Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Auschwitz Revisited

It was 70 years ago today at Auschwitz concentration camp  (Konzentrationslager Auschwitz) that the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red (Soviet) Army entered the death camp and “liberated” the remaining 7,500 prisoners in the camp. (In January 1945, Heinrich Himmler had ordered the evacuation of all death camps. The order included: be sure that not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy. On January 17th, 58,000 Auschwitz detainees were evacuated under guard, most walking). Ten of thousands of the prisoners died in the subsequent death march).

I wrote and published the following combined posts in 2005. I believe today is a day that I should again post them.

A few months ago I was tired enough that I thought I’d finally get a good night’s sleep. However, after about three hours, I awakened and turned on the TV in my bedroom. Of course, the channel was PBS and what I saw was the final chapter of the series Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State was on. I watched it and then I really couldn’t sleep!

History has always been a major interest of mine. The first “long,” adult book I ever read was William L. Shirer’s The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich. I think that I was about twelve years old when I began to read it. I remember that at some point in my reading, I became very angry. I somehow understood that it was the Third Reich that took my father into World War II and that the war had somehow negatively impacted his life. Since he only spoke of his war experiences to me once—and he was very intoxicated and crying during that conversation—I really did not know what the war had done to him. I now believe that with his death at age 63, he was a delayed casualty of the war. But that’s another story.

In college I specialized in Twentieth Century European history. I perceive now that I was still trying to get my head around the horror and evil of the Second World War. I learned that its roots were in World War I and the roots of World War I perhaps went back to the Napoleonic Wars. But studying history did not answer the questions that perturbed me—questions that I never really had formulated but that were somewhere in my mind.

Through the years I have read a good deal of history and commentary on Germany and World War II. I have also seen quite a few films. The horror of the Holocaust always generated within me anger—and sometimes tears, as when I have watch the film, Schindler’s List. But there was something about watching that final chapter of Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State that brought both anger and tears to the point that I had to do something.

Since I felt there was no way in which I could sleep, I went to my computer and wrote an essay simply entitled Auschwitz. I emailed it—I was not blogging then—to most of my friends and the results were not what I had expected. For example, one friend, who is a pastor in Michigan, requested permission to reprint it in his congregation’s newsletter. But the real surprise came in an email from my sister. Her message and suggestion answered personal questions for me and, in some ways, changed my life.

After I wrote and emailed my essay following the final chapter of the series Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State on PBS, my sister sent me a surprise email. In it she described a brooch that had been in my mother’s family for several generations. My mother had given it to her and her daughter had recently worn it. The surprise came when my niece pointed out that the jewels in the center of the brooch formed a Star of David.

My grandmother had come to the United States from Germany at the end of the 19th Century. She had been given the brooch by her mother who had received it from her mother. No one knows who first owned it.

After my sister pointed out the Star of David in the center of the brooch, I began making connections. I had been only four years old and my sister had just been born when out maternal grandmother died. Most of what I knew came from stories told by my aunts and uncles. None of those stories, however, concerned my grandmother’s life prior to coming to the United States.

One story, however, made me wonder. In 1937 or 1938 my grandmother returned to Germany for her one and only visit. When she returned, she said that, if there were a war, she did not think any of our German relatives would survive it. Supposedly after the war, she attempted to contact her family and Germany and could not.

The question arose in my mind: did my maternal grandmother have Jewish ancestry? I called my mother and talked to her about the brooch. She said that she had long thought that there was “Jewish blood” in her mother’s family but no one ever talked about it.

I began to remember things, among them my own mother’s fears of authority and “them.” The “them/they” were never identified, but you had to avoid “them” or “they” would hurt you. From what I can determine, this was something she learned from her mother. Could it not have been a defense developed by those whose ancestors had experienced the hate and destruction of pogroms? And, personally, what about my own reaction to the books I have read, or the series Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, or films such as Schindler’s List? My unknown Jewish ancestry is confirmed.

The impetus for writing the precious article and this one was another film I saw on PBS last night, Frontline’s Memories of the Camps, made from newsreels made as Allied troops entered Hitler’s death camps. As with my watching Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, both anger and tears came to me. This time, however, as picture after picture of the dead flashed on the screen, I began to wonder if I were seeing the remains of my ancestors. And so I did what I did before: I sat done and wrote and you have just read the results.

Related Nick's Bytes posts:

01-27-2010 Lest We Forget: International Holocaust Memorial Day

01-27-2007       Remembering the Holocaust

01-28-2014      Lest We Forget: Holocaust Remembrance

06-16-2011 My Conversation with Elie Wiesel

05-15-2008 Elie Wiesel: If We Forget the Story, It Will Happen Again

04-14-2013 A Fundamentalist Danger to Modernity

05-11-2005 Auschwitz

05-11-2005 Auschwitz Continued

09-20-2005 In Memory of Simon Wiesenthal

09-22-2005 On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

05-25-2005 A Fundamentalist Is a Fundamentalist

Other Resources That I Recommend:

1 comment:

  1. Like you, Nick, I have read a lot about the Holocaust but the book that made my blood run cold was "The Boy in Striped Pyjamas", I forget the author now. I've never forgotten the story though and the way it ended.

    I think your background history is fascinating!