Last year I reviewed a book about Erik Jan Hanussen, a mentalist and con man who first flourished and then crashed and burned in Berlin during the Nazi era — an Austrian Jew posing as a Danish aristocrat. Hanussen struck me as one of the most bizarre characters in the drama of that time, but he has to make room in the pantheon for a puny Jewish teenager who is the subject of Jonathan Kirsch’s arresting book, The Short Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan.
Herschel was living with his Polish parents in Hamburg, Germany, when the Nazis came to power. During the run-up to the Holocaust, when Adolf Hitler’s scheme was to make life so unbearable for Jews that they would leave the Third Reich by their own volition, Herschel’s parents became concerned about his wellbeing. Their solution was to send him west when he was 15 years old, and he wound up living with his uncle and aunt in Paris.
During his sojourn, Herschel’s parents and siblings were among about 12,000 Polish Jews who were abruptly taken from their homes by the Nazis and deposited on the Polish side of the border with Germany. From the refugee camp there, Herschel’s sister wrote to him, describing the harsh conditions.
After an argument with his uncle over the question of helping the Grynszpans financially, Herschel bolted from the apartment and, on the following day, bought a revolver, entered the German embassy on a pretext, and shot a young diplomatic aide, who died from the wounds.
When he was taken into custody by French authorities, Herschel, who saw himself as some kind of avenging angel, immediately and then repeatedly told them that he had shot the man, Ernst Vom Rath, in response to the treatment of Polish Jews and, in particular, of his own family.
The Nazis reacted to the murder with the carefully staged mob rampage that destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues and terrorized Jewish people throughout Germany and Austria on the night of November 9 and 10, 1938 — the so-called Kristallnacht.
Meanwhile, Hitler and his partners in paranoia had a different take on the crime. They saw it as the work of the “international Jewish conspiracy” that actually existed only in their nightmares. Hitler sent representatives to both observe, manipulate, and exploit the proceedings against Herschel.
Before the case was played out, however, Germany invaded France, and after Herschel, with the connivance of the French, dodged the grasp of the Nazis in a chain of events that sounds like a Marx Brothers scene, he fell into German control.
Hitler, employing a brand of logic of which only he was capable, decided to stage a show trial so that the international community would conclude from this solitary crime that Jews everywhere were plotting to take control of Germany if not the whole world.
Kirsch describes the elaborate investigations and other preparations the Nazis made for this spectacle, inquiring into the most remote details of Herschel’s background.
But Hitler didn’t know whom he was up against. The hundred-pound dropout pulled the rug out from under the Nazi propaganda machinery by telling interrogators that he and Vom Rath had actually been involved in a homosexual relationship that went sour. It was a idea that had been suggested to him by one of his lawyers while he was still in French custody. The Nazis were stymied. Given Hitler’s horror of homosexuality, they couldn’t let the show trial go ahead and take a chance that Herschel’s claim would become public. On the other hand, they also couldn’t simply do away with Herschel after making such a big deal about how the case would be tried in public. The trial was postponed — indefinitely, as it turned out.
In a way, that’s where this story ends. No one knows what became of Herschel Grynszpan, although the debate goes on about whether he was a megalomaniac lone ranger or an overlooked hero of the Jewish resistence.
It’s a wonderful yarn, and Kirsch tells it like a novelist, exploring the psyche of an oddball teenager who played a quirky role in the biggest historic epoch of the twentieth century.
April 1, 2013
The dimensions of the Holocaust are brought home by the fact that the stories of individual victims are still emerging 67 years after the end of World War II. One example is Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp. The author is Helga Weiss, whose family were prisoners at Terezin, a concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia. Helga never heard of her father, Otto, or a boyfriend she met in camp, after they were dispatched from Terezin on one of the Nazi “transport” trains, but she and her mother, Irena, survived, despite being sent to the Auschwitz death camp at one point shortly before Germany was defeated.
Helga kept the diary during the years at Terezin (1941-1944), beginning when she was 11 years old. When she knew that she and her mother had been selected for one of the dreaded transports, she gave the diary and drawings and paintings she had done to her uncle, who was assigned to work in the finance office at Terezin. He hid the materials by bricking them up in a wall, and he recovered them after the war. When Helga and Irena had returned to their native Prague, Helga recorded, writing in the present tense, her recollections of their experiences after they left Terezin.
Some of the illustrations Helga did during her ordeal are included in this book. She became a professional artist after the war.
Terezin was a unique enterprise for the Nazis. It was not a camp as such but a Czech town purloined for use as a ghetto. The Nazis incarcerated a lot of writers and musicians there because Terezin was used as a showplace to hoodwink international authorities such as the Red Cross into thinking that Jewish culture was thriving in the Third Reich. My longtime colleague in newspaper journalism, Mirko Tuma, was one of the young Czech intellectuals who were sent to Terezin.
Mirko told me that reciting poetry, writing and performing plays, and performing musical works helped the prisoners at Terezin maintain their sanity.
But although the Nazis went to a lot of trouble to create a faux town with shops and other amenities — including a school with neither teachers nor students — as a veneer for outside visitors, Helga vividly describes the hunger, thirst, illness, cold, heat, vermin, and human brutality that characterized life in the camp and at the other stops on her odyssey.
She also describes the fear, the uncertainty, the desperation that daily beset the prisoners. They worried constantly about being included in the frequent transports that carried people to God knows what fate.
And Helga, of course writes about the longing for the life that was abruptly taken away from her, of the simple comforts of her home and of Prague itself.
We learn in this diary, which has been translated from the original Czech text, that a young girl had to learn not only to survive but to connive and barter in the camp. She became adept at grabbing scraps of food, even though she knew the possible consequences. Indeed, she saw a boy beaten for taking a single cucumber peel.
We also learn that although she despaired at times, Helga had a strong spirit that wouldn’t let her capitulate to the Nazis.
“(T)here’s no reason for crying,” she writes. “Maybe because we’re imprisoned, because we can’t go to the cinema, the theater, or even on walks like other children? Quite the opposite. That’s exactly why we have to be cheerful. No one ever died for lack of a cinema or theater. You can live in overcrowded hostels . . . on bunks with fleas and bedbugs. It’s rather worse without food, but even a bit of hunger can be tolerated. … only you mustn’t take everything so seriously and start sobbing. They want to destroy us, that’s obvious, but we won’t give in. . . .”
February 12, 2013
I don’t know if this is still true, but when I was at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, visitors were invited to write in a large book their opinions of President Harry S Truman’s decision to deploy the atom bomb against Japan in 1945. My opinion is that it’s easy to make Harry Truman’s decisions if you’re not Harry Truman. The same thing can be said for all such figures, including Pope Pius XII.
A great deal has been written about what the pope did or did not do with respect to the Jewish people who were being systematically exterminated by the Nazis during World War II. The latest contribution, if it can be called that, is Gordon Thomas’s book, The Pope’s Jews, which is designed to show that Pope Pius was clear in his condemnation of the Nazi regime and that he was directly involved in a variety of schemes to either help Jewish people escape from Italy or hide them in church properties, including the Vatican itself, during the German invasion.
The best that can be said for this book is that it is superfluous and that it is so badly executed as to be an embarrassment to the publisher and an insult to the reader.
Most if not all of what the author reports here has been published before. It has been well recorded that Pius, a former papal nuncio to Bavaria, was confronted with the murderous Nazis, on the one hand, who had a track record for wreaking indiscriminate vengeance whenever they met opposition or resistance, and the godless Soviets, on the other hand, who were eager to extend their dominance over as much of Europe as possible. The pope was also the head of a neutral state, and the safety of untold human beings depended on the guarantees that accompanied that neutrality.
There also has been a great deal written about the various bishops, priests, and nuns who either helped Jewish people get out of harm’s way or hid them in church properties, including the Vatican itself. Among those complicit in this was Sister Pascalina Lenhert, who was both housekeeper and confidant to Pius XII. Many sources have reported that the pope himself was not only aware of these activities but was directly involved in some of them.
Thomas writes about all this, and he also writes in some detail about the Jewish people living in the Jewish ghetto in Rome (most of whom died in a Nazi concentration camp), the Jewish resistance movement in Rome, and those working — and, in many cases, hiding — in a Jewish hospital on an island in the Tiber.
Thomas includes a lot of information about the work of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who had charge of a network of church operatives who hid Jewish people in multiple safe houses.
Most of this, as I say, comes from secondary sources, and that’s what the bibliography in this book consists of. In the several instances in which the writer does refer to primary sources, he provides no footnotes and no reference to those documents in the bibliography.
Moreover, this book is so carelessly written and edited that the quality of such scholarship as there was must be questioned. The author has a maddening fascination with the past perfect tense of the verb and uses it liberally, especially when it’s not appropriate. That plus awkward or downright improper sentence structure makes reading the text a chore.
And then there are the factual errors. St. Paul was crucified (we don’t know how he died, but the tradition is that he was beheaded); St. Paul had a vision of the risen Jesus in Rome (that happened on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus); Pius XII canonized St. Catherine of Siena (that was Pius II in 1461); Pius XII silenced the anti-Semitic radio priest Charles Coughlin (the Vatican didn’t approve of Coughlin, but didn’t take any action against him; he was forced off the air via regulation by the National Association of Broadcasters after he opposed U.S. involvement in what became World War II).
In his apparent zeal to cast the Catholic Church as a friend of the Jewish people, Thomas writes that Pope Pius IV in the 16th century relaxed a variety of restrictions on Jewish life that had been imposed by his predecessor, Paul IV, but the author does not point out that the restrictions were restored by Pius V.
Immediately after a reference to Pius IV, who assumed the papacy in 1562, Thomas writes this: “The Nicene Creed, the core of the church for centuries, would teach that Pontius Pilate was ultimately responsible for Christ’s death sentence, and that it was the gentiles (sic) who had mocked, scourged, and crucified Jesus.” The Nicene Creed dates from the fourth century, not the 16th, and it doesn’t say anything at all about Gentiles as such: it mentions only Pilate. The Apostle’s Creed, which dates from much earlier than the one adopted by the Council of Nicaea, says exactly the same thing about Pilate. Considering the crimes committed against the Jews over the past 20 centuries, those creeds can hardly be used to make the Church look benign. It was the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that specifically repudiated the idea that the Jewish people had some corporate responsibility for the death of Jesus; that council also forbid the Church to teach that the Jewish people had somehow been rejected by God (see the council’s document Nostra aetate).
In the decades since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has made a serious effort to improve its relationship with the Jewish people and to condemn any form of anti-Semitism. The present pope, who is about to abdicate, has been very active in that area. Although it does seem that Pius XII gets a bad rap from people who didn’t have to deal with the complex situation he faced, there’s no denying the trouble history between the Church and the Jews. It’s good to think that it might all be behind us.
December 29, 2011
Chelsea, an aspiring actress, tells Cosmo Kramer during an episode of the TV series Seinfeld that her manager is “trying to put together a miniseries for me on Eva Braun. I mean think about it, is that a great idea? We know nothing about Eva Braun, only that she was Hitler’s girlfriend. . . . What was it like having sex with Adolf Hitler? What do you wear in a bunker? What did her parents think of Hitler as a potential son-in-law? I mean it could just go on and on….”
It could and it will, because while it isn’t true that we know nothing about Eva Braun, it is true that we know relatively little, considering that she was the consort of one of the most recognizable and most reviled men in human history.
Heike B. Görtemaker, tries to bring some clarity to this subject in Eva Braun: Life with Hitler, which was originally published in German. The very things that have made Braun an obscure figure up to now were obstacles to the author’s work, beginning with the fact that Hitler wanted to be perceived as a solitary messiah whose life and energy were devoted to lifting Germany and its people from the ignominious consequences of World War I.
In order to maintain his image, Hitler kept the very existence of Eva Braun a secret from the German people, and he kept her at least at arm’s length and often much farther when they were in the company of his inner circle. Hitler married Braun on the day before they both committed suicide in a bunker in April 1945 while the Red Army was literally striding through the Reichstag grounds about 25 feet above their heads. He once said that he had never married because he needed the political support of German women and that he would lose some of his appeal if he had a wife. “It’s the same with a movie actor,” Hitler said. “When he marries he loses a certain something from the women who adore him. Then he is no longer their idol as he was before.”
When I read that in Görtemaker’s book, I wondered what “certain something” Hitler had that would attract any woman, never mind millions of them. Evidently the author wonders about that, too. When she writes that Braun’s life was shaped by Hitler’s power, his world view, and his “charismatic attraction,” she adds parenthetically, “however difficult it may be to explain what that consisted in.”
Görtemaker is convinced that neither Braun nor the other women around Hitler — principally the wives of men like Albert Speer and Joseph Goebbels — were simply adornments who were expected to be seen but not heard. On the other hand, the author finds it impossible to say definitively how much Braun and the others knew about German policy, and particularly about the Holocaust. They had to know of the persecution of Jews in Europe; it was no secret. But discussion of the extermination program in Hitler’s presence was forbidden when he was in his “family circle,” as it were, meaning the crowd that frequented Berghof, Hitler’s frequent refuge in Bavaria.
Hitler met Braun in 1929 when he was 40 and she was 17 and working as an assistant to Dietrich Hoffmann who became the privileged official photographer of the Nazi party and the Third Reich. Görtemaker speculates that the couple were not intimate until 1933 when Braun had become an adult . At first they saw each other only intermittently, and this apparently weighed on Braun and was the cause of two suicide attempts. After the second incident, Hitler arranged for Braun to have her own home in Munich and to have regular access to Berghof, where her assertion of her prerogatives irritated some of Hitler’s coterie.
Whatever attracted Braun to Hitler in the first place, long before it was clear that he would lead the German nation, her commitment to him was complete. Görtemaker writes that the level of her loyalty was the object of admiration to at least some of Hitler’s associates and it may have been the one thing that most endeared her to him. There’s no evidence that she pressured him to marry her or that she complained about being kept out of the public eye. And, in the most dramatic possible demonstration of her constancy, however misguided, she went to Berlin against Hitler’s wishes with the clear intention of dying with him while many others, including Speer and Hoffmann, were already concocting lies about being “outsiders” in Hitler’s camp. The normal confidentiality of the culture in which Hitler lived, coupled with the loss and destruction of written records and the unreliability of later testimony by turncoats trying to save their own hides and reputation may mean that we’ll never know more about Eva Braun than Görtemaker has been able to tell us in this book. That’s unfortunate, not because Braun was so different from others who supported Hitler, but because she was so like them. She was in all respects an ordinary person who came under the still elusive spell of a bumbling, absurd little man who terrorized the world for more than a decade
January 27, 2010
We watched “Jakob the Liar,” a 1999 film starring its executive producer, Robin Williams.
In this story based on Jurek Becker’s novel, Williams plays the title role, a man confined to a Jewish ghetto in Poland during World War II. Jakob is summoned to the commandancy of the ghetto for being in the street after curfew, and while he is in an SS officer’s quarters, he hears a radio news report to the effect that the Red Army is advancing in the vicinity of the ghetto.
When Jakob gives this information to his fellow inmate, Mischa (Liev Schreiber), Mischa draws the conclusion that Jakob himself has a radio — an offense punishable by death in the ghetto. Mischa shares his suspicion with others and soon the story is all over the ghetto, and nothing Jakob can say will put it to rest. The inmates beg him for more promising news, and he finally decides to lift their spirits by making up more “news” about the impending end of the war.
Jakob’s position becomes increasingly precarious, and it isn’t helped any by the fact that he is sheltering a young girl (Hannah Taylor-Gordon) who avoided boarding the transport that carried her parents to a death camp.
Given the fact that this movie features Williams in a dramatic role, includes fine actors such as Bob Balaban and Alan Arkin, and deals with this particular historical epoch, we expected to like it. We found, however, that the sum of the parts leaves the whole lacking.
The film is tedious and in some particulars implausible — for example, a scene in which Jakob defies and even intimidates an SS officer who, under real circumstances, would have shot him on the spot. And while Roberto Benigni proved that humor could be mixed into a serious Holocaust story, this film doesn’t strike the delicate balance between the two that the Italian movie achieved.
We watched “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” a 2008 film based on John Boyne’s novel for young adults.
This movie is most effective at portraying people who can rationalize almost any behavior on the grounds that it is their duty to some entity that they perceive as being larger and more important than any individual. One doesn’t have to look too far to find places to apply this model.
The story has to do with an eight-year-old boy, Bruno, played by Asa Butterfield, whose father is a highly placed officer in the German army during World War II. The boy and his teenaged sister admire their father’s stature without thinking about the nature of the regime that gave it to him. As the movie opens, the father, played by David Thewlis, informs his family that he has a new assignment that will force them to leave their opulent house in Berlin and move to “the country.” The “country” home turns out to be a stark mansion located within eyeshot of a concentration camp – a fact the father tries to hide from his children, and particularly Bruno.
But Bruno, being an eight-year-old boy with fantasies about exploring, is curious about what he thinks is a farm beyond the barbed-wire fence he first sees from the window of his room. Disregarding his mother’s instructions, he wanders through the woods until he reaches the fence, and there he makes friends with one of the inmates, Shmuel. Shmuel, also eight years old, disabuses Bruno of the idea that the camp is a farm, but Shmuel does not understand why he and his family are in the camp or why some of his relatives go off with “work crews” and never return. What Bruno does gradually learn is that he is supposed to hate Jews, but that Shmuel, a Jew, does not seem to him an enemy. One can’t discuss the outcome of their friendship without spoiling the experience of seeing this film for the first time.
Appreciating this film requires some suspension of credibility. We are to believe, for example, that Bruno’s mother does not know until she has moved to “the country” and lived there for some time exactly what takes place in the camp her husband oversees – that Jews and presumably others who were distasteful to the Nazis are gassed and their bodies incinerated. We are also to believe that Bruno and Shmuel can carry on a friendship through the camp fence, meeting there daily in broad daylight, even playing checkers, without being discovered.
Despite those issues, this movie delivers its message with a wallop. Thewlis, and Vera Farmiga as the mother, give chilling portrayals of the impact Naziism had on the inner selves of individual men and women. Both boys are also very effective in their roles; Jack Scanlon is a heartbreaker.