SONS AND SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE JEWS WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND RETURNED WITH THE ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER by Bruce Henderson.

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(The burning of a Jewish synagogue during Kristallnacht)

During World War II there was a little known group of men who were trained at Camp Ritchie, Maryland.  Their extensive classwork and field training was designed to prepare them to interrogate German prisoners of war and gather intelligence to be used against Nazi forces.  What became known as the “Ritchie Boys” was formed in mid-1942 and was made up of 1985 German born Jews who had immigrated to the United States in response to Nazi persecution particularly after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933,  Kristallnacht in November, 1938, and the events of 1941.  Most of these German-Jewish boys arrived without parents and siblings and had to adapt to their new homeland on their own.  Part of the reason was due to the racist/anti-sematic attitude on the part of a number of important State Department officials like Breckenridge Long who as Assistant Secretary of State helped set American immigration policy.  The journey of the Ritchie Boys and their impact on the Second World War is aptly told by Bruce Henderson with compassion and insight in his latest book, SONS AND SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE JEWS WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND RETURNED WITH THE ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER.  The story of the Ritchie Boys takes them through their wartime experiences in gathering important intelligence from German POWs, their participation in a number of important battles, including the Normandy invasion, Operation Market Basket, the Battle of the Bulge, liberation of extermination camps, and their efforts after the war to locate family members.

In the first part of the book Henderson focuses on the early plight and immigration of a number of men who would become Ritchie Boys.  They include Martin Selling, who was rounded up after Kristallnacht, separated from his family, imprisoned in Dachau and after his release made it to the United Kingdom due to the work of a Jewish relief agency that eventually provided a visa to enter the United States.  Gunter Stern, who would change his name to Guy grew up in a middle class family in Northern Germany and as the situation for Jews deteriorated in 1937 he was sent by himself to the United States to live with an uncle in St. Louis because the State Department refused to allow the rest of his family to immigrate.  Stephan Lewy was placed in an orphanage after his mother died and the economic fortunes of his father collapsed.  After his father was released from a concentration camp and they experienced Kristallnacht he left Germany for Paris leaving his father and step mother behind.  Werner Angress was not a very good student and he was sent to an agricultural farm in Poland where he found success.  Once things deteriorated in Berlin his father developed a successful plan for the entire family to escape and go to Amsterdam.  In 1939 Angress escaped from Holland and left for America.  Lastly, Victor Brombert, another teenage boy was smuggled out of Germany in 1933 and moved to Paris, however, during the Vichy regime he left France to experience a harrowing voyage to New York and safety in 1941.

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(Guy Stern)

All of the boys experienced the emergence of Hitler, their removal from schools, harassment by Hitler Youth, and the collapse of their families as parents were arrested, businesses confiscated, and the eventual separation.  All witnessed and were affected by the 1935 Nuremberg “Blood” Laws, Kristallnacht, and the difficulty of emigrating in part because the Nazis seized their assets and only allowed them to take a pittance of their wealth out of the country.  Henderson further explores the difficulties as they had to navigate the exclusionary immigration laws of the United States and their enforcement by elements in the State Department.  Jews were required to provide affidavits from American citizens that they would take care of their relatives financially, along with other documentation that took a great deal of time to obtain.  The work of David Wyman provides an inside look into the “old boys club” of the State Department and their arcane views when it came to race and Jews.  Henderson describes the heroic efforts of the families as they realized that only one family member would be allowed to leave and in most cases it was the eldest son with the hope they could reunite later.

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(American soldier and survivors of the Wobbelin concentration camp)

The boys that are the center of the story would become naturalized American citizens before they were sent overseas to fight the Nazis.  Henderson describes their training and dispatch to England to participate in the Normandy landing.  Since native Germans would have knowledge of Nazi/German culture and colloquial language the Ritchie Boys were in high demand to interrogate POWs.  The individual stories Henderson presents reflects the importance of the Ritchie Boys to the allied war effort.  Particularly interesting is Werner Angress who was attached to the 82nd Airborne and with little training parachuted behind German lines.  His later intelligence gathering leading up to and during the Battle of the Bulge was very important.  Another insightful segment deals with Victor Brombert’s participation in the 28th Infantry Division as he experienced combat in Belgium and Northern France and predicted the Battle of the Bulge which was ignored by hire ups.  Perhaps one of the most ingenious of the Ritchie Boys was Guy Stern who after Normandy was made Head of Survey and his reports were distributed to all allied commanders including General Eisenhower.  Along with another Ritchie Boy named Manfred Ehrlich, who changed his name to Fred Howard, he developed a number of unusual schemes in order to extract information from POWs.

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(Werner Angress, his mother and two brothers after the war)

Henderson tells a number of wonderful stories including the visit of Marlene Dietrich as part of the USO, the capture of Hauptmann Kurt Bruns who ordered the death of two captured Ritchie Boys, how the Ritchie Boys had to overcome the skepticism of some officers who accused them of being German spies, and at times the guilt they felt when they had to use unorthodox methods to extract information from POWs.  Perhaps the most poignant part of the book is when the Ritchie Boys confronted the Holocaust when they witnessed the concentration camps.  Stephan Lewy arrived at Buchenwald with the Sixth Armored Division, Guy Stern arrived at Buchenwald three days after its liberation, Werner Angress witnessed the Wobbelin concentration camp, and when Manny Steinfeld arrived there he could not escape the possibility that his sister and mother were murdered there.

Overall, Henderson tells a remarkable story.  It is told clearly integrating numerous interviews with the Ritchie Boys and accompanying research.  My main criticism involves the method of sourcing which is very ineffective and difficult to attribute information.  As a historian I would love to have been able to match materials to citations so I might have pursued certain aspects of the book further.  However, the topic is fascinating and Henderson has done these men a great service by telling their story.

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(The burning of a Jewish synagogue during Kristallnacht)

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THE ZOOKEEPERS WIFE: A WAR STORY by Diane Ackerman

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(The Warsaw Zoo used in WWII to hide Jews, Polish resistance fighters, and others)

Recently I went see the film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” and I was taken by the story and the quality of the production.  The film was based on a book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, which was published in 2007.  Ackerman’s narrative history tells the story of Jan and Antonia Zabinski, who married in 1931, and shortly thereafter became the heads of the Warsaw Zoo located in the Praga district of the city.  The Zabinski’s were Christians who were horrified by the rise of Nazism in Germany, particularly the racial theories they expounded as they related to animals and humans.  The book replicated by the film tells the story of how the Zabinskis responded to the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 and their final seizure of the entire country when they invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941.  What makes the book somewhat different from the standard historical narrative is that Ackerman, a prolific nature writer by trade is able to apply her expertise in her field to a story that is horrific as well as heroic.

Jan Zabinski was a member of the Polish Underground (Home Army) and throughout the book he tries to maintain the remnants of the zoo, while Antonia sought to help her animals as best she could, while shielding their son Rys from the carnage that surrounded them.  The Zabinski’s role in rescuing over 300 individuals, Polish resistance activists and Jews during the course of the Nazi occupation is the core of the book as Ackerman explores how this was accomplished and their commitment to saving “humans” as well as animals.  The author’s narrative describes how the couple lived before the war in a world where their lives revolved around the internal clocks of their animals as well as humans.  Their daily routines were never quite the same because of the needs of the animals which made each day a novelty with welcome moments especially when the animals seemed to visit and live inside their dacha.  It appears that Jan and Antonia lived in synchrony with the animals and did their best to view the world and align their senses with how their “animal guests” as they were called, might view and experience their world.  As Jan points out, “its’ by living beside animals that you learn their behavior and psychology.”

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(Antonia and Jan Zabinski)

The story is described through the daily rhythms and scents of the zoo’s resident animals.  The cacophony of sounds reflected animal life and the environment and care they were afforded by Jan and Antonia.  As war approached the matriarchal Antonia worried what would be the fate of her “animal republic,” since the zoo was located in Poland’s most populous city.  Her fears were justified as once the war began the German military slowly pinched off Warsaw from the rest of Poland, and the Nazis indiscriminately, whether through sport or just vengefulness, killed the animals.  Another character that looms large in the narrative is Lutz Heck, Director of the Berlin Zoo and a man obsessed with animal bloodlines whose research was designed to restore certain “pure blooded and extinct species.”  He was a powerful and ardent Nazi who supposedly arrived to borrow some of Jan and Antonia’s best animals and send them to Berlin, to be returned to them after the war.  Hermann Goring was Heck’s patron who also aspired to recasting Germany’s natural world, “cleansing it, polishing it, perfecting it.”

In order to try and save as many animals and people as possible Jan and Antonia came up with a proposal to feed Nazi troops by creating a “pig farm” at the zoo.  Heck approved and this provided Jan access to the Warsaw ghetto to obtain scraps to feed the pigs and fatten them up for slaughter. According to the Jewish Institute in Warsaw, Jan’s access to the ghetto allowed him to “bring out notes, bacon, and butter, and carry messages to friends.” It was an ingenious and dangerous plan, but it allowed Jan to use the zoo as a vehicle for the Polish Underground whose foothold in the Praga District helped protect 6,000 soldiers, the largest pool of saboteurs in the city.  Antonia was in a difficult position because Heck had designs on her apart from animals and she tried her best to play him to her advantage in order to protect her animals and her “human guests.”

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Ackerman’s narrative is historically accurate and insightful.  Her discussion of natural history is enlightening, particularly as she describes the Zabinski’s zoo management as animals were not just housed in cages, but in “habitats meant to recreate their native wetlands, deserts, and woods.”  Once the zoo is destroyed by German bombing Ackerman examines Jan and Antonia’s survival strategies, in addition to saving the lives of as many people as possible.  Her story reflects the empathy and care the Zabinski’s had for their animals and the people that were hidden in closets, rooms, and even animal cages during the Nazi occupation.  Throughout this process, Antonia tried her best to maintain a “normal festive” atmosphere so her “guests” could feel at home despite the ever present threat that at any time the Nazis would bang on their door.  Signals and other strategies were implemented to make people as safe as possible.

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(Cecylia Teodorowicz, the Zabinski housekeeper in the kitchen with an otter)

Jan’s plan was a simple one, hide Jews and ammunition in plain sight in the middle of the zoo.  He created a halfway house for Jews in hiding and in transit, “nomads, not settlers, they stopped briefly to rest and refuel in route to unnamed destinations.”  Like animals, these guests would blend into their surroundings.  Antonia was unaware of some of Jan’s Underground activities until after the war.  She did not know that he hid C13F, a water soluble explosive in a barrel, she was in the dark when it came to Jan as a leader of an Underground cell that specialized in sabotaging German trains by jamming explosives into wheel bearings, she did not know that he infected some pigs with worms, butchered them and slipped them into German soldier’s sandwiches.  These are the types of things along with details of how Jan smuggled people out of the ghetto to safety, and the overall danger he faced that Ackerman brings out in her narrative that is of the utmost importance.

Ackerman has the ability to blend her knowledge of the natural world with the historical tide.  Daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto, Himmler’s determination to destroy the ghetto to provide a birthday present for Hitler, the Polish Army’s rebellion against the Nazis as Stalin waited in the wings for its destruction, and numerous other events receive full consideration.  Integrating her “guests” into these events provides an even greater meaning to their intensity and importance.

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(The Warsaw Ghetto)

Antonia maintained a diary throughout the war that Ackerman heavily relies upon and integrates into her narrative.  It is an excellent source as Antonia did her best to prevent more Holocaust victims, but also shows that the animal world was not to be romanticized as she felt it was very violent, and that one had to tread carefully when caring for animals.  As far as citations are concerned it appears much of the book is based on a few sources and it would have assisted the reader if detailed footnotes could have been provided, not just a sentence or two.  In addition, I would have liked further information about the postwar experience of the Zabinskis both of whom did extraordinary work during World War II.

As far as a comparison to the film is concerned, the story is segmented and the parts that are produced seem fairly accurate.  In the movie Jan comes across as a softer figure, in the book he has an extreme edge at times in dealing with Antonia.  Lutz Heck’s role in the film is somewhat crucial to the story, but less so in the book.  Events are accurate, but the book relies more on Antonia’s natural world of animals than is presented in the film.  Overall, the book is worth the read, and the film should be viewed.

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(The Warsaw Zoo used in WWII to hide Jews, Polish resistance fighters, and others)

AMONG THE LIVING by Jonathan Rabb

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(Savannah, GA)

Jonathan Rabb’s new novel, AMONG THE LIVING begins as a feel good story.  Holocaust survivor and former Prague journalist, Yitzchak Goldah arrives in Savannah in July, 1947 sponsored by his cousins Abe and Pearl Jesler.  The Jesler’s are very sensitive to Ike, the nickname Pearl creates, and his situation.  They invite him into their home and take care of all of his needs.  Ike has lost his entire family to the Nazi genocide and his mindset grows confused as he tries to adapt to new surroundings at the same time dealing with flashbacks from the camps.  It appears to be the making of a wonderful story, until different layers of the novel unravel.  Abe Jesler owns a shoe store in the Savannah business district and he invites Ike to learn the trade and work for him.  Along with Ike, Abe has a number of “negro” workers that include Calvin and Raymond.  As the story progresses, Abe who grew up in one of Savannah’s poorer sections needs to make a significant amount of money to satisfy his overly neurotic and loving spouse, Pearl.  Unbeknownst to Ike, Abe is involved with smuggling shoes from Italy through a southern organized syndicate, and over time he is drawn deeper and deeper into the mob’s machinations that call for increasing monetary payments and cooperation.  When Abe falls behind in his obligations a message is sent resulting in the brutal beating of Raymond.

The smuggling component is just one storyline.  Ike will met a World War II widow, Eva De La Parra, and against her mother’s wishes they begin a relationship.  Both Ike, the survivor, and Eva, the mother of a five year old boy, whose husband was killed in Germany in 1945 suffer from a deep emotional void and seem meant for each other.  As their relationship progresses a number of fissures emerge in Savannah society.  Then we learn that a person from Ike’s past seems to return from the dead.  Malke Posner, who survived Theresienstadt, the Nazi “model” concentration camp, turns up at the Jesler’s doorstep claiming to be Ike’s fiancée.

What dominates Rabb’s fine novel is social class inequality and prejudice.  At a time when “Jim Crow” dominates the Deep South we find a Jewish community where social circles seem to form around the type of Judaism that religious adherents aspire to.  First, are the somewhat religious conservatives that the Jeslers exemplify.  The second are Eva’s parents, the Weiss’s whose father is the editor of the town newspaper who are seen as “Temple Jews,” or as they are called, reformed.  This “ideological” conflict forms part of the background for a story that takes place at a time when Jews are finally leaving the displaced persons camps in Europe following their liberation from Hitler’s death camps, and in the Middle East Palestine is about to explode into a war between Jews and Arabs.  To highlight this, Rabb creates a scene during the Jewish New Year where both groups of Jews confront each other at the beach as they are about to engage in a Jewish cleansing tradition. Another fissure centers on race relations in the south.  The Jeslers, as do most wealthy members of the Savannah community employ Negro maids, in this case Mary Royal.  Her actions act out the subservient stereotypical maid as does the common language spoken by Raymond and Calvin.  In addition, Raymond confronts Abe Jesler concerning his rightful place in a business that he has worked in for over twenty years.

Rabb develops his plot through these dynamics and integrates well developed characters and a story whose highs and lows provoke many compelling questions.  This is Rabb’s sixth novel, and perhaps his best.

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(Savannah, GA)

HITLER: ASCENT 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich

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The public’s fascination with Adolf Hitler remains strong even sixty years after his suicide in the Fuhrer bunker in April, 1945.  To date over 120,000 books have been written about Hitler and Volker Ullrich’s new biography, HITLER: ASCENT 1889-1939 is a welcome addition to this ever increasing bibliography.  Up until now Ian Kershaw’s two volume work was the recognized standard in this genre replacing earlier volumes by Alan Bullock, and Joachim Fest as the most comprehensive works on Hitler.  Kershaw argued that Hitler was motivated by two obsessions as he pushed Germany toward war; the removal of the Jews, and German expansion to the east.  Overall, Ullrich agrees with Kershaw’s thesis, but what makes his book so important is his ability to synthesize the vast material that has already exists, his access to a great deal of new primary materials, and it has been almost twenty years since Kershaw’s work was published.  Ullrich should be commended for his voluminous research supported by his extensive endnotes.  These endnotes contain a treasure-trove of information for scholars of the Nazi regime, their leaders, and their rise to power.

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(A burned out synagogue during Krystallnacht, November, 1938)

Many wonder what the keys were to Hitler’s success.  Ullrich correctly depicts a man who was able to conceal his real intentions from friends and foes alike as one of the keys to his success.  He had the ability to instantly analyze political situations and exploit them, including his political opposition.  His success rests on his improvisational style of leadership where he created numerous internal conflicts from which he emerged as the indispensable man.  Ullrich breaks the myth that Hitler lacked personal relationships arguing that he was able to separate his political and private spheres which impacted his pursuit of power greatly.  Another key that Ullrich stresses in understanding Hitler is examining the reciprocal nature of his relationship with the German people that contributed to his enormous popularity.  It was not a forgone conclusion that Hitler would come to power, but domestic opposition leaders underestimated his abilities, as would foreign leaders after he consolidated power in 1934.  Ullrich’s aim “is to deconstruct the myth of Hitler, the ‘fascination with monstrosity’ that has greatly influenced historical literature and public discussion of the Fuhrer after 1945.  In a sense, Hitler will he ‘normalised’—although this will not make him seem more ‘normal.’  If anything, he will emerge as even more horrific.”

Ullrich’s study is extremely comprehensive.  He does not spend a great deal of time concerning Hitler’s childhood and upbringing, just enough to explore a few myths associated with Hitler’s childhood which he debunks, i.e.; he did not grow up in poverty as his father Alois had a good pension; he did not blame the Jews for the death of his mother from cancer; and he did not blame the Jews for his inability to be admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts  The biography becomes detailed as the Ullrich explores the effect  Fin-de-Siècle Austria on Hitler and the author does an excellent job reviewing the historiography pertaining to Hitler’s intellectual development.  Hitler is presented as an autodidact who was self-educated which explains how he acquired his anti-Semitic prejudices and German nationalist ideas.  But it is Hitler’s experience in World War I that shaped the man, without which he would have remained “a nobody” with pretensions of being an artist.

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(Adolf Hitler with his second in command, Hermann Goering)

Ullrich’s work successfully shifts the focus of his study on to Hitler the person as is evidenced by an excellent chapter, “Hitler the Human Being.”  It is here that Ullrich delves into Hitler’s behavior and personality and tries to lift the mask that makes it difficult to penetrate Hitler’s shifting persona.  Hitler’s personality is a compilation of dichotomies.* He was a dictator who kept people at a distance, but sought company to avoid being alone with himself.  He could be caring and empathetic at times, but at the same time he could commit or order brutal acts.  Ullrich is correct in pointing out that Hitler was an actor and chameleon who was able to manipulate others who did not see through him as he overcame his personal insecurities and was able to shift many of them on to the German people in order to seize power.

Other important chapters include “Month of Destiny: January 1933,” where Ullrich details Hitler’s path to the Chancellorship by taking the reader through the numerous elections, the strategies pursued by Hitler and his cohorts, the approach taken by the opposition, and the political infighting on all sides of the political spectrum.  January 30, 1933 became the turning point in the history of the twentieth century, but at the time Ullrich correctly points out leaders and the German public were not totally aware of its significance because most power brokers believed that the Franz von Papen-Paul von Hindenburg-Alfred Hugenberg alliance would be able to control Hitler.  As is repeatedly pointed out in the narrative it was just another example of people underestimating the new German Chancellor.  When examining if there were opportunities to stop Hitler’s ascent, Ullrich recapitulates the ideas of Karl Dietrich Bracher’s THE GERMAN DICTATORSHIP published in 1972.  Further, no one should have been surprised by Hitler’s actions after he rose to power, because his speeches, other public utterances, and his book MEIN KAMPF carefully delineated what he proposed to do.

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(Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbles)

In the realm of what he did do it is carefully reconstructed in the chapters, “Totalitarian Revolution,” and “Eviscerating Versailles.”  After achieving power on January 30, 1933 over the next year we witness the Nazi consolidation of power through the creation of the first concentration camp at Dachau; the passage of the Enabling Act, or “The Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich,” which was used to create a dictatorship in the hands of the Chancellor as Hitler could now formulate laws without the approval of the Reichstag; and lastly, The Night of the Long Knives which destroyed the SA and the last vestige of political opposition.   As far as Hitler’s foreign policy was concerned the enemy was the Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy and the key to its destruction was the step by step dismantling of the Treaty of Versailles.  Ullrich takes us through this process and the tactic Hitler employed throughout the period was to simultaneously appear as conciliatory and presenting his adversaries with a fait accompli, i.e., German military rearmament and the occupation of the Rhineland in March, 1936.   The response of the west was one of appeasement and Hitler recreated a strategy that worked so effectively domestically – implementing policy that fostered foreign diplomats to underestimate him.   Overall, there is little that is new in this part of the narrative, but Ullrich’s clear analysis and Jefferson Chase’s excellent translation make events and policies easy to understand, particularly the historical implications that would result in World War II.

After reading Ullrich’s narrative I am not certain he has met his goal of “humanizing” Hitler because no matter how the material is presented he remains the historical monster that his actions and belief system support.  To Ullrich’s credit he has written a carefully constructed biography that should be seen as the most comprehensive biography of Hitler to date, and I look forward to the second volume that will carry us through the end of World War II.

*To explore Hitler from a psychological perspective you might consult:

Binion, Rudolph. HITLER AMONG THE GERMANS

Langer, Walter. THE MIND OF ADOLF HITLER

Waite, Robert. HITLER THE PSYCHOPATHIC GOD

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MISCHLING by Affinity Konar

Mischling
Most of us are aware of the horrific policies implemented by the Nazis during the Holocaust, but one area that seems further and further beyond the pale in terms of their barbarity and horror is in the realm of medical experiments.  The name that comes to the fore when thinking of such perverse behavior is that of Dr. Josef Mengele who conducted experiments on about 1500 pairs of twins in his laboratories at Auschwitz, of which maybe 200 survived the war.  Mengele was obsessed with the behavior and genetic makeup of twins which forms the infrastructure of Affinity Konar’s new novel, MISCHLING.  Mischling in German means “mixed blood” or “half breed,” and was the legal term employed by the Nazis to denote people with Jewish or Aryan ancestry.  There were different categories as delineated by the 1935 Nuremberg Blood Laws that the Nazis developed to determine whether a person was a Jew or of mixed blood.  This determination affected Jews on many levels and for far too many led to their ultimate extinction.

Konor develops her story through the eyes of Pearl and Stasha Zagorski, twin girls who at the age of twelve are seized and transported to Auschwitz in the fall of 1944.  Konor alternates her narration between the twins and begins with Stasha as she describes a white coated man walking over to the girls and their mother and grandfather as classical music plays in the background.  The man known as “Uncle” throughout the novel is Dr. Josef Mengele and after examining the girls separates them from their mother and grandfather and sends them to the Zoo, the name for the facility for Mengele to conduct his research.

Konor’s novel draws heavily on CHILDREN OF FLAMES by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, and THE NAZI DOCTORS by psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton.  Despite her reliance on these works Konor is able to create two personalities that are hauntingly real as it is expressed by the continual dialogue between Pearl and Stasha, and their narration upon their separation from each other.  At the outset it appears that the twins are special and have a certain status, but once the experiments begin they are tossed aside just like any other Holocaust victim.  They may live longer, but if one of the twins happens to die, the other will follow almost immediately.  It was uncanny how Pearl and Stasha shared each other’s pain.  Pearl could be undergoing a certain experiment on one part of her body, and unbeknownst to Stasha she would feel pain in the same part of her anatomy.  Pearl would curse herself because her veins stood out and it made it easier for Mengele to inject what germs, viruses or poison he desired.  As awareness of what was occurring to them became evident the twins developed a new maturity and in Pearl’s case she went from being the more outgoing of the sisters before their incarceration, to becoming more methodical, and focused on her memories to survive each day; while Stasha grew feistier and more cunning in trying to cope with the evil that surrounded her.

The girls had been inseparable in their previous life, now found that as they grew apart they were no longer as devoted to each other.  It is heart breaking to visualize Pearl, who believed she was dying from the medical experiments that were conducted, tried to push Stasha away so she would not be so dependent; so when Pearl would eventually die, Stasha could move on.  The pain and anguish is palatable on each page as each of the twins feels less than whole, as each believes in their own way that their better half has been stolen from them, and they are surviving in a vacuum.  The experiments that were conducted were bizarre and the concoction of a demented mind; sewing twins together so they could not see each other, placing one twin in a cage and allowing the other to survive in the laboratory, and on and on.  Konar’s research allows her to reconstruct an alternate reality that was Mengele’s world and can only bring tears to the reader.

The second half of the book is not as focused as the first half and at times comes across as a bit disjointed.  The story revolves around the approach and the final arrival of Russian troops to liberate Auschwitz.  From there we follow the twins on their journey with a number of projections into the future.  Konar drills down into actual events and how the Russians treated the newly freed victims and follows Pearl and Stasha’s different paths.  We witness the Nazi attempt to destroy all evidence of what they had perpetrated.  The emotions and feelings of the newly released seem straight out of Robert Jay Lifton’s work as they suffer from “without self,” “survival guilt,” and other diagnostic terms.  The Soviets make a propaganda film of what they find in the camps and Pearl wonders what is actually taking place.  Stasha and Feliks, another survivor are committed to seeking revenge and travel toward Warsaw in the hope of killing Dr. Mengele.  We also experience the story of Dr. Miri, a Jewish doctor forced to assist Mengele’s work and how she seeks redemption and tries to deal with her guilt.

Overall, MISCHLING is a difficult read.  It is the type of novel that must be taken in small doses.  Though it reveals nothing new in terms of what we know of Mengele’s tortuous work, imagining what has occurred through the eyes of twin sisters and their perceptions separates Konor’s effort from much of the material that has appeared before.  If you choose to tackle Konor’s novel be prepared for the world you about to enter.

 

THE RIGHT WRONG MAN: JOHN DEMJANJUK AND THE LAST GREAT NAZI WAR CRIMES TRIAL

(Sobibor Death Camp)

As Lawrence Douglas, an Amherst College law professor describes in his new book, THE RIGHT WRONG MAN: JOHN DEMJANJUK AND THE LAST GREAT NAZI WAR CRIMES TRIAL, the former Ford Motor employee was “little more than a peon at the bottom of the Nazis exterminatory hierarchy.”  However, what makes him important is the legal odyssey he navigated from 1975 to his death in 2012.  Demjanjuk survived a number of major trials; denaturalization hearings in the United States, prosecution in Israel, and his final legal confrontation in Germany.  Throughout the process Demjanjuk lied, acted, obfuscated, as he tried to avoid conviction.  The end result was finally being found guilty of “crimes against humanity” in 2011, after having previous convictions overturned because of prosecution errors and the failure of memory on the part of Holocaust survivors.

Demjanjuk’s biography is quite amazing.  During the outset of the war Demjanjuk was a soldier in the Red Army.  After being captured by the Germans he volunteered to be a guard at the Sobibor death camp.  Once the war ended, he was able to immigrate to the United States by lying on his application associated with the Truman administrations 1948 Displaced Persons Act.  He settled in Cleveland and became a machinist at a Ford Motor plant, and was able to hide his Holocaust related activities for years, until 1975 when American officials first learned of his possible wartime activities.

(Demjanjuk’s wartime pass placing him in Nazi occupied Poland; discovered in 2002 by the United States)

Douglas provides intricate detail and analysis of Demjanjuk’s legal journey.  He dissects the strategies pursued by defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges as they try to convict Demjanjuk of being Ivan Grozny, “Ivan the Terrible” for his sadistic acts at Treblinka.  Further, Douglas explores the gaps in the legal systems that tried to bring him to justice and how previous trials, Nuremberg, and Eichmann in particular impacted legal strategies.  The problem that emerges is that Demjanjuk was misidentified and was not Ivan Grozny, but a man who served at Sobibor and contributed to the death of thousands of Jews for which he was finally convicted.  Demjanjuk’s legal battles began in 1975 and continued until later in the decade when he would be identified as the former Treblinka guard, “Ivan the Terrible.”  Demjanjuk was stripped of his citizenship and extradited to Israel.  In 1988 he was convicted and sentenced to death by an Israeli court.  After numerous appeals and the emergence of new evidence, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the government had the wrong Ivan.  He was returned to the United States and his citizenship was restored.

Demjanjuk may not have been at Treblinka, but earlier testimony seemed to place him at Sobibor, another Nazi death camp.  In 2001 he lost his US citizenship for a second time and in 2009 he was dispatched to Germany for trial.  On May 12, 2011 he was found guilty by a German court for assisting in the murder of 28,060 Jews.  Before his death sentence could be carried out he died, ending one of the last prosecutions of perpetrators of the Holocaust.  Douglas’ book is an important contribution to the legal issues that have surrounded the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.  Douglas raises many important subjects including; the justice of trying old men for superannuated crimes, the nature of individual responsibility in the orchestration of state-sponsored crimes, the nature and causes, and possible justifications of collaboration in the perpetuation of atrocities, and how three different legal systems went about creating legal alloys to master the challenges posed by the Nazi genocide.

(Demjanjuk stated he was too ill to sit up at his trial in Munich)

Douglas points out that Nazi crimes were so great that retributive justice based on didactic exercises organized around survivor testimony was not enough.  What was needed was to use trials as a means of historical education, present history through the eyes of survivor memory as what done at the Eichmann trial.  However, even this noble ideal was fraught with holes as was seen in the prosecution of Demjanjuk.  What was needed according to Douglas was to develop the role of historians to assist in the preparation and prosecution of Nazi crimes.  One of the major drawbacks in the prosecutorial process was the lack of historical context that only historians could provide.  This gap was overcome in Demjanjuk’s Munich case as historians came into play in every aspect of the case from drafting of the indictment to the core of the court’s judgement.  For the first time a new type of Holocaust trial emerged: the Holocaust as History.

These developments overcame many of the obstacles that were evident in earlier prosecutions. In the United States turf battles between the Justice Department and other agencies, difficulties handling atrocity cases with routine prosecutory tools, the lack of linguistic skills on the part of lawyers, and little or no training in historical research all hindered the development of sound cases against war criminals.  Douglas traces the evolution of new techniques and approaches to these types of cases beginning with the Nuremberg Trials, the Eichmann Trial, and the prosecution of the real Ivan Grozny, Fedor Fedorenko that culminated in the final conviction of Demjanjuk.

(At his trial in Munich, Demjanjuk claimed that file #1627 in the Russian archives would prove his innocence)

Douglas asks the important question as to the benefits to mankind that emerged from the Demjanjuk case.  “First, it yielded a modified theory of culpability, directly ‘connected to the exterminatory process.’  This disposed once and for all of the defense ‘I was no more than a cog in the machine…I was obeying orders.’  A machine cannot run without its small constituent parts.”  As a result it was now enough to prove that a defendant worked in a death factory to obtain a conviction because without the numbers of these types of defendants the Holocaust could not have reached the magnitude that it did.  Further, this allowed for the further prosecution of lower-level war criminals and permitted three separate judicial systems to learn from past errors and instill confidence in this type of judicial process.  (New York Times, February 26, 2016)

Douglas astute dissection of the Demjanjuk case and the application of his analysis to the overall problem of culpability for war crimes is a major contribution to this type of literature.  Though at times it is written in legalese, overall it should be easily understood by the layman resulting a satisfying reading experience.

(October 14, 1943, Sobibor Death Camp following a failed revolt)

THE CRIME AND THE SILENCE: CONFRONTING THE MASSACRE OF JEWS IN WARTIME JEDWABNE by Anna Bikont

(Following the release of the film “Aftermath” in Poland in September, 2011, Polish deniers of the Jedwabne massacre of Jews during World War II strike once again)

My father was born a short distance from Krakow in 1913 when Poland was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and fortunately was able to immigrate to the United States in the mid-1930s, though many of our extended family would eventually perish in Auschwitz.  Growing up my father would tell me stories about what it was like to live among Polish Catholics in his village and the abuse that he endured.  Years later I read the book NEIGHBOR: THE DESTRUCTION OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN JEDWABNE, POLAND by Jan Tomasz Gross in 2002 that described the pogrom committed by Polish Catholics against the Jews of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941 and was shocked, but not surprised.  The outcry against the book when it was published in Poland arguing that it was the Gestapo or other components of the German army that was responsible was to be expected.   With the publication of Anna Bikont’s haunting history, THE CRIME AND THE SILENCE: CONFRONTING THE MASSACRE OF JEWS IN WARTIME JEDWABNE in 2004, recently translated into English by Alissa Valles, the Polish people once again must face the historical reality of the actions of many of their co-religionists and not resort to the standard denials shifting blame to the Nazis.

Bikont a journalist for the Gazeta Wyborcza has written a book that is part history and part memoir as she assiduously gathered oral histories of events that took place in Poland during the war.  The narrative adds to Gross’ work and the reader learns immediately that Jedwabne was not the only pogrom that Polish Catholics engaged in.  In fact three days before the massacre at Jedwabne, in a village close by, the entire Jewish population of Radzilow was rounded up and burned, with no Germans present.  As we read on there are numerous examples of the liquidation of Jews with the assistance of the Poles, or were conducted solely by the Poles.

Bikont’s approach is to alternate chapters detailing her investigation through research in the Bialystok region, Canada, the United States, Israel, Argentina, and Europe or wherever her research took her, as she conducted interviews of individuals who lived in the area during the massacre with chapters dealing with the overall history of the area in the 1930s and 1940s.  The author does a good job chronicling the deterioration of the plight of the Jews in the 1930s, a period that began with Jews trying to be good Polish citizens despite the increasing level of anti-Semitism that would continue to manifest itself throughout the decade.  The arrival of Hitler in power in Germany in 1933, in part provided an opportunity for “the Camp for Greater Poland,” the National Party, and Catholic prelates to egg on the peasant population to perpetrate a pogrom in Radzilow in March of that year.  Marching to the slogan “We raise our plea before your alter/Lord, rid Poland of the Jews,” the peasant population that was suffering from the depression could focus its hostility on the Jews.  Throughout the 1930s the Catholic press did its best to instigate and heighten Polish hatred of Jews and encouraged acts of violence that by the summer of 1937, 65-70 acts of violence against Jews were reported monthly to the Interior Ministry.  This on top of parliamentary action against Jewish religious practices and education made Jews very wary of remaining in Poland.  As the Zionist movement expanded many families hoped to at the very least send some of their children to Palestine.  By September 1, 1939 with the Nazi invasion of Poland that avenue of escape was severed.

(Jedwabne, Poland synagogue, circa, 1913)

Bikont makes extensive use of archival material that support her thesis as to the role of the Poles in making the lives of Jews one of misery and death, during the prewar period and during the war itself.  Her use of the Jewish Historical  Institute and Jewish Historical Commission archives produces microfiche of Holocaust survivor testimony reflecting that not only were their pogroms in Radzilow on July 7, Jedwabne on July 10, but also in Wasosz on July 5.  For Szymon Datner, a renowned historian what happened at Wasosz rivaled the slaughter that took place in Kishinev in 1903 Czarist Russia.  Datner also documents the murder of Jews in 1945 as they came out of hiding by Polish peasants.  Bikont’s journal entries for the first six months of 2001 are especially important as the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne murders approaches.  She is confronted with outright denial or refusal to speak with her by individuals who were present in 1941.  Further, even Jews who survived are apprehensive to speak with her because they have either hidden the fact that they are Jewish, even from family members, or are just afraid of the repercussions.  One of the dominant excuses that is offered is that once the Soviet Union invaded Poland the Jews collaborated with the NKVD and turned Polish citizen’s names over to Russian authorities causing them to be sent into exile in Siberia.  Another argument is that it is being raised now, if it actually happened, so the Jews could collect billions in reparations from the Polish government.  This line of thought is seen as justification for burning 1600 human beings in a barn, and shooting another 42 in the market place area.

One of the more interesting chapters concentrates on the three Laudanski brothers, two of which were convicted of murder for the events of July 7, 1941 and their rationale that they too suffered under Soviet and German occupation. The third Laudanski brother, Kazimierz claims to have not been in Jedwabne on the day of the massacre and arrived three days later, though there is some evidence he was actually present.  Of the ten men convicted in the 1949 trial for the murders in Jedwabne, Zygmunt and Jerzy Laudanski, as of the publication of Bikont’s book in 2004, were still alive.  From all accounts and by their own admission they forced hundreds of Jews into the market place and then led them to the barn were they were burned alive.  There is also testimony that they beat and killed Jews while coercing them to reach the market place.  For their crimes Zygmunt Laudanski was sentenced to twelve years in prison of which he served six, and his brother Jerzy was sentenced to fifteen years, and served eight. From her interviews with the brothers, Bikont points out that they blamed the deportation of the Poles, including their family members under Soviet occupation on Jewish communists.  Among their comments   Zygmunt Laudanski states, “there was nothing as horrible as all that.  People are making it up now in revenge.”  Kazimierz Laudanksi comments, “Like all of the Polish people, we suffered under the Soviets, under the Germans, and under People’s Poland…Our people organized the roundup of the Jews, but didn’t take part in the burning, they behaved as peaceful people.” The Poles kept saying, “It’s God’s punishment.  It was a diabolical stunt organized by the Germans.  The Germans directed it, and used the Poles like actors in the theater.  But Poles wanting to burn Jews, there was nothing like that.” (119)

(as per Jewish tradition, Rabbis place stones on top of the monument denoting the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne, Poland massacre)

The remembrance monument for the massacre is another controversial issue for the people of Jedwabne.  The monument that commemorates the events of July 10, 1941 states, “Place of Execution of Jewish Population.  Gestapo and Hitler’s Police Buried 1600 People Alive July 10, 1941.”  Which of course is not accurate.  Bikont’s journal entries from 2001 reflect the animosity as the inscription is about to be changed as the 60th anniversary of the massacre approaches.  Jedwabne residents are upset that their town cannot escape the stigma of the massacre and resent journalists revisiting what they see as “ancient” history and the calls for a more accurate inscription.  These feelings are manifested by certain political and religious figures statements denigrating the monument and the impact it has on their lives.  One of the most distressing aspects of the book is Bikont’s exploration of the debate in the Jedwabne town council over the plans for the ceremony at the monument commemorating the massacre.  A majority of the council members refused to approve funding for the road that provided access to the Jewish cemetery for the ceremony.  What remains quite clear that Polish anti-Semitism remains very pervasive as of Bikont’s writing and many sections of the Polish population cannot overcome their hatred and view of history no matter what evidence is presented i.e., the creation of the “Committee to Defend the Good Name of Jedwabne,” dominated by the families of those convicted, and those who have taken over the homes of Jews in the town, or have seized Jewish property.  As Mayor Krzysztof Godlewski, later forced to resign because of his support of the new inscription and his assistance to Bikont during her research, tries to bring the council together he is met with repeated denial and virulent anti-Semitism.

The most important question that needs to be asked is why did the massacre take place?  For Bikont the immediate fuse that set off the events on July 10 was the Soviet occupation, which led to the charge of Jewish collaboration.  The Soviet occupation was equally difficult for Jews and Poles alike.  The Jewish social fabric and community life was destroyed by the Soviets, but the Jews did greet the Russians in a better frame of mind than the Poles.  The reason is obvious, the Poles with their virulent anti-Semitism and violence against Jews were now blocked by the occupation.  For the Poles it must have been humiliating to lose control of their own country and government and witness Jews having an element of freedom.  With the deportations of Poles as well as Jews it is much more convenient “to replace reality with a stereotype like ‘the Jews collaborated,’ all the more so if you know those who might have corrected this misconception had perished.” The new situation in which “the ‘kikes’ were given relative equality in civil law must have been a provocation to those neighbors raised on prewar anti-Semitism.” (179)  As far as the charge that Jews were involved in selecting who was to be deported, it is another Polish fantasy.  Bikont’s research points to three great deportations.  The first on February 9-10, 1940 resulted in taking away members of the Polish military, foresters, and other specific occupations.  The second wave in April, 1940 targeted families of those previously arrested: police officers, senior officials, political leaders and the local intelligentsia.  The third wave in June, 1940 involved “refugees” who fled the General Government, 80% of which were Jews.  The fourth wave that came in June, 1941 targeting the Polish underground partisan movement.  Since Jews were not generally accepted as partisans, to blame them is beyond the scope of reality.  Bikont, and Gross before her, clearly debunk the myth of Jewish denunciations as the cause of Polish deportation no matter how often Catholic prelates and Polish politicians repeat the charge. Once the Germans invaded the remainder of Poland on June 22, 1941 and continued on into the Soviet Union, the Poles responded with numerous pogroms against the remaining Jews, one of which was Jedwabne.

Bikont spends a great deal of time exploring the role of the Catholic Church in creating the environment for the massacre to take place, but also facilitating the pogroms that resulted.  She provides numerous examples of the statements and actions of Catholic prelates who disregarded the statements of the Vatican, particularly after the war.  The prelates continue the rationalization that the Jews deserved what they got because they denounced the Poles.  Bikont believed that the Church had reached a turning point in 1945 as it became the bastion against Sovietization of Polish society.  However those anti-Semitic feelings did not remain in the background for long as the deaconry in Jedwabne headed by Father Antoni Roszkowski continued spewing his hatred of the Jews.  Since 1988, Father Edward Orlowski held sway in Jedwabne and he carried on as if nothing had changed as far as Jewish guilt was concerned.  It is interesting to note that once the ceremony took place on July 10, 2001 no high level church representatives attended, though to their credit three priests do make an appearance.  For Jews, the fear of retribution was so high that only Awigdor Korchaw, the only Jewish witness who was in the market square the day of the massacre, had the courage to attend.

To Bikont’s credit as she tells the stories of the few Jewish survivors, she integrates their horrific accounts with those Poles who helped by hiding them or facilitating their escape.  Bikont follows her subjects around the globe in her quest to learn the truth and find out what happened to these people once the war ended.  Her description of the lives of Szmul Wasersztejn, the most important witness to events; Chaja Finkelsztejn, whose unpublished memoir of survival provides a window into the inhumanity of the people who committed the atrocities; Antonina Wyrzykowska, who hid seven Jews; and the author’s constant interaction with Radoslaw Ignatiew, the prosecutor of the Institute of National Remembrance leads one to accept Gross’s earlier finding that, the Poles were the instigators of the massacre and carried out the atrocities associated with it.  Her journal continues until July 10, 2004 and her final chapter has the fitting title, “Strictly speaking, Poles did it.”  One of the most heart rendering phrases in the book points to the post-war Polish generation when Bikont states, “the blood on the father’s hands burn the children,” which may explain why so many Poles today still have difficulty coming to terms with what happened almost 75 years ago in a country whose 2003 census listed 1100 Jews, out of a pre-World War II census of around 3.3 million.

(a man cleans the memorial to the Jews massacred in Jedwabne, Poland on July 10, 1941 defaced by Polish anti-Semites)

1944: FDR AND THE YEAR THAT CHANGED HISTORY by Jay Winik

(The liberation of Dachau, April 29, 1945)

According to Jay Winik, the author of two bestselling works of history, APRIL, 1865 and THE GREAT UPHEAVAL, during World War II every three seconds someone died.  This should not be surprising based on the myriad of books that have been written about the war that fostered mass killing on a scale that had never been seen before.  The Nazis perpetuated the industrialization of death almost until they ran out of victims.  In the skies the combatants laid waste to civilian areas fostering terror and destruction unknown to mankind before the war.  It is with this backdrop that Winik tells the story of World War II focusing on the role of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision making and his inability or refusal to lift a finger to assist the victims of Hitler’s Final Solution until it was too late.  The book is entitled 1944: FDR AND THE YEAR THAT CHANGED HISTORY, but the title is misleading, because instead of focusing on the watershed year of 1944, the book seems to be a comprehensive synthesis of the wartime events that the author chooses to concentrate on.  Winik opens his narrative by describing the Teheran Conference of November, 1943 which most historians argue was the most important wartime conference as the major outline of post war decision making took place.  Here we meet Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, before Winik switches to the massive allied bombardment of Berlin that would shatter the faith of the German people in their government, as it could no longer protect them from the developing superiority of allied might.

(President Franklin D. Roosevelt who refused to pressure the State Department when he knew that they were blocking Jews from immigrating to the United States during WWII)

The author offers very little if anything that is new dealing with the war.  Its strength lies in its synthesis of the massive secondary literature that the war has produced.  Winik has mined a voluminous amount of material, but very little of it is primary and one must ask the question; what purpose does the book have if it adds little that is not already familiar for bibliophiles of the war?  I believe the author’s goal is to produce a general history of the conflict that allows the reader inside some of the most important decisions related to the war.  Winik writes in an engrossing manner that creates a narrative that is accurate with sound analysis of the major characters and events discussed.  The monograph is not presented in chronological order as the author organizes the book by concentrating on the period that surrounds the Teheran Conference of November, 1943 through D-Day and its immediate aftermath for the first 40% of the narrative, and then he shifts his focus on to the Final Solution that by D-Day was almost complete.  Most of the decisions involving major battles are discussed in depth ranging from D-Day, the invasions of North Africa and Sicily, to biographies of lesser known characters like, Rabbi Stephen Wise, a leader of the American Jewish community, but also a friend of FDR; Rudolph Vrba and Eduard Schulte who smuggled out evidence of the Holocaust as early as November 1942 and made their mission in life to notify the west what was transpiring in the concentration camps with the hope that it would prod the allies to take action to stop it, or at least, lessen its impact.

(Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long who did all he could to prevent Jews from immigrating to the United States during WWII)

Much of the narrative deals with the history of Auschwitz and its devastating impact on European Jewry, and Roosevelt’s refusal to take any concrete action to mitigate what was occurring, despite the evidence that he was presented.  Winik delves deep into the policies of the State Department, which carried an air of anti-Semitism throughout the war.  The attitude of the likes of Breckenridge Long are discussed and how they openly sought to prevent any Jewish immigration to the United States.  When the issue of possibly bombing Auschwitz is raised we meet John J. McCloy who at first was in charge of rounding up Japanese-Americans and routing them to “relocation centers” in the United States, and is in charge of American strategic bombing in Europe who refuses to consider any air missions over Auschwitz arguing it was not feasible, when in fact allied planes were bombing in the region and had accidentally hit the camp in late 1944.  Roosevelt was a political animal and refused to use any of his political capital, no matter how much pressure to assist the Jews.  FDR was fully aware of what was taking place in the camps and did create some window dressing toward the end of the war with the creation of the War Refugees Board that did save lives, but had it been implemented two years earlier might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Much of Winik’s descriptions and analysis has been written before and he has the habit of discussing a particular topic with an overreliance on a particular secondary source.  A number of these works appear repeatedly, i.e.; Martin Gilbert’s Auschwitz and the Allies, David Wyman’s THE ABANDONMENT OF THE JEWS, Richard Breitman and Alan J. Lichtman’s FDR AND THE JEWS, James MacGregor Burns’ SOLDIER OF FREEDOM, and Ian Kershaw’s two volume biography of Hitler.  There are a number of areas where Winik’s sources have been replaced by more recent monographs of which he should be familiar, i.e., when discussing Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June, 1941 the main source seems to be Kershaw, but David Murphy’s WHAT STALIN KNEW, Andrew Roberts’ STALIN’S WARS, and Evan Mawdsley’s THUNDER IN THE EAST would have enhanced the discussion.  In addition, there are many instances when endnotes were not available, leaving the reader to wonder what they have just read is based on.

(John J. McCloy, in charge of strategic bombing in Europe at the end of the war who refused to allow American planes to bomb Auschwitz)

To Winik’s credit his integration of the state of FDR’s health throughout the book is very important.  We see a Roosevelt who is clearly dying at a time when many momentous decisions must be made, but the president feels that he was in office when the war began, and he must complete his task.  The effect of FDR’s health on decision making and the carrying out of policy has tremendous implications for the history of the time period.  One of the more interesting aspects of Winik’s approach to his subject matter is how he repeatedly assimilates the plight of the Jews with other facets of the war.  It seems that no matter the situation the author finds a way to link the Holocaust to other unfolding decisions and events, particularly during 1944 and after.  The author also does a superb job describing the human element in his narrative.  The plight and fears of deportees to Auschwitz, the anxiety of soldiers as they prepare for Operation Overlord, the chain smoking General Eisenhower as he awaits news of battles, and the fears and hopes of FDR on the eve of D-Day are enlightening and provide the reader tremendous insights into historical moments.

To sum up, if Winik’s goal was to write a general history of the Second World War, centering on the role of Franklin Roosevelt he is very successful as the book is readable and in many areas captivating for the reader.  If his goal was to add an important new interpretation of the wartime decision making centering on FDR and 1944 as the turning point in the war, I believe he has failed.  Overall, this is an excellent book for the general reader, but for those who are quite knowledgeable about World War II you might be disappointed.

RAVENSBRUCK: LIFE AND DEATH IN HITLER’S CONCENTRATION CAMP FOR WOMEN by Sarah Helm

(The barracks at Ravensbruck)

It has been seventy years since the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II. One would think that there would be very little to learn about what occurred during the Nazi genocide of European Jews and persecution of other minorities and groups during the war, but that is not the case. In Sarah Helm’s new work, RAVENSBRUCK: LIFE AND DEATH IN HITLER’S CONCENTRATION CAMP FOR WOMEN, the author reconstructs the history of the camp whose documentation was mostly hidden from the west during the Cold War. Once the “iron curtain” was lifted in 1989 more and more documents and other materials have been released from East German and Soviet archives. This allowed the author to provide the inmates of long ago a voice from “the special camp” created by Heinrich Himmler for women, a place ethnologist and survivor Germaine Tillion describes as “a place of slow extermination.” The camp, located fifty miles north of Berlin opened in May, 1939 and was liberated by the Russians six years later. The camp was not designated exclusively for Jews who made up about 10% of its inmates, but Jewish prisoners represented roughly 20% of those who perished. According to Helm’s, at its peak the site housed 45,000 prisoners and by the end of the war roughly 130,000 women passed through its gates to “be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed, and gassed.” Because of the paucity of records the final death toll is estimated at between 30,000 and 90,000, but we will never be sure. Wholesale destruction of records has kept the story somewhat obscure, but due to Helm’s relentless and assiduous research we have the most accurate and complete history of what took place there.

Ravensbruck, as most concentration camps was not built at the start as an extermination center, it evolved. It began as a place to house women arrested for various crimes, including statements that were deemed as offensive to Adolf Hitler, working for the resistance of foreign countries, espionage, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the outset prisoners were categorized as political, asocial, Jews, and Jehovah’s Witnesses and the camp was broken down into blocks to separate these groups. Himmler’s plan was to make the camp self-sufficient and have the prisoners police themselves as much as possible. The Nazi SS chose individuals to be Kapos to supervise slave labor and carry out administrative tasks to minimize the cost of running the camps and freeing up SS personnel. The Kapos were appointed as barracks heads and many were worse than the SS guards themselves. The narrative parallels the course of World War II and as it does we can see how the mission of the camp changes from a prison, to a sterilization and medical experiment facility, a training ground for female guards and personnel to administer other camps that came on line like Auschwitz, a source for slave labor in munitions factories that created sub camps for German corporations like Siemens, Heinkel, and Daimler-Benz, and finally an extermination camp.

(Work team at Ravensbruck)

As Helms weaves the war narrative she explores the daily lives of those imprisoned at Ravensbruck. She provides a detailed description of the day to day struggle that inmates had to endure. By including the life story of many individuals, whether communists, resistance fighters, prostitutes, physicians, nurses, or average people the reader gains insights into how individuals were treated and the coping mechanisms they developed as they confronted slave labor, deportations, beatings, medical experiments, and torture that resulted in so many deaths. One of the most interesting chapters describes the plight of women seized in Lublin, a Polish city which was overrun by the Germans during the summer of 1941. Helms follows the lives of these women as they traveled by train to Germany, and at each stop more prisoners are seized. Women named Wanda, Krysia, Grazyna, Pola and Maria are followed as they finally arrive at Ravensbruck were they first encounter the Chief female guard, described as “the Giantess and her hounds.” One of their most poignant observations was that the people they saw “don’t seem to have faces,” and years later all they could remember was the “din of the constant screaming of the giantess.” (165) As they adapted to their surroundings they became part of the camp social hierarchy and they developed ingenious ways to create normalcy in order to survive. Another group that Helms describes in detail were Red Army doctors and nurses that were captured. Under the leadership of one of the nurses, Yevgenia Lazarevna Klemm, whose survival strategy was to stress that her group were POWS, not typical inmates, and had rights under the Geneva Convention. She constantly reinforced the concept to the woman that loyalty to each other was paramount, and that they should not “break the [their] circle” in their dealings with the SS and Kapos. This was successful to a point, and when they were forced to engage in slave labor at a sub-camp for Siemens she instructed her people to sabotage the munitions they were forced to work on. This approach allowed a number of these women to survive, and to this day they praise the leadership of Yevgenia Klemm.

Sadist: Dorothea Binz, who became chief of Ravensbruck, enjoyed handing out beatings and torturing the inmates

Throughout the book we meet the likes of Dr. Walter Sonntag, a brutal individual who was charged by Himmler to conduct sterilization experiments and research on inmates to determine how to wipe out the sub-humans who were deemed a threat to the Aryan race as purported by Hitler and his henchman. Dr. Friedrich Mennecke a Nazi psychiatrist was brought in to determine how to choose candidates for euthanasia as these people were not worthy of life in the Nazi world view. Himmler was obsessed with “useless mouths” who did not carry their own weight and they were to be given “special treatment” as designed by Nazi doctors like Herta Oberheuser, an expert in “lethal injections.” Other doctors conducted experiments on “rabbits,” specially chosen women, to determine the best way to counter bacteria by injecting it into the bodies of inmates or removing body parts to see how people would respond. The narrative does not focus totally on Nazi medical practices and hygiene, but it is important that Helms presents this material to offset any belief that Ravensbruck was just for the incarceration of its women.

Helms describes in detail how the camp administrative hierarchy carried out Himmler’s orders and its impact on the daily lives of the inmates. The inmates are the key to the narrative as Helms was able to track down numerous survivors of the camps and interview them. Many in their late eighties and nineties remember amazing details of their experiences that enhances our understanding of what they went through. Helm’s “combed through the transcripts of postwar trials of camp officials and guards and found archival material that were opened after the fall of Communism…… During the past 15 years a few other books about Ravensbruck have been published, but none as focused on as many prisoner groups as Helm’s.” (New York Times, April 7, 2015, ‘’RAVENSBRUCK” by Walter Reich) Helms’ is to be commended for her tenacity in uncovering documents that previous historians have been unaware existed. In so doing she includes excerpts of letters inmates were able to smuggle out and even mail home. In addition there are transcripts from underground radio broadcasts that provided evidence for the inmates that there messages were reaching beyond the barbed wire and watch towers that controlled their lives.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book were the chapters dealing with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Berlin and Geneva (ICRC). Headed by art historian, Jacob Burkhardt, they were fully aware of what went on in the concentration, labor, and extermination camps. Many letters and other documents were provided to them by resistance groups and governments, but they always had excuses not to take action. They refused to give out Red Cross parcels, make broadcasts, help with visas and transportation for individuals to escape, work behind the scenes, and try and influence certain Nazis that were wavering as the war went against Germany. The lack of action of the ICRC was appalling and their ever present excuse that the camps were “not subject to the rules of the Geneva Convention of 1929,” and they had to maintain their neutrality to be effective was not acceptable. In addition the perpetrator of the atrocities at Ravensbruck, Karl Gebhardt, “was a close associate of Ernst Grawitz, president of the German Red Cross, the most powerful medical figure in the Third Reich.” (333) When inquiries were made to the ICRC in Geneva they “gave the same stock answer: the Committee had no access to the camps and couldn’t intervene.” (436) We all recognize that the Red Cross was in a compromising position, but any effort on their part would have been appreciated by the inmates. Finally in April, 1945 with Sweden taking the lead in rescue measures, Burkhardt, concerned with his legacy arranged a prisoner swap of 299 French women held at Ravensbruck for 450 Germans held in France.

Evil: Ravensbruck concentration camp guards Helene Massar, Marga Löwenberg and one other out rowing on the Schwedtsee lake

(Ravensbruck concentration camp guards Helene Massar, Marga Löwenberg and one other out rowing on the Schwedtsee lake)

As the war turned against the Nazis more and more prisoners were seized and sent to Ravensbruck. By fall, 1944 as the Russians advanced across Poland, Hitler was forced to shut down Auschwitz, Majdanek, and other camps moving camp inmates westward. Further, with the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto more and more people arrived from the east at Ravensbruck. With the allied landing at Normandy, the fall of Paris saw prisoners sent eastward furthering the health and logistical nightmare at Ravensbruck. To make matters even worse Hitler’s decree to empty Hungary of its Jews and exterminate them furthered the spread of typhus throughout the camp. If squalor and disease was not bad enough, late 1944 saw the arrival of Rudolph Hoss, the former Commandant of Auschwitz, Otto Moll, Auschwitz’s “gassing expert,” Carl Clauberg, the mastermind of Himmler’s sterilization program, and other unemployed Nazi murderers at Ravensbruck. Helms states further that “it is no coincidence that just before these men arrived, Himmler issued a new directive requiring an immediate, massive increase in the rate of killing and construction of a gas chamber to carry it out.” Himmler’s order read: “In your camp, with retrospective effect for six months, 2000 people monthly have to die…” (469) Himmler’s reasons for issuing the order are clear, Ravensbruck was out of control with typhus and other diseases spreading and an influx of women from Auschwitz and other areas increasing. For the first time, Ravensbruck would have its own extermination facility, “becoming the scene of the last major extermination by gas carried out in the Nazi camps before the end of the war.”(654) By winter, 1945 it was decided that the camp was to be liquidated and all evidence of its existence to be destroyed. Since the building of crematorium and its components could not keep up with the demands of eradicating all inmates thousands of prisoners were sent to Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Dachau and Flossenburg to be gassed, while others were force marched to their deaths as Hitler ordered that no prisoners were to be left alive when the Russians arrived. The evidence exists that killings at Ravensbruck would continue until late, April, 1945.

Women's concentration camp victims, rescued.
(Liberated prisoners at Ravensbruck)

Helm’s has prepared the definitive biography of Ravensbruck and has done a remarkable job in compiling the stories of the women who perished and those who survived. There are a few things the author could have addressed more, i.e.; providing better documentation for the quotations that she cites, improved referencing of her sources and interviews, and trying to create a tighter narrative so the story of the camp is easier to follow. To read Helm’s book is to find oneself in a place that cannot be imagined or understood, but thanks to the author the evidence of its existence is there for all to witness. What is most important is that Helm’s narrative has allowed the victims of the Nazi horrors a means to communicate from the grave.

EICHMANN BEFORE JERUSALEM: THE UNEXAMINED LIFE OF A MASS MURDERER by Bettina Stangneth

(Adolf Eichmann in the witness box during his trial in Jerusalem, April, 1961)

Bettina Strangneth new book, EICHMANN BEFORE JERUSALEM: THE UNEXAMINED LIFE OF A MASS MURDERER offers a major reassessment of how we should interpret the life of the man whose work was integral to the extermination of six million Jews during World War II.  After his capture by the Israeli Mossad in 1960, Adolf Eichmann tried to convince people that he was a small cog in the Nazi bureaucracy and that he was not a mass murderer.  He tried to present himself as a man who was always in the background during his Nazi career and was not involved in any major decision making.  In 1963 following the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt published her work, EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM: A REPORT ON THE BANALITY OF EVIL where she argued that her subject was nothing more than a bureaucrat who performed his tasks as best as he could, like a good civil servant who wanted to further his career.  He went to work each day and tried to meet the goals that his job demanded.  If his work involved “evil,” that doesn’t take away from the fact that he was just carrying out what his superiors expected of him.  Arendt’s line of thinking was very controversial at the time and it went against the generally accepted idea that, in fact, Eichmann was guilty, and was not an ordinary man who was turned into a thoughtless murderer by a totalitarian regime.  Following his escape after the war Eichmann claims to have been “an empty shell,” an apolitical person who tried to enjoy a normal life with his family while before his capture by the Israelis and his trial in Jerusalem.   In the last few years documents have surfaced in several archives that contain “Eichmann’s own notes made in exile and [they] can be examined in conjunction with the taped and transcribed conversations known as the Sassen interviews.”  These materials (about 1300 pages) reflect that “not once during his escape and exile did Eichmann seek the shadows or try to act in secrecy.  He wanted to be visible in Argentina and he wanted to be viewed as he once had been:  as the symbol of a new age.” (xx)  Employing this perspective, and making excellent use of the Sassen interviews, also referred to as the Argentina papers, Bettina Strangneth has written a fascinating book that disproves Arendt’s line of thinking and shows without a doubt that Eichmann was a major cog in the Nazi extermination apparatus and the persona he presented in Israel during his trial was nothing more than an act to gain sympathy from his captors and as lenient a sentence as possible.

Strangneth states from the outset that her goal is to uncover what was the “Eichmann phenomenon,” how and why did it develop, what people thought of him and when, and how he reacted to what people thought and said about him.  Strangneth succeeds in unmasking Eichmann who throughout his career assumed different roles; as a subordinate, a superior officer, perpetrator, fugitive, exile, and finally a defendant.  The only one of his roles that has become well known is that of a defendant at his trial in Jerusalem.  His intention was obvious, to remain alive and justify his actions.  For Strangneth, we must return to the period before Eichmann’s arrival in Jerusalem to see the real Eichmann.  The author effectively accomplishes her mission by examining a myriad of primary and secondary sources in a number of languages, and she uses Eichmann’s own words that were taped and written as part of interviews conducted by Willem Sassen, a Dutch Nazi collaborator and member of the SS journalist corps during the war and was the organizer and host for the interviews and discussions with Eichmann in 1957.   Once the Argentina papers surfaced and Eichmann was brought to trial it created a number of problems for a West German state that sought a smooth transition to becoming a new nation free of its past.  In addition to officials in Bonn, other Nazi officials who escaped after W.W.II, former Nazis who were free and serving in the West German government, and the Vatican prelates all feared what Eichmann might say.

(Reinhardt Heydrich, Chief of Reich Main Security Office and Eichmann’s superior in 1942)

The first section of the book, “My Name Became a Symbol,” focuses on Eichmann’s argument in Jerusalem that he was not an important figure in the Nazi regime and had little to do with the Holocaust.  Strangneth methodically refutes Eichmann’s arguments by examining his career from 1934, when he joined the Nazi Party through his successful escape from Europe by boarding the Giovanni C in Genoa’s harbor in June, 1948.  The author delineates Eichmann’s attempt to accumulate power as he worked his way up through the Nazi hierarchy and his success in making his name known, and establishing relationships with key Nazi figures.  For example, Reinhard Heydrich,  chief of Reich Main Security Office that included the Gestapo and SD, and making himself an expert on the Jewish people and their religion.  The author traces Eichmann’s movements during the prewar period as he set up emigration offices in Berlin, Vienna, and Prague, and the war itself as he employed his emigration, transportation, and organizational skills to implement the Final Solution.  Eichmann’s creation of excessive publicity around his own name is in sharp contrast to the “shadow” figure he presents in his jail cell in Israel.  The author ends the first section by determining the accuracy of the myths surrounding Eichmann’s escape from Europe and details how he arranged his travel and settlement in Buenos Aires.

(while in exile in Argentina, Eichmann managed a rabbit farm)

In 1953 he was able to bring his family to Buenos Aires and it was clear there was very little interest in pursuing Eichmann and bringing him to justice. At the time, Konrad Adenauer, the West German Chancellor announced to the Bundestag: “In my opinion, we should call a halt to trying to sniff out Nazis.”(146)  While in Buenos Aires Eichmann grew angry that many of his accomplices and colleagues used their relationship with him to obtain lighter sentences.  He wanted to defend his honor.  On his arrival in Argentina, Eichmann had been taken in by the Durer group, led by Willem Sasser and Eberhard Fritsch, who published right wing magazines.  As Eichmann’s anger at former cohorts increased he wanted to set down his ideas in a book with the assistance of Sassen and Fritsch.

(Willem Sassen, a member of the Durer group who interviewed Eichmann for the Sassen/Argentina Papers)

1955 became a watershed year for Eichmann.  His personal circumstances changed as his wife Vera gave birth to their fourth son and he turned fifty years old.  In addition, the Peron government that had assisted Nazi exiles since the end of the war was overthrown in a coup resulting in an unstable political situation that placed Nazi escapees in the dark as to their futures.  Other events became public during the course of the year that concerned those who sought a resurgence of National Socialism when Austria signed the Independence Treaty; military occupation of West Germany ended and it was allowed to join NATO and form its own military, and represent its own interests abroad.  With Nazi exiles failing to influence West German elections, and with Moscow releasing German POWs, any hopes of a Nazi resurgence appeared dim at best.  Along with these events during 1955 the first major historical works and documentaries began appearing that described in intricate detail the role of “the Grand Inquisitor without magic, Adolf Eichmann.” (176)  The wealth of information and documentation that included Nazi letterhead, signatures, and other evidence could not be dismissed as Jewish propaganda.  It began to dawn on many of the doubters in the German community in Argentina, that Nazi denials about the Holocaust were lies.  This community led by Sasser, Fritsch and others needed someone with knowledge of what really happened to refute the books, articles and other media.  For them, Eichmann was the answer, and this project gave birth to the Sassen interviews.

(Eichmann reading in an Israeli prison)

Stangneth effectively argues that when Eichmann was in Argentina he did not live a solitary life and he talked about his career incessantly.  Sassen began to record Eichmann sometime around April, 1957 as Eichmann wanted to correct the historical record that was being presented in the burgeoning Holocaust literature.  Eichmann’s writing in Argentina was prodigious and the Sassen transcripts would reach 1000 pages, plus another 100 pages that Eichmann had written before the interviews began.  Strangneth spends a great deal of time analyzing Eichmann’s writing and convoluted logic, as he saw himself as a victim of malicious defamation, and misrepresentation.  For Eichmann, he was the irrefutable witness as all the other leading Nazis were dead.  The Durer group obtained all the leading books and articles pertaining to the Final Solution and examined each book with a fine tooth comb.  This process allowed Eichmann to see what the rest of the world believed and he would use that knowledge to prepare his arguments to refute it.  This approach was very helpful when he was imprisoned in Israel as he had practiced the major arguments against his position for years.  Strangneth points out that he “presents us with his irrefutable truth in an accusatory tone, with the self-assurance of a demagogue.” (215)

The author provides descriptions of the tapes that recorded Eichmann’s views and she speculates about dates and who was in attendance.  The author provides numerous verbatim comments by Eichmann; i.e., “The only good enemy of the Reich was a dead one….when I received an order, I always carried out this order with the executioner, and I am proud of that to this day.  If I had not done this, they would not have gone to the butcher.” (267)  Stangneth’s thoroughness is exceptional and through her analysis of the Sassen transcripts she provides insights into Eichmann’s thought process that culminates with his closing remarks where he confesses as to what was his real role in the Final Solution.  This is a far cry from the Eichmann in Jerusalem who presented himself as the “cautious bureaucrat.”

The Sassen papers developed a life of their own and Strangneth recounts in detail the road the papers take once Sassen learns of Eichmann’s abduction.  They seem to travel from Buenos Aires to Eichmann’s half brother Robert in Austria, then to be stolen from his office.  Sassen sells part of the material to ­Life and Stern magazines who publish excerpts from the material.  The most complete transcript fell into the hands of Polityka, a Polish magazine, but when published it did not create much interest.  The Israeli prosecution team in Jerusalem acquired a great deal of information, but most of it was ruled as inadmissible in court because their copies were of such poor quality, and the tapes that could have been used to show how disingenuous Eichmann’s testimony was, were not in their possession.

Strangneth brings her monograph to a close by examining the accuracy of books that were published after the trial that purported to use the Sassen documents and admonishes some for not living up to high academic standards, something that she has done throughout her work.  EICHMANN BEFORE JERUSALEM, can be somewhat dry in spots but overall it is an amazing study of a subject that needed clarification and it brings to the fore primary documents that will assist future historians.  One can only hope that documents that have not been released pertaining to the Sassen papers, as well as documents held by the German government will soon be made available for historical research so we can obtain an even more accurate picture of what the Nazis perpetrated throughout Europe during W.W.II.