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.

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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.

50 CHILDREN by Steven Pressman

 

(Gil and Eleanor Kraus and the 50 children they saved)

One of the most controversial aspects of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews during World War II is whether the United States could have been done more to rescue the eventual victims of this genocide.  Historians have pointed to the lack of sympathy for the plight of Jews or the outright anti-Semitism in the State Department, the immigration quotas that existed going back to the 1924 legislation, and the political approach that the Roosevelt administration took towards the problem as it did not want to upset certain segments of the American electorate.  While all of these road blocks to save European Jewry existed many did find a way to assist in saving Jewish lives and were able to maneuver and overcome the numerous obstacles that were placed in their path.  Two individuals, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, whose story is told in Steven Pressman’s new book, 50 CHILDREN, took upon themselves the challenge of confronting Nazi persecution in Germany and Austria in 1939 and were able to succeed where others failed in obtaining fifty exit visas to allow fifty children to escape their plight and come to the United States in May, 1939.  The book is based on the writings of Eleanor Kraus, interviews with those involved who are still alive, and a degree of historical research.  The story that is told is a remarkable one and should be praised as such.  However, as a historical monograph, much could have been added.  Since the book goes hand in hand with the excellent HBO documentary, 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, which aired in April, 2013, it should be seen as an addendum to the program.

The story itself is a sobering one.  Pressman provides general details of events in Europe that affected their Jewish populations and integrates them into his narrative.  The most important would be the union of Germany and Austria, or Anschluss that took place in March, 1938, and Krystallnacht, the night of the broken glass that occurred in November of the same year.  These two events reflect that there was no future for European Jewry.  The Nuremberg Blood Laws that existed in Germany since 1935 were now applicable to Austria and after the pogrom of November, 1938 took place Herman Goering fined the Jewish community 400 million marks for the damage the Nazi thugs were responsible for.  Pressman’s description of these events are accurate, but he could have gone into greater detail and analysis in applying their repercussions as Gil Kraus developed and implemented his plan to save Jewish children.  After a discussion with Louis Levine, the head of the national Jewish fraternal organization called Brith Sholom, Kraus, a successful Philadelphia lawyer developed his plan to rescue fifty Viennese Jewish children in response to the events of 1938.

Pressman tells the story of how Kraus enlisted his wife Eleanor to take care of the massive bureaucratic paper work involved, and Robert Schless, a Philadelphia pediatrician, to accompany him to Vienna to carry out his plan.  What stands out a part from the Nazi persecution of Jews was the obstacles that Kraus and his cohorts had to overcome.  American immigration policy became the back bone of the opposition to allowing Jews to immigrate to the United States.  That policy was enforced by the State Department, particularly by certain officials such as Breckinridge Long, an Assistant Secretary of State, who sent a secret internal memo to members of the Foreign Service “to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices, which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visa.” (136)  Long’s instructions were followed carefully as we see the obstacles that were placed in front of the Kraus’.  From nitpicking affidavits, raising financial issues, outright lies and denials, many in the State Department did their best to make sure that the Kraus’ mission to Austria failed.  If it were not for the cooperation of George Messersmith, another Assistant Secretary of State who had served in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power, and Raymond Geist, a Foreign Service officer serving in Berlin during the Kraus’ visit in 1939, the Kraus mission would have failed.  Pressman correctly points out that Messersmith and Geist, though sympathetic to the cause of saving the children covered themselves by manipulating documents to reflect their implementation of immigration policies.  Pressman citations of his sources are rather scant in this section of the narrative.  He seems to rely on one book, Henry Feingold’s THE POLITICS OF RESCUE, written in 1970 for much of his background information.  I would have suggested to the author that he consult David Wyman’s THE ABANDONMENT OF THE JEWS, 1933-1939, Richard Breitman and Alan Lichtman’s FDR AND THE JEWS, and Erik Larson’s IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS for a deeper and more recent understanding of State Department policy during that period.

Pressman does a wonderful job describing how the children were chosen.  The interviews that the Kraus’ conducted with the children and their families was heartwarming.  The transcript of these conversations was important for the reader to witness to gain insights into what parents were going through by sending their children to a foreign country, not knowing if they would ever see them again.   Another area that Pressman should be commended for was his discussion of the opposition from within the Jewish community for what the Kraus’ hoped to achieve.  This subject touches a nerve as many historians have noted throughout the Holocaust that different factions within the American Jewish community worked at cross purposes to the detriment of the victims of Hitler’s death camps.  Pressman also spends a great deal of time exploring the social and political climate in the United States during the Depression.  He discusses the hostile environment as people feared an influx of Jews at a time when jobs were at a premium.  He goes on to explore the depths of isolationist feeling that dated back to World War I, in addition to the undercurrent of anti-Semitism that scared American Jews who did not want to rock the boat by overtly supporting Jewish immigration.

When the author sticks to the plight of the children and the plan to save them he is at his best.  However, at times he strays from the story to bring in what appears to be a more human interest component.  Constant references to Eleanor Kraus’ feelings, wardrobe, and vignettes about her experiences detract from the overall narrative as do other examples.  The historical narrative of the Kraus mission and the obstacles they overcame are more than enough to carry the story, anything that detracts from it should not have made their way into the book.

Pressman concludes the narrative by tracing the lives of 37 out of the 50 children that were saved and what became of them and their families.  Overall, the book is well written and presents an unimaginable and heroic adventure that saved many lives and told a story that needs to be retold over and over so we will not forget the lessons of the Holocaust.  For the general audience the book will prove to be a quick and satisfactory read, but for those who would like more insight and documentation I think the book is somewhat lacking.

WARBURG IN ROME by James Carroll

(Vatican City, Italy)

As a person who has enjoyed James Carroll’s work over the years whether he was presenting his history of the Church and Jews in CONSTANTINE’S SWORD; the difficulties of a father and son relationship during the Vietnam War in AN AMERICAN REQUIEM; or an exploration of the Pentagon and the expansion of American power in HOUSE OF WAR, I have grown to expect an absorbing read each time I pick up one of his books.  Carroll, who is an ordained Catholic priest who left the priesthood to become a writer, is also a novelist and his newest book, WARBURG IN ROME did not disappoint.  Carroll’s historical research and clerical background allowed him to explore numerous plots in his latest effort as he struggled with the role of the Catholic Church and its bureaucracy during and after World War II.   The story centers on David Warburg, a Yale University trained lawyer who worked in the Treasury Department and is assigned to head the War Refugee Board (WRB) in Rome in 1943.  We learn that the reason Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Morgenthau, Jr. appointed him was that he believed he was part of the Jewish Warburg banking family which would solve a number of political problems for the Roosevelt administration.  The fact is Warburg is from Burlington, VT which came as a surprise to many politicians and bureaucrats.  Since the appointment could not be withdrawn, the New England as opposed to the New York Warburg headed off to Rome to facilitate the removal of Jews from Nazi extermination camps.

The title WARBURG IN ROME is a misnomer as there are a number of characters who are as important to Carroll’s story as the new head of the WRB.  The story traces Warburg’s own personal voyage of faith and rediscovering his Jewish roots.  Driven by the world’s insensitivity to the plight of thousands of Jews who remained in European deportation camps following the war; with Palestine closed by the British, the United States closed by the State Department, Warburg’s journey progresses from casting his father’s tallit to opening his heart to a new found Judaism.  Warburg resigns from the WRB and begins working illicitly with the Jewish Defense Committee to break the “ratline” that Himmler had set up to assist Nazi higher ups attempted to flee Europe and reach Argentina.  Marguerite d’Erasmo in 1943 was the head of the Women’s and Children’s Committee for Italy.  After the Nazis seized Rome after Mussolini fell she worked in Red Cross refugee camps and hid records of Jews the remainder of the war to save them from extermination.  D’Erasmo personal voyage is as important as Warburg’s.  Her journey begins as a devout Catholic in Rome, morphing into a partisan fighter in Yugoslavia.  After witnessing the horrors of Croatian anti-Semitism and murder, she goes on to try and save women and children in a Nazi detention camp.  Failing to free these people from the grip of the Nazis she moves to Palestine and converts to Judaism.  Upon her return to Rome she gather’s intelligence to block Himmler’s escape route from Vienna, through Rome, on to Argentina using the Vatican as its conduit.  Other characters emerge that are part of the novel’s core; Father Kevin Deane, sent by Archbishop Spellman of New York to Rome to oversee aid to refugees.  Giacomo Lionni, a partisan fighter in the Balkans nicknamed, “Jocko” devotes his life to saving Jews. General Peter Masters, at the outset a friend of Warburg, works at cross purposes with the WRB as he represents American intelligence agencies that are cooperating with the Vatican, Nazis, and Croats against the Soviet Union as relations with Stalin continued to deteriorate.  There are a number of characters who are part of the Vatican bureaucracy, Monsignor Tardini, the Director of the Pontifical Relief Committee, Cardinal Maglione, the pro-Nazi Secretary of State for the Vatican, and of course, Pope Pius XII who hated communism and did not want a victory against Hitler to be turned into a defeat by Stalin.

 

Carroll’s novel spends a great deal of time exploring the role of the Vatican after World War II.  The church did hide and assist many Jews, but it also hid many Nazis and facilitated their escape from allied hands.  The church was vehemently anti-communist and was involved in trying to over turn the allied policy of “unconditional surrender,” and make a separate peace with Germany in order to restore a Catholic Danubian Federation under the Hapsburgs as a bulwark against communism.  After the federation failed, the church worked to restore members of the Ustashe, the Croat Nazis to power in a new Catholic Croatian state that would be anti-Tito.  What stands out in Carroll’s narrative and dialogue between characters is that the reader is witnessing history and in a sense what the author has created is a history of the refugee crisis, the flight of the Nazis, and Vatican machinations to create an anti-communist coalition during and after World War II wrapped up in a novel.  Carroll’s book is sound historically and reflects tremendous research and through his characters presents the dilemmas facing allied policymakers after World War II in coping with the remnants of the Holocaust and how to deal with an emerging world power in the Soviet Union.

(Heinrich Himmler, the mentor for Father Ricardo Lehmann)

Carroll does a splendid job exploring the contradictions and diverse viewpoints following the war.  For example, Warburg and Mates clash over the probable Irgun bombing of the British embassy in Rome following Prime Minister Atlee’s expansion of refugee camps for Jews on Cyprus, as Jews were denied entrance into Palestine.  Warburg is incensed that the WRB is shut down because of Mates’ OSS (precursor of the CIA) accused him of only working for Jews.  Mates offers the usual anti-Semitic rationale that Jews were most likely to be communist and a security risk as refugees, so they should not be allowed into the United States or Palestine.  Understanding Carroll’s storyline is like peeling an onion as layer after layer of the plot and the background of each character is laid bare.  We see Father Ricardo Lehmann, a German priest assigned to the Vatican whose mentor was Heinrich Himmler.  Following Himmler’s suicide Lehmann works to maintain the “road out” using Vatican documents that allowed Nazi war criminals to travel from Vienna to Buenos Aires, with an assist from the Croatian Catholic network of Franciscan monks.

(Father Maglione, Vatican Secretary of State who assisted Nazis fleeing Europe after World War II)

The story itself presents numerous moral decisions that characters must make, decisions that in real life have been explored by historians for decades to try and ascertain the true motivation of historical figures during and after the Holocaust.  Carroll makes a valiant attempt at doing so through his own characters as he has done in previous works of non-fiction.  As the story draws to a close, Father Deane realizes that because of Vatican machinations many church officials were “in bed with Nazis.”  Deane tries to deal with what he has witnessed and cries out, “ Pavelic, Lehmann, Strangl the Treblinka commandant, for the love of God!  Living in our religious houses.  Nazis in monasteries and convents.  Vichy collaborators protected.  The protectors promoted.  Gestapo killers with Vatican passports.  The church welcoming them in Argentina.” (353)  He prepares a report of Vatican culpability, and he knows it will go nowhere as he must submit it to Vatican authorities, raising moral questions he cannot deal with and comes to the conclusion that the church itself is not guilty, but church officials are.  The book provokes a great deal of thought on many levels and I wondered what Vatican policy might have been during this time period, if the current head of the Papacy, Pope Francis had been in office.  WARBURG IN ROME is an exceptional read.

THE MAN WHO BROKE INTO AUSCHWITZ by Denis Avey with Rob Broomby

Picture of the sign at the entrance of Auschwitz that reads Arbeit Macht Frei.

(The entrance to Auschwitz)

THE MAN WHO BROKE INTO AUSCHWITZ by Denis Avey with Rob Broomby is not an easy book to review.  It is a memoir of a former British soldier who decided after his capture and incarceration in a German POW camp, located next to the outskirts of Auschwitz, to switch clothing and identity with a Jewish inmate, so he could witness what went on inside the death camps.  These actions take place about halfway through the memoir and from that point on the reader is riveted to Denis Avey’s story.  The first third of the book recounts his early years in England and his boredom that led him to join the British army in 1939.  We are taken through his training and finally his experiences fighting first against the Italians in North Africa and then once the Italians lost Tobruk the Germans led by Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corp.  It is during the battle against the Germans at Sidi  Rezegh that he is captured and the essence of what he would experience is recounted.

Evaluating this type of memoir places the reviewer in a quandary.  You can comment on style and language and the demeanor of the author, but based on what he has survived and overcome, is that fair?  For me, Avey’s story is an emotional journey that takes him through the savagery of warfare in the Libyan dessert as a driver of a carrier vehicle with a mounted Bren gun on top.  He sees his friends blown to bits by Italian and German artillery and bombers.  He himself is wounded and contracts malaria and in the end winds up in a German field hospital where he miraculously recovers.  The first question that must be asked is why Avey, who did not have to enlist, join the army.  Avey states that “I hadn’t joined up for King and country but youthful adventure,” but what began as somewhat of a lark morphed into “a moral conflict for me at the very time I could do little about it.” (128)  Avey matured as a person because of his experiences and for him morality dominated his mindset.

Avey’s survival can be explained through luck, but also a state of mind.  Throughout the memoir he describes the abhorrent conditions he experienced but as he states, “my body was in a shocking state, but in my head, I wasn’t a prisoner at all.  The enemy had done many things to me but they hadn’t captured my mind.” (98)  After being captured in North Africa he attempted to escape a number of times and he was labeled as a “habitual troublemaker” which led to his transfer to a POW labor camp in the Polish town of Oswiecim where he noticed people who looked starved with shaved heads wearing “ill fitting striped shirts and trousers that were more like pyjamas.” (105)  Avey worked on a massive factory that was being built by I.G. Farben to manufacture “buna,” or synthetic rubber.  Avey realized earlier that “everywhere, in the nooks and crannies of this industrial nightmare, were poor creatures in their filthy zebra uniforms, many too weak to stand, led alone shift and carry.  I knew by now this was no ordinary labour camp.  They were deliberately worked to death.” (107)  For Avey, the knowledge that as a British POW he was not going to be worked to death allowed him to contemplate how he could assist these Jewish inmates.  He was able to get a letter out to the sister of a Jew named Ernst that allowed a package to be returned to him that assisted Ernst’s survival of what is referred to as Auschwitz III, the Nazi death camp.

Avey who became obsessed with the immorality of the Holocaust decided to change places with Ernst.  This was accomplished on two separate occasions where Avey experienced the barracks, the smell from the crematoria, the beatings, and the total inhumanity that was the “Final Solution.”  For Avey he wanted to bear witness to the plight of the Jews.  He wanted to tell the world of their suffering and the savagery of Auschwitz I, II, and III.  Throughout his experiences Avey was careful not to establish close relations with anyone, except for Hans a Dutch Jew he assisted, and Ernst, because you never knew how quickly you would be chosen for a detail to bury them.  As the Russians moved in from the east, Avey and thousands of others were forced to March westward in the middle of a frozen winter.  Avey broke away and miraculously made his way through Silesia, Czechoslovakia, and Germany.  Finally after passing through Nuremburg he came across the American army where he was taken to an officer whose description sounded like George S. Patton.

(Head to Head with Prime Minister Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street on January 22, 2010.  In March 2010 Avey was presented with a medal as one of 27 British heroes of the Holocaust.  All but two received the award posthumously)

From this point Avey describes his post war struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at a time when no one knew what it was and people were interested in talking about victory not the calamity facing soldiers who fought in the war and who were victims that people did not recognize.  Avey describes his battles with nightmares, jumpiness, his inability to speak about his experiences, his violent temper, stomach pains, and loss of memory.  These symptoms as well as the loss of vision in one I that grew cancerous from a beating during his incarceration plagued him for years after the war.  Eventually he would overcome them and lead a very successful life, as Avery says during the day, but at night it was a different story.  The most heartwarming and emotionally wrenching part of the book is the last third as he describes how a reporter Rob Broomby traced Avey’s experiences for a news story and he located Ernst’s sister, leading to a reunion with Avey.  Further they uncovered a DVD of Ernst’s life in the United States after the war.  Avey never knew what happened to him and this emotional catharsis allowed him to open up and went a long way in his own recovery.  The book is sad in parts, uplifting at the same time, but it serves as another voice, a witness to man’s inhumanity to man, and as Avey points out by recounting his experiences hopefully people will gain an understanding of genocide and will not allow it to take place again.

OPERATION PAPERCLIP by Annie Jacobsen

At the conclusion of her new book, OPERATION PAPERCLIP: THE SECRET INTELLIGENCE PROGRAM THAT NAZI SCIENTISTS BROUGHT TO AMERICA, Annie Jacobsen discusses her battles with American military and intelligence authorities in trying to obtain documents relating to the employ of Nazi scientists by the United States Army and other government agencies following World War II.  In her discussion a common theme reaches fruition in 2012 as the Department of Defense finally declassified a 1945 list of Nazi doctors who were sought for “mercy killings and medical murder cases.”  On that list were seven Nazi doctors who were employed by the U.S. government even though “U.S. Army intelligence knew all along that these doctors were implicated in murder yet chose to classify the list and hire the doctors.” (437)  These doctors were hired as part of Operation Paperclip a postwar program designed to use the technological and medical knowledge of Nazi scientists for the benefit of American policy as the Cold War was burgeoning.  This raises a number of moral questions, the most important of which is when does a government draw the line in working with individuals who are guilty of directly or indirectly causing the death of tens of thousands of concentration camp victims, slave laborers, or innocent civilians.  In the case of the United States following World War II that line was invisible no matter what evidence existed that the individuals that the government was interested in had either engaged directly or indirectly in genocide.  For American officials following the war it was easy to dismiss evidence because in their eyes American national security interests trumped any documents that might interfere with their goal of using Nazi technological and medical advances to further the American agenda against the Soviet Union.

Anne Jacobsen has written a detailed and deeply researched study that raises numerous moral and philosophical questions as she explores the origin, implementation, and eventual downfall of Operation Paperclip.  She leaves no stone unturned as she ferrets out the stories and experiences relating to Wernher von Braun, the director of the German Army’s V2 rocket program and headed the Mittelbau-Dora Planning Office that oversaw experiments that resulted in the death of 30,000 out of 60,000 slave laborers he “hired” from the SS.  Other subjects include, Dr. Walter Schreiber, the Surgeon General of the Third Reich who carried out medical experiments on concentration camp victims for gas and bacterial warfare; Georg Rickhey, the General manager of the Mittlewerk slave labor facility; Otto Ambros, chemist and co discoverer of sarin gas and manager of IG Farben’s slave labor factory at Auschwitz; Dr. Kurt Blome, Deputy Surgeon General of the Reich; Major General Walter Dornberger who was in charge of V-weapons development and the technical officer in the Nordhausen slave labor tunnels; and Dr. Hubertus Strughold the wartime director for aviation research for the Reich.  These are just a few of the individuals that Jacobsen’s narrative exposes.  All are war criminals, and all participated in Operation Paperclip and developed important programs that the US military came to rely on during the Cold War, for example, Kurt Debus, an ardent Nazi and V-weapons flight test director who later became the first director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Jacobsen follows Operation Paperclip from its inception in 1945 as American authorities had to decide what to do with Hitler’s former scientists and engineers.  Proponents of Operation Paperclip decided to use Nazi scientists to assist in the war against Japan.  However, once the Japanese threat ended in August, 1945 and relations with the Soviet Union began to deteriorate the race to acquire as many scientists and technological experts before the Soviet Union could capture them gained momentum.  Jacobsen does an excellent job describing certain Nazi scientists and why their particular specialty was so important to the United States.  US policy for hiring German scientists was supposed to be based on the condition that “provided they were not known or alleged war criminals,” however this caveat was easily overlooked.  I found the mini-biographies that Jacobsen provides to be fascinating.  The author discusses many individuals that people with knowledge of World War II will easily recognize, i.e.; Hermann Goering, Albert Speer, and Heinrich Himmler, but the character studies of those not easily recognizable are the most fascinating.  Dr. Leopold Alexander, a Boston psychiatrist and German Jew left Germany in 1933 for a fellowship in China and never returned to his homeland.  He ended up working in a mental hospital outside Boston in 1934 and returned to Germany after the war to try and determine which of his former colleagues and students were guilty.  Alexander was shocked by the deviance of Nazi science and noted they did not practice science, but a “really depraved pseudoscientific criminality.”  Dr. Alexander also investigated crimes committed in the name of neuropsychiatry and neuropathology and in this capacity he came face to face with the odious Nazi belief of “untermenschen” that was the core of Hitler’s ideological framework and those individuals who implemented the murder thousands under the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring carried out by Dr. Karl Kleist, a former neurology professor of Alexander.  We also meet Americans such as John J. McCloy who was in charge of setting up war crimes programs, but also coordinated policy regarding the transfer of Nazi scientists to the United States which he supported at the end of the war and later when he became High Commissioner for the American occupation zone replacing General Lucius Clay in 1949.  Not all Americans that Jacobsen integrates into the narrative were guilty of facilitating Operation Paperclip.  There were people like John Dolibois, a G2 Army intelligence officer who was sent to Dachau after its liberation to interrogate Nazi suspects and to investigate whether any important Nazis were hiding among the general prison population.  Dolibois was shocked by the reaction of the men he interrogated as they could not believe they were being prosecuted and they used the excuse that they “were only following orders.”  To their credit many State Department functionaries argued repeatedly to keep Nazi scientists who were proven criminals out of the United States, but the military establishment was difficult to defeat.

Jacobsen’s discussion of IG Farben and their development of sarin and tabun gases are eye opening especially when the same scientists are the ones who helped develop it for the United States.  Farben’s research reflects the depravity of the Nazi scientists, the same men whose expertise the US would use, rather than having these men face the prosecution and punishment they deserved.  It was not just chemists the US was interested in.  When the Washington Post uncovered “freezing experiments” conducted at Dachau were by men would be tortured, then frozen for a period of time, then Nazi doctors would try and revive them.   The fact that the Nazi biologists involved were already working for the US was kept from the public.  Throughout Operation Paperclip officials had to work just as hard recruiting scientists as they did keeping information away from Congress and the American public.  This led to covert programs to smuggle scientists into the United States or the American zone in what became West Germany on many occasions.

Perhaps the most interesting and disturbing chapter was entitled, “Science at Any Price,” which explained how the military was able to maneuver the State Department out of the business of approving visa for the Nazi scientists that they opposed admitting to the United States.  From that point on the Joint Intelligence Objective Agency (JIOA) that had been created by the War Department was in charge of Operation Paperclip and the policy became; any scientist the Russians were interested in would be of interest to the US.  By October, 1946 there were 233 German scientists in US military custody.  At the same time the New York Times made the public aware of Operation Paperclip, the army had to go on a charm offensive by bringing out the most “wholesome looking German scientists they had working for them.” (250)

Jacobsen artfully describes army cover-up tactics when one of their “new” employees had their Nazi past catch up to them, i.e., Georg Rickhey who oversaw production and the hanging of prisoners at Nordhausen, a rocket factory housed in a salt mine.  When Rickhey was arrested he was acquitted in the Dora-Nordhausen trial as the judges were military and the future of the American missile program took precedence.  Jacobsen weaves her narrative nicely with the use of trial transcripts and documents to support her thesis and reflects American angst that the Soviet Union was ahead in the “chemical warfare race.”  In fact Karl Krauck, IG Farben’s head chemist and Goering’s main advisor on chemicals was being recruited by the US at the same time he was on trial.  America’s rational was simple, “when working with ardent Nazis American handlers appear to have developed the ability to look the other way.  Others…..looked straight at the man and saw only the scientist, not the Nazi.” (300)

The Berlin Crisis that began on June 24, 1948 gave Operation Paperclip further momentum as the newly created CIA joined forces with the JIOA and led to the employ of Major General Reinhard Gehlen, the former head of  Nazi intelligence operations against the Soviet Union.  The US made a deal with the devil and put Gehlen’s organization at the forefront of the Cold War and made the Major General head of the entire American anti-communist intelligence operation.  Jacobsen also zeroes in on the cases of Otto Ambros, Dr. Walter Schreiber, and Dr. Kurt Blome exploring their Nazi past, their involvement in war crimes, and how they came to work for the United States.  Jacobsen follows that discussion with that of John J. McCloy’s commutation of Ambros’ and others sentences when he became High Commissioner, in part because of pressure from West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and the outbreak of the Korean War.  A new shift in US policy evolved as it was now more important to be anti-communist as opposed to anti-Nazi.

The saga of Dr. Walter Schreiber as described by Jacobsen is emblematic of the American governments experience with former Nazi scientists after the war.  Schreiber was involved with medical experiments at Ravensbruck among his other crimes, but yet he was never prosecuted at Nuremberg.  In fact he became a Russian witness against his former colleagues at the trial.  His journey to the United States and his final eviction in 1952 is a twisted voyage that brings to the surface the role of the Air Force, CIA and other agencies that did everything they could bureaucratically to allow him to remain in the United States so that we could employ his knowledge of Nazi and Soviet chemical experiments.  In 1952 when his presence in Texas reached the Boston press and went national, the fear of scandal that could reach the highest levels of the Truman administration finally saw the government force him to emigrate to Argentina with his family.  What is evident is that being an anti-communist trumped being a Nazi war criminal.   If you could assist in the Cold War battle any past crimes could be glossed over and explained away in the name of national security.

Jacobsen completes her study by discussing the case of Arthur Rudolph, a man who oversaw slave labor at the Dora-Nordhausen complex where he was involved in working prisoners to death and a number of public hangings.  Rudolph had worked for the US military and NASA for thirty-eight years when he was finally expelled, but even as his role in the Third Reich became known in 1983 there were elements in NASA who claimed the Justice Department was engaged in a witch hunt.   Jacobsen’s magnificent study concludes by asking “What does last?  The desire to seek the truth? Or, in the words of Jean Michel, the ability to take a stand against the monstrous distortion of history when it gives birth to false, foul and suspect myths?”  This for me is the epitaph of Operation Paperclip, one of the most disturbing policies that the United States government has ever pursued.

ISAAC’S ARMY by Matthew Brzezinski

 

Ten years ago my wife and I visited Poland. Since I had studied the Holocaust for many years I thought I knew what to expect, but after visiting the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau I was wrong. Since many of my relatives were murdered in Auschwitz and part of my journey was to find my father’s village outside of Krakow I had a very sobering and emotional reaction to what I saw. I have read countless books on the Holocaust, but few measure up to Matthew Brzezinski’s ISAAC’s ARMY. The book is not a comprehensive history of the plight of Polish Jews during the Holocaust, but after reading it I had the feeling that it was. What is presented is an eye opening account of Polish Jewry before, during, and after World War II. The author’s main focus is the city of Warsaw which was depopulated and destroyed by the Nazis between 1940 and 1944. By focusing on a select number of Jews who lived, died, and survived the trauma that befell Eastern European Jews the reader is exposed to fresh insights and is taken on a journey like no other.
The author begins by describing the difficulty of imagining Warsaw from the platform of 2012. Today Warsaw is thriving with a modern capitalist economy, but as Brzezinski points out the office buildings, financial centers, hotels and other modern edifices are built on the “holy ground” that was the Warsaw Ghetto. The first chapter provides an insight to the Polish mindset as the German invasion takes place on September 1, 1939. The masses retained the firm belief that this was another Hitler land grab and once he seized Danzig (Gdansk) and some Silesian land he would be satiated and things would return to normal. Though their neighbors seemed confident there was a “collective nervousness” in the Jewish community. Within a few days reality hit home as the Germans entered Warsaw on September 8th.

After his introductory material Brzezinski shifts his attention to Warsaw and the ghetto that the Germans created. His narrative is presented through the eyes of a number of people. By focusing his attention on Isaac Zuckerman, Simha Ratheiser, Mark Edelman, Boruch Spiegel, Zivia Lubetkin, the Osnos and Mortkowicz families, and a number of other important individuals the reader is drawn into their world and their co-religionists struggle for survival. By mid-September the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east making it very difficult to escape. As the narrative develops Brzezinski describes the inability of the Jews in Warsaw to develop a unified response to events. The Nazis created the Judenrat, designed to rule the ghetto and carry out their policy. Within the Jewish community a Zionist faction emerged whose goal was to get as many Jews as possible to immigrate to Palestine, opposing them was the Bund who felt allegiance to Poland and wanted to build up the Jewish community as nationalistic Poles and remain in Poland. A Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) was created and both the Zionists and Bund members could not unify against the Nazis. In addition the Polish gentiles created a Home Army supported by the British.

By October Poland as an independent nation ceased to exist. The Nazis worked ceaselessly to rekindle Polish anti-Semitism that had plagued Polish Jews for centuries but had declined in the early 20th century. Soon a Jewish underground developed to cope with the deteriorating conditions and oppose the Nuremberg Blood Laws which defined the Nazi version of Jewishness, the looting, roundups for slave labor and outright murder carried out by the German command. Through the eyes of Brzezinski’s characters the reader gets a glimpse of Jewish life and culture in pre-war Poland that the Nazis destroyed as they seized Jewish businesses ranging from banks to publishing and industry.
The author weaves the story of the escape of the Osnos family from Poland to Romania by way of Germany to highlight the immigration barriers set up by western countries especially the United States and the machinations of Breckenridge Long, an assistant Secretary of State who created numerous roadblocks to prevent Jews from entering America (see David Wyman’s two volume history of American immigration policy before and during the war towards Jews). The Osnos family escaped Warsaw before the Nazis walled in the ghetto in the fall of 1940 resulting in almost 500,000 people squeezed into 732 acres. (100)

Once the ghetto was created Brzezinski describes the underground smuggling operation that would feed the ghetto for the next three years. The author integrates the important role that children played in the process as families relied on their offspring for survival. Many Jews were rounded up and along with Gentile Poles were sent to perform slave labor in Germany and areas they occupied in the East. Isaac Zuckerman was one of the 1.6 million people who suffered the fate of being a forced laborer and through his eyes we experience what it was like. Overall the Jews in the ghetto suffered from an ethical dilemma, how much should they cooperate with the Nazis. Under the Judenrat, headed by Adam Czerniakow a Jewish Police Force was created to assist in rounding up and policing Jews. Czerniakow’s diary (THE WARSAW DIARY OF ADAM CZERNIAKOW edited by Raul Hilberg) describes his mental state as he presided over the ghetto under the Nazis and the day to day issues that Polish Jews faced. Finally on July 23, 1942, Czerniakow could no longer deal with the situation and committed suicide.

Though Brzezinski concentrates on the Warsaw Ghetto he also describes the pogroms in Vilna and Kovno following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941. As numerous historians have pointed out Hitler did not plan in advance as to how the Jews would be dealt with once Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Decisions and killings would be made on an ad hoc basis until the Final Solution was decided upon at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942. Special killing squads were employed by the Nazis in the East and experimental methods were instituted to maximize death until finally the concentration camps were refined to maximize the killing.

On July 22, 1942 the Nazis ordered the Gross Aktion (Great Deportation) to empty the Warsaw Ghetto and settle people in the East. Mark Edelman emerged as a leading figure in the underground and as a hospital orderly he helped smuggle Jews out of the Ghetto. Preference was given to underground members and as Edelman described years later he felt like he was playing God as he chose who he could assist. Soon after this Edelman and his cohorts learned that Jews were not being resettled but were being taken to a new concentration camp, Treblinka. By September 21, 1942 the deportations had ended as over 300,000 Jews had perished at Treblinka.

Throughout the book Brzezinski provides details of the negotiations between the different factions among the Jewish community as to how to deal with Nazi depopulation policy. In addition, the author provides insights concerning discussions with the Polish Home Army to acquire weapons. What emerges are the many obstacles that the Jews faced as they tried to fight the Nazis and just survive. The latent anti-Semitism of the Home Army, the ideological predilections of the different factions, and the many “greasers” (the term used to describe Ukrainian and other ethnic groups that the Nazis used to harass, rob, and murder Jews) all contributed to the inability of thousands of Jews to save themselves. By January, 1943 the Germans began to round up the remaining 50,000 Jews that had escaped the Gross Aktion.

The new German effort to deport Jews to Treblinka led to the ZOB merging with the Bund and a more unified Jewish command. The ZOB took over leadership from the Judenrat and Brzezinski explores how they developed their strategy, bomb making capacity, and acquisition of weapons. Though they did not acquire a great deal from the Home Army they were able to manufacture their own “version” of weaponry. On April 20, 1943 the SS stormed the Ghetto to liquidate it. They were met by roughly 500-750 armed Jews. Receiving little help from the 380,000 member Polish Home Army they shocked the Germans who expected to be met by a few revolvers not bombs. Heinrich Himmler fearing another Stalingrad type situation in Warsaw appointed Jurgen von Stroop his counter insurgency expert to deal with the situation. Von Stroop applied massive artillery to flush out the insurgents as building after building was destroyed. Brzezinski goes into great detail as to how the Jewish defenders survived the onslaught. The remaining Jews were able to escape their harrowing situation by entering the sewer system to reach the Aryan side of the city and seek a path to safety.
On May 16, 1943 von Stroop declared the Ghetto liquidated, but 28,000 Jews remained hiding in the city. The biggest threat were the “greasers” who continued to extort and murder Jews. These “greasers” numbered between 5-10,000 Poles and were on a fee basis from the Gestapo. Brzezinski correctly points out that little research has been done concerning this problem, but he sheds more light on the precarious situation Jewish survivors of the liquidation faced. It is interesting that so much work has been done concerning the role of Righteous Christians, but so little with “greasers.” (See Jan Grabowski’s new book, HUNT FOR JEWS: BETRAYAL AND MURDER IN GERMAN OCCUPIED POLAND)

On August 1, 1944 Warsaw erupted once again as the Home Army led a revolt against the Nazis. The Poles wanted to liberate themselves before the red Army arrived. Brzezinski explores the diplomacy among Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin concerning the future of Poland and it becomes clear by the Tehran and Yalta Conferences that Britain and the United States despite protestations realized that Poland would fall into the Soviet sphere. During the Warsaw uprising Stalin kept 800,000 troops from entering Warsaw and refused the use of Soviet airspace to the British and the United States who sought to assist the Home Army. From Stalin’s perspective the more Poles the Nazis killed the better. The man who was responsible for the Katyn Forest Massacre earlier in the war was just finishing a project to decimate the Polish leadership, politically and militarily as soon as possible. On October 2, 1944 Warsaw capitulated with 200,000 casualties in 63 days. (362) “From a pre war population of 1.35 million, only an estimated five thousand remained hidden in the rubble of October 1944.” (369)

Once Poland was liberated by the Soviet Union and the war was brought to an end the full horror of the Holocaust was brought front and center for the world to witness. For the remaining Jews who survived the war they trickled back to Poland, but their ordeal was not at an end. Over 300,000 Jews returned to Poland and most did not want to remain as most Poles were not happy that so many Jews survived the war. Isaac Zuckerman worked ceaselessly to assist as many as possible to immigrate to Palestine, but the British, now a declining empire refused their admittance for fear of angering the Arabs. For those Jews who wanted to remain in Poland prewar anti-Semitism quickly resurfaced. As Jews tried to regain their homes, businesses, and other property from the prewar years many Poles either owned or occupied them and refused to go back to their prewar status and return them to their rightful owners. Beatings of Jews and robberies and other types of harassment were common in postwar Poland, but none reached the level of the pogrom at Kielce in July, 1946, which resulted in the death of 40 Jews and many more injured. The massacre was carried out by “ordinary Poles; bakers and seamstresses, white collar workers and carpenters, God-fearing Catholics who went to church on Sundays. How, after the tragedy of the Holocaust, something like this could occur in a supposedly civilized society, Isaac could not understand.” (401) For a full description of the events in Kielce and the role of the Polish government consult Jan Gross’ account in his book, FEAR: ANTI-SEMITISM IN POLAND AFTER AUSCHWITZ. The Polish government would then, after asking permission from the Soviet Union, facilitated the immigration of 115,000 Jews to Palestine. (403)

Brzezinski closes his narrative by reintroducing characters that he had interviewed for the book . Some of these survivors lived in Israel and had to deal with the remnants of their experiences. Issues such as post traumatic stress disorder were apparent in most survivors and for Isaac and Zivia death would come at a fairly young age. Mark Edelman returned to Lodz after the war and became one of the Poland’s leading heart surgeons. Many settled in Krakow, while others went to Toronto and New York. As time moves further and the continued building of skyscrapers all physical evidence of the Holocaust in Poland will be extinguished except for a few yards of the ghetto wall which stood as of my visit in 2003. At that time the wall was tended to by an older gentleman. I wondered as I closed Brzezinski’s book if that gentleman was still alive, and if not had someone else taken over the mission of caring for some of the last evidence of the Nazi destruction of such a beautiful city. ISAAC’S ARMY is superb book that reads like fiction, but the trouble for humanity is that it is all based on fact.

HITLER’S HANGMAN: THE LIFE OF HEYDRICH by Robert Gerwath

Until 1942, the year of his assassination Reinhard Heydrich was the chief of the Nazi Criminal Police, the SS Security Service and the Gestapo. He played a significant role in the planning of the “Final Solution” and was responsible for many of the atrocities implemented by the Nazi hierarchy until his death. In this new biography, HITLER’S HANGMAN: THE LIFE OF HEYDRICH by Robert Gerwath, the Director of the Center for War Studies at the University College Dublin,the reader is presented with the most complete study of this perpetrator of evil that has been written to date. Heydrich was the “complete” ideological Nazi. One who grew up in a privileged middle class family and the narrative and analysis follows his career progression to the point of becoming one of Hitler’s most trusted policy makers. Gerwath presents the inner workings of the Gestapo and other Nazi police organs. The reader witnesses the complexities of the Nazi secret police, the personal conflicts and power struggles and the resulting affects on its victims. It is a study that explores the personal and public character of its subject and leaves no doubt that the Holocaust was greatly facilitated by the former overlord of Bohemia and Moravia. His assassination (the topic of a fascinating new novel, HHH by Laurent Binet) by a Slovak and a Czech recruited by the British secret service in 1942 did the world a service by ending the cruelty of the “butcher of Prague.” The book is designed for the general reader as well as an academic audience and is very well written and well worth the time if one is interested in this type of subject matter.

HHhH by Laurent Binet

Recently I read Robert Gerwath’s HITLER’S HANGMAN: THE LIFE OF HEYDRICH. It was an amazing biography of a person described as “Himmler’s Brain.” Reinhard Heydrich was the Chief of the Nazi Criminal Police, the SS Security Service and the Gestapo, also the ruthless overlord of Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia during World War II. In addition he was the leading organizer of the “Final Solution” until May 27, 1942 as well as the “host” for the Wannsee Conference that many believe set up the infrastructure for the Holocaust, quite a resume! Heydrich was one of the most important figures in the Nazi hierarchy and quite possibly would have worked his way up to be Hitler’s successor had he not been assassinated by a Czech and a Slovak as part of a British secret service plot in May, 1942. Since Heydrich was such an important historical figure I was fascinated by Laurent Binet’s remarkable book, HHhH translated from French into English by Sam Taylor and published last year. Binet’s work is a combination of historical fiction and historical narrative, a process he describes as an “infranovel.”

This book is an unusual combination of impeccable historical research and prose. The author seems to meditate over his material as he presents it in the form of a conversation with himself. His application of subtle sarcasm exists throughout and his descriptions of his characters are hauntingly accurate. The first half of the book presents the background in the form of a bio-fiction of Heydrich’s life and then the author moves on to discuss his main concern the assassination of the “Butcher of Prague.” The reader is provided an interesting portrayal of Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis the British trained assassins, who are parachuted into the Prague area in May, 1942. The reader is taken for a chilling ride with these partisans as they carry out their mission, the Nazi reprisals resulting in the massacre of the Czech town of Lidice, their own deaths and the eventual extermination of all individuals who are linked to the plot by the Germans. Binet is irreverent in his descriptions, be it social situations or ideological debates to the point that some of the scenes seem farcical. The author’s blend of historical accuracy and fictional musings draw the reader in with his commentary, i.e.; in dealing with Anglo-French sellout of Czechoslovakia in September, 1938 he states, “at this level of political stupidity, betrayal becomes almost a work of art.” The book is truly an accurate portrayal of history presented in the form of a novel. As a historian I wish he could have provided footnotes and a bibliography!