Sunday, 26 November 2006

You did ask

In my previous post I said en passant that ‘I liked the Berlin Wall’ and someone expressed surprise and dismay. I was going to answer it was obviously a joke and since my post was about my being bad at geography it just meant that before the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the dismantlement of the USSR the map of Europe was much simpler and easier to commit to memory. But, it wasn’t a joke: it was a serious remark ‘masquerading’ as a joke.

Why on earth did I not rejoice – like everyone else, it seemed – when the Wall was knocked down and all those people freed themselves from the yoke of Communism? I try to be honest on this blog so I will tell you why.

This is why:

Because for every one German who was murdering Jews in the Ukraine during the war ten local people were volunteering to help with their dirty work and murder Jews in broad daylight.

Because Slovakia, under Jozef Tiso (a Roman Catholic priest), adopted its own version of the German anti-Jewish laws in April 1939, long before it was occupied by the Germans, and deported 70,000 Jews.

Because Hungary and Romania became Nazi allies very early on, in 1940. When the war was already lost, between April and June 1944 (D-Day was on 6 June), 435,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to concentration camps with the help of the local population.

Because Serbia was declared ‘free of Jews’ in 1942, thanks to the efforts of the government.

Because Lithuania had auxiliary military units under Nazi detachments.

Because there was a Latvian volunteer police unit that shot 26,000 Jews at various locations.

Because there were local Nazi collaborators in Estonia... Croatia... Bulgaria...

I cringe and feel queasy every time I hear any of those names on the radio or the television, and I would rather the inhabitants of those countries were still safely hidden away behind the Iron Curtain and I wasn’t aware of their existence so much. Anti-Semitism was never eradicated during the Soviet years but it wasn’t allowed to flourish, as it is now once again. The Orthodox Church (and the Catholic Church too) has regained its influence over the population, and nationalist movements are getting stronger by the day. Hundreds of magazines are once again spreading anti-Semitic propaganda all over Eastern Europe.

In July 1946, i.e. minutes after the true horror of what had happened in Eastern Europe was revealed to the rest of the world, there was a pogrom – a pogrom! – in Kielce, Poland. Germany, where 44 per cent of the population voted for Hitler, has apologized and made amends. But the other countries haven’t and continue to deny their part in the Holocaust. If it’s ever shown where you live, watch the shocking Channel 4 series Holocaust, which recently broadcast hitherto unseen footage of Nazi sympathisers committing the same horrific deeds as their German counterparts. And if you haven’t seen it yet rent out Shoah by Claude Lanzmann and see how Eastern European peasants who lived a few miles from Auschwitz or other concentration camps acknowledge they knew what was going on and at the same time refuse to feel any remorse or shame about letting it happen. See how people live in houses still bearing Jewish insignia. ‘How did you get to move into this house?’ they’re asked. ‘The Jews “went away”.’

And, then, there’s France, where, before the war, my father had a business, a business that was taken over by the Vichy government. The first document below, dated 4 June 1941 and issued by the ‘Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives’, says that a Monsieur Georges (may he rot in hell!) has been appointed to manage my father’s business. The second document, dated 12 June 1941, says the business doesn’t belong to my father any longer and he’s now just a ‘technical adviser’. He must stop using any of his bank accounts immediately, give Monsieur Georges complete access to his premises and his account books, and provide him with any information he may need in order to manage the business. Furthermore, he must be at his disposal in situ until further notice.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Needless to say, my father left Paris at once and hid here and there for the duration of the war. By some miracle, he managed to recover his looted flat cum workshop several months after the end of the war.

I should cringe and feel queasy when I hear the words ‘France’ and ‘French’ – just as I do with the other names mentioned above, but I can’t: my father chose to stay in the country and that's where I was born. The French are only just starting to come to terms with the fact that, contrary to what they have told themselves and others over the years, they weren’t all in the Résistance and quite a lot of them in fact have a shady past. If you want to know more about the German Occupation in France, watch Le Chagrin et la Pitié by Marcel Ophüls, and listen to shameless ex-collaborators lie and try to justify their crimes.

Perhaps, in time, I will get used to hearing those names and stop wondering what the people concerned or their parents were doing during the war, but it’s still a bit too soon.

Addendum (28/11/06): I should probably have mentioned this before: I have a personal grievance against those unrepentant Eastern European Nazi collaborators: I'm not just outraged on behalf of other Jewish people or because I've seen film footage of what they did.

In July 1941, the Germans occupied a small town in Belarus, called Shklov. By the end of the year, they had killed almost all the Jews. Local fascists killed 6,000 men, women near the town. According to an eyewitness, ‘the children were put alive into a pit with their murdered parents and the pit was filled up’. My father’s family were probably thrown into that pit.

During the night of 13 July 1942, the inhabitants of the Rowno Ghetto (Ukraine), where there were still about 5,000 Jews, were liquidated. According to an eyewitness who testified at the Nuremberg Trials, ‘shortly after 22.00 hours the Ghetto was encircled by a large SS detachment and about three times as many members of the Ukrainian Militia.’ My mother’s family were probably among the people who were massacred that night.


  1. A very truthful and deeply moving testimony of "man's inhumanity to man."


  2. I can see why you might feel like that.

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  4. Thank you for giving us your perspective, J. History is so often taught to us as only one 'authorized' version...

  5. You've made me quite angry, it's an anger I've felt before and it is a justified anger.

    Have you read The Dark Room? It's a great book, in my humble opinion. Resonant metaphors. There's an interesting passage where the grandson of a waffen SS member tries to uncover how involved his grandad was in the atrocities. There are no easy answers, and that's why I liked it, I suppose. Real life is full of grey areas and uncertainty. I know members of my family fled Germany before the war, ran for their lives, but still I have questions. I don't want them answered though.

  6. Anyone want to comment on the Channel Islands, and their brave resistance movement...?
    Only asking.

  7. Thank you, J-P. :-)

    B, you say that if my remark had been a joke you would have found it distasteful anyway, so it seems that whatever I answered you would have been upset by it.

    I have added a few lines to my post to explain a little further why I feel the way I do when I hear the names of Eastern European countries being mentioned. The blood that runs in my veins is wholly Eastern European, like yours, with one big difference: you are still living in the land of your forebears, whereas I’m not because my family was decimated there. I never knew my grandparents, or most of my uncles and aunts – they were all killed before I was born.

    I wish I could play the national guilt card but I can’t because, as I said, all those countries are still in denial. The Germans kept meticulous records (on paper and on film) of everything they did and all the documents have now been broadcast, but not those from Eastern Europe: until now they have lain in sealed archives and more are being uncovered every day. I didn’t think it was possible but, in Holocaust, I saw things I had never seen before. I had already seen newsreels showing the German occupiers being welcomed with open arms by the people, all going, ‘Heil, Hitler!’ as they entered their cities in motorcars, but I have now seen films taken in secret that show the local population taking part in murders. I doubt those films will be shown in the countries in question. At least, young Germans are aware of what their parents and grandparents did, or didn’t object to, during the war, and some of them are ashamed on their behalf, even though they themselves weren’t born at the time. In Eastern Europe, no one is guilty of anything; everyone was in the résistance; everyone was a victim.

    I don’t have to take the other side into account. You cannot ask me to shed tears and feel sorry for people who didn’t do anything to prevent their neighbours being murdered and sometimes even helped. Their guilt is made even more shameful by the fact that not all occupied countries collaborated with such eagerness: Holland, where thousands of Dutch people protested in public against the way the Germans treated the Dutch Jews; Denmark; Greece, Sweden, for instance. Even if only one country had not participated in the massacre, it would make everyone else look bad.

    I only feel that way when I hear those names on the news, mostly in a political context. I also get shivers down my back every time I hear ‘St Petersburg’: I instantly have visions of tsars, chanting, Russian Orthodox priests rallying peasants to a pogrom. This is not personal. I’m not a hypocrite: I’ve got to know you a little bit and I’m fond of you too, B, but this is not an extension of MUA. The Fragrance Board is for trivial matters and the ‘fluffy’ side of my persona. Like everyone else, I am a complex person, not just a fan of Serge Lutens perfumes.

    L, it’s not difficult to understand, is it?

    D, I thought certain things needed to be said. Thanks for your support.

    I haven't read The Dark Room, J. It sounds very interesting. I think there is a difference between having to do horrible things because otherwise you might be killed yourself and volunteering for them. One of the most disgraceful episodes of the French collaboration was the infamous Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv, when 10,000 adult Jews and 4,000 children were rounded up by the French police and parked in a huge sports stadium, before being sent to their death in Auschwitz. What makes it especially discreditable is that the Germans hadn’t asked for the children to be taken. The French decided to do that by themselves.

    Oh, yes, S, those plucky little islands. Would you like to tell us about them yourself. We need stories of courage. There are so few of them.

  8. Serbia was declared free of Jews in '42 because the Ustasha killed them all and also did away with a fair number of Serbs in the process. Jasenovac was testiment to mans inhumanity to man to the nth degree.

    And religion is merely a powerful excuse and guise that people use to hate one another when they would hate anyways because they do not know peace in their hearts. Come the day they stand before G-d, the truth will be know of those who took His name in vain in the most unforgiveable of profanities - killing another person using His name to justify it. It's a gazillion times worse than any g-damn ever uttered - and that goes for ANY faith that teaches peace but whose followers practice otherwise.

    Now I will go back behind my polyglot wall of German-Lithuanian-Ukrainian-Polish-Swedish and practicing Eastern Orthodox Christian ancestry and faith (convert in a parish that teaches a Consistent Life Ethic).

    I'm not asking understanding and I am probably, as usual, just full of hot air. But I am speaking my heart only.

    Lisa, a sinner

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  10. FF, thanks for pointing it out, but I thought it was obvious that Serbia was declared 'free of Jews' because it had killed them all. They certainly didn't leave their homeland of their own accord.

    More crimes have been committed in the name of G-d than for any other reason. The mass murdering of the Jews stemmed from a century-old hatred but mostly from envy and greed.

    B, when one asks an innocent question (actually, your question was not innocent: ‘distasteful’ clearly indicates you wouldn’t have liked the answer even if you may not have been 'upset' as such) one sometimes gets more than one bargained for. One must be prepared for that.

    You might want to ask yourself why your fellow countrymen 'so easily sentenced an unknown, but very large number of people to such a cruel punishment they did not deserve'. All the people you say I'm condemning are quite safe with me, aren't they? I'm not likely to drag them out of their beds and shoot them in the back of the head, am I?

    What do you mean by 'you didn't write this in a newspaper (that would be bad enough)'? Why it is bad at all? Every word I wrote is the truth and some truths, however difficult to utter or take, need to be told. And I didn't write it in 'a' blog but in 'my' blog.

    Once you've calmed down about what's distressing you at the moment – my motivation, or whatever, you might want to actually read what I wrote and think about it. Because those figures make me 'sick sick sick' and turn me into an 'emotional ruin' every time I think about them.

  11. re. Channel islands. Sadly, not really many brave tales of resistance, and some fairly murky rumours of collaboration.
    Just to make the point that had the UK fallen, we're on shaky ground if we start making assumptions we'd have been better. Human nature is what it is, which is usually what it shouldn't be.

  12. What is it that makes one place do what's right and another not? It's as Bela says - when some places manage it, then that takes away any excuses for the others.

    On the Greek island of Zákynthos, Mayor Loukos Carrer and the Bishop of Zákynthos, Chrysostomos, stood up to the Nazis, who demanded that they hand over a list of all the Jews on the island – there were 275, all hidden by the islanders in remote villages. The list, when Chrysostomos handed it over, had two names on it: his own and the mayor’s. ‘Here are your Jews,’ Chrysostomos told them. ‘If you choose to deport the Jews of Zákynthos, you must also take me and I will share their fate.’ Rather than risk an uprising, the Nazis gave up and all the Jews survived.

    I am fearful what the UK would have done, too. We don't have a great history of rebellion, do we? Too anxious to be 'fair to everyone'. Too concerned with hanging on to our precious status quo. On the other hand, the ordinary people, fired up by Blitz spirit, might actually have behaved better than our politicians, the ones who decided not to bomb and perhaps therefore liberate a concentration camp when they had the choice, but instead to bomb the factory two miles away and then keep it secret.

    I hate to generalise, but, having seen Shoah, which means I'm only speaking about Poland here, what emerged and what was so shocking was that the ordinary people had a sneaking dislike of Jews well before the war, and in some cases it really was just because they had a nicer house - they said so themselves, I saw them say it on camera. And when it wasn't that, after a bit more prodding it was because 'the Jews killed Jesus'. Perhaps - hopefully - that kind of envy didn't exist so much in the UK, where everyone was really quite poor except for the aristocracy; and I'm not sure the wimpish old Church of England had much burning resentment about the killing of Jesus - too busy with fundraising for steeples and village teas on the green. So you never know, we might have been decent. We will never know.

  13. FF, I misunderstood your comment because - I'm sorry about that - I hadn't done my homework properly about what happened in Serbia. As you say, it was the Ustase that liquidated 80 per cent of the Serbian Jewish population and killed an even greater number of Orthodox Serbs. Apparently, the choice was: Catholicism or mass murder and, according to one historian, they were murdered with a cruelty that appalled even the Nazis.

    It doesn't make much difference who killed the Jews in this particular case: they ended up dead anyway, but it is an example of how those countries used the German occupation as an excuse to get rid of the anyone they didn't like.

    S, I must have missed the irony in your post. I have only mentioned countries that actually collaborated and a few others that showed some moral courage. How the British would have behaved? Who knows?

  14. I have only seen this because I get a Google alert on "Lithuania", "Lituania", "Lituanie", "Litauen". My advice to you would be the same that I constantly encounter when trying to tell people about Soviet atrocities against Lithuanians: stop dwelling in the past. This is 2006, Lithuania is a respected member of the EU and NATO. The future is bright. Look to the future, not the past. There are certain things from the past that young people should know (all sorts of things, not just those that touch you), but these should be information only, not a burden that drags young people down and effs their heads.

  15. I'm very moved by this post.

  16. I love your blog and just want to thank you for discussing the atrocities and reminding folks of the Holocaust. We must never forget! Its so sad that soon there will be no survivors left. The story needs to be told and re-told! Holocaust deniers are very dangerous and scary. I thank you!

  17. L (you obviously slipped in while I was writing my own comment), that story makes me cry every time I think of it. These people can never be praised or thanked enough, and some 'Rightful Gentiles' didn't even have the fate they deserved after the war. Like the wonderful Raoul Wallenberg, for instance, who distributed Swedish passports to thousands of Hungarian Jews and thus saved their lives. After the war, he was imprisoned by the Russians and 'disappeared' in 1956. In 2000, the Russians admitted he had been executed as a spy in 1947. Or Oskar Schindler, of course, who died a broken man, tortured by the thought he could have saved more people. Saints themselves are never satisfied.

    Anonymous No.1 (I've given up the idea of not posting anonymous comments: I can't stop them from coming and some of them need to be answered), thank you for your advice, please read Anonymous No.2's comment.

    Thanks, TLP.

    Anonymous No.2, there is no chance whatsoever of my ever forgetting or ceasing to tell and retell the story. We owe it to the dead.

  18. You can 'look to the future' without forgetting the past. Remembering the past can help ensure history doesn't repeat itself. As you said, Bela, Germany has managed to become a future-thinking country and respected member of Europe while integrating what happened.

  19. Thank you J for this has moved me deeply. Keep telling it, keep it alive.

  20. A very interesting post, Bela. And thank you for sharing the actual documents sent to your father... that was terribly moving.

    I can't say I agree with you in entirety, but this is because I think a LOT of countries still have quite a bit to answer for because of their behavior at that time, including the U.S. I think those that did not allow Jewish citizens to enter their countries and turned them right back over to the German Nazi authorities when they did try to flee, should be addressing that past behavior. So it doesn't keep happening, like it does. (Thinking specificially in the US of the boat full of Jewish refugees, whose name eclipses me at the moment, that the US govt. refused port to.)

    My sympathies, J - I can't imagine what it must be like for you.

  21. You’ve said it, L.

    Thanks for the encouragement, ST.

    Yes, K, a lot of countries conducted themselves quite disgracefully towards the Jews during WWII - from being indifferent to actively collaborating, but the USA, for instance, never pretended to be victims; they never welcomed Hitler with open arms and then denied it. That’s what makes the Eastern Europeans especially culpable.

    The Allies should have bombed the camps when they had the chance. And Catholics from all over the world should have petitioned the Pope to say something. The Jewish Council did but Pius XII was a friend of the Germans so he refused. He might have agreed if people of his own faith had begged him to. Millions of devout Catholics would have listened to him if he'd said persecuting the Jews was a mortal sin.

    Anyway… it’s all too late.

  22. As has become customary, I tend to reply in your more political posts. This was very interesting for sure.
    Although I am not one to feel burdened by the past and dwell on it excessively, as an historian I do believe that "history ultimately teaches us that history teaches us nothing" (this is actually a Hegelian quote, not mine). If only people learned from past mistakes, how much better the world would be...

    My parental grandmother (who had been a refugee herself once upon a time) was living in a big city with *lots* of Jews before and during WWII {you might have guessed which one knowing me ;-) }and she had friends and business associates among them. They had lived side by side peacefully for years. No one had any trouble with jewish people.
    One day, she told me, they grouped them all together (those they could find, since many greek people hid as many as they could) by the pier and took them away for ever...She had tears in her eyes years afterwards recounting the story. She wrote short stories about them too.
    It takes a persecuted and "pained" people to understand the pain of another I guess.

    Homo homini lupus, dear J.

  23. I just stumbled onto your blog and was already Loving it and then I came to this post. Wow. I am so glad that you wrote all this down and that you went into such detail. I know there is so much more you could have said.

    I feel like this post was the reason for all of the little downer moments earlier in my that I would find this post, these words, this moment and I would hear what you had to say. I am going to print it out and keep it with me so that I can read it tonight when I am not at my office, not under a harsh flourescent light. I want to re-read it in my home, with no one around, and think some more about these words. Thank you for this gift....Lj

  24. Thank you for your testimony, H. A lot of people have been hurt; let's hope time heals their wounds eventually.

    Welcome to my blog, LJ, I don't really know what to say: I'm very moved by your emotion. Thank you for your kind words.


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