Archive for the holocaust

Rachel Sarai’s Vineyard – Death of a “hidden” child

Posted in holocaust with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2010 by indyretreats

When you think of the “hidden children of the Holocaust,” the images those words conjure are probably Jewish kids on a freedom-bound train or hidden in a small space in someone’s attic. Rachel Sarai was a very German-looking Jewish child hidden in plain sight of the “stupid Krauts,” as she calls them. But while this 7-year-old girl was certainly a heroine, she was not a child, for Rachel lost her childhood at a very early age.

Author Deborah Rey takes an autobiographical look back at the war years in Holland, but does so through the eyes of a fictional heroine and the book’s namesake. And if Deborah’s early childhood was fractionally as horrific as young Rachel’s, then I have deep sorrow and sympathy for her.

Rachel was subjected to grisly adult images—some of them inhuman—at such an early age you may wonder how she survived to adulthood with any fragment of normalcy. And a fragment it surely must be.

The harrowing story is told in flashbacks from casket-side at the funeral of Rachel’s awful mother figure. She recalls in graphic detail the abuse she endured at the evil step mother’s hands while her father, aunt and her real mother looked helplessly on. When I say graphic detail, I mean the vulgar, mind-numbing, atrocious, grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it sort. During one of the late chapters, I actually threw the book to the floor in disgust. There are parts that are THAT revolting. But a book about the horrors of World War II would be less than honest if it were any less so. A short break and a talk with my spouse later, I was able to resume and finish the novel. It took me more than two weeks.

It was the hardest book I’ve ever read.

Do I recommend it? If you can stomach details of abortion, graphic sex, rape and abuse, then by all means. This book details all of those horrors. But it is by all counts a realistic picture of one survivor’s hell…and a survivor’s tale it is. The war ends when Rachel is just seven, but long after she’s lost her childhood for obvious reasons. She tells of the arduous journey towards forgiveness and moving past the deep emotional wounds that only family can inflict. She finds peace in the arms of a beloved aunt and her second husband Jonathan. She also learns the truth about her birth mother, but not from any of the people who should have told her. 

I herald Rachel a heroine, but not just because she survives it all. She was actively involved in the Dutch Resistance movement, helping keep her father and many other Jews safe from the Nazis. Leading fugitives at night through the woods and moors to a Swedish safehouse, young Rachel saves countless Jewish lives. Much of her success is due to the fact that she remains hidden in plain sight under long golden hair and behind brilliant green eyes. No one ever suspects her as a Jew and she refuses to wear a yellow star. She avoids danger every time she encounters a German soldier by flashing an innocent smile and skipping past as if she hadn’t a care in the world. Little did the Nazis know that in her wooden clogs or hidden beneath layers of clothing, she was transporting secrets or weapons to various checkpoints and hideouts within the Dutch Resistance. 

Rachel Sarai’s Vineyard is not for the faint of heart. The language is vulgar and some of the scenes depicted are even worse. It is brutally honest, though, intriguing and moving. By the end, I had given up on fighting back tears. It is sure to move you, too, if it doesn’t sicken you first.

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Interview with R. Gabriele Silten

Posted in concentration camps, ghetto, holocaust with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2009 by indyretreats
Photo courtesy of USHMM

Photo courtesy of USHMM

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Holocaust survivor Gabriele Silten through the Remember_The_Holocaust group moderated by Fred Kahn. She immediately sent me copies of her written work (see titles list below), including her autobiography Between Two Worlds. She also agreed to an online interview which we conducted by e-mail just this week. Below is the substance of that interview.

Q: Was writing your autobiography therapeutic? Is that why you decided to write it?  

A: No, it was not therapeutic. I decided to write it because a lot of people–friends– pushed me to do so and I thought it was a good idea. I had to relive that whole time, which at least meant that it all came to the surface and I could then deal with it.

Q: You talk about your family being assimilated and not practicing Judaism. Was your family not very religious?

A: Obviously not. Assimilated means just that; that they were NOT religious, did not keep the dietary laws, did not go to temple, did not keep the holidays, etc. We practiced nothing at all.

Q: Did they observe the High Holy Days? Can you summarize your views about religion, faith and God as a young child?

A: No, as stated above, they observed nothing at all. As a young child I had no views about God, religion, faith or anything like it. So there is nothing to summarize.  I came to all this much, much later.

Q: As to the “Jewish star,” you mention that it had to be firmly adhered to all clothing. Where did your family buy the printed, yellow fabric?

A: As I found out much later, after the war and when I was in my 40’s, we, in my family, bought the stars at one of the local temples. There were several places like that, depending on where you lived.  They didn’t cost much but they had to be BOUGHT and a rationing coupon for material was necessary, as well.

Q: Were the stars sewn to every piece of clothing? If so, how long did that take your mother and grandmother to complete?

A: Yes, to every piece of outer clothing – not onto underwear. But if you wore a blouse and a sweater, for example, then it had to be on both pieces of clothing. I have no idea how long it took my mother and grandmother to do that. I do remember that my mother put the stars into a solution of vinegar and water. They were not color-proof and if you didn’t do that, the yellow would bleed onto the material of your dress, shirt or something like that. So they needed to be soaked like that first and after that they were all right.

Q: When you discovered that your friend Peg and her family had been taken away, what did you think had happened to them?

A: I didn’t know for sure, of course, but thought that either they had been “taken away” as we called it, i.e. arrested, or that they had gone into hiding. I didn’t know much about hiding, but had heard of it.

Q: How old were you before you realized what the Nazis were doing to Jews in the East?

A: I had no idea whatsoever what the Germans were doing to the Jews in the East. Not even most adults knew that. All we knew, and especially we children, was that we never got card or letter and never heard from any of them again. So we figured it must be very bad indeed. Most of us heard the word “Auschwitz” after the war for the first time. I, as a person, did not find out until one day I looked for something to read in my parents’ book case (I was allowed to do that) and found a hidden book about what I now know as Auschwitz. There were many photos and I figured out in no time that this was what had happened to the Jews who were transported out of Westerbork and Theresienstadt where I had been. It was obvious that they could not possibly have survived. I was at home alone that day and I was 15 years old.

Q: Your paternal grandparents must have known what awaited them at Auschwitz. How did they know it would be better to die by their own hands than to face the horrors of Auschwitz?

A: I don’t know whether they or my maternal grandmother actually KNEW what awaited them at Auschwitz. According to my father, they figured that they were too old to go through all of that, too old to “work” (they were told about work camps, after all), too old to “relocate.” My paternal grandfather was a pharmacist and gave poison to my maternal grandmother, to his own wife and to my father’s family, i.e. my parents and me. My paternal grandmother used it when her name appeared on the list for the next transport from Westerbork; she was there with us.

Q: If it is not too painful, can you talk more about your Omi’s death in Westerbork, July 1943, and how it affected you?

With her Omi Marta in 1935

A: It is not painful, since I have long ago accepted it and think, in fact, that she and my other grandparents were heroes for doing this. I don’t know that I would have had the courage, or would have the courage today, in fact. I know that my father told me at the time that Omi was ill and had to go to the “hospital”–yes, there was one in Westerbork. Then, the next day, he told me that she had died. He did not then tell me that she had committed suicide. That came out many years after the war, when I must have been about 16 or 17 years old. Affected: I missed her a lot, especially at first. She was the one, when she lived with us, to help me with multiplication tables, sewed clothes for my doll, taught me how to braid hair. I missed all of that. But the, Westerbork was such a bad place that children grew up overnight and I became more independent and played less if at all.

Q: In your book, you said that it took approximately eight days to make the 80-mile trip by train to Westerbork and only two days from there to Theresienstadt. Why do you think the train to Westerbork took so long? Were you given any water or food inside the cattle car?

A: No, I didn’t say that at all. I said that we were “picked up” (arrested) early in the morning – about 9:00 am and that we had to wait around in various places till about noon. We arrived in Westerbork at about 11:00 pm which is 12 (twelve) hours. Today, by train, car or bus, it takes 2 hours, traffic permitting. We were not given any water or food in the cattle car to Westerbork, nor immediately after arrival. It did take two (2) days to Theresienstadt; we left on January 18, 1943 and arrived on January 20, 1943. I don’t remember whether we were given either food or water on that trip. I doubt it, though. As for the 12 hours to Westerbork, the train was probably shunted onto side rails when another train or troop train had to pass. That was the Germans’ usual procedure.

(Editor’s note: I missed a typo in the question, above, when I e-mailed it to Ms. Silten. Page 78 of Gabriele’s book Between Two Worlds says “it was a journey of at least eight hours,” not eight days. My apologies.)

Q: At the two camps, many of your friends were deported further East. Did you have any idea what that meant?

A: No, I didn’t. Even though I was a child, we children overheard the conversations between adults, if only because it was so overcrowded that you had no distance from one another. The adults didn’t know either; none of us had heard the name Auschwitz, not till much later. We didn’t know about extermination camps, gas chambers or anything of the kind. All I knew was that my friends were gone; had disappeared and that we never heard from them again, no cards, no letters. Just emptiness.

Q: Do you think that your father’s occupation as a pharmacist had any bearing on how you were treated at the camps?

Gabriele at age 5

A: Yes, I do, but didn’t learn that until a year or so ago. It appears that a friend and business friend of my grandfather’s convinced the Germans that my father was an inventor who was in the process of inventing a spray or something like that which would help wounded soldiers in the field. Then this same guy sent my father various instruments, etc. (like Bunsen burners) to Theresienstadt and my father was able to convince the Germans that he was really working very hard on this. It was all a fairy tale, my father was no inventor and had no plans for such a spray or whatever. But we stayed in Theresienstadt instead of being transported to Auschwitz which we certainly would not have survived.

Q: After the war, did you suffer at all from “survivor’s guilt” once you knew how many had perished (more than 80 percent of Holland’s Jewish population, according to Robert S. Wistrich)?

A: No, I didn’t and don’t now. Directly after the war, every adult, incl. my parents told me – and the other surviving children – to forget about all of that, not to think about it, we needed to go back to school; our job was to do well there and to think of the future. They also told us that, since we were “only” children, we couldn’t possibly have suffered, we couldn’t possibly remember anything and especially not correctly, that we, basically, had not know anything out of the ordinary had happened. We all know better now, but then that was the idea.  I had no idea how many children or Jews in general had been murdered (I NEVER use the word “perish”. One “perishes” from a disease; one “dies” of disease or old age, etc. and if one is “lost”, then one can be found. One loses one’s keys, etc. but not people, not in those circumstances. In the camps and other places, Jews were murdered. So that is the word I use. Words are important to me and I like to use the correct one when possible. In this case that is the word “murdered”). I did not know any numbers until I was in my twenties or thirties and started doing some research for myself.

Q: Before the war, it seems that you were a very inquisitive little girl, but by war’s end, you had learned not to ask too many questions. What questions did you have for your parents after your safe return to Holland?

A: None! I wasn’t supposed to ask questions so I didn’t. On the few occasions when I did dare to ask anything, I’d get a very vague answer. Like – question: where are the X family? Answer: Oh well, they, ehhh. they didn’t come back. Which was jargon, for they had been murdered. Jargon, incidentally, which survivors still use today. We still use the same phrase. Eventually, actually very soon, I stopped asking questions and started trying to find out things for myself – about when I was 16 or so.

Q: In your ID picture taken after you returned to Amsterdam in 1945 you have a decent amount of hair. Did you ever have your head shaved due to lice?

A: No, I didn’t ever have my head shaved, though I saw plenty of people – both men and women – who did. The men would just walk around with their shaven head (as they do now, and guess what THAT reminds me of????) but the women wore a headscarf over their shaven heads. One knew anyway why they did, but it just looked better that way. In fact, I never had lice in camp; my mother made sure that I stayed clean or at least as clean as one could stay. I did have lice, ironically, before deportation, in2nd grade because my friends and I exchanged caps. So we all ended up with the lice that one of us had!

Q: In the months leading up to your liberation from Theresienstadt, it seemed that you had lost hope. Is there one thing to which you can attribute your survival?

A: Not really. I had lost hope, especially after my friend Hans had been deported. I didn’t think that the war or the camp, etc. would ever end; it would just go on and on. I don’t know what made me go on; all I can tell you is that I had then and have now a very good imagination. So basically what I did all throughout those years was change things around in my mind: the real reality became fantasy – unreal. It didn’t exist. My fantasy, my imagination became reality; in my mind I could go where I wanted, I could fly from the attic of the barracks to outside Theresienstadt; I could be anywhere. Maybe that helped, I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on what really kept me alive, either at the beginning or towards the end.

Q: Did you or your family ever return to Germany?

A: My parents did a couple of times for a visit to a museum or some such thing. My father also went twice to the Frankfurt Fair which was a business fair, probably something to do with pharmaceuticals since he was a pharmacist.  I HAD to go for reparation business in (I think) 1995 and HATED it. All I could see was Nazis marching and swastika flags flying and I heard boots on cobble stones. I knew that it wasn’t real, it was in my mind but I couldn’t get out of there fast enough!  It was absolutely horrible and I swore I would never go back and indeed I haven’t gone back and won’t. My father wanted – as I learned much later – in my thirties – to return to Germany to live, but my mother put her foot down and said NO !!!!!, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES. We stayed in Holland.

Q: How did the experience of the Holocaust affect your outlook on life?

A: Probably 100 %. I do not trust people easily if at all, I am suspicious by nature, I feel at home only with other survivors. It has made me want to do better than other people (this also goes for other Child Survivors and probably adults as well). I didn’t want children if I had married (which I didn’t) because I find this not a world into which to produce a child. On the other side, as I said earlier, I was brought up in an assimilated way, but in 1984 or 1985 came to a belief system. I was looking for “something” and it never even occurred to me to look outside of Judaism. I was introduced to the local Hillel rabbi who turned out to be a son of survivors. He talked to me and I went to see him every week for an hour even though he was, of course, there for the students at the colleges and not necessarily for the community, in any case not as a counselor. But he took me on all the same, answered my questions, gave me books to read and invited me to the Hillel Friday night services. There have been several rabbis since then at Hillel and I stayed with Hillel for a long time. Meanwhile I also became member of a temple – locally – . Now there is a new rabbi at Hillel and I have outgrown Hillel, I think, after about 20 years. I go to temple regularly and love it. I love the traditions, the music and everything that goes with temple going.

Q: Aside from what you’ve already covered in the book and these interview questions, is there anything you’d like to share for my blog audience?

A: Yes, I think so. In my opinion the only way to avoid genocides and other holocausts is to accept people the way they are. People talk about “tolerance” but I don’t like that word because it makes me feel that I am saying: “I don’t like you but I won’t say anything.” What I mean is that I accept people exactly the way they are, odds and quirks and all. One can try discussion and talks, and one can try to change people’s minds, but one doesn’t always succeed. Prejudice comes from ignorance, from not knowing what the other is about. So to get rid of prejudice one needs education, one needs to be taught that “other” is not “bad” just “different.” I try to live my life that way and hope I am succeeding. I’d like to add that most of our Child Survivors are in the “helping professions,” i.e. teachers, social workers, lawyers, doctors, etc., in a MUCH higher percentage than the “regular” population. Interesting, isn’t it?

###

Titles by R. Gabriele S. Silten:

Between Two Worlds: Autobiography of a Child Survivor of the Holocaust, Fithian Press, Santa Barbara, 1999, ISBN 1564741265

Is The War Over?: Postwar Years of a Child Survivor of the Holocaust, Fithian Press, McKinleyville, Calif., 2004, ISBN 1564744299

The Past Is Never Far Away: Unpublished Prose and Poetry from the Years 1979 to 2006, ©2007 R. Gabriele S. Silten

High Tower Crumbling: poems by R. Gabriele S. Silten, Fithian Press, Santa Barbara, 1991, ISBN 0931832861 (out of print)

Dark Shadows, Bright Life: poems by R. Gabriele S. Silten, Fithian Press, Santa Barbara, 1998, ISBN 1564742539

Related Links:

Ruth Gabriele Silten on USHMM site

Gabriele on Children of the Holocaust site 

Her testimony on Westerbork

Night of Nazi Terror

Posted in holocaust with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2009 by indyretreats

The sound of shattering glass was the siren signaling the end for millions of Jews in Europe, but many ignored it. Too many dismissed it as a single act of terror by a bunch of German thugs and brown-shirted misfits. But Kristallnacht was a sort of warning shot across the bow of European Jewry.

Kristallnacht Headline NYT

Ben Austin, Sociology Professor at Middle Tennessee State, has quite a bit of information on his website about the infamous Night of Broken Glass of 9-10 November 1938. Author Gerald Reitlinger, in his 1953 book The Final Solution, calls it the Week of Broken Glass, beginning with the vom Rath murder on 7 November and the escalating retaliation which culminated in 12 November’s meeting of German officials. “The pogroms [i.e. Kristallnacht] were only the unofficial penalty for the murder of vom Rath. The official penalty was not announced till…Goering held his inter-ministerial conference in the Air Ministry building.” According to the surviving excerpts of that meeting’s minutes, Reichsmarschall Goering “had instructions from the Fuehrer that the Jewish question was to be ‘co-ordinated and solved, now, once, and for all, in one way or another’”(p. 15). The “official penalty” for the murder of vom Rath—supposed proof of the international Jewish conspiracy—was to be a thousand million marks fine levied upon the Jews, confiscation of their businesses and repayment of the damage without the help of insurance companies. Goering remarked, “The pigs will not commit another murder. Incidentally, I would like to say that I would not like to be a Jew in Germany now”(p. 17).

As the world now knows, the Nazis merely used the vom Rath murder as an excuse to unleash their unholy terror on the Jews of Europe, beginning in the Reich. Here is the order that went out From Heinrich Müller to all Gestapo offices – transmitted at 11:55 p.m., November 9, 1938:

1. Actions against Jews, especially against their synagogues, will take place throughout the Reich shortly. They are not to be interfered with; however, liaison is to be effected with the Ordnungspolizei to ensure that looting and other significant excesses are suppressed.

2. So far as important archive material exists in synagogues this is to be secured by immediate measures.

3. Preparations are to be made for the arrest of about 20,000 to 30,000 Jews in the Reich. Above all well-to-do Jews are to be selected. Detailed instructions will follow in the course of this night.

4. Should Jews in possession of weapons be encountered in the course of the action, the sharpest measures are to be taken. Verfugungstruppen der SS as well as general SS can be enlisted for all actions. Control of the actions is to be secured in every case through the Gestapo. Looting, larceny etc. is to be prevented in all cases. For securing material, contact is to be established immediately with the responsible SD…leadership. Addendum for Stapo Cologne: In the Cologne synagogue there is especially important material. This is to be secured by the quickest measures in conjunction with SD.
(Source: The History Place ©1996 )

For more information on Kristallnacht:

Kristallnacht: The November 1938 Pogroms – USHMM 

Photos of Kristallnacht from the Jewish Virtual Library

Yad Vashem’s It Came from Within: 71 Years Since Kristallnacht

Holocaust Studies at Middle Tennessee State University

Dachau (Konzentrationslager Dachau): An Overview

Posted in concentration camps, holocaust with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2009 by indyretreats

“May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933-1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men”inscription on a memorial at Dachau

Today all one has to say is Auschwitz to conjure up horrific images of Nazi privation, torture and murder. The Operation Reinhard camps are typically the first to come to mind when one mentions the Holocaust. However, the Nazi camp system started long before the outbreak of World War IIKonzentrationslager Dachau in Upper Bavaria was “the first large-scale concentration camp in Germany, converted from an old gunpowder factory by the Nazi regime in [March] 1933.”[1]

On 21 March 1933, The Munich Latest News reported, “The Munich Chief of Police, Himmler, has issued the following press announcement: On Wednesday the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5000 persons. ‘All Communists and—where necessary—Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated here, as in the long run it is not possible to keep individual functionaries in the state prisons without overburdening these prisons, and on the other hand these people cannot be released because attempts have shown that they persist in their efforts to agitate and organise as soon as they are released.’”[2]

theodor_eicke

Theodor Eicke

“Camps then were set up throughout Germany by Himmler in his capacity as head of the Bavarian police, the first at Dachau. By the summer of 1933 there were ten or more camps and detention centers…with over 25,000 inmates,” including Jews. Martin Brozat characterized these early camps as “wild improvisations,” but that would soon change with the appointment of Brigadier General Theodor Eicke who Himmler appointed as commandant of Dachau. It was June 1933 and Himmler now had complete control over the camps which “operated outside the ordinary processes of law.” By May the following year, he had promoted Eicke to a position over all camps. “Eicke’s reorganization led to consolidation of the smaller camps into larger ones with uniform procedures and administration.” Of the ten consolidated camps in operation by March 1935, Dachau had the largest inmate population at 2,500.[3]

Totenkopfverbande-SSDachau was the genesis point for the much feared Death’s Head Units, the Totenkopfverbande-SS. It was ground zero for the Holocaust. Eicke’s model camp became the blueprint for all future camps, including the killing centers in Poland. From September 1939 – February 1940, the Death’s Head Units, which became part of the armed, or Waffen-SS, were trained at Dachau while prisoners were temporarily housed at Mathausen.

“Inside Dachau the prisoners lived in long wooden huts (blocks) with each hut housing 270 inmates. The interior of each hut was divided into five rooms, each containing two rows of bunks, stacked three-high, sleeping a total of 54 persons. The huts lacked adequate sanitary facilities, containing only twelve lavatory bowls for all 270 men. Each morning at roll call, the 54 men of each room paraded together as a platoon. The five rooms, or groups of men, formed a company, with a ‘sergeant’ prisoner responsible for discipline. Every aspect of a prisoner’s daily life at Dachau was regulated, from how guards were to be saluted, to the required precise alignment of the blue and white checkered bed sheets to form perfect parallels with the sides and ends.”[4]

In total, over 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries were housed in Dachau of whom two-thirds were political prisoners and nearly one-third were Jews. In total, 25,613 prisoners are believed to have died in the camp and almost another 10,000 in its subcamps, primarily from disease, malnutrition and suicide. In early 1945, there was a typhus epidemic in the camp followed by an evacuation, in which large numbers of the weaker prisoners died. Dachau holds a significant place in public memory because it was the second camp to be liberated by Allied forces. Therefore, it was one of the first places where the West was exposed to the reality of Nazi brutality through firsthand journalist accounts and through newsreels.[1]

0-DachauWorkers“In early 1937, the SS, using prisoner labor, initiated construction of a large complex of buildings on the grounds of the original camp. Prisoners were forced to do this work, starting with the destruction of the old munitions factory, under terrible conditions. The construction was officially completed in mid-August 1938 and the camp remained essentially unchanged until 1945. Dachau thus remained in operation for the entire period of the Third Reich.”

“The camp was divided into two sections–the camp area and the crematoria area. The camp area consisted of 32 barracks, including one for clergy imprisoned for opposing the Nazi regime and one reserved for medical experiments. The camp administration was located in the gatehouse at the main entrance. The camp area had a group of support buildings, containing the kitchen, laundry, showers, and workshops, as well as a prison block (Bunker). The courtyard between the prison and the central kitchen was used for the summary execution of prisoners. An electrified barbed-wire fence, a ditch, and a wall with seven guard towers surrounded the camp.”

“In the summer and fall of 1944, to increase war production, satellite camps under the administration of Dachau were established near armaments factories throughout southern Germany. Dachau alone had more than 30 large subcamps in which over 30,000 prisoners worked almost exclusively on armaments. Thousands of prisoners were worked to death.”[5] 

0-DachauCorpsesThough there was a large gas chamber built for the purpose of extermination, most sources say that it was never used to kill prisoners. However, one website contends that, at a minimum, prisoners were used as guinea pigs to test gassing methods here (See http://www.holocaust-history.org/dachau-gas-chambers/). What has been documented are the death rates at the camp. “From 1940 to 1943 the annual death toll ranged between 1,000 and 3,000 prisoners; it exceeded 400 per month only twice. In 1944, the Dachau death rate skyrocketed from 403 in October, to 997 in November, to 1,915 in December. In the first four months of 1945 it ranged from 2,625 to 3,977 per month, with fully half of all documented deaths in the camp occurring in the last six months before liberation…an average of over 100 people died each day in Dachau.”[6]

“A new stage of deadly evacuation marches began in March 1945, with long treks of prisoners leaving Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald by cargo train and on foot for Bergen-Belsen…Flossenburg, Dachau and their branch camps…Dachau, because it was located in southern Germany farthest from the advancing Allied armies…” On 14 April 1945 “a telegram from SS headquarters to the commanders of the concentration camps ‘that no prisoner shall be captured alive by the enemy’…The Dachau SS drew up a plan for the aerial bombardment of the camp.”[7] 

By April 1945, death marches had become the preferred method of “evacuating” camp inmates from all the Nazi camps. One story clearly illustrates the frantic movement of inmates. The eyewitness account of Dachau surivior Dr. Ali Kuci recalls that an order to evacuate the camp was given 26 April at 9 a.m. “By 8:00 p.m., more prisoners had gathered…There were now 6,700…Just as the assembled inmates were ready to leave the camp, the front gate opened and 120 barefoot women with swollen legs stumbled in the prison area. They were all that remained of 480 women who had walked all the way from the Auschwitz concentration camp; the others had died along the way or had been shot by their guards because they could not keep up with the main group.” The 6,700 Dachau inmates left the camp two hours later.[8]

Liberation

0-DachauLiberation

“On [Sunday] 29 April 1945, the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp…presented to the Allied Armies a gruesome spectacle of wholesale bestiality and barbarism.”[9]  Jack Hallett, an American soldier who helped liberate Dachau, noted that the “first thing I saw was a stack of bodies–oh, 20 feet long and about, oh, as high as a man could reach….And the thing I’ll never forget was the fact that closer inspection found people whose eyes were still blinking maybe three or four deep inside the stack.”[10]

“Sunday, just after the noon meal, the air was unusually still. The big field outside the compound was deserted. Suddenly someone began running toward the gate at the other side of the field. Others followed. The word was shouted through the mass of gray, tired prisoners. Americans! That word repeated, yelled over the shoulders in throaty Polish, in Italian, in Russian and Dutch and in the familiar ring of French.”[11] The American troops were totally unprepared for what they saw upon arrival—half starved, shadows of people in the camp, piles of corpses, smoldering ovens, train cars with their decomposing cargo abandoned by the SS. At least the horror was over for about 35,000 camp inmates.

For further study:

Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site

Historic Photos of Dachau

Second Generation “2G” Survivor’s Blog 

Annotated Photos of Dachau Structures

Modern Panoramic Photos – VERY cool! 

WWAY-TV’s Blog on Dachau Liberation 

Scapbook Pages: Dachau Liberation

The Nizkor Project’s Liberation of Dachau

SOURCES:
[1] Wikipedia article, accessed 16 October 2009, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dachau_concentration_camp

[2] Translation of The Munich Latest News, March 21, 1933, accessed from Wikipedia 16 Oct 2009, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dachau_concentration_camp#cite_note-1).

[3] The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 by Lucy S. Dadiowicz, 10th ed., Bantom Books, New York, 1986, ISBN 0553343025, pp. 75-76

[4] “The Early Days of Dachau,” ©1997 The History Place: World War II in Europe, http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/timeline/dach-early.htm

[5] “Dachau,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, © USHMM, accessed 16 Oct 2009, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005214

[6] Legacies of Dachau: the uses and abuses of a concentration camp 1933-2001 by Harold Marcuse, Cambridge University Press, 2001, ISBN 0521552044, p.47-49, Google Book accessed 16 Oct 2009

[7] Ibid, p. 49

[8] Dachau: the harrowing of hell by Marcus J. Smith, SUNY Press, 1995, ISBN 0791425258, p. 146, Google Book accessed 31 October 2009

[9] Dachau G-2 Section U.S. Seventh Army, Lulu.com, 2008, ISBN 143575736X, p. 39, Google Book accessed 1 November 2009

[10] The Holocaust Chronicle, accessed 16 Oct 2009, http://www.holocaustchronicle.org/StaticPages/609.html

[11] G-2 Section U.S. Seventh Army, p. 41

La Grande Rafle (The Great Roundup) of 1942

Posted in holocaust, Maps and images with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2009 by indyretreats
GrandeRaffleMemorial

La Grande Rafle Memorial on site of old stadium

In July 1942, arrests of foreign Jews in France began simultaneously in the Occupied and Unoccupied Zones (see map below). After railcars were freed up by the Wermacht in the East, convoys began departing France every other day. “The initial plan called for the deportation of a hundred thousand Jews from the occupied zone and fifty thousand from the ‘free’ zone, but such a large-scale operation could be undertaken only with the active cooperation of the French police.” At the direction of Vichy Prime Minister Pierre Laval, only foreign Jews could be deported. “[H]e approved the active participation of French police forces in the planned operation; moreover, he suggested that the Germans deport children, too.”[1]

The Great Roundup (aka Black Thursday) began 16 July 1942 in Paris. “Armed with index cards with names of immigrant Jews, forty-five hundred French policemen fanned out in the early morning darkness to arrest men aged sixteen to sixty and women aged sixteen to fifty-five.” The roundup continued the following day, with childless adults taken to Drancy and those with children to Velodrome d’hiver (Winter Cycle Stadium), located near the Eiffel Tower. “More than 8,000 people, about half of them children, were confined for five days in the Vel d’Hiv, which lacked the sanitary facilities for such numbers. The stench was overpowering.” A few days later, the first convoys traveled East across the line of demarcation. “Since permission had not yet arrived from Germany to deport young children to the east, those younger than fourteen were forcibly separated from their parents and older siblings and left alone in the camps, under the care of a few Red Cross volunteers.”[2]

After the deportation of adults, “[r]elief organizations in the Unoccupied Zone learned later what had become of the children left behind in Paris. Many were hidden. But French police gathered up thousands of others who were found in apartments, wandering the streets, or crying at locked doors of houses. Nearly 4,000 of them, aged two to fourteen, were sent to ‘unknown destinations,’ packed into windowless boxcars without adult escort, without food, water, or hygienic provisions, without so much as straw to lie on. They were even without identification. The Nazis had destroyed their papers.”[3] Another source places the number of children at “more than 4,000” and cites their final destination as Auschwitz. Thirty-five of them survived.[2]

1940France

Map of France, 1940 (Courtesy USHMM)

For a good overview of the French connection to the Holocaust see:
BBC’s “Vichy Policy on Jewish Deportation”
USHMM’s Holocaust Encyclopedia, “France” 

Sources:
[1]When Memory Comes [George L. Mosse Series in Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History] by Saul Friedländer and Helen R. Lane, Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2003, ISBN 0299190447, p. 70

[2]The Jews of modern France by Paula Hyman, University of California Press, 1998, ISBN 0520209257, p. 173

[3]The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945 by David S. Wyman, Pantheon Books, New York, 1984, ISBN 0394428137, p. 31

Koidanov Massacre and One Survivor’s Remarkable Tale

Posted in holocaust, Memorial with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2009 by indyretreats
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On this day 68 years ago, Alex Kurzem‘s mother, sister and brother were brutally murdered by the Nazis on the outskirts of their village in Belorussia. In fact, approximately 1,600 Jews were murdered and buried in mass graves in Koidanov, outside Minsk. CBS News told the incredible story of how Alex, a six-year-old orphan, survived the Nazis’ final solution and kept how he survived a secret for more than 50 years. “The Mascot” aired on 60 Minutes in February of this year (see video link above) and is retold in “The Youngest Corporal in the Nazi Army” on their website. The Mascot is also the title of a book written by Alex’s son, Mark, who tells his father’s story of escape, survival, and remarkably, his life as a Nazi mascot. Read a review of Mark Kurzem’s book on Tracing the Tribe.

KoidanovMemorial

Memorial to the 21 Oct 1941 Koidanov massacre

The Koidanov shtetl was renamed Dzyarzhynsk (or Dzerzhinsk), Belarus. The Vanished World of Lithuanian Jews (p. 285) tells how the 12th Batallion of the Lithuanian Schutzmannschaft, an auxilliary police batallion recruited by the Nazis, committed mass murder in the Minsk region in October 1941 (see also Richard Breitman’s paper, titled “Himmler’s Police Auxiliaries in the Occupied Soviet Territories” at the Museum of Tolerance).

Of the three million Russian Jews murdered in the Holocaust, 800,000 of them were Belorussian. Ninety percent of the Jews in Belorussia were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators (Source: The Jewish Virtual Library).

I found this tragic story on the blog This Day in Jewish History and stumbled upon Alex Kurzem’s story while searching “Koidanov, Belarus” on Google. Never Again! pauses to remember Kurzem’s family and the other 1,000 – 1,900 Jews murdered this day 68 years ago.

Survivor Profile: Alter Wiener

Posted in concentration camps, holocaust with tags , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2009 by indyretreats

AlterWiener

Alter Wiener was born 1926 in Chrzanów, Poland, to a vibrant and very religious family. He lost his mother when he just four years old. “I do not remember her face,” he says remorsefully. His father remarried and Alter recalls, “My stepmother treated me and my older brother very well. She was as devoted to us as she was to her own child.” Alter’s father had a successful business, which he inherited from his parents. “We had a relatively good life; not lacking anything that was available in those times,” he adds.
Since it was mandatory to attend public school, Alter and his brother got their religious instruction during the afternoon. The Wiener family was Jewish and devout. His father’s motto was always, “Hate hatred and shun violence.” Alter recalls:
 
In retrospect, it seems to me, that life in those days was very meaningful.  There was an abundance of love, and care for each other.  The values, such as faith, honesty, righteousness, respect for the elderly, personal responsibilities, to be industrious and eager to learn, that I cherish today, were instilled at home; we were practically sheltered from the outside world’s negative influence. 
 
The normalcy of daily life came to an end in September 1939.
“Since my hometown was close to the German border, we were urged to flee to the interior of Poland.  By horse and wagon, we managed to trek about 50 miles till the German invading army caught up with us.”  Alter’s father hired the horse and wagon to transport his family, but he did not join in the attempted escape because the Polish retreating army ordered him to stay behind and supply it with provisions stored at his business.

On 9 November 1939, my father was shot, left to bleed, and eventually to expire, and thrown into a pit, together with 36 other victims, by German soldiers.  In November, when public transportation was partially restored, my stepmother, two brothers and I trekked back to our home in Chrzanów.  The apartment was looted, and the worst of all, we could not find out the whereabouts of our father. In December, that pit was opened, the bodies exhumed, and my father’s partially decomposed body was identified…

“The Wieners showed up to sort through the bodies of the dead, who were so far beyond recognition Wiener’s stepmother was only able to identify her husband by his clothes” (“He decided to be ‘better, not bitter’” by Callie White, The Daily World, 12 Oct 2009). This traumatic experience has haunted Alter, some seventy years later, ever since. “It was such a formative experience, I have nightmares to this day remembering the partially decomposed face of my father,” Alter says. (continued below)

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Click above to watch 55-minute video on university’s site
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An orphan at the age of 13, Alter could no longer go to school. He was “subjected to deprivation, persecution, helplessness, and hopelessness.”

“From that day on, Wiener’s life changed. At first he couldn’t go to school. Then he couldn’t go to synagogue. Then he couldn’t associate with non-Jews, then only walk in certain parts of the city. And then, in May of 1941, his older brother was taken from the family’s apartment by the Germans. ‘We couldn’t write, call, we didn’t know if he was alive,’ Wiener said” (The Daily World, 12 Oct 2009).

In June 1942, Alter was just 16 when deported to a forced labor camp. German soldiers told him he had three minutes to pack his things and leave. His stepmother pleaded with the soldiers not to take him, but one of them hit her in the face and knocked her unconscious. Alter didn’t get to say goodbye. Eight months later, in February 1943, his stepmother and nine-year-old stepbrother were deported to Auschwitz and murdered.

“Wiener was one of 80 people crammed into a train car to Blechammer, a forced labor camp. One of the passengers died, Wiener said, but the car was so crammed with standing people that the corpse stayed erect, too. At the camp, Wiener shared a room with 23 other people. For breakfast, he waited in line for two slices of bread ‘that were mostly made of sawdust,’ he said. For dinner, he had watery soup. At Blechammer, Wiener saw some of his neighbors, and they told him his brother was there. When Wiener saw him, he was taken aback. ‘I did not recognize him,’ Wiener said, because his brother was so skinny and weak” (The Daily World, 12 Oct 2009).

Many years later at a Holocaust survivors’ reunion, Alter learned of the fate of his brother whom he never saw after leaving Blechammer labor camp. One of the survivors “told me he had put my brother in one of the ovens with his own hands” at Auschwitz, Alter says. His brother had been gassed.

While being tormented in Gross Masselwitz (one of the camps), a German woman, jeopardized her life to help him by hiding a sandwich every day for 30 days. “Her gesture I will never forget, it fortified my belief that people must be judged by their merits, and not by their ethnicity (in the same vein I aver that not all Germans were active participants in the Holocaust),” Alter asserts.

Incarcerated for nearly three years in five different camps, Alter slaved away under brutal conditions and the ever-watchful eye of the SS. Here’s where he was imprisoned June 1942 – May 1945:

  1. June – Oct 1942 Forced Labor Camp Blechhammer (Blachownia Slaska);
  2. Oct – Dec 1942 Forced Labor Camp Brande (Prądy);
  3. Dec 1942 – Feb 1944 Forced Labor Camp Gross Masselwitz (Dzielnica Maslice Wielke);
  4. Feb – Sep 1944 Forced Labor Camp Klettendorf (Klecina);
  5. Sep 1944    – May 9, 1945 Concentration Camp  Waldenburg (Wałbrzych).

It was at Waldenburg Concentration Camp, Alter’s last stop before liberation, where he was stripped of the last of his belongings, including his name. Bearing only a number and filthy prison rags for clothing, he worked in the mountains building warehouses for the Nazis.

“I was liberated on May 9, 1945, a day after the official German capitulation, by the Russian Army; a Russian tank approached our gate and the officer said, in halting Yiddish ‘Jews you are liberated, go out to the city of Waldenburg, kill Germans, rape and rob, take vengeance. We know how you feel; we lost 22 millions of our people, tens of thousand of our villages were wiped out.’ I could not take his advice; it would be alien to my character.” Plus, after years of malnutrition and forced labor, Alter was too weak to act even if he had wanted to. He was 19 years old and weighed only 80 pounds.

Instead of exacting revenge in Waldenburg, he traveled back to Poland to see if any other relatives had survived. Alter found only five of his cousins alive and learned that 123 close and distant relatives had died.

“Wiener said he spent his first few nights back in Chrzanow sleeping on his father’s grave. It was there, while seething with anger at his lost youth and family, that he decided to be ‘better, not bitter’” (The Daily World, 12 Oct 2009).

Eventually, Alter married and had two sons, who have since provided six grandchildren. “I came to this country in 1960, did menial work to support a family, and attended evening classes at Brooklyn College to learn accounting and catch up some knowledge that I was deprived of in my teens.  I am grateful to the US for giving me a chance of revival,” he says.

AltersBookHe moved to Oregon in 2000 and began working on his memoirs between public appearances and speaking engagements, many in local schools. Alter Wiener’s autobiography From a Name to a Number was published in April 2007. One hundred fifty-eight people have already posted their reviews on Amazon.com.  

Never Again! wishes to thank Alter Wiener for permission to share his story, as well as Gabriele Silten who linked us by e-mail just last week. We’d also like to pause in remembrance of the 123 Shoah victims who were Mr. Wiener’s relatives.

 

 

To read more about Alter, follow any of these links: