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.
November 10, 2012
Warsaw came as a surprise to me. Because of my uneducated impressions of Eastern Europe, I expected the city to be grim, but it was not. Warsaw was lively, handsome, well-swept, festooned with parks, and imbued with the spirits of such as Paderewski, Chopin, and Wojtyla.
But as satisfying as it was to see the city thriving, it was impossible to escape reminders of its darkest days, when it was occupied and devastated by Nazi Germany — and its Jewish population virtually exterminated — a period that is described in vivid human detail in Matthew Brzezinski’s book, Isaac’s Army.
Brzezinski, who has been a reporter for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, concentrates in this book on the walled ghetto in which the Nazis confined hundreds of thousands of Jews in subhuman conditions until most of the poor people were either worked to death, killed by hunger and disease, shot to death in summary executions, burned to death in their homes and hiding places, or shipped off to death camps.
I saw remnants of the ghetto in Warsaw, but it seemed almost like an abstract idea. In Brzezinski’s book, however, the depth of the depravity with which the Nazis and their collaborators treated Polish Jews comes through with shocking force.
Brzezinski is particularly interested in a relatively small group of Jewish men and women who recognized from the beginning that the Nazi presence was an imminent danger to their community and were not willing to stand by and let the Germans proceed unhindered. The writer relates the stories of about a dozen individuals who were in that category. They belonged to underground paramilitary organizations that struggled to maintain some semblance of resistance to their persecutors. These folks defied and undermined the Nazi attempt to isolate the Jews and ultimately, in 1943, participated in the uprising that stunned and momentarily humiliated the SS when the “supermen” entered the ghetto with the object of leveling it.
Unfortunately, as Brzezinski relates, Polish Jews were not of a single mind about how they should respond to the Nazis or whether they should respond at all. They also were sharply divided over issues such as Marxism and Zionism.
They were frustrated by the fact that so many people and nations were indifferent to their plight, and they had to resort to bribery and subterfuge to accumulate even the poor excuse for an arsenal they had to defend themselves against the combination of Adolf Hitler’s insanity and his military machine. Their situation may have been hopeless to start out with, but Brzezinski shows that some of them would not give up hope or, at least, would persist in their struggle against the Nazis even when hope was gone. While this book, on the one hand, records one of the worst examples of human cruelty, it also records one of the best examples of human resilience. The account of a few score sick and starving Jews escaping the ghetto by stumbling for hours through a sewer laden with human excrement, corpses, and rats is disgusting to the imagination. At the same time, it is uplifting to know that people who would not concede their right to dignity and justice were willing to undergo even that in order to deny Hitler his dream of eradicating Judaism in Europe.
September 5, 2011
In our quest to keep up with the career of Keisha Castle-Hughes, we came across a 2008 Australian film, “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger.”
This is a rather blunt story — written and directed by Cathy Randall — about a 13-year-old girl, the title character, who attends a private school, where the snobbish and often brutal cliques ridicule and shun her, while she also navigates a home life made difficult by a rigid mother (Essie Davis) and thoughtless father (Russell Dykstra). Esther falls in with Sunni — Castle-Hughes — an older and more worldly wise student at a public school. The relationship introduces Esther to a gritty world she has been unaware of, and it teaches her a hard lesson about the hazards of trying to fit in by distorting one’s own identity.
Esther is played by Danielle Cantanzariti, who got the part when she turned up for a cattle call audition for extras. The film-makers had screened about 3,000 candidates over a period of four months. The girl is excellent in the role. The character is quirky and smart, and Cantanzariti really goes to town on that. The story has both drama and humor, and this child is skilled at both. Some of the exchanges between her and her brother Jacob (Christian Byers) — who has his own share of complexes — are hilarious.
Castle-Hughes gives a smooth performance as Sunni, whose self-assured demeanor masks the tension in her life with an amiable but unfocused single mother, Mary– nicely played by Toni Collette. The delicate balance in Sunni’s own life is revealed when she loses control in her attempt to re-make Esther, and the younger girl goes too far in order to preserve her standing with her peers. Castle-Hughes played an 12-year-old Maori girl in “Whale Rider” and Mary, the mother of Jesus, in “The Nativity Story.”
The film has a soundtrack that is well tuned to Randall’s themes, including music related to the Blueberger family’s Jewish faith, which figures prominently in the story in a couple of ways.
“Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger” cost a lot to make and didn’t return much for the investors. It deserved better.
August 26, 2011
The title of the book is misleading. Denis Avey, a British soldier during World War II, didn’t break into Auschwitz. He was a POW there, so he was already within the walls, as it were. He and the other inmates had been put to work building an enormous industrial plant in which a German company planned to manufacture synthetic rubber and methanol. From the first, Avey was deeply disturbed by the condition of the Jewish prisoners – the “stripeys” he called them because of their pajama-like uniforms. He was so distressed in fact, that he became obsessed with the need to see for himself the section of the Auschwitz complex where the Jewish inmates lived. If he survived the prison himself, Avey wanted to be a witness.
So compelling was this need in Avey’s mind that on two occasions he swapped clothing with a Jewish inmate and shuffled off with the other Jewish prisoners at the end of the work day. What he found was at least as bad as he had imagined.
That part of Avey’s story is recounted in “The Man who Broke into Auschwitz,” which he co-wrote with Rob Broomby, a BBC reporter who worked very hard to help Avey reconstruct the experience 60 years after the fact.
Before he was sent to Auschwitz, Avey had seen plenty of combat in North Africa. He was part of the force that first drove the Italian army out of Egypt and across Libya and then went on the defensive when Erwin Rommel brought his Afrika Korps into the fray and reversed the tide of battle for a time.
Avey, who explains that he went to war in the first place for adventure, not for King and country, was a brash sort whose chutzpah both got him into scrapes and enabled him to survive on both the battlefield and in prison. Once he was captured, he escaped several times including one final time during a forced march eastward in the dead of winter when the Nazis abandoned Auschwitz in order to elude the advancing allies.
On one occasion, Avey watched while an SS officer repeatedly beat a Jewish inmate until the young man died. Avey was already frustrated by both the fact that the Nazis were deliberately working the Jews to death and by the knowledge that he couldn’t do anything about it. When that young man died, Avey shouted a crude German insult at the officer, who responded by cold cocking Avey with the butt of a hand gun. The injury cost Avey his sight and eventually the eye itself.
But the worst injury he suffered was psychological. When he finally returned home, his own family – including his father, who had also enlisted – didn’t want to discuss the war at all, and others wanted to hear only about derring-do on the battlefield. No one was interested in, or capable of confronting, the truth about the concentration camp.
Avey himself stopped talking about it for decades, and he suffered nightmares and other signs of post traumatic stress disorder – a problem that was not recognized and therefore not treated at the time.
There is much more to this story, including the unexpected outcome of a small favor Avey was able to do for one Jewish inmate, but that’s best read in the pages of Avey’s book. It was largely because of Broomby’s work that Avey was eventually able to talk openly, and write, about what he experienced. The two men have performed an important service, because it is critical that knowledge of what the Nazis did be kept alive in the public consciousness.
That’s true both because of the crimes committed by the Third Reich and its collaborators but also because such atrocities have been committed again and again since then – the difference being only one of scale.
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.
April 19, 2009
The New York Times today reports on a Holocaust museum that has been established in Skokie, Ill. Skokie became the home of many survivors of the Holocaust, and 32 years ago it was chosen for that reason as the site of a march by a group of neo-Nazis. The Nazis’ plan and the opposition to it set off a debate on free speech. The march never took place, but the hubris of the Nazis inspired Holocaust survivors to be more open about what had happened to them and their families, and that change led to establishment of the museum.
The times reports that “unlike similar institutions, the Skokie museum is almost totally anchored in the local, brought to life with the personal pictures, documents, clothing, testimonies and other artifacts of the building’s own neighbors. And several of the Holocaust survivors are working as docents and other staff members, weaving their first-person stories into the history, exploring issues of genocide around the world.”
That’s a powerful and important concept and one that could be emulated, even if needs be on a smaller scale, in other towns and cities where there are still people left to tell this story first hand. That’s true not only because there will always be those who deny – contrary to the indisputable evidence – that the Holocaust took place, and because even those who acknowledge the Holocaust should be reminded of it – both the fact of it and its enduring impact on families all over the world. Historical epochs are like that; they don’t end on any given day but continue indefinitely to affect the lives of succeeding generations – as the era of American slavery directly affects millions of people living today.
The Times also published an account today of a relatively new body of research on some of the lesser-known Nazi “killing fields.” It’s at this site: