, Ian Kershaw, and more recently by Volker Ulrich and Peter Longerich and others needs to be reexamined.  Simms seeks to build on the works of others, integrating many of their viewpoints as he puts forth his own revisionist interpretation of his subject in the tradition of A.J.P. Taylor.

Simms is a political scientist and professor of international relations and his newest book is his first attempt at biography and though it is a comprehensive look at Hitler from World War One onward it does lack coverage and interpretation of his life before that period.  What Simms is concerned with are three interrelated new claims.  First, Hitler was primarily obsessed throughout his career with Anglo-American and global capitalism, not the Soviet Union and Bolshevism.  Second, Hitler held a negative view of the German people arguing that even when purged of Jews and other “Untermenschen” he reflected a sense of inferiority in comparing the “volk” with “Anglo-Saxons.”  Thirdly, historians have focused too much on Hitler’s negative view of eugenics regarding the Jews and other undesirables and not enough on what he saw as positive eugenics, which was designed to elevate the German people to that of his British and American rivals.  According to Simms, historians “have missed the extent to which Hitler was locked in a worldwide struggle not just against “world Jewry” but with the Anglo-Saxons.”  These claims or themes are hammered home by Simms on each and every page no matter the topic he is engaged in and it comes across as quite repetitive.  The book is extremely detailed and well thought out but could have been written in a more concise manner.

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To Simms’s credit he offers a great deal for the reader and other historians to consider and analyze and ultimately question.  One of Hitler’s core beliefs according to the author is that the reason the United States developed into superpower status was because of “living space.”  America had almost an entire continent to settle and when Native-Americans got in the way they were removed.  This large area provided an enormous supply of natural resources and areas to resettle millions of immigrants who arrived from Europe in the 19th and early 20th century.  For Hitler, it was German emigrants leaving the Fatherland who arrived in the United States who were greatly responsible for the American dream.  They brought skills that were needed ranging from farming, industrial labor, and their intellect.  By leaving Germany and emigrating across the Atlantic they left a void at home and an inferior population.  During World War One, Hitler became impressed with American soldiers in large part because they were made up of a significant number of Germans.  For Hitler, it became a civil war, German emigrants fighting against Germans who remained in the Fatherland which explains as the reason Germany lost the war.  This argument is carried forth throughout the 1920s and 30s leading to and including World War Two.

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(Results of Alloied fire bombing of Dresden)

Simms provides documentary evidence of Hitler’s beliefs through speeches, private conversations, and an analysis of MEIN KAMPF and THE SECOND BOOK which Hitler authored.  Simms provides numerous examples to support his claims as Hitler constantly worried about the power of the United States and during the late 1930s he wondered what approach Franklin D. Roosevelt would take as appeasers dominated English and French foreign policy.  In developing his strategy during World War Two, Simms argues that Hitler at the outset was not concerned with race and viewed the Jews as hostages to keep the United States out of the war and it was only after Washington signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941 that Hitler decided he needed a quick victory in the east and the implementation of the Final Solution.  Hitler feared that the Charter was similar to Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points during World War I which he believed was a propaganda victory that resulted in the Germany agreeing to end the fighting.  Further, to argue that race had little impact up until 1941 in the plight of European Jewry is a bit specious at best.  All one has to do is look at Hitler’s speeches and writings to realize that race was the core of his attitude toward Jews.  The 1935 Nuremberg Laws, Hitler’s constant comparison of the treatment of Jews and black colonial soldiers, Kristallnacht, Einsatzgruppen in Russia,  and numerous other examples reflect the Hitler’s obsession with race.

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Simms’s argument that the entrance of the United States into the spelled the death knell for Jews as he no longer needed them as hostages is hard to accept.  All one has to do explore the evolution of Hitler’s views on Jews from the writing of MEIN KAMPF throughout the 1930s to the unwritten order to eradicate European Jewry surrounding the Wannsee Conference, and further events to see that argument that if the United States had not entered the war, Jews might have lived is fallacious at best.

As far as the British are concerned, Simms’s Hitler fawns over the empire, its colonial policy, and the sturdiness and bravery of its people.  Hitler repeatedly tried to make peace or ally with England throughout the 1930s, the years leading up to World War Two, and the war itself.  His strategy as is argued by many was to invade the Soviet Union as a means of pressuring London into making peace.  This is not really new, but it is interesting to explore Simms’s presentation as he has culled an enormous amount of primary and secondary materials which are part of an exceptional compendium of sources and footnotes in presenting his arguments.

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(Allied bombing of Romanian oil fields)

Simms does present all of the salient facts regarding Hitler’s life and the course of German history between World War I and II.  The author presents a detailed account of Nazi Party politics from the 1920s through the assumption of power in 1933 and beyond, Hitler’s impact on German federalism and Bavaria in particular, German culture, the removal of any threats to Hitler’s power, i.e., Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s fears of the restoration of the Habsburg Monarchy, the machinations of Nazi foreign policy using the excuse of self-determination, and many other issues.  The difference is his approach. He seems to enjoy exploring Hitler’s thought patterns and how he reached his conclusions.  A good example is how he believed England would switch sides after being defeated and support the Nazis as the Austrian Empire had done with Prussia in 1866 after the Battle of Sadowa.  Another example is how Hitler viewed the Slavs in relation to Germany, much in the same way that the United States viewed Native-Americans.  Slavs were to be moved out of the Ukraine to create Lebensraum for Hitler and provide Germany with the breadbasket of the Soviet Union as well as natural resources as the removal of Native-Americans had for Washington.

Historians seem overly concerned with watershed dates.  For Simms it is the May, 1938 crisis over Czechoslovakia as anti-appeasement factions in the British Foreign Office and in MI6, aided by Czech and German social democrat exiles triggered a crisis in order to torpedo Neville Chamberlain’s policy of conciliation toward Germany and to mobilize resistance to Hitler.  It was claimed that Hitler had mobilized German forces and was planning an imminent attack.  This was not the case as an embarrassed Hitler retreated – the result would be the Munich Crisis and the ceding of the Sudetenland in September 1938 to assuage Hitler’s ego.  As a result of the crisis Hitler began to realize that a rapprochement with England was not likely and he would rush the Czechs completely by March 1939.  Hitler did make another attempt to seek a deal with London over a “rump” Poland after the Danzig crisis and the German invasion in September 1939, but they turned him down.  According to Simms, Hitler never forgave them, and the “blitz” or Battle of Britain was a direct result as was the invasion of Russian in June 1941 as a means of showing Churchill he was isolated and should make peace, not because they were Bolshevik as many have argued.  In fact, according to Simms, Hitler held a certain admiration for Stalin for the way he ruled and how his troops fought so fiercely against the Nazis.

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(Allied liberation of Auschwitz)

As to the idea that Nazism was socialism as Simms proports one must realize Hitler’s coopting of German “big business” for rearmament was designed as a drive to war, resulting in increased profits for Krupp and Thyssen and other industrialists rather than improving working conditions and wages for workers – this is not socialism.   According to Richard J. Evans in his review in The Guardian, on September 27, 2019, a great deal of what Simms argues is untenable, and though I agree with this assessment I would not go as far as his statement that Simms’s work should be ignored by serious students of the Nazi era as it is provocative and in parts interesting.  I would say though that what Simms argues should be taken with a grain of salt, but his work should not be dismissed out of hand.

Evans review article follows as it appeared in The Guardian, September 27, 2019.

Hitler by Brendan Simms and Hitler by Peter Longerich review – problematic portraits

Was Hitler obsessed with destroying capitalism? Did he drive policy ‘even down to the smallest detail’? Two new biographies fall into different traps

Richard J Evans

 

“Hitler was a socialist,” has become a mantra for the “alt-right” in the US as it seeks to discredit Democratic politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Dinesh D’Souza’s book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left expounded this claim at length in 2017, comparing points of the Nazi party’s 1920 programme with policies put forward by modern Democrats. So, anyone who claims to be a socialist is really a Nazi who wants to set the country on the road to totalitarianism, war and genocide. Obamacare is only the start; enslavement and death will be the end. It’s a claim that has spread through the Republican party and has been echoed by Donald Trump Jr.

Now it has found its way across the Atlantic in the form of Brendan Simms’s new book, the central argument of which is that “Hitler’s principal preoccupation throughout his career was Anglo-America and global capitalism, rather than the Soviet Union and Bolshevism”. Everything in his life can be traced back to this obsession. “Hitler wanted to establish what he considered racial unity in Germany by overcoming the capitalist order and working for the construction of a new classless society.” Throughout his career, “Hitler’s rhetoric” was “far more anti-capitalist than anti-communist”. Simms asserts “the centrality of the British Empire and the United States in the gestation of Mein Kampf”, just as he claims of Hitler’s long unpublished Second Book that “the main focus of the text was the overwhelming power of Anglo-America, and especially of the United States”.

Hitler has been the subject of a string of major biographies, from those by Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest to, most recently, Ian Kershaw and Volker Ullrich. But they have all, Simms writes, got him wrong: “The extent to which he was fighting a war against ‘international high finance’ and ‘plutocracy’ from start to finish has not been understood at all.” Now he has come along to set us all right.

There are good reasons, however, why the overwhelming consensus of historical scholarship has rejected any idea that Hitler was a socialist. Simms emphasises the violence of Nazi stormtroopers in the early 1930s against German conservatives rather than socialists and communists, but in fact the latter made up the overwhelming majority of the 200,000 or so opponents of Nazism who were thrown into concentration camps during Hitler’s first year in power. As for Mein Kampf, it was the threat of communism and socialism that dominated the political part of the text, in which Hitler expounded his belief that “the Bolshevisation of Germany … means the complete annihilation of the entire Christian-western culture”. In similar fashion the main focus of the Second Book was not the US, which is mentioned only on a handful of pages, but the need for “living-space” in eastern Europe and German claims to Italian South Tyrol.

The central planks in the socialist platform have always been the belief that capitalism oppresses the mass of the people and needs to be overthrown, or at least moderated and regulated in their interest. Simms claims that “what Hitler did very effectively” was “to nationalise German industrialists by making them instruments of his political will”. But this was not economic or financial control exercised in the interests of the people, nor did Hitler nationalise industry or the banks in any meaningful sense of the word. Rather, he set a political course for rearmament as part of his drive to war that pushed industrialists such as Thyssen and Krupp to devote ever more resources to arms production in the interests of increasing their profits. The result was heightened exploitation of the workers, as the overheating of war production forced them even before 1939 to work longer hours without extra pay. This was not socialism, whatever else it was.

Simms’s reduction of virtually all the major events in the history of the Third Reich to a product of anti-Americanism even extends to episodes such as the nationwide pogrom of the Reichskristallnacht in November 1938, when thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed and 30,000 Jewish men put into concentration camps. Apparently this was caused by “Roosevelt’s hostility to Hitler and his defence of the Jews”. The invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 was launched in order “to strike at Britain, and to deter the United States … Barbarossa was to be a campaign of conquest and annihilation, for reasons more to do with Anglo-America than the Soviet Union itself”. Even the Holocaust, we should not be surprised to learn, was “primarily driven … by his fear of Britain and the United States”.

All this is nonsense, and indeed, Simms is forced to contradict himself by the sheer weight of the evidence against his thesis. The invasion of the Soviet Union was, he concedes, “part of a much broader ideological war against Bolshevism”: “a struggle between two world views”, as Hitler put it. He admits that Hitler “was not completely opposed to all forms of capitalism”, only “unproductive” ones: in other words Jewish-owned capital, as with, for example, department store chains – he forced Jewish owners out but did not close them down. Interviewed by the Daily Express correspondent Sefton Delmer in 1931, Hitler said: “My job is to prevent the millions of German unemployed from coming under communist influence.” He did not even mention America in outlining his foreign policy aims to the journalist.

Time and again, Simms uses rhetorical sleight of hand to underscore his claim that the US was the main focus of Hitler’s foreign policy by referring to “Anglo-America” when he is in fact just talking about Britain. He quotes a proclamation from Hitler saying on New Year’s Day 1944 that the war was being fought against the “Bolshevik-plutocratic world conspirators and their Jewish wire-pullers”; a few lines later this has become in Simms’s words a struggle against “Anglo-American imperialism”, and all mention of the Bolsheviks has disappeared. Yet Hitler was quite clear about the issue: “Everything I do is directed against Russia,” he said.

Simms claims that Hitler was engaged in “a war of annihilation against Anglo-Saxons, the Jews and their Bolshevik puppets”. But there was no war of annihilation against “Anglo-Saxons”; indeed, it was striking that when in 1944-45 the camps were emptied as the Red Army advanced, British, American and French prisoners were relatively well treated, while the evacuation of Slavs and the few remaining Jews turned into death marches in which tens of thousands were murdered.

The military conduct of the war in Simms’s view was also directed against the US: even “the drive on Stalingrad, like the entire war, was primarily driven by the contest against Anglo-America”. But contrary to Simms’s denial of the fact, Stalingrad held a special significance for Hitler because of its name. Pursuing his claim to the centrality of “Anglo-America” in the Nazi war effort, Simms declares that the capitulation of axis forces in Tunisia in May 1943 “was a much greater disaster than Stalingrad, with well in excess of 130,000 Wehrmacht personnel taken prisoner, many more than had entered captivity” at Stalingrad. But these are phoney statistics. In fact, about the same number of German and allied troops were captured on both occasions (around 235,000). The real difference was in the numbers killed – some 50,000 or so in Tunisia, anything up to 750,000, more than 10 times as many, at Stalingrad. It was north Africa that was the sideshow, not Stalingrad, the effects of which on the strategy and morale of the Germans were shattering.

Hitler’s genocidal antisemitism was based on the paranoid belief that Jews were racially pre-programmed to engage in subversion and conspiracy, whether from the communist and socialist left or from capitalist “profiteering”. In the end, Simms hasn’t written a biography in any meaningful sense of the word, he’s written a tract that instrumentalises the past for present-day political purposes. As such, his book can be safely ignored by serious students of the Nazi era.

For a real biography by a genuine specialist on Nazi Germany, we have to turn to Peter Longerich’s book, ably translated from the German by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe. He makes it clear that Hitler was politicised by the “Jewish-Bolshevik” revolution in Munich in 1918-19, and from early on in his career courted business in search of funds; his 1932 speech to industrialists in Düsseldorf, which Simms dismisses as unimportant, was a turning point in this respect. As for socialism, Hitler simply defined it as “love for one’s nation” and used anticapitalist rhetoric cynically in an effort to win over the working classes to his cause. Longerich dismisses the idea, currently fashionable among German historians, that Hitler created a classless “People’s Community” after he came to power, rightly stressing that social divisions and inequalities continued unabated during the Third Reich. It was communism that he was obsessed with destroying, not the US, which is mentioned only once in the book before we get to page 700.

Longerich delivers some penetrating analyses of the documentary record and takes good account of such recent publications as the diaries of Alfred Rosenberg and Joseph Goebbels. Unfortunately, however, in focusing relentlessly on Hitler himself – his politics and his decision-making – he falls into the trap of ascribing virtually everything that happened in Nazi Germany to his will, portraying him as an all-powerful dictator who drove policy “even down to the smallest detail”. This is not new, of course; it’s a reversion to the historical perspectives of the 1950s, and it’s not borne out by the evidence.

Even according to Longerich’s own narrative, Goebbels, with a very few exceptions, was the driving force in cultural policy, Hjalmar Schacht in economics (at least until 1937), Heinrich Himmler in coercion and repression, Robert Ley in the creation of the “Strength Through Joy” scheme for workers’ leisure, and so on. Given Hitler’s chaotic working habits as described by Longerich, one should not expect otherwise. And on occasions such as the formulation of the Nuremberg race laws, Hitler is described in this book as reacting to events rather than shaping them. You don’t have to go to the opposite extreme of regarding Hitler’s policies as the product of structural pressures in the regime to realise that Longerich’s bold claims for Hitler’s responsibility for everything are overdone. He claims, for example, that Hitler’s willpower kept the Germans going to the bitter end of the war, but a mass of recent research shows there were many other reasons, from fear of the Gestapo and terror of the Red Army to strong allegiance to German national identity. In the end, therefore, neither of these books comes close to supplanting the standard modern biographies by Kershaw and Ullrich.

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ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS by Ronald H. Batson

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(Zamosc, Poland as a ghetto during WWII)

In 2004, the night of charitable gala for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Ben Solomon, a survivor of the Nazi death camps walks over to a guest and points a German Lugar P08 at his forehead.  The guest, Elliot Rosenzweig, a major Chicago philanthropist and supporter of the opera is supposedly a Holocaust survivor.  Solomon is tackled and arrested.  His motivation rests on his claim that Rosenzweig is a former SS officer named Otto Piatik who murdered Jews during the war.  Rosenzweig is incredulous but refuses to prosecute.  Solomon not satisfied decides to initiate a lawsuit against Rosenzweig in civil court to prove he was a mass murderer and stole money, jewels, and other property from his family.

Thus, begins Ronald H. Batson’s successful first novel, ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS, the first in a series that focuses on two characters, Liam Taggert, an investigative reporter, and Catherine Lockhart, a lawyer.  Almost immediately Batson draws the reader’s interest as Rosenzweig vehemently denies the past that Solomon swears by.  A past that saw both men grow up in a small Polish village of Zamosc with Piatik abandoned as a child by his parents and raised by Solomon’s parents.  Solomon approaches Taggert and Lockhart to take his case and after an initial reluctance to do so because of Rosenzweig’s reputation and the fact that the events Solomon describes was over 70 years ago they are drawn into Solomon’s narrative and work to prove his accusation.  Whether Solomon is right or not, Batson has created two wonderful characters, who have their own personal baggage as ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS is the first of five installments that focus on the work of Taggert and Lockhart.

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From the outset Batson transports the reader to Zamosc, Poland following Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933.  The author relates the plight of Jews in Germany and the rise of anti-Semitism in Poland throughout the 1930s and how it impacted the Solomon family and the Jews of their village.  He follows the historical timeline throughout the war as the Solomon family is separated.  As far as Batson’s command of history it is usually accurate, but there is a major glitch in his timeline.  He puts forth the character of Ilse Piatik, Otto’s mother as the secretary to Reinhard Heydrich, a major figure in the creation of the Final Solution, but he dates its origin to 1935 when he states, “she knew about the plans for the Final Solution.”  Most historians of the Holocaust argue that the Final Solution was not decided upon and implemented so early and that it took until the invasion of the Soviet Union when the Nazis were confronted with millions of Jews in Russia that extermination plans began to crystalize.  Batson use of historical characters is accurate, particularly Hans Frank, the Governor-General of the Polish occupied territories during World War II and Reinhard Heydrich, one of the driving forces behind the Holocaust until his assassination by Czech fighters on June 4, 1942.  Further, Batson’s exploration of the role of the Judenrat is important, particularly when seen in the context of the ethical and personal dilemma’s it presented for Ben’s father.

Batson provides the Solomon family background through the life of Ben Solomon as he traces his childhood and adolescence in Zamosc throughout the 1930s.  Solomon’s relationship with Piatik is carefully explored in full as the Nazi threat begins to unfold.  As the story is recounted something darker seems to be hidden and Batson does a nice job drawing it out just enough to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.  If there is an aspect of the novel that is very disconcerting as a former educator it is Lockhart’s seeming ignorance when it comes to the Holocaust, i.e.; she did not know what a Jewish ghetto was and other information. I realize that many claim to be ignorant of the Holocaust, but she is presented as an educated person.

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(Hans Frank, the butcher of occupied Poland)

The politics and pressures of working in a major law firm are on full display and the role of local politics is ever present as Rosenzweig puts pressure on Lockhart to end her investigation, while conducting his own investigation.  The Rosenzweig character is an interesting one as Taggert delves into his background and the case that he might be Piatik unfolds.  There are a number of twists and turns as the story plays out and the reader wonders whether Rosenzweig is actually a Nazi murderer and overall the story is quite believable and makes for good historical fiction.

Batson, an attorney, originally self-published his novel.  It was later picked up by a major publishing house which has greatly benefited his readership.  The book adds to the myriad of novels that regularly appear concerning the Holocaust, but this one has a new twist and it is worth looking at an old story.  The Taggert-Lockhart relationship emerges, and it will form the basis of four other historical novels that I look forward to reading.

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(Zamosc, Poland as a Nazi Ghetto during WWII)

THE JEWS SHOULD KEEP QUIET: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, RABBI STEPHEN S. WISE, AND THE HOLOCAUST by Rafael Medoff

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One of the questions that has been foremost in the minds of Holocaust historians and the Jewish community since World War II centers around the actions and policies of  President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the Nazi agenda became clear resulting in millions of Jews perishing in the death camps.  In his latest book, THE JEWS SHOULD KEEP QUIET: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, RABBI STEPHEN S. WISE, AND THE HOLOCAUST, Rafael Medoff, the founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies augments traditional documentation of the Holocaust with recently discovered materials that fosters a reassessment of Roosevelt’s actions.  Building on Wyman’s work, particularly his PAPER WALLS: AMERICA AND THE REFUGEE CRISIS 1938-1941, THE ABANDONMENT OF THE JEWS: AMERICA AND THE HLOCAUST, 1941-1945 , and his documentary, THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST, Medoff paints a very unflattering portrait of Roosevelt’s handling of the Jewish question during World War II along with his duplicitous treatment of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Jewish leadership during the war.

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(Historian, David S. Wyman)

This chapter in American immigration history is hard to ignore and Medoff’s work does a better job chronicling and analyzing US policy than previous historians in terms of Roosevelt’s private attitude toward Jews that motivated him to close America’s doors and shut down Jewish access to Ellis Island in the face of Nazi extermination.  The reader will be exposed to Roosevelt’s convictions as early as 1931 and it is obvious that Jewish leadership should have tempered expectations once the New York governor assumed the presidency.

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(President Franklin D. Roosevelt meeting with American Rabbis in March, 1943)

Medoff’s focus centers around Roosevelt’s relationship with the Jewish community in particular their titular leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, in addition to how the president’s State Department implemented an immigration policy that he totally supported.  What is clear is that Roosevelt played Wise like a fiddle.  The president described by numerous biographers and scholars as a “master manipulator” knew just what string to play upon in dealing with Wise in order to keep his true feelings about Roosevelt’s non-existent refugee policy out of the public eye.  The president would use dinner engagements, personal notes, oval office visits and other gestures to keep criticism to a minimum.  Medoff effectively argues that Roosevelt’s practice of “glad-handing” and making policy-related promises he had no intention of keeping was especially effective with Wise and Jewish leaders who were profoundly reluctant to press Roosevelt to follow through on his unfulfilled pledges. The dilemma for Jewish leadership was should they criticize a president whose domestic agenda they totally embraced.

Jews themselves realized their precarious position in American society.  High levels of anti-Semitism, accusations they were trying to drag the United States into war in Europe, and hardships from economic depression exacerbated Jewish concerns.  The publicity afforded Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist views and the anti-Semitic diatribes of Father Charles Coughlin who had over 3.5 million radio listeners unnerved the Jewish community.

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(Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long)

The examples of Roosevelt’s vague promises, lack of interest, political calculations, and outright apathy presented by Medoff are many.  Each is based on sound research, mostly appearing in other monographs, but there is a new element of seriousness and commitment in the author’s arguments.  This is not to say that Wise and his cohorts should not share some of the blame for the lack of an American response.  Wise’s “tendency to embrace the likeminded and exclude those whom he felt politically and religiously uncomfortable ultimately weakened his hand as a national Jewish leader.”  However, no matter Wise’s faults it was Roosevelt who must accept the blame for America’s lack of empathy and his own political calculations when confronted by the Nazi horrors.

Examples of Roosevelt’s actions are many.  His support of Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long who was in charge of the visa section of the State Department whose policy was to create as many obstructions as possible to thwart any attempt to lift barriers to Jewish immigration is clear in the documents.  Long’s strategy was clear, “put every obstacle in the way and require additional evidence to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone the grinding of the visas.”  In case after case the two men were on the same page to prevent any opportunity to allow numbers of Jews to enter the United States.  The possible use of the Virgin Islands as a haven for small numbers of Jews was rejected.  The ship, “The St. Louis” with 907 passengers was denied admission to the United States and turned back to Europe.  The Evian Conference in 1937 and the later Bermuda Conference of 1943 were farces to make it appear that something might be done when in fact nothing was offered.

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When evidence of the extermination of Jews was being disseminated to London and Washington, Roosevelt administration policy was to delay and delay in not confronting Germany for its atrocities until the United States entered World War II.  Even after Kristallnacht in 1938 any American comments left out any criticism of Germany as well as references to Hitler, Goebbels, and others by name.    When Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Switzerland cabled allied leaders in August 1942 providing evidence of the depth of Nazi atrocities, which was followed by a second telegram from Yitzchak and Recha Sternbuch rescue activists in Europe, in addition to reports from the Jewish Agency in Palestine the following month saw the State Department try and keep the information from Wise to prevent what the Roosevelt administration was learning from reaching the public.  In fact, it took eighty-one days for Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Wells to get back to Wise that confirmed his greatest fears.  This was part of a pattern pursued by the Roosevelt administration who took advantage of Wise’s fear that if he pushed too hard it would create an anti-Semitic backlash that Jews were trying to push their own wartime agenda.  More and more Wise feared he was seen as Roosevelt’s “court Jew,” and Medoff points out that the Rabbi had a habit of embellishing Roosevelt’s responses of support in saving the Jews and the tragedy that befell them.

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(Secretary of the Treasury Hans Morgenthau, Jr.)

Medoff leaves no stone unturned in delineating Roosevelt’s deceitfulness.  He describes numerous examples of Roosevelt’s opposition to the rescue of Jews; not enforcing immigration quotas; talking out of both sides of his mouth depending on his audience; refusing to reign in the State Department; refusing to support the admission of Jewish children, but had no difficulty allowing the admission of British children who were endangered by Nazi bombing; refusing to consider bombing Auschwitz and other concentration camps, while at the same time assisting the Polish Underground through the air;  creating obstacles for the creation of the War Refugee Board and then underfunding it, are among many actions taken or not taken by President Roosevelt.  Medoff also explores what may have been Roosevelt’s motivations as he points to his family’s societal views which were decidedly anti-Semitic.  The author points to numerous statements by Roosevelt bemoaning the mixture of Jewish and Asiatic blood with American blood.  He wanted these groups to be spread out across America to reduce their impact on American society. He saw America as a “Protestant country” with the Jews and people of other backgrounds present only based “on sufferance.”  With these types of beliefs, it is not surprising that he was disposed to oppose the admission of too many Jews during the war.

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(Peter Bergson)

Wise does not emerge unscathed by Medoff’s analysis.  The author points to Wise’s own ego issues brooking little or no opposition by Jews to his leadership in the Jewish community.  Examples include Hillel Silver or groups outside the Jewish community like Peter Bergson and his group that was much more effective in pressuring Roosevelt to support the War Rescue Board.  Wise spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with his opponents’ criticism, time that could have been spent fighting to rescue Jewish refugees and pressuring the president.  Medoff is quite correct in pointing out that Wise was a flawed leader with his own powerful ego much like Roosevelt and perhaps that is in large part why he was able to swallow his own principles and do the President’s bidding in controlling negative Jewish commentary and actions against his “friend in the White House.”

Some might argue that Medoff’s monograph is too polemical in spots, but to his credit he provides supporting documentation for his viewpoints, integrates a great deal of the comments made by Wise and Roosevelt, and he tries to integrate differing viewpoints.  All in all, Medoff has written a serious analysis and though he has reached what some might consider a scathing indictment of Roosevelt, in many instances his commentary is dead on.

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(Rabbi Steven S. Wise)

 

RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE by Rebecca Erbelding

Image result for photo of fdr and henry morgenthau jr holocaust(President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.)

One of the most contentious debates pertaining to World War II deals with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in trying to mitigate the horrors of the Holocaust and the role of the American government in general. Many argue that Roosevelt was a political animal who based his position on the plight of world Jewry on political calculation and did little to offset Nazi terror; others argue that FDR did as much as possible based on conditions domestically and abroad.  Some authors reach the conclusion that FDR’s views were consistent throughout the war and according to historian, Richard Breitman he was “politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of the Jews-even given that he had no easy remedies for a specific Jewish tragedy in Europe.”  Many authors argue that “FDR avoided positions that might put at risk his broader goals of mobilizing anti-Nazi opposition and gaining freedom to act in foreign affairs,” for example dealing with the refugee crisis, the issue of Palestine, immigration, and organizing the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Historians stress the fear of domestic anti-Semitism, especially in the State Department; the inability of American Jews to present a united front; the role of the War Department; and presidential politics.  Overall, this is an important issue that dominates the headlines today; what is the “appropriate response of an American president to humanitarian crises abroad and at home?”

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(John Pehle, Head of the War Refugee Board)

The signature effort of the United States in dealing with the Holocaust and trying to mitigate Nazi deportations and saving Jews was the War Refugee Board which was created on January 16, 1944 which according to Rebecca Erbelding, an archivist and curator at the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s eye opening recent book,  RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE finally created an official government policy to rescue Jews.  Erbelding covers a great deal of material that has been mined previously by David Wyman, Richard Breitman, Henry Feingold, Martin Gilbert, Walter Laqueur and many others.  What separates her effort is her focus on American refugee policy from 1944 onward.  She mines over 19,000 documents dealing with the War Rescue Board as she displays the bureaucratic infighting, the ideological shifts, the out and out racism and anti-Semitism that existed in the State Department under the aegis of Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his minions like Breckenridge Long.  A number of heroes emerge from Erbelding’s narrative, the most important of which is John Pehle, the Assistant Secretary to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Roswell MacLelland who ran the War Refugee Board in Switzerland, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.

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(John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War, refused to consider bombing Nazi concentration camps)

The underlying theme of the monograph that has been portrayed by others was the bureaucratic war between the State and Treasury Departments over American immigration policy beginning in the 1930s.  By the summer of 1942 news of the ongoing massacre of European Jewry was known in Washington.  However, helping Jews escape Europe was never a priority for the American government nor its people.  Bigger problems loomed; the Great Depression, war in Europe, war in Asia, all stole the focus of most Americans.  Erbelding provides a nice synthesis dealing with the immigration battles throughout the 1920s and 30s that limited immigration under the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924.  She provides the link between anti-immigration sentiment that emerged during World War I, due in part as Daniel Okrent argues in his new book, THE GUARDED STATE to the role of eugenics, economic fears, and national security among other concerns.  By 1941 public opinion, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclivity to measure which way the political winds were blowing, anti-immigration sentiment in Congress, and out and out anti-Semitism in the State Department had already taken hold.

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(Secretary of State Cordell Hull)

By August 1942, Pehle concluded that it should be the role of the American government to try and save the Jews of Europe, and it was his responsibility as Director of Foreign Funds Control to do his best to achieve this momentous goal.  He was able to gain the cooperation of Morgenthau to liberalize the Treasury Department’s foreign funds policies to implement his strategy.  Erbelding spends a great deal of time narrating and analyzing how Pehle and his allies went about their task.  Pehle’s strategy focused on transferring funds to relief organizations that the State Department had blocked for two years; Gerhardt Riegner’s plan to save Jewish children, funding for the International Red Cross, assistance to the World Jewish Congress, assist underground movements, among many more.  Further, he created the protection of “paper,” issuing as many visas and passports with as much neutral power support as possible.  He instituted a licensing policy to satisfy the Nazis and their allies to consider releasing their captives.  He played a game of “charades” as a strategic approach to negotiations employing bluffs, lies or anything that might bring about the rescue of Hungarian Jews.  In addition, he was responsible for the creation of an Emergency Refugee Shelter in upstate New York, planting articles in newspaper and other publicity about the plight of refugees, and even went so far as trying to get the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to launder money through its Swedish headquarters.

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(Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Refugee Affairs, Breckenridge Long)

Pehle and his allies’ work did not stop with these strategies.  He worked assiduously to purchase and/or lease shipping for Jews, locating safe havens, and considered the most outrageous possibilities to save lives.  Erbelding delves into the Brand Mission which involved a Nazi attempt to ransom the Jews of Hungary.  Brand was a member of the Zionist Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest who was seen as a spy by the British who actually imprisoned him during negotiations with Adolf Eichmann.   The offer of Hungarian dictator Admiral Horthy to release Jews under his auspices, as well as the work of Raoul Wallenberg, Ira Hirschman and others was under Pehle’s purview.  As Erbelding correctly points out, the time and effort in most cases proved fruitless, but the War Rescue Board members at least tried.

Erbelding points to the British as a major roadblock because of its refusal to accept refugees in Palestine.  But London had company in creating obstacles or just plain refusal like Turkey, Spain, Portugal and others in trying to gain passage for Jews to safe havens.  They could all point to Roosevelt’s policies which after constant pressure from Jewish leaders and the State Department finally produced a declaration on March 24, 1944 warning Holocaust perpetrators and their axis allies of the punishment that awaited them once the war ended.  Pehle would employ that warning throughout Europe, but in most cases to no avail.

(Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, War Refugee Board Head, John Pehle)

Erbelding goes along with numerous others in arguing no matter how many Jews the War Rescue Board might have saved had it been created two years earlier the end of the war was the only solution to the Nazi terror.  Despite its late creation the Board did save lives, how many is open to conjecture.  But the work of people like Daly Mayer, Iver Olsen, Peter Bergson, Florence Hodel and many others cannot be discounted as the United States for the first and only time in its history worked to save lives and endeavor to employ humanitarian approach to a worldwide refugee problem.    If there is a lesson to garnered from Erbelding’s work it is that even in the midst of war, governments can achieve humanitarian successes. Perhaps the current administration should shelve its political agenda and consider what the War Refugee Board accomplished at the end of World War II and create a humanitarian approach to the refugee crisis it now confronts at its southern border.

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(President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.)

America and the Holocaust: Should the United States have done more? (a mini-course)

AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST: SHOULD THE UNITED STATES HAVE DONE MORE?

Steven Z. Freiberger, Ph.D.

szfreiberger@gmail.com

http://www.docs-books.com

One of the most contentious debates pertaining to World War II deals with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in trying to mitigate the horrors of the Holocaust. Many argue that Roosevelt was a political animal who based his position on the plight of world Jewry on political calculation and did little to offset Nazi terror; others argue that FDR did as much as possible based on conditions domestically and abroad.  Some authors reach the conclusion that FDR’s views were consistent throughout the war and he was “politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of the Jews-even given that he had no easy remedies for a specific Jewish tragedy in Europe.”  Many authors argue that “FDR avoided positions that might put at risk his broader goals of mobilizing anti-Nazi opposition and gaining freedom to act in foreign affairs,” for example dealing with the refugee crisis, the issue of Palestine, immigration, and organizing the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Authors often describe the fear of domestic anti-Semitism, especially in the State Department; the inability of American Jews to present a united front; the role of the War Department; and presidential politics.  Overall, this is an important issue that dominates the headlines today; what is the “appropriate response of an American president to humanitarian crises abroad and at home?”

Schedule:

September 9, 2019      Introduction and Background for American immigration policy leading up to World War II

September 16, 2019     The Rise of and Implementation of Nazism and its impact on Jews and American immigration policy

September 23, 2019     America and the Holocaust/Role of Franklin D. Roosevelt

October 7, 2019 Film: The American Experience: America and the Holocaust and discussion

Brief bibliography:

Beir, Robert L.; Josepher, Brian, ROOSEVELT AND THE HOLOCAUST

Breitman, Richard; Lichtman, Alan, FDR AND THE JEWS

Erbelding, Rebecca, RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE

Feingold, Henry, THE POLITICS OF RESCUE: THE ROOSEVELT ADMINISTRATION AND THE HOLOCAUST           1938-1945

Feingold, Henry, BEARING WITNESS: HOW AMERICA AND ITS JEWS RESPONDED TO THE HOLOCAUST

Gilbert, Martin, AUSCHWITZ AND THE ALLIES

Laqueur, Walter, THE TERRIBLE SECRET: THE SUPRESSION OF THE TRUTH ABOUT HITLER’S FINAL SOLUTION

Leff, Laurel, BURIED IN THE TIMES: THE HOLOCAUST AND AMERICA’S MOST IMPORTANT NEWSPAPER

Lipstadt, Deborah, BEYOND BELIEF: THE AMERICAN PRESS AND THE COMING OF THE HOLOCAUST 1933-1945

Morse, Arthur, WHILE SIX MILLION DIED

Neufeld, Michael; Berenbaum, Michael, Eds., THE BOMBING OF AUSCHWITZ: SHOULD THE ALLIES HAVE ATTEMPTED IT?

Okrent, Daniel, THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS, AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA

Rolde, Neil, BRECKENRIDGE LONG, AMERICAN EICHMANN??? AN ENQUIRY INTO THE CHARACTER OF THE MAN WHO DENIED VISAS TO THE JEWS

Rosen, Robert N., SAVING THE JEWS: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT AND THE HOLOCAUST

Rubinstein, William D. THE MYTH OF RESCUE: WHY THE DEMOCRACIES COULD NOT HAVE SAVED MORE JEWS FROM THE NAZIS

Shogan, Robert, PRELUDE TO Catastrophe: FDR’S JEWS AND THE MENACE OF NAZISM

Steinhouse, Carl, THE SHAMEFUL REFUSAL OF FDR’S STATE DEPARTMENT TO SAVE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF EUROPEAN JEWS FROM EXTERMINATION

Wallace, Gregory J. AMERICA’S SOUL IN THE BALANCE

Wasserstein, Bernard, BRITAIN AND THE JEWS OF EUROPE, 1949-1945

Wyman, David, THE ADANDONMENT OF THE JEWS: AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST 1941-1945

Wyman, David, PAPER WALLS: AMERICA AND THE REFUGEE CRISIS 1938-1941

THE UNWANTED: AMERICA, AUSCHWITZ, AND A VILLAGE CAUGHT IN BETWEEN by Michael Dobbs

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“A piece of paper with a stamp on it meant the difference between life and death for thousands and thousands of people,” wrote American journalist Dorothy Thompson after Kristallnacht in late 1938.  Truer words were never written.  For Jews trying to escape the Nazi terror as the Final Solution approached the only avenue of escape seemed to be emigration from Germany to the United States.  But as Michael Dobbs describes in his remarkable new book, THE UNWANTED: AMERICA AUSCHWITZ, AND A VILLAGE CAUGHT IN BETWEEN victims of Nazi deportation policies ran into a stone wall in trying to gain entrance into the United States.  Whether it was the stonewalling of the State Department, the leadership, or lack of thereof of Franklin Roosevelt, or plain apathy or anti-Semitism, Washington could have done a great deal more. As Dobbs points out, “the wheels of the U.S. bureaucracy continued to turn, disconnected from the tragic events that had set them in motion.”  It seemed obstacle after obstacle was increasingly instituted to make it more and more difficult for Jewish refugees to gain entrance into America and avoid “transport to the east.”

Dobbs’ focus is on the small village of Kippenheim in Baden in western Germany with a population of 144 Jews out of a total population of 1800.  The author follows the plight of a number of families who lived through the events of Kristallnacht in November of 1938 and realized that they must try and leave Germany.  The families, the Valfers, Wertheimers, and Wachenheimers, among a number that Dobbs concentrates had varied experiences.  All are subject to Nazi violence and torture in some measure.  All are torn from their homes and deported to camps in France, all make valiant attempts to leave Germany by dealing with the US immigration system, first with the consulate in Stuttgart, and the result is many will escape through Marseilles or other avenues and cross the Atlantic, go to Palestine, while others will perish in Auschwitz.  The book focuses on the period of late 1938 to the fall of 1942 when the Final Solution is in full motion.  The narrative is poignant and elicits a great deal of anger on the part of this reader as the story of the US State Department’s immigration policy under the aegis of Breckenridge Long the Assistant Secretary of State for immigration becomes crystal clear, and the lack of action and empathy on the part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt whose excuses for not acting in any meaningful way is fully described.

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(Wachenheimer family photo, circa 1938)

One of the most important questions remaining pertaining to the Holocaust is whether the United States could have done more to save lives be it bombing Auschwitz or allowing increased immigration.  In the recent past historian Richard Breitman focused on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s impact and David Wyman zeroed in on the US Department of State.  In both instances the president and the bureaucracy were found wanting.  In the case of Roosevelt political concerns about Neutrality legislation, fears of anti-Semitic backlash, enforcement of immigration law and isolationist elements in Congress along with his own inherent biases made it difficult for the President to come out in public and act.  As far as the State Department is concerned, they would enforce the restrictionist 1924 Johnson Act quotas that legally called for 27,370 Germans to immigrate to the US each year.  It is clear that in 1940-41 only 62.1% of the quota was filled, and the 1941-42 only 7.2% was filled – the period of greatest need for victims of the Baden deportations from 1938.  According to the historical record, officials in the State Department purposely created roadblocks to deny Jewish refugees admission to the United States, even women and children.

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(Breckenridge Long)

Dobbs empathetically describes in detail the damage, arrests, and fear in Kippenheim during Kristallnacht and uses the residents of the village as a microcosm of the overall crisis that Jews faced as the true intention of the Nazi regime came to the fore.  Dobbs explores the violence against the residents of Kippenheim and the attempts by families to try and emigrate to the US and the roadblocks they faced.  He delves into the State Department bureaucracy and how certain people created roadblocks to entry into America.  At times it seemed that some of these impediments could be overcome, but officials following orders from Washington created even more hoops to go through in order to obtain the necessary visas, or “more stamps” on further documentation which may not have been called for months before.  The consulate interview begins the process, but so many Jews wanted to emigrate there was a three year wait to begin the process.  The tragedy for many, like the Laflers is that when their numbers finally came up and the process for approval was gain, Freya and Hugo were already victims of the crematoria in Auschwitz.

Dobbs takes the reader through the transport of refugees from Baden to the internment camp of Gurs, through Marseilles and its poor living conditions, the bureaucratic run-a-around, and their final fate.  Vichy governmental collaboration with the Nazis led by Prime Minister Pierre Laval and French police is ever present.  The trauma of family members is plain as day as they deal with the daily attempts at survival and the highs and lows of believing they have the necessary paperwork to leave, and then have their hopes dashed by bureaucratic stalling, events like Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Russia.  Dobbs follows the families in detail based on assiduous research and interviews with survivors like Hedy Wachenheimer who at the age of fourteen became part of the Kindertransport program and left her parents to live with families in London, while eventually her parents would perish.

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(Kippenheim, Germany synagoge)

Perhaps the most poignant narrative describes Hedy’s visit to Germany and Kippenheim in particular after the war working for the US military and wearing a uniform, she must face people who harassed and demeaned her as a child.  Dobbs goes on to relate how people, both Jewish and non-Jewish worked to rebuild the synagogue in the village as a memorial to what occurred.  The process was long and difficult, but because of survivors like Kurt Maier and Mayor Willi Mathis the building was restored to its role as a true house of worship in 2003.

Dodd is to be commended for his effort in bringing to life the fate of the Kippenheim Jews, but more so at a time when immigration is such a hot controversial issue, perhaps politicians should review US immigration policy during WWII and contemplate whether at times history should force us as a people to open up our hearts, and let political partisanship recede into the background, at least for a short time.   At the outset of Dobbs ’narrative Hedy Wachenheimer rode from her home on her bicycle to school.  Upon arrival and seated in class for her lessons the usually gentle principal pointed at her and yelled, “Get out, you dirty Jew.”  This sounds like current political rallies and comments that tell “brown” people who are hear on legal visas and those legally seeking asylum to “get out and go home,” or ”send her home.”  Is this who we are as a people?

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(Boycott of Jewish Shops, Germany 1930s)

THE VOLUNTEER: ONE MAN, AN UNDERGROUND ARMY, AND THE SECRET MISSION TO DESTROY AUSCHWITZ by Jack Fairweather

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(Witold Pilecki, inmate at Auschwitz)

In 2003 my wife and I visited Krakow, Poland as part of a trip to locate where my father’s family lived before immigrating to the United States in the 1930s to escape the dark clouds that were descending upon Europe.  During our visit I hired a driver and spent hours visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau the resting place for many relatives that I never was fortunate enough to meet.  Seventy-five years after the conclusion of World War II, numerous questions abound concerning the then then “crown jewel” of Hitler’s extermination machine.  Books continue to proliferate, but what sets Jack Fairweather’s new book, THE VOLUNTEER: ONE MAN, AN UNDERGROUND ARMY, AND THE SECRET MISSION TO DESTROY AUSCHWITZ apart is his discovery of the role of Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz in order to organize  an underground resistance that would be part of a major revolt against the Germans.

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(Pilecki and his wife, Maria, and their son)

Pilecki has become a national hero in Poland and his story remained unknown in the west until it was uncovered by historians in the 1960s and 70s.  Much of his writings were sealed by the Soviet Union after the war because as a Polish nationalist, Pilecki was deemed a threat to the state, placed on trial and executed by the Stalinist regime.  It wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the opening of the state archives in Warsaw that the academic Adam Cyra and Pilecki’s 60 year old son, Andrzej had access to his father’s writings and reports smuggled out of Auschwitz in order to alert the allies as to what was occurring in the crematoria and gas chambers, and argue for the west to bomb the camps.

Fairweather asks a number of important questions from the outset that impinge upon the role of England and the United States as it learned of the extermination camps.  He carefully develops a number of important themes that reverberate throughout the narrative.  First, despite Pilecki’s earnest efforts, that included being tortured, beaten, starved, suffering from typhus, he was able to employ the Polish underground network to smuggle out the truth as to what was occurring in Auschwitz to underground leaders in Warsaw who were able to convey part of his reports to the Polish government in exile, and hence to the Churchill government in 1942.  Much of this information was also communicated to the Roosevelt administration in Washington who was much more of a political animal in deferring any decisions to assist the Jews be it immigration by confronting State Department policies that was openly anti-Semitic under the auspices of Breckinridge Long, or approving bombing of the camp.

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(Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hoss)

Second, was the mind set of British politicians in high circles who suffered from an “in-bred” anti-Semitism and saw Pilecki’s information as a distraction from the main war effort.  They would allow the dissemination of some information but would not endorse it.  As Richard Breitman and David Wyman have pointed out the British were obsessed by the Palestinian issue and they feared an Arab reaction if they approved further immigration because of their dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the Suez Canal.

Lastly, Fairweather’s narrative focuses on Pilecki’s attempt to educate the allies and get them to acknowledge the importance of what was occurring at Auschwitz.  On another level he concentrates on the allied response and the reasons for their “deafness” when it came to the extermination of European Jewry.   As he concludes, “the allied failure to Understand Auschwitz’s role as the epicenter of the Holocaust allowing officials to continue to characterize the German assault on the Jews ASA a diffuse phenomenon that could only be stopped by defeating Germany.”  Downplaying genocide could only inhibit further investigation.  Much of what Fairweather argues has been put forth by numerous historians, but the key is the personal story of Witold Pilecki that unfolds.

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(The gate as you enter Auschwitz)

Fairweather has written a deeply personal portrait of a man whose moral and ethical principles stood out in a deeply troubled period.  The narrative is based on assiduous research that included interviews with fellow inmates who the author had access, that provide insights into his character, his decision making, and the impact of his actions.  Fairweather traces Pilecki’s journey from his quiet family life who survived the Nazi onslaught on his country in September, 1939, experiences in Auschwitz, his methodology in organizing his underground network, strategies for smuggling out information, and how he tried to convince his superiors of the importance of destroying Auschwitz as it was a vehicle to exterminate millions of Jews as well as thousands of Polish Catholics.

Many of Pilecki’s compatriots like Dr. Wladyslaw Dering, a Warsaw gynecologist who faced the dilemma of how much he should cooperate with the Nazis as he tried to save as many inmates as possible, a Polish spy known as Napoleon, and Stefan Rowecki, the leader of the Polish underground in Warsaw are introduced as are the kapos, like Alois Staller who tortured the inmates, the SS Commander, Rudolf Hoss, who ran the camp, among many, and of course the victims who suffered unbearably.  Fairweather presents the unfathomable and grisly details that go along with any discussion of the Holocaust that have appeared in historical accounts since the end of World War II, but he delivers them in a concise manner, with much sensitivity and at the same time is able to convey to the reader the importance of Pilecki’s mission to expose what the Nazis were doing in Auschwitz, particularly once the decision for the Final Solution is made in January, 1942 at the Wannsee Conference.

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If there is a criticism that can be offered is that at times Fairweather is somewhat cavalier about his information, i.e. his description the Battle of the Bulge as a minor hinderance to the allied drive to end the war.  Further, he should be careful with his statistics stating that there were 2,000,000 Jews under Nazi control in Poland, the 3,300,000 would be more accurate.

Overall, Fairweather has written an important book because he uncovers the role of an important figure who did his best to alarm the world as to what was the end goal of Hitler’s racial war.  The fact that Witold Pilecki was kept hidden for so long is the result of another type of extermination, Stalin’s effort to eradicate any Pole who might have been given any credit for liberating their country.  Kudos to Fairweather for bringing Pilecki’s story to the fore.

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THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ by Antonio Iturbe; translated by Lilit Zekulin Thwaites

 

Image result for photo of the gate of auschwitz(The approach to Auschwitz)

The horrors of the Holocaust are well known and the figure of 6,000,000 is imbedded in our memory.  However, another figure that emerges that is just as repugnant to human consciousness is 1.5-1.6 million.  This is the figure associated with the number of children who perished in the Holocaust.  The Nazis had no compunction about killing children be it for ideological reasons that made them a danger to the 1000-year Reich or the fact they were unwanted.  Some were killed in retaliation for partisan attacks or others were part of the Action T4, the eradication of children with disabilities.  No matter the cause of death; Joseph Mengele’s medical experiments, clearing ghettos, the Nazis deemed that children needed to be eliminated.  Of the 6,000,000 that perished over 1,000,000 lost their lives at Auschwitz-Birkenau, of that figure it is hard to determine exactly how many were children.  Whatever the figure their existence at Auschwitz left them vulnerable to medical experiments, hard labor, and the constant fear of death.  To survive, any activity that seemed to be a hint of normalcy was important.  In Auschwitz a small school with a tiny library was allowed for children which becomes the focal point of Antonio Iturbe’s wonderous book, THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ. Translated by Lilit Thwaites.

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(Dita Polachova [Kraus])

The book is reminiscent of Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF for the tone that it sets.  The book is based on the experience of Dita Kraus who along with her parents was deported to Terezin in 1942, later in December of 1943 they were sent to Auschwitz where Dita was separated from her parents.  She would serve as the librarian in the block set up for children in Birkenau, with only a handful of books. Fredy Hirsch, a sports instructor from Prague ran the children’s block, and he along with a handful of teachers filled the children’s time with educational and cultural activities. One of these young educators was Otto (Ota) Kraus, Dita’s future husband.

“In March 1944, half of the children living at the children’s block were murdered, and their beloved Fredy Hirsch also died. In May, Dita and her mother were sent to Hamburg, Germany, where they were put to back-breaking labor. From Hamburg, the two women were transported to labor camps, and then in March 1945 to Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated several weeks later by the British Army.” (www.yadvashem.org/remembrance/archive/2014/torchlighters/kraus.html)

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(Dr. Josef Mengele and his experiments)

Kraus describes Iturbe’s work as being based on extensive conversations with her, along with other research and sources.  “It is a story born both from my own experiences and the rich imagination of the author.”  Though the narrative mirrors what Kraus experienced it stands on its own as literary witness to what she, her family, and so many others had to cope with each day, and the final toll it took on its victims.

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(Dita Kraus)

For the children who attend Alfred Hirsch’s school in Block 31 the question that dominates their world is why they should study when there’s little chance they will leave Auschwitz alive?  Hirsch’s rationalization is that Block 31 should be an oasis for children as they had little hope each day.  The reality is that 521 children received somewhat of an education in Block 31, but they live in constant fear of becoming a specimen in one of Dr. Josef Mengele’s morbid experiments.  For the children, the location of Block 31 is on the path of deportees walking from their transport to the showers and their death reinforced their plight.  For the teachers, how do you teach children when they can hear the noise attendant to victims who will shortly be gassed?

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(Dita and Raja Engländerová-Žádníková, Hagibor 1941)

Iturbe presents many characters who either suffer from tortured relationships or they torture themselves through anxiety and fear of what the future holds.  The author has a nose for detail and the sensibilities of his characters. Each character has their own way of coping.  For Dita, the protagonist it is being a librarian for the inmates and the danger that is part of her existence.  Dita treats her library which consists of eight paper books and six living books as if she is a doctor, perhaps a surgeon as each time a book needs repair, she stitches them back to life. For Rudi Rosenberg, who is the camp registrar, exposing him to the numbers associated with death he begins a relationship with Alice Munk, a young desperate Jewess.  Then there is Victor Pestek, a member of the SS, who develops a friendship with Renee Neumann.  For Fredy Hirsch it is to allow the children to focus on something other than their situation, for him when a child smiles it was an act of defiance.  For Ota Kelle, it was to teach children about Palestine and the future.  For Liesl Adler, Dita’s mother she must deal with the void that the the death of her husband has caused, and poor Professor Morgenstern, it was to act like a fool. As Iturbe develops these characters he integrates a historically accurate picture of what transpired in Terezin and Auschwitz, and brings along important historical figures like Mengele, Adolph Eichmann, Johann Schwarzhuber, Elisabeth Volkenrath, and Rudolf Hoss.  The language and behavior of the Kapos and SS, the description of the clothing and work of the inmates, the Wagnerian music in the background are all true to history.

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(Ota B. Kraus)

For Dita to survive, Iturbe describes her relationship with books that she treats as if they were sacred texts. She immerses herself into H.G. Wells’ A SHORT HISTORY OF THE WORLD, Thomas Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, Alexandre Dumas’ THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, and Jaroslav Hasek’s THE ADVENTURES OF GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK in order to understand the world in which she lives, and as a means of surviving each day.  As Dita communes with the book’s characters she questions many things including who she can trust in a world where rumors and lies dominate.  One of the survival  tools that Dita develops is creating a photo album in her head, something the Nazis could not take away from her as they worked to deprive children of their childhoods.

Aside from telling Dita’s story Iturbe engages in several philosophical aspects of life and survival, particularly in a concentration camp.  The human capacity and spirit for overcoming all obstacles emerges as does the importance of books in our everyday lives.  The book’s audience should be wide, and I encourage all to invest the time to experience it.

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(The gate to Auschwitz)

A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY by Ken Cuthbertson

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(Shirer reports from Nazi Germany)

Today we are exposed to the repetitive 24 hour news cycle on cable television.  It seems that each hour the same information is reprogrammed creating a staleness for the viewer.  Further exacerbating this reporting is the concept of “fake news” and the new reality that it has created in lieu of real journalism.  This being the case it would be useful to think back seventy to eighty years to the type of reportage that existed in the 1930s and 40s.  Instead of dealing with talking heads sitting around a table supposedly providing analysis and context, the public would gather around the family radio listening to reporters from the capitols of Europe and the battlefields of World War II.  At that time a group of reporters worked for CBS news and were known as the “Murrow’s Boys,” men hired by Edward R. Murrow reporting war related events on site.  One of those reporters, William L. Shirer, along with Murrow created the prototype of broadcast news that dominated the airwaves before cable television.  It is through his biography of Shirer, A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY that Ken Cuthbertson traces the development of broadcast journalism through most of the twentieth century.  Cuthbertson, also the author of the remarkable book, THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION: CANADA’S WORST EXPLOSION has written a remarkable study that encompasses Shirer’s life by integrating the main events of the pre- and post-World War II period and the dominant currents of print and non-print journalism at that time.

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(Edward R. Murrow and Shirer)

Shirer originally made a name for himself reporting from Vienna and Berlin throughout the 1930s and through his publication of his BERLIN DIARY in 1936, perhaps providing the most informative insights into Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement up until that time.  He would return to the United States in 1940 as a broadcast journalist for CBS until 1947 as he was fired for his supposed liberal views.  Shirer would be blacklisted from radio and television until 1960 because of the paranoia of the time period, particularly on the part of media executives.  Shirer would climb out of the poverty that his banning had caused and restore his reputation with the publication of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, then a bestseller, and today remains one of the most important examples of narrative history ever written.

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According to the author, Shirer was a very complex individual who lost his father and grandfather at a young age and went through life searching for a meaningful existence which always seemed to be beyond reach.  Shirer’s complexity was in part due to his own self-perceived shortcomings as he often seemed to be at loss in trying to make sense of his own life.  Shirer would grow up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and would possess a certain Midwest naiveté that would be dashed later covering unimaginable events in Europe.  Cuthbertson has written a detailed narrative that does a nice job placing Shirer’s life story in the context of the events occurring around him.  Shirer is drawn to Europe and achieves his first break by hooking up with the conservative Chicago Tribune in 1925 and through his life we experience the “lost generation” that had migrated to Paris in the 1920s meeting Hemingway, Fitzgerald, along with the likes of James Thurber.  His first major story covered Lindbergh’s crossing the Atlantic providing him with the opportunity for making a name for himself.

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For much of Shirer’s career he seems to have been in the shadow of Edwin R. Murrow who hired him in 1934 as CBS was expanding its overseas news outlets in response to events.  The two would become friends, only to suffer a disastrous falling out after World War II.  The biographer must always be careful to avoid placing their subject on a pedestal, but it seems that Cuthbertson is bent on rewriting history with Shirer emerging from Murrow’s shadow.  In his approach Cuthbertson has an engaging writing style and seems to cover all aspects of their friendship, competition, and falling out, integrating the history of radio journalism and the role of CBS, and other participants in the story.  Analysis is clear and concise as it is with other aspects of the book and very thorough.  My only question is sourcing employed.  Cuthbertson relies too much on certain secondary sources, particularly THE MURROW BOYS by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson.  The author does a fine job culling Shirer’s diaries and notes and should try and cite more primary materials as he makes his way through Shirer’s life story.

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Cuthbertson has not written a hagiography of his subject and his description of Shirer’s private life and thoughts are dealt with in full.  His pride which knew no bounds, his inability to know went to “hold his cards” and fight another day, the inability after self-reflection to rectify errors that he admitted he had made, his tenaciousness, his obsessiveness, and his belief in himself to a fault are all on display.  Further, the author delves into Shirer’s private life; his marriages, affairs, socializing, years of travel and the effect on his family, and living beyond his means after his income was drastically reduced to the point he could not repair the furnace in his Connecticut farmhouse are explored in full.

Cuthbertson does an excellent job providing a feel for each city in which Shirer lives, and reports.  Whether it is Paris in the 1920s, Vienna and Berlin in the 1930s, or London or New York, the reader will feel the vibe and seriousness of the events being covered.  Shirer’s views, intellectual and emotional are clear be, it his distaste for England and France as they respond to the Anschluss with Austria, the Munich Crisis, or other events.  Perhaps one of the most interesting sections of the book describes the relationships that Shirer developed with historical figures, especially Mahatmas Gandhi.  In 1931 Shirer is dispatched to India by Colonel Robert McCormack, the owner of the Chicago Tribune and soon will meet and develop a friendship with Gandhi.  The Indian revolutionary would assume the role of teacher and spiritual counselor to Shirer as they read and studied the holy books of the world’s great religions.  This relationship softened Shirer as he learned about Asian culture and the developing world, witnessing the effects of English colonization first hand.

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(David Moyers interviewing Shirer in his later years)

The history of radio journalism permeates the narrative throughout, even as it is threatened by the new medium of television.  Numerous characters emerge, many of which were household names well into the twenty first century.  Shirer’s interaction with the likes of William Paley, Eric Sevareid, Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther, Edward R. Murrow, Frank Stanton and others are fully explored.  For Cuthbertson, in covering the history of radio journalism, Shirer stands out as a dedicated, incisive newsman who strove to relay as much of the truth as he saw it, be it coverage of the Nuremburg Trials, travels to New Delhi and Kabul, or commentary comparing life in Europe and America.  To Cuthbertson’s credit, he pulled no punches when he points out the errors in Shirer’s opinions.

Shirer was a firm believer in the strength of America and its values.  He felt the United States was strong so engagement and dialogue with America’s foes after World War II was preferable to confrontation when countering Soviet expansionism.  Shirer spoke against aid to Greece in 1947 and was critical of Chiang Kai-Shek, opinions that would eventually would bring about his termination at CBS.  Shirer’s firing led to a crisis in his relationship with Murrow and Cuthbertson interestingly conjectures that Murrow’s guilt in not supporting his friend finally pushed him to confront Senator Joseph McCarthy and help bring him down in 1954.

There is so much material and detail that in certain areas Cuthbertson could have been a little more concise, a little less repetitious, but overall his work is important because it is the only full length biography of one of the most significant journalists of the twentieth century.  Shirer, for all of his faults is a shining example of what freedom of the press means to a democracy, an example that the current occupant of the White House should consider as he rambles on with his seemingly daily diatribes about the press being the enemy of the American people.

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(Shirer gaining approval for broadcast from Nazi censor)