Pope Francis Becomes Honorary Member of Krakow’s JCC

During a dedicated trip to Poland to mark the Church’s World Youth Day, Pope Francis also visited and prayed at Auschwitz

 
By Jesse Bernstein
 
pope-imgPope Francis weighed in on a central issue of the American general election on Monday. During his answer to a question regarding his omission of the term “Islamic terrorism” from his statement on the recent murder of a French priest—for which ISIS has taken credit—the pope had this to say:

If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak of Catholic violence … and no, not all Muslims are violent, not all Catholics are violent. It is like a fruit salad; there’s everything. There are violent persons of this religion … this is true: I believe that in pretty much every religion there is always a small group of fundamentalists. … When fundamentalism comes to kill, it can kill with the language—the Apostle James says this, not me—and even with a knife, no? I do not believe it is right to identify Islam with violence.

Pastor Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, who has spoken in support of Donald Trump, wrote on his Facebook page that he disagreed with the pope: “Radical Islamists are following the teachings of the Quran. We should call it what it is.”

The pope’s comments were made aboard a flight back to Italy from Poland, where the pontiff had spent nearly a week marking the Roman Catholic Church’s World Youth Day. Last Friday, Francis, 79, became the third pope to visit Auschwitz, where he spent the day touring the remnants of the former concentration camp, speaking with survivors, and praying with all who had gathered. “Lord, have mercy on your people! Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty!” he wrote in the guestbook. According to CNN:

The pope also met briefly with Holocaust survivors and their families.

Among those in attendance was survivor and Jewish activist Marian Turski, who was held at the concentration camp.

Turski said he felt the pope was “like my friend,” commending his ability to relate to people.

He said he was tattooed at Auschwitz to signify he had been “purchased” by the camp.

“I was in this camp until almost the last day and then put in the death march to another camp,” he told journalists.

On a lighter note, the pope also stopped at the Krakow JCC, where he was conferred a JCC membership. Reported JTA:

Francis’ JCC membership card features the number V007 – V for VIP. The number 007, with the 00 meaning “license to kill,” is the ID number of the fictional British secret agent James Bond. Asked on Facebook whom the pontiff had the license to kill, Ornstein [the executive director of the Krakow JCC] replied: “A license to kill intolerance.”

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Germany and the Concept of Collective Guilt

Do only psychopaths commit horrible mass crimes, or are we all more responsible than we are willing to admit? Two new histories of the Nazi war machine examine their leaders—and their soldiers.

By David Mikics

 
Even when it should have been clear that World War II was lost, Germans still lined up behind their leader. In 1945, the last year of the war, more than 60 percent of German POWs professed their faith in Hitler, the man who had led their nation to ruin. Such desperate clinging to charismatic authority has occurred in other times and places, and it raises a hard question: To what degree were the German people as a whole—not just their leaders—responsible for the evil of Nazism? The idea that the worst evildoers (in this case, the top Nazis) have abnormal psyches might just be a way of defending ourselves against the immoral darkness that inhabits us all.

Joel E. Dimsdale in his Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals searches for the key to human evil in the psychiatric examinations undergone by the Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945-46. Dimsdale, a well-known psychiatrist, begins with a grossly unscientific sample: He appears to have chosen the four among the 22 Nazi defendants whose mental lives seem most abnormal. And so he gives us a highly selective parade of fanatical Hitlerites: the clearly demented Rudolf Hess; the sex-addled Julius Streicher, publisher of the outrageously anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer; and a victim of brain damage named Robert Ley, who as head of the German Labor Front helped to set up slave labor factories. Finally, Dimsdale throws in Hermann Göring, a longtime favorite of those who think that lack of morality and freakish behavior go together in history the way they do in horror movies.

Two of Dimsdale’s four case studies found themselves sidelined by the Nazis before WWII was in full swing. Hess flew to Scotland in 1941, gripped by the fantasy that he could make peace with England, but instead wound up in a British military hospital. A Nazi judge put Streicher under house arrest in 1940 after he insulted Göring in print. Ley was the most cracked of the bunch: “If it is at all possible, I would like to have a Jewish person as my defense counsel,” he declared at Nuremberg. A severe alcoholic with frontal lobe damage, probably from a WWI injury, he killed himself in the Nuremberg jail before he could come to trial. Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe, was a more central figure. Dimsdale sees Göring as “a classical, charming narcissistic psychopath,” but the label of psychopath seems misplaced here. Göring was a cross-dressing drug fiend who loved the high life, but in spite of his well-known eccentricities, he didn’t have a lunatic bone in his body. The smug, hyperarticulate Göring, who delighted in running rings around the prosecutors, was just a far more intelligent version of your average murderer.

Ley, Streicher, Göring, and Hess form a picturesque rogues’ gallery, but they are unrepresentative of high-level Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, most of whom lied and dodged their way through the trial in perfectly ordinary fashion. Typical was Hans Frank, the head of General Government Poland, as vulgar an anti-Semite as any of the others and a more determined mass murderer than most. Frank announced at Nuremberg that he had converted to Roman Catholicism and now felt like a different person: “Sometimes I wonder how that man Frank could have done those things” during the war, he mused. Because what he had done was so atrocious, Frank’s conversion was a laughable instance of chutzpah. But it was also an ordinary psychic strategy, employed by many a lesser fiend, and by the rest of us too—who hasn’t used dissociation to do the work of repentance?

Dimsdale promises us a detective story, but he finally comes up empty-handed. He admits that psychiatry can offer diagnoses but not answers when faced with human evil. This means that its diagnoses are not very good ones, at least when we are dealing with people who know what they are doing. Psychiatrists can argue persuasively in court that a defendant is too mentally deficient to grasp the idea of good and evil, and therefore not responsible for his crimes. (Such an argument was made for the Japanese war criminal Shumei Okawa, as recounted in Eric Jaffe’s A Curious Madness, and Okawa was spared the death penalty.) But with someone like the mentally agile Göring, psychiatry is of little help.

Dimsdale cherry-picks his examples to cater to our idea that human evil must have something to do with psychopathology. But the verdict goes in the other direction: The overwhelming majority of the Nuremberg defendants did not possess the traits of the mentally diseased. Their Rorschach tests were normal. Yet one of their examiners, the psychologist Gustave Gilbert, still labeled them insane. Gilbert, the Jewish son of emigrés from Austria, described the Nazi defendants as “narcissistic psychopaths whose lives were deformed by a diseased German culture.” This made them more rather than less culpable in Gilbert’s view: “to him [they were] the devil incarnate,” Dimsdale writes.

The other examiner, Douglas Kelley, disagreed with Gilbert. He thought that the Nazis displayed “profound moral failing” rather than mental illness. In spite of his disapproval, Kelley seems to have bonded with Göring and a few of the others. Bizarrely, the emotionally troubled Kelley, who was a professional magician as well as a psychiatrist, committed suicide 12 years after Nuremberg. In his living room, in front of his wife, parents, and children, he swallowed a cyanide pill, the same method that Göring had used.

Dimsdale writes in an elegant, appealing way, and his book is a page-turner, but in the end he has nothing to report. His account of Nuremberg shows that psychiatry reveals little about the problem of human evil. Dimsdale then turns to that old standby, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt argued that evildoers like Eichmann were simply not thinking. For her, as for Plato and Kant, evil was ignorance and proper morality a kind of knowledge that sufficiently thoughtful people could attain. Even if this were true (it’s not), Arendt’s banality-of-evil thesis doesn’t explain why some people don’t think, and why they do dreadful things as a result. After his discussion of Arendt, Dimsdale runs through the usual psychological studies of ordinary people doing evil: Milgram, Zimbardo. Finally, he abandons psychiatry and psychology for the now-fashionable science of the brain. Dimsdale resorts to studies of frontal-lobe impairment and oxytocin, hoping that biology will succeed where Arendt’s philosophy and the psychologists’ experiments didn’t. Oxytocin is the chemical in the brain that causes empathy, Dimsdale explains, and malice is the lack of empathy. What he doesn’t mention is that oxytocin also increases animosity toward outsiders along with good feeling toward one’s own group. Empathy seems to apply mostly to our own team: the Red Sox but for sure not the Yankees. Though Dimsdale fails to admit it, it seems clear that neuroscience is the wrong place to look if we want to understand evil.

***

The question of Nazi evil extends down through the ranks to the common soldier. How bad was Hitler’s army, the Wehrmacht? For 50 years after the end of WWII, it was assumed that the ordinary German soldier had kept his hands relatively clean in contrast to the men of the SS and the Einsatzgruppen, who had carried out the Final Solution and other crimes against humanity. Then a museum exhibit called Verbrechen der Wehrmacht (Crimes of the Wehrmacht) opened in Hamburg in 1995. (Revised in 2001, the exhibit now resides permanently at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.) Crimes of the Wehrmacht traveled to more than 30 German cities in the late 1990s, and it made shock waves wherever it went. The exhibit’s organizers, German historians Hannes Heer and Gerd Hankel, argued that “the German Wehrmacht’s war against the Soviet Union differed from all other European wars of the modern era, including the campaigns waged by the Wehrmacht against other countries during World War II.” This was a campaign intended to starve, terrorize, and, in the case of the Jews, eliminate the civilian population of the USSR. The Wehrmacht, the exhibit argued, pursued a war of annihilation against noncombatants, and its war crimes were worse than those of other armies—even the Red Army, which raped and pillaged its way across Germany in 1945.

In his multifaceted new history Hitler’s Soldiers, Ben Shepherd explores not just the question of the Wehrmacht’s involvement in war crimes but its military tactics, its leadership struggles, and its weaponry. The book stretches from the late Weimar era to the fall of Berlin and provides abundant detail on every significant campaign that Hitler’s army engaged in. Shepherd gives an in-depth account of the Blitzkrieg techniques and flexible maneuvering that made the German forces so successful early in the war. The reason for the Wehrmacht’s downfall, Shepherd argues, was not just greater allied resources but the Germans’ assumption that their superiority in tactics and military discipline could overcome any disadvantage. Shepherd’s book doesn’t replace Omer Bartov’s classic Hitler’s Army, which still offers the most convincing account of the Wehrmacht’s attitudes toward civilians and enemy soldiers on the Eastern front. But Shepherd’s scope is far larger than Bartov’s. He has produced an authoritative military history of the most feared and respected fighting force of WWII.

Hitler and the Wehrmacht High Command certainly intended for the assault on Soviet Russia to be different from previous military campaigns, particularly the invasion of France in 1940, which mostly spared the civilian population. In May and June 1941, the Wehrmacht’s leaders issued the Barbarossa Decree and the Commissar Order, which gave soldiers a free hand in killing enemy civilians in the name of “the total eradication of any active or passive resistance.” Red Army commissars were to be executed en masse, a clear breach of international law. Given the overstrained supply lines, the Wehrmacht could survive only by plundering food from peasants, and they had no supplies left over for those “useless mouths”—Soviet POWs, nearly 3 million of whom starved to death in hastily improvised camps on the Eastern front. In December 1942, with the German forces in desperate shape, Hitler again commanded that the army use “the most brutal means … against women and children also,” and prevented officers from punishing soldiers who had committed “excesses” against civilians. Hitler proclaimed such excesses were, in fact, commendable.

Shepherd points out that a few of Hitler’s generals were skeptical about their chief’s decision to invade Soviet Russia in June 1941. But none tried to get Hitler to change his mind, because “they themselves lacked better ideas for winning either the campaign or the war.” They mostly shared Hitler’s assumption that sooner or later the Soviet Union would attack Germany: The Wehrmacht’s leaders had thrust themselves into a world of unending warfare, and had no idea how to bring it to an end. As Sebastian Haffner wrote in The Meaning of Hitler, the Führer upended a centuries-long assumption of statecraft: that wars were fought to establish a state’s security and its regional dominance. Instead, with the invasion of Russia, war became a perpetual test of Germany’s strength, a test it was bound to lose.

Hitler’s paranoid worldview in which Jews lurked behind every world crisis infected his generals: General Reinhardt declared before Barbarossa that “Stalin is friendly to us because he isn’t ready yet. As soon as he is armed, his Jewish masters will order him to begin a war against us, either with England or on England’s behalf.” Better, then, to start a preemptive war, since Jewish Bolshevism and Jewish Capitalism would soon combine forces. Yet the Jewish enemy was also, paradoxically, thought to be so feeble that the Soviets could be toppled in a short campaign.

The same assumption that “the Jews” stood behind all anti-Nazi activity was used to rationalize the genocide on the Eastern front. So Field Marshal von Reichenau issued an order to his Sixth Army in the Ukraine in November 1941: “The soldier must have complete understanding for the necessity of the harsh but just atonement of Jewish subhumanity. This has the further goal of nipping in the bud rebellions in the rear of the Eastern Army which, as experience shows, are always plotted by the Jews.” “Experience” showed nothing of the kind: Most partisans had nothing to do with Jews, and vice versa. The German apocalyptic worldview collapsed all enemies into one.

During the invasion of Poland more than a few ordinary German soldiers objected to the massacring of enemy civilians, especially women and children. By the time of Barbarossa such objections had become rare. In his long book Shepherd finds only one instance of a German officer who refused on moral principle to assist the Final Solution. In the spring of 1944 Colonel Emil Jäger argued against the deportation of Corfu’s Jews to the camps on the grounds that the Germans would forfeit their “ethical prestige” in the eyes of the Greeks. What Shepherd calls Jäger’s “clear if delicately worded” moral stance leaps out at the reader. In a dark time he was one of the few Germans who spoke for the moral norms that the Wehrmacht had so decisively discarded. War’s usual moral boundaries had been radically reshaped, and only a handful of soldiers among millions raised their voices in opposition.

The evil of Hitler’s Germany was not individual but collective. It cannot be found where Dimsdale looks for it, in the twisted psyches of the most flagrant Nazi criminals. Instead, Nazi evil relied on the erosion of the established wartime standards that separated combatants from noncombatants and POWs from armed enemy fighters. Only if we learn this lesson can we start to make the motto “never again” a future reality.

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Hours after historic Auschwitz visit, Pope Francis says ‘the same thing is happening’ today in many places

(JTA) — Human cruelty “did not end in Auschwitz,” Pope Francis said in Krakow after visiting the Nazi death camp in Poland.

pope-francis-auschwitzFollowing his historic visit on Friday, the pope compared contemporary atrocities around the world to the atrocities at Auschwitz, The Associated Press reported. Some 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, died there between 1940 and 1945.

Citing torture and overcrowded prisons, the pope said, “We say, yes, there we saw the cruelty of 70 years ago, how people died being shot or hanged or with gas. Today in many parts of the world where there is war, the same thing is happening.”

In the past, Jewish leaders have sometimes bristled at comparisons between the Holocaust and other atrocities, particularly ones that have not involved genocide.

While at Auschwitz, Francis did not make any public statements but engaged in silent prayer. He wrote in a guest book there, “Lord, have mercy on your people! Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty!”

While at Auschwitz, the pope also met with 11 Auschwitz survivors and a group of Polish Catholics who rescued Jews during the Holocaust in a meeting arranged by Poland’s chief rabbi, the American-born Michael Schudrich.

In a telephone interview with the AP on Friday, Schudrich said the pope’s meeting with survivors was “something I have been thinking about for a while: what kind of non-material present, what kind of thank you, can we give to the Righteous?”

While the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous offers some financial help to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews, Schudrich told the AP he “wanted to come up with a spiritual gift, and I thought that a special blessing from the pope would make them feel honored because of their unbelievable morality and humanity.”

In a statement Friday issued in advance of Francis’ visit, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder praised the pontiff, who has forged ever-closer ties between the Catholic Church and Jews since his election in 2013.

“Pope Francis is one of the closest allies Jews have today in the fight against anti-Semitism, bigotry and hatred,” Lauder said. “He is a true friend of the Jewish people, a man who reaches out to others and embraces them. Never over the past 2,000 years have Catholic-Jewish relations been better.”

The pope’s visit “sends an important signal to the world that this dark chapter must never be forgotten and that the truth about what happened seven decades ago must not be obfuscated,” Lauder added.

The late Pope John Paul II, who was born in Poland, visited Auschwitz in 1979. His successor, the Germany native Pope Benedict XVI, visited in 2006.

“Pope John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people,” Benedict said. “I come here today as a son of the German people. For this very reason, I can and must echo his words: I could not fail to come here.”

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Silent meditation and survivors’ embraces as pope visits Auschwitz

‘Lord, forgive so much cruelty,’ Francis writes in the memorial book at the Nazi death camp after he tours the site without speaking

francis-death-campOSWIECIM, Poland (AFP) — Pope Francis walked alone Friday through the notorious wrought-iron “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free) gate as he visited the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Free for once of his security entourage or cardinals, he sat on a bench among the trees and bowed his head in prayer, remaining at length in silent contemplation before meeting Holocaust survivors.

In front of the death wall where the Nazis summarily executed thousands of people by firing squad, he tenderly kissed the former prisoners.

Among them was Helena Dunicz Niwinska, a 101-year-old woman who played the violin in the Auschwitz orchestra, as well as inmates who worked at the camp hospital or who were there as children.

“It was very moving,” 86-year-old survivor Janina Iwanska said after meeting Francis.

“I wanted to kneel before him, but he took me in his arms and kissed my cheeks.”

Fellow survivor Alojzy Fros, who is 99, still remembered his arrival at the camp.

“Just after I arrived, through an open door I saw naked bodies piled up like logs about a meter high,” he told AFP.

“I’ll never forget it.”

Francis lit a candle in front of the death wall, bowing his head in prayer before visiting the cell of Polish priest and saint Maximilian Kolbe, who died at Auschwitz after taking the place of a condemned man.

The visit falls on the 75th anniversary of the day Kolbe was condemned to death.

Francis cut a solitary figure in the dark, underground cell where the priest was starved then executed.
The Argentine later lead prayers for the 1.1 million people, most of them Jewish, who were murdered at the camp as part of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” of genocide against European Jews which claimed six million lives in World War II.

‘Forgive the cruelty’


“Lord, have mercy on your people. Lord, forgive so much cruelty,” Francis wrote in the memorial book.

He had said that rather than making a speech, he would stand in silence to reflect on the horrors committed and let his tears flow.

As he arrived Wednesday in Poland — a heartland of Nazi Germany’s atrocities — the pontiff said the world had been plunged into a piecemeal third world war.

He has repeatedly denounced those committing crimes in the name of religion, after a string of deadly jihadist attacks in Europe.

The pope traveled the two miles (three kilometers) to Birkenau, the main extermination site, and was driven alongside train tracks which allowed prisoners to be transported directly to the gas chambers and crematoria.

Francis prayed near the ruins of a crematorium blown up by the Nazis as they evacuated the camp, as Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich sang a Jewish prayer for the dead in Hebrew.

The pontiff clutched his crucifix to his chest as he walked slowly along a row of memorial plaques, written in the 23 languages spoken by the prisoners.

Executed in childbirth


Some 25 Christian Poles who risked their lives during the war to help hide and protect Jews — a group recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum as “Righteous Among the Nations” — also met Francis.

The group included Maria Augustyn, whose family hid a Jewish couple behind a wardrobe for years, and Anna Bando, who helped rescue an orphan from the Warsaw ghetto and gave several Jews forged “Aryan” papers.

Stanislaw Ruszala, Catholic parish priest of the town of Markowa where a family was wiped out for sheltering Jews, read a Polish translation of the same Hebrew prayer read by the rabbi.

Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma and their seven children were butchered in Markowa. Wiktoria, who was seven months pregnant at the time, had started giving birth before she was executed, according to the Vatican.

More than 100,000 non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, homosexuals and anti-Nazi partisans also died at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in occupied Poland. The Soviet Red Army liberated it in 1945.

Two of the pope’s predecessors also visited the camp: John Paul II — a former archbishop of Krakow — in 1979 and Benedict XVI in 2006.

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Pope’s trip to Poland overshadowed by killing of French priest

pope-francisKRAKOW, Poland – Pope Francis will start his first trip to Poland on Wednesday to preside at an international Catholic youth jamboree, a usually joyous event that has been dampened by the murder of a Catholic priest in France.

News that suspected Islamist militants interrupted a church service in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, forced 85-year-old parish priest Father Jacques Hamel to his knees and slit his throat, sent a sudden deep chill over the World Youth Day event.

“We listened to the news with disbelief, we got phone calls from our parents who tried to reassure us,” said Guillaume from Bordeaux, a pilgrim in his early 20s.

“Pope John Paul II said that we should be tolerant and not resort to force. My heart tells me that this is true, but after what happened my head is now telling me something else,” said the young man, who declined to give his last name.

Pope Francis was horrified by the killing, the Vatican said, calling it particularly “barbarous” because it happened during the central rite of Christian worship.

It shocked many Catholics because it was eerily reminiscent of the murder of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot by a right-wing death squad in 1980 while he was saying Mass in a hospital chapel in San Salvador.

Some events at the gathering of Catholic youth from the around the world, which has been dubbed the “Catholic Woodstock,” are expected to draw more than a million people and Polish authorities have laid on tight security.

A police spokesman said the current threat level had not been raised after the killing of the priest.

Early in the trip, Francis is expected to pay tribute to the murdered priest, who some have said should be declared a martyr because of the way he was killed for his faith.

Francis’ five-day trip to the Krakow area of southern Poland will take place in the shadow of his predecessor, John Paul, who has cult-like status in Poland for his role in inspiring the nation to stand up to communist rule.

That status was evidenced by the fact that there are more posters of John Paul in Krakow than of Francis, an Argentine.

During his trip to Poland, Pope Francis is also expected to visit Auschwitz and become the third head of the Catholic Church to tour the site of the former German death camp.

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March in Warsaw commemorates ghetto doctors, nurses

Participants hang ribbons with names of those who worked to save patients – and sometimes helped them die

warsaw-monumentWARSAW, Poland — Some 700 people marched through the streets of Warsaw to commemorate those who worked in the Warsaw Ghetto as doctors, nurses and other medical personnel, helping those in need and, when necessary, helping them die.

The march began on Friday at the monument at the Umschlagplatz. Participants were welcomed by the director of the Jewish Historical Institute, Pawel Spiewak; vice ambassador of Israel, Ruth Cohen-Dar; and Marian Turski, vice president of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute.

“This year we go there where the doctors and the medical service of the Warsaw Ghetto worked, the Bersohn and Bauman Children’s Hospital,” said Pawel Spiewak. “We’re walking there to show that we remember those sacrifices that were completely helpless, powerless in the face of what happened then in Warsaw.”

“We are gathered here to remember the names of our sisters and brothers who were killed in the largest genocide of contemporary humanity. We are here to remember each one of them,” said Ruth Cohen-Dar.

At the hospital building, participants hung on its fence ribbons with the names of victims of the liquidation of the ghetto. Piotr Glowacki read excerpts from the testimonies of ghetto nurses and doctors. He was accompanied by Olgierd Dokalski.

Bersohn and Bauman Children’s Hospital was founded in 1878 and operated until 1942. Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto for Jewish children during World War II and died with them, was a pediatrician there before World War I.

During the war, the hospital was located in the ghetto. Doctors tried to help the children, although they had limited options. Some of the doctors could not come to terms with the fact that their patients would be murdered in Treblinka. Children were given morphine to die in their beds and avoid transport to death camps.

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Hitler’s hometown loathes link, but not his house

‘You can’t wipe out history by destroying it’

Many residents of Braunau am Inn oppose knocking down property where Nazi leader was born: ‘Tearing it down is no solution

This Sept. 27, 2012 file picture shows an exterior view of Adolf Hitler's birth house , front, in Braunau am Inn, Austria. (AP Photo / Kerstin Joensson,file)

This Sept. 27, 2012 file picture shows an exterior view of Adolf Hitler’s birth house , front, in Braunau am Inn, Austria. (AP Photo / Kerstin Joensson,file)

BRAUNAU AM INN, Austria (AP) — Adolf Hitler was born in the house behind her and the building is a natural draw for tourists. But when asked about her hometown’s most important landmark, Ivonne Bekking gestured down the road toward a baroque church steeple.

It’s a well-taught defense mechanism in Braunau am Inn, where Klara Hitler gave birth to Adolf in 1889 and locals have spent decades debating the fate of Hitler’s homestead.

“I know that at school we were taught always to point in this direction, to the church tower,” said Bekking as she stood in front of Hitler’s birthplace, an apartment within an imposing three-story yellow building that dates to the 16th century. Hitler’s family spent only his first three years of life in the town bordering Germany, yet Austria’s government has felt compelled to rent the building for nearly 45 years to ensure that fascists could not transform it into a Nazi shrine.

Most residents say they would like nothing more than to erase any association between their community and Hitler. Yet many oppose a new proposal by Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka to demolish the property once the government seizes ownership as part of a bill unveiled this month and expected to pass parliament later this year.

“Tearing it down is no solution,” said Deputy Mayor Florian Zagler. “It’s a birthplace, not a crime scene.”

Insiders know that the initials “MB” in the iron grillwork above the imposing wooden entrance stand for Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary, who bought the house shortly before World War II with thoughts of turning it into a shrine to the dictator. The property was handed back to its original owners after occupation by U.S. troops.

No sign explicitly marks the spot as the Hitler homestead. Instead, in 1989, the town council placed a granite slab retrieved from the pits of the Mauthausen concentration camp on the sidewalk outside. “Never again fascism; millions of dead remind us,” an inscription reads.

The empty dwelling radiates interest from ordinary tourists and others on a darker journey.

A Bulgarian man in his 50s who identified himself only as Boyko ran his fingers over the BM initials standing for Hitler’s secretary. “I’m here on a pilgrimage,” the man said.

The government bill unveiled July 12 would empower the state to take ownership of the building from its reclusive owner, Gerlinde Pommer, who since 2011 has been in dispute with her government tenants over how to use the building, previously home to a workshop for the mentally ill.

Sobotka says he thinks demolishing the property represents “the cleanest solution” to erase the town’s links to the dictator. A government-supported anti-Nazi research center called DOW has suggested that a supermarket should be built on the spot.

But not all of Sobotka’s government colleagues agree, and zoning laws and aesthetic concerns also stand in the way.

The property is already designated as a monument not because of Hitler, but for its historic and architectural value. Putting a wrecking ball to it would leave an ugly gap in the rows of flanking Renaissance-era buildings lining cobblestoned streets.

Some historians argue that the building should be preserved specifically because it’s one of few surviving structures linked to Hitler.

A house in nearby Leonding, where Hitler lived as a teen, is now used to store coffins for the town cemetery. There, the tombstone marking the grave of Hitler’s parents, a place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis, was removed last year at the request of a descendant. A school that Hitler attended in Fischlham, also near Braunau, displays a plaque condemning his crimes against humanity.

The underground bunker in Berlin where Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, was demolished. The site was left vacant until the East German government built an apartment complex around it in the late 1980s. Occupants of the apartments overlook the German capital’s monument to victims of the Holocaust.

In Braunau, at an 800-year-old inn across the street from the Hitler homestead, guests proved reluctant to discuss with a visitor what should become of the building, preferring to focus instead on the hostelry’s apricot dumplings.

But the proprietor, Klaus Wolfgruber, was firm that the building should stay, perhaps to house a museum or other historical attraction. He said demolishing it would be “the worst-case scenario.”

“You can’t wipe out history by destroying it,” he said.

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American Holocaust survivors struggle ‘to finish in a decent way

While new funding will help provide essential services to aging survivors, the community’s expanding needs go increasingly unmet by existing resources

holocaust-survivorsBOSTON — Despite recent funding infusions to provide care for aging Holocaust survivors, the dwindling community’s basic needs will outpace earmarked resources in the years ahead, according to experts.

Out of the just under 100,000 Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide who reside in the US, more than 30,000 live below poverty threshold standards, according to the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS). And as the survivor community ages, a larger segment will need increased assistance with healthcare and other basic needs.

Responding to the dire situation, the Claims Conference announced this month it will commit an additional $500 million toward Holocaust survivors’ home healthcare needs, and lift the cap on funded hours of care per survivor.

For Boston-area survivors, new funding will also come from sales of the English translation of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” manifesto. After decades of controversies tied to its stewardship of the book, Boston-based publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recently decided to direct royalty proceeds from “Mein Kampf” to programs run by Jewish Family & Children Service (JF&CS) for local survivors.

Holocaust survivor Stephan Ross, founder of the New England Holocaust Memorial, participating in the 2016 Yom HaShoah commemoration in Boston, Massachusetts, organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (courtesy)

Holocaust survivor Stephan Ross, founder of the New England Holocaust Memorial, participating in the 2016 Yom HaShoah commemoration in Boston, Massachusetts, organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (courtesy)

Totaling about $60,000 a year, “Mein Kampf” royalties will only cover a modest portion of the survivor community’s needs. Locally, the gap between these needs and available funds has hit up to $150,000 annually, according to Rick Mann, a JF&CS volunteer and chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s (JCRC) Holocaust outreach committee.

“I had very little idea of the severity of the problem being faced by local survivors until very recently,” Mann told The Times of Israel. “There are hundreds in greater Boston who are in need of essential services,” said Mann, adding that many survivors live under the communal radar.

Nearly 300 survivors are served by JF&CS, according to Marsha Frankel, director of elder care services for the Boston agency. About five survivors are added each month, said Frankel, who estimates there are 2,500 in the area. Because some are “fearful of seeking help,” connecting survivors to appropriate services can be challenging — even when there is funding, said Frankel.

“We see the will to live and the resilience,” said Frankel of survivors she has worked with for almost two decades. “Many of them face acute chronic medical conditions and poverty,” she said.

Labelling the survivors’ needs as “very intense,” Frankel said her agency’s goal is to help them remain at home for as long as possible. This requires access to services ranging from food delivery to transportation, with home healthcare being “a very expensive service to provide,” she said.

“If we can help people stay at home, they are feeling safe, with a sense of dignity and respect from the community at large,” Frankel said.

Chilly beginning, uncertain ending


Some people called them “greenhorns,” and not many made efforts to learn about the wartime experience of survivors transplanted to the US, recalled Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and long-time leader of New England’s survivor community.

Born in central Poland’s Plock, Arbeiter’s parents and brother were murdered in the Nazi death camp Treblinka. In 1939 the town’s Jews numbered some 10,000 and made up 26% of the local population; by war’s end only 300 survived.

In 1946, Arbeiter married his wife Anna, with whom he had survived a forced labor camp and imprisonment at Auschwitz. Within two years, Anna gave birth to a daughter and the family made their home outside Boston.

“We were not very welcomed by the Jewish community after the war,” said Arbeiter in an interview with The Times of Israel.

As put by historian Barbara Burstin, “Americans, both men and women, did not understand or appreciate what these ‘greeners’ had been through, and the survivors soon learned, if they had been so inclined, not to talk about their experiences except among themselves,” wrote Burstin about resettlement efforts.

Seven decades after what many of them experienced as a frosty reception, thousands of Holocaust survivors again find themselves in need of assistance with their basic needs.

“We have a lot more people that are in need now, especially from the [Former Soviet Union],” said Arbeiter. “Home-care is the greatest need, along with food and medicine,” he said.

For more than half a century, Arbeiter has advocated on behalf of survivors in the US and countries including Germany, where he received the Merit of Order in 2008 for his work on Jewish-German relations. A volunteer adviser for survivor services at JF&CS, Arbeiter has seen the community’s needs increase as more members reach advanced ages.

“There are a lot of survivors who need a little help to be able to finish in a decent way,” said Arbeiter. “We have got to have the tools to help these people,” he added.

As put by Mann, “JF&CS has to make a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ on a daily basis as to who gets services,” he said. “The problem is going to increase, not decrease, over the next decade,” he said.

In New York City, for instance, up to 30,000 survivors — about half of the community — live in “deprivation, isolation, and poverty,” according to Stuart Eizenstat, special adviser on Holocaust issues to US Secretary of State John Kerry. In an interview with AFP last year, Eizenstat said about one-third of survivors in Israel cope with poverty, and these rates approach 90% in some FSU countries.

In the US, the government has started to fund social service grants specifically for aging Holocaust survivors. Some European countries have made reparations available to victims of the Nazis living outside Europe, but these funds are usually one-time infusions, as opposed to sustainable, ongoing support.

“There isn’t going to be an opportunity to make this right if we do not act soon,” said Mann. “We will be left feeling the pain of not having helped when our help was needed,” he said.

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