Book of Life Stories

Paul Bartrop – Who was the Holocaust?

Address presented to the Adelaide Jewish Community on the occasion of Yom Hashoah, 28 April 2003
Dr Paul R. Bartrop Bialik College and Deakin University Melbourne, Victoria
email: [email protected]

One day in November 1944 a number of Jewish children arrived in Auschwitz. We do not know from where they came, and for our purposes tonight that is not important. They were Jewish children; that is all that matters. A truck came with these children inside, and one little boy jumped off. He had an apple in his hand. In his youthful excitement, he simply wanted to be the first off the truck. His intention was not to run away, just to be first off the truck so he could eat his apple. One of the SS men standing nearby, officer Wilhelm Boger, saw the boy enjoying himself with his apple, next to the truck. Suddenly Boger went over to the boy, grabbed his legs, and smashed his head against the wall. Then he calmly picked up the apple and went back to his office. About an hour later a prisoner, who had seen the boy’s murder, was called to the office to assist in a translation issue. There, he saw Boger eating the child’s apple.1

American author Fred E. Katz, who has commented on this incident, notes that Boger’s gruesome killing of this innocent child for the apple had a theatrical quality to it: “He ate the apple in front of a witness to the murderous deed. It was no accident that Boger ate the apple when the witness was there to see it. He was flaunting his evil.”2

For that little boy, Bogert’s act was the supreme example in his short life of what the Nazi new order was. We do not know what experiences the child had already lived through, but there is no doubt that at that moment, in those circumstances, SS officer Boger was the Holocaust.

We all have in our minds an idea of what we think the Holocaust was. For some, the survivors, their own experience defines the outline of their understanding; no amount of reading from books, or watching of movies, or viewing of documentaries, can surpass their own memory of the Holocaust as it happened to them. Yet for the rest of us, it is only through secondary sources — books, movies and documentaries — that we can develop any sort of understanding of what happened.

Compared to the real thing, of course, our appreciation is woefully inadequate. All too often, by 2003, the Holocaust has become little more than a sub-branch of history, an area of general interest for some or serious study for others, not unlike the Wars of the Roses or the French Revolution; engaging, of course, but effectively something that has now slipped into the background for all save those most intimately connected with it through personal or family experience.

So what impressions do we have of the Holocaust?
This will, of course, be different for each individual. What springs to mind might be images of gas chambers (different at Auschwitz than at Sobibor or Treblinka); of ghettoes (different at Warsaw than at Riga); of ditches lined with naked men and women who are either about to be shot or just have been; of trains (mostly freight trains in reality, rather than cattle cars); of lists of death statistics, broken down by country; of deportation and concentration camps of all sorts; of images from the time of the liberation in 1945 — of thousands of emaciated bodies being bulldozed into giant pits, of SS guards being forced by British or American troops to undertake the task of giving these same corpses a part-way decent burial (if being tipped into a giant communal grave so that Kaddish could be recited can be described that way).

Whatever the images we have — and we would all, I think, have at least some of these images in our heads when we think about the Holocaust — all too often we operate from a generalised picture of what the Holocaust was. The details are either too painful or too immense or simply too unapproachable for us to contemplate. Yet I would suggest that they must be confronted, if only to help us remember just what it is we are supposed to remember.

For the Holocaust was, when all is said and done, a years-long campaign of massive violence perpetrated against a civilian population who were victimised because they were alive. And for each and every victim, the Holocaust was an event happening to them; it wasn’t something to be generalised, but, in the most intimate of ways, personalised.

We can look back at the Holocaust and say “what was it?,” “why was it?,” or “where was it?,” but those there at the time were little concerned about why it was happening or where it was happening — or even what “it” was. They were mostly concerned at who was doing it, as it was being done to them .

We can here consider the recollection of one Josef Katz, a twenty-three-year-old from Lubeck, in Germany. In Riga, he witnessed an incident concerning Joseph Carlebach, the Chief Rabbi of Hamburg and Altona. Both Katz and Carlebach had been on the same deportation train into the ghetto. Katz recalled that Rabbi Carlebach, a tall, thin man with a long, flowing beard, was called to stand before SS Major Lange and a group of other officers. With his furrowed face and stooped back, he reminded Katz of one of the Jewish patriarchs of old. Writing in the present tense, Katz observed, “It seems as if the whole burden of the past centuries were resting on [the Rabbi's] shoulders” The exchange began with the SS Major:


“Stand up straight, buddy, when I’m talking to you … What’s your occupation?”
“Chief Rabbi,” the Jew says clearly and proudly, eyeing the Major from top to bottom.
“Ha , ha, ha! Chief Rabbi! Just see you don’t open up shop here again. You hear, Chief Rabbi?”
No reply comes from the lips of the Jew.
“Did you hear me, Judas?”
Still no reply.
Suddenly the SS Lieutenant-Colonel reaches out and strikes the Chief Rabbi full in the face with his fist.3

For Chief Rabbi Carlebach, at that moment, the SS officers surrounding him were the Holocaust. No gas chambers or pit killings, just humiliation and unwarranted violence.

Often, the Holocaust was visited upon the Jews of Europe not through the direct intervention of the Nazis, but via the experiences of others. Dawid Rubinowicz, a young adolescent in occupied Poland, kept a diary after the arrival of the Nazis that is every bit as poignant as that of Anne Frank, on the other side of the continent. On 1 June 1942, Dawid wrote in his daily diary early. The entry for this day read:

This morning two Jewish women, a mother and a daughter, had gone out into the country. Unfortunately the Germans were driving from Rudzki to Bodzentyn to fetch potatoes and ran across them. When the two women caught sight of the Germans they began to flee, but were overtaken and arrested.
They intended shooting them on the spot in the village, but the mayor wouldn’t allow it. Then they went into the woods and shot them there. The Jewish police immediately went there to bury them in the cemetery. When the cart returned it was full of blood. Who ………..

The diary ended there. It is probable that his writing was interrupted by the sudden arrival of the Nazis, and the arrest of the Rubinowicz family. It is almost certain that Dawid was at some time thereafter deported with his family to Treblinka, where he was murdered. He was not yet fifteen.4

For every person who lived — and died — during the Holocaust, there are stories that are highly particular to them. No one could ever experience the same emotions, over the same incident, at any one given time. A case from the death camp at Sobibor, in 1943, is instructive.

Thomas Blatt, known as “Toivi”, was a teenager in the camp, working in a shed making jewellery for the Nazis using gold looted from deported Jews. The camp’s permanent population was never large — it only numbered six hundred at the time of the uprising of October 1943 — as it was never intended that people arriving would remain there for long. As Toivi identified, “There was no way out of Sobibor except … through the chimney.” But in one case that he recalled, a daring escape attempt was successful. As a result of this action by others, however, Toivi was never to experience such fear again; for him, in the grotesque environment of a death camp, what happened next would represent the quintessence of the Holocaust:

It was a dark, rainy night. We hadn’t had such a storm in a long time. One usually sleeps soundly in such weather, but that night some of us were awake. In the morning there was the usual daily routine: wash-up, breakfast, and preparation for roll call. Suddenly, like an electric shock, news spread from mouth to mouth, “The wires are cut … they ran away … We don’t know how many … The roll call will show.”
Nervous Kapos ran to notify the Germans. I snuck behind the men’s barracks. I saw the cut wires hanging loose. I knew retribution awaited us, but I didn’t hold it against those who had escaped. Instead, I was jealous.
The SS arrived immediately, and although it wasn’t the usual time, they held roll call then and there. Soon it was discovered that two prisoners were missing — Josel Pelc from Tyszowice and a mason from Chelm whose name I don’t remember. [SS] Wagner was on vacation, and [SS] Frenzel set the sentence. As punishment, two Jews from every work group would be executed.
“Attention! About face” It had begun. Usually we envied those who were already dead, yet at the same time some wild, primitive instinct for life succeeded in keeping all of us straight and strong, so as not to catch Frenzel’s eye. We knew that the Nazis always picked the weak and the sick.
SS Frenzel moved slowly to the front of the first formation and selected men at will. Those chosen moved to one side; the group to be sacrificed grew quickly. I noticed my friend Hersz from Grabowiec standing among them. He smiled to himself, shaking his head with self-pity, as if to say, “Finally my time has come.” Frenzel came close to my group. I was overcome with fear. I was small and very skinny. Only a few days earlier I had been lashed and beaten with a stick for moving slowly, and was left barely alive.
Because each formation was standing in two rows, he chose one man from the front row first, then walked behind the back of the second line and ordered another victim to step out. I was standing in fear. His steps came closer. I could hear the heavy breathing of this fat and angry man. “God, help me,” I begged silently, “don’t make him choose me.”
Down the line from me was a distant relative from Izbica, Yczy Mojsze Waks. His leg was bandaged, and this was decisive. The German touched him with the whip and told him to get out. His seventeen-year-old son was left to watch helplessly. Once the selection was completed, the condemned men were led toward Lager III. We heard shots, and later the dumpcarts returned with their clothes to be sorted.5

So for Toivi, who was the Holocaust? Without doubt, in the death camp of Sobibor, where 250,000 people were murdered in the space of about a year, the Holocaust was represented at that time by SS officer Frenzel, and in a situation that did not take Toivi’s life. It is worth bearing in mind that the Holocaust was not only all about killing: every Jew was a victim, whether or not they were in direct contact with the Nazis; whether or not they were murdered; whether or not they lost family; or whether or not they were witnesses. It was enough that they were there, caught in a Europe that was dominated by a brutal regime dedicated to their destruction.

During the time of the deportations from the Lodz ghetto, in September 1942, a boy named Israel, from Kalisz, in western Poland, was caught up in the horror of the ghetto clearances. Israel was an orphan who had been raised in a religious orphanage for Jewish boys aged five to thirteen. The orphanage became a special target of the Nazis as they searched for victims:

the Germans were aware that they didn’t have too many children, because mothers had hidden them. … the Germans saw that they had too few children. And Rumkowski [the chairman of the ghetto Judenrat], who as always never refused, took and handed over the orphanage where I was. We came out on the square and lined up. We waited for an hour. Hans Biebow [the German administrator of the ghetto] and another German arrived. They began to go out on the square to look us over. He came to a small boy of ten. “Ah, little one. Do you know what is going to happen to you? You are all going to be shot” The boy didn’t answer him anything. He went over to the woman leader of the orphanages: “Genia, how many children are here?” “One thousand two hundred.” He called over the chief of the Jewish police. “Look here, if one of them is missing you forfeit your head!” When he finished saying that, we were surrounded on all sides! Jewish police, fire fighters, chimneysweepers, whoever wore a hat and a uniform, surrounded us. Trucks began to arrive. We began to run away, but it wasn’t possible because there were police all around. Luckily, were surrounded from three sides, and on one side there was a wooden fence. One the side where the fence was there were no police because no one thought that we could get through the fence, because it was very tall. Over the fence there was some kind of dump of different things [from] a factory. When they surrounded us from three sides, when we saw the trucks arriving, five or six of us got together and ran over to the fence. There was a frightful squall on the square. Everyone cried. Everyone screamed, so they didn’t notice [us]. We began to tear away a board. We didn’t hurry. I got out. How many got out after me I don’t know. I only know one thing, that when I was quite far, I heard a policeman calling after me, “Hey, you, stop!”
I came to the wall of the cemetery. Near the wall was a pile of coal. I got between the tombstones. There I was safe for the moment. I heard screams of the children at night. We hid out. In the morning they came and searched the cemetery. The Germans went around with machine-guns.6

Israeli’s was hardly an experience shared by everyone in the Holocaust. We are faced yet again with the need to come to terms with the fact that the Holocaust was an event that defies ready description, and does not fit into neat categories. As one last example, it is worth considering the account of Roma T., from Kielce in Poland. Roma had been married to a physician, and when the war began she accompanied him to the front as a nurse’s aid. They ended up in Lvov, in the Soviet zone after Poland had been partitioned. After the Nazis invaded in June 1941, they managed to stay together until they were deported to Majdanek from Warsaw in 1943.
Roma was clearly a victim of the Holocaust, but as she was to show later there were a number of varieties of victim hood. Here, she describes as incident in the camp:

[The Nazis] present[ed] us with another spectacle, and that was a hanging. It was supposedly as a punishment for escape; allegedly some had attempted to escape. That was also not true, because it was impossible to imagine that such a thing could be attempted there. In May a woman was brought in. … All at once we noticed something standing in the middle of the field. We really did not know what it meant. They had erected a gallows. We all had to stand for roll call, forming a square, facing the gallows, and then the woman was compelled to fetch the chair herself. She stood upon the chair, and then the SS man asked what her last wish was. I stood very near then. She said she had no wish to make of the Germans. So he asked her whether she regretted her deed. She said she was not attempting to escape, because that was absurd. But if she only had a chance, she would have done it. She regretted nothing at all, because life at any rate had no worth, and she died readily. But she probably was too weak to slap him in the face. She died calmly without a single outcry. That woman was twenty-three years old. Then we had to stand as punishment and look at the dead woman for three hours. When the roll call was over we all remained standing without having planned it. We all remained standing for several minutes. The SS even thought … that we had attempted a revolt. We only remained standing to honor the dead woman. Every last one of us.7

The Holocaust was a time in which the most revolting mass atrocities were committed by humans against other humans, but as the last act of
Roma and her comrades showed there were also times during which the prisoners looked directly into the face of the Nazi evil with resolve and a dedication to their own values and sense of humanity.

When all is said and done, to return to my central theme, who was the Holocaust? For the mother forced to choose between two children on the ramp at Auschwitz, the Nazi doctor forcing the choice was the Holocaust; for the adolescent girl torn from the embrace of her little sister because she was old enough to work while the younger girl was not, it was the SS official; for the old man beaten to death by the side of the road by a Nazi soldier because he couldn\’t move fast enough when ordered to, it was that soldier; and for the newlyweds who were forced into the squalor of the ghetto where the bride watched her husband die of starvation and disease, only to die herself immediately afterward, the Holocaust was represented by the soldiers who brought them into this condition.

And lest it be thought that we are referring only to Nazis here, it must be recalled that one did not have to be a German in order to be a Nazi — as witness the experiences Jews had with the Arrow Cross party in Hungary, the Hlinka Guard in Slovakia, anti-Semitic Poles who denounced Jews to their German occupiers, Vichy French officials and police, Ukrainian collaborators, and so on. For many people who never saw a Nazi German, the Holocaust was visited upon them by a wide variety of messengers.

At this time of national mourning for the Jewish people, we accord the murdered of our people the utmost dignity and respect. They were the victims of a series of diseases that swept through Europe between 1933 and 1945; the disease of bigotry and of hatred; of bloodlust and of intolerance; of immorality and of human debasement; of covetousness and of theft. As the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, himself a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, said later when reflecting on this: “We were the victims, and we know who the perpetrators were. And Europe, it seems to me, was a bystander — and that is the essence of the tragedy.”8

On this night when we gather together to mourn, it is incumbent on us all to rededicate ourselves to the task of ensuring that the preconditions for a repetition of that tragedy are never allowed to reappear; that our fellow-citizens are inoculated against the diseases of which I have just spoken; and that we work to ensure that society actually learns something for its future from the experience of our past. This is my hope; keyn ye’hi ratzon.

1 Bernd Naumann, Auschwitz: A Report on the Proceedings against Robert Karl, Ludwig Mulka and Others Before the Court at Frankfurt, New York: Praeger, 1996, p. 133; quoted in Fred E. Katz, Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil: A Report on the Beguilings of Evil, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993, p. 88.
2 Ibid.
3 Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, London: Collins, 1986, pp. 243-44.
4 Dawid Rubinowicz, The Diary of Dawid Rubinowicz, Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1981, pp. 86-87.
5 Thomas Toivi Blatt, From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival, Evanston (IL): Northwestern University Press, 1997, pp. 114-15.
6 Donald L. Niewyk (ed.), Fresh Wounds: Early Narratives of Holocaust Survival, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998, p. 177.
7 Ibid., p. 219.
8 Rabbi Hugo Gryn, cited in Auschwitz and the Allies, BBC-TV (producer, Rex Bloomstein), 1982.

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