Category Archive: Education

The Auschwitz museum has a Twitter account, and this ex-journalist runs it

Whether he’s engaging the misguided (he prefers not to) or tweeting historical facts, Pawel Sawicki sees his job as shielding the memory of the victims

sawicki-1-965x543OSWIECIM, Poland (JTA) — Long before he moved here to become the spokesman for the Auschwitz museum and lead its social media effort, Pawel Sawicki’s life was intricately connected to this sleepy town near Krakow.

A Warsaw-area radio journalist, Sawicki used to visit Oswiecim as a boy on holidays to stay with his grandparents and play with his cousins, who had moved to the town shortly after World War II.

When he was 10, Sawicki learned that Auschwitz was an epicenter of the Nazi genocide against the Jews — he gleaned the details from a book about the camp that he found in his grandparents’ home.

“Most people visiting Oswiecim, especially from outside of Poland, are shocked to discover there’s a town next to the former German Nazi camp, the memorial which they come to visit. For me it was somehow the other way around,” Sawicki said.

That realization, he said, sparked an interest that led him here a decade ago as a reporter — and it consumes him to this day.

This initial connection to the history of Auschwitz was the beginning of a “constant presence in my life that kept sending me to look for more information,” said Sawicki, 36, who began working at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in 2007. Sawicki has encyclopedic knowledge about Auschwitz, which he has shared in countless articles, guided tours, and several radio and video documentary productions.

But the advent of social media has highlighted another role fulfilled by his office: as “a shield protecting the memory of victims” against rampant abuse online, he said.

A case in point was Sawicki’s intervention last month on Twitter when he called out Kurt Schlichter, a columnist for the conservative news site Townhall, for writing that Jewish supporters of Barack Obama and John Kerry “would have made a fine helper at Auschwitz.”

After some deliberation, Sawicki decided to tweet Schlichter’s message on the Auschwitz memorial account, adding: “The tragedy of prisoners of Auschwitz and their complicated moral dilemmas which today we can hardly comprehend should not be instrumentalized.”

With 40,000 likes and retweets, it became the memorial’s most retweeted message ever, topping the one about Pope Francis’ visit in July and exposing Schlichter to withering criticism.

This reach and intense reaction demonstrate the reasons for Sawicki’s careful consideration on whether to intervene, he said.

“In some cases, such actions risk offering a platform to abuse, thereby amplifying it,” he said. “But exposing and correcting such behavior can have a positive effect that sometimes justifies this risk. But it’s always a fine balance.”

The overwhelming rejection by Twitter users shows that calling Schlichter on his words was the right move, said Sawicki, whose office once was the pharmacy of the SS troops serving in Auschwitz.

But he does not engage Holocaust mockers and deniers as a matter of policy.

Sawicki has also demanded corrections from journalists who apply the word “Polish” to death and concentration camps built by Nazi Germans on Polish soil; doing so is a felony in Poland. And the museum will seek apologies or corrections from those who note that the camps are in Poland without adding that they were built under Nazi occupation.

But much of the online activity of the museum is to highlight positive examples of online engagement with Auschwitz, in Polish, German, English and other languages. There are regular “this day in history” tweets, links to articles and comments from recent visitors (“Where was man?” asks one), and news articles referring to Auschwitz and Holocaust commemoration. Earlier this week there were photos of the camp under a blanket of snow with the message: “New year brought snow which changes the landscape of the historical site.”

On the ground, the museum’s task is to safeguard the buildings and environs and to gather, study and publish evidence on German atrocities. But online, “our main goal is to provide education on the scale of the crime and what made it possible,” Sawicki said.

The Nazis murdered more than 1.1 million Jews at Auschwitz as well as 70,000 non-Jewish Poles, 25,000 Roma, and some 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.

“Our social media policy is an extension of our guidelines as an institution, but it is developing week by week because we’ve never had such direct interaction with so many people,” Sawicki said. It’s both a chance to “educate people from all corners of the world, many of whom will never be able to visit the memorial.”

But abuse online is also a growing problem.

Amid a renewed wave of interest in the Holocaust in recent years in films, books and other media, as well as in visits to the museum — it registered a record of more than 2 million entries last year — the “instrumentalization,” trivialization and denial of the Holocaust has been growing as well, Sawicki said.

“It’s a daily, fast-changing challenge,” he said.

At the museum, Sawicki navigates the institution’s 470 acres with certainty, demonstrating an intimate knowledge of almost all aspects of life — and death — here. Unlike some visiting guides who resort to pathos or sanctimony, Sawicki, wearing a colorful scarf that his mother-in-law made for him, shares in an informal but precise manner illustrative facts and anecdotes that he has spent a decade collecting.

At the Death Wall, an execution site that is located in the yard adjacent to Block 11 in Auschwitz I, Sawicki dryly explains to a group of journalists that around the wall there was sand mixed with sawdust designed to drain blood.

“Some testimonies mentioned that an adult male bleeds about two liters [67 ounces] when shot, so on days with dozens of executions this place was quite literally soaked in blood,” he said.

Sawicki once interviewed a survivor who recalled laughing at the sight of a fellow prisoner wrestling free from under cadavers that had collapsed on him from a cart. SS guards also laughed. Such testimony illustrated to Sawicki the complexities of surviving at Auschwitz, “but also the amazing human personal strength” doing so required, he said.

While most of the hundreds of thousands of people who visit Oswiecim annually likely associate it with death and horror rather than a town with 900 years of history, for Sawicki it is also the place where he started a family after moving in 2007 with his wife, Agnieszka, whom he married while living here. His son, Wojtech, attends kindergarten near here.

For Sawicki, the town’s dark history is no impediment to loving it.

“It has always been a second home to me, and now it is even more so,” said Sawicki, who grew up in the quiet Warsaw suburb of Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki. “We have to accept these aspects of history in Poland and strive to make a better future.”

Agnieszka, however, has had a tougher time acclimating “because she’s a real city person, a Warsaw girl who needed some time to get used to the different pace,” Sawicki said.

The couple have told their son neither about the Holocaust nor about his father’s workplace except to say that it’s a museum.

“We don’t want to introduce it before he’s ready to take it in,” Sawicki said. “So we’re kind of waiting for him to ask the questions.”


‘Saved’ Yiddish propaganda film is haunting glimpse into lost world of pre-war Polish Jewry

1936 documentary ‘Mir Kumen On’ unintentionally portends the horrors that awaited its subjects

unnamedcrop-965x543NEW YORK — There are entire libraries of books that describe “the Old Country,” the Jewish communities in the cities and shtetls of Europe prior to the attempted Nazi genocide. There is far less of it on film, especially primary source documentaries. The percentage of what is easily available is about to shoot up, thanks to a new digital print of “Mir Kumen On (Children Must Laugh).”

This educational film from 1936 (or, to be fair, propaganda film, but more on that in a moment) is one of the precious few surviving movies evoking Jewish life in Poland prior to its poisoning from external, racist forces.

The newly patched-together, cleaned-up print is the work of France’s Lobster Films, Germany’s Deutsche Kinemathek, Poland’s Filmoteka Narodowa, the American film and home video distributor Kino Lorber and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Its first screening was at MoMA’s 14th annual “To Save and Project,” a festival of restored films. (Don’t think they are all such noble picks — the top bill was the ubiquitous horror flick “Night of the Living Dead,” now with a new coat of paint.)

A second screening of “Mir Kumen On” is scheduled for Sunday, November 20, at 1 p.m. (It is programmed with Herbert Kline’s notable “Lights Out in Europe,” an American documentary shot in London and Gdansk in the run-up to the war. Both films are about one hour long.)

But I was there for the first screening a few weeks ago and, let me tell you, even for 4 p.m. on a random Thursday, there was a considerable audience. You can’t keep New York’s Yiddish enthusiasts away from a newfound treasure.

“Mir Kumen On” has great historical, artistic and cultural value today, but at the time its principal purpose was to raise money. Most of the movie, which qualifies as documentary, but not “documentary-style” as we currently conceive of it, is filmed at the Vladimir Medem Sanatorium.

This was, firstly, a clinic in Miedzeszyn outside of Warsaw for children with or at-risk of contracting tuberculosis. It was also an arm of the General Jewish Labor Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia and, as such, its aims were in line with that group’s rhetoric.

Bundists were secular, Bundists were intellectuals, Bundists were not exactly Zionists. And Bundists were, at least from a distance, hard to distinguish from Communists. Moreover, if “Mir Kumen On,” the direct translation of which is “We Are Coming,” is any indication, like the Soviets, Bundists had the knack for producing effective movies.

Heavy on montage, close-ups on faces and eschewing any one protagonist, the one-hour film begins with scenes of children in the city, playful and spirited, but overwhelmed by poverty, pollution and illness. Many of these children board a train.

As a moviegoer I’m conditioned to get my guard up when Jewish kids in black and white films get in a train in Poland. Especially when they are headed to a camp. But when they get to the Sanatorium it is, literally, a breath of fresh air.

“The newcomers have arrived!” the other children shout, and an open paradise awaits for the kids brought in from the harsh metropolis. The veterans welcome the greenhorns, show them the ropes, lead them to the showers (another inadvertent morbid signifier) and soon all are singing leftist songs, engaging in optimistic classroom lessons, playing sports, planting crops and putting on performances. In 2016, eight weeks in the Berkshires like this would cost a fortune!

A central set-piece is a talent show, where an adorable girl no more than 11 years old does a comedy song-and-dance act and a boy earnestly reads Walt Whitman in Yiddish. Performance is a big part of the whole film.

Before meals there is a pantomime of the “camp radio news,” which is someone reading aloud with a mock announcer’s voice. A recurring story is of a nearby miners’ strike and, if “Mir Kumen On” could be said to have anything of a plot, it would be the children’s decision to share their good fortune in any small way they can with the picketers’ children.

“Camaraderie!” they shout time and again, and, sure, the movie lays it on a little thick, but if the idea is to get wealthy idealists to dig deep in their purses, mission accomplished.

Naturally, watching the film today is completely different. These teens and pre-teens documented 80 years ago, we know, are all doomed to looming history. The best we can hope for any of them is a terrifying escape to an adopted country or an eventual settlement in the Jewish homeland. An opening card on this new print says that many of the subjects shown in the film later took part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The director of “Mir Kumen On,” Aleksander Ford, had a tragic life of his own. Born Mosze Lifszyc in Kiev in 1908, he cut his teeth on these stagey documentaries in the 1930s and ended up as the head of the Polish People’s Army Film Crew with the Soviets during World War II.

Afterwards, he ran the national film school in Lodz, where he basically defined the Polish cinema. His pupils included two of the most important directors of the 20th century, Andrzej Wadja (who died just a few weeks ago at the age of 90) and Roman Polanski.

In 1968, when Poland’s Communist party had an anti-Semitic sea change, he emigrated to Israel, then later West Germany, Denmark and finally the United States.

He was never able to reassert himself in exile, though he did direct an Israeli-German co-production in 1975, a biopic of Janusz Korcak, the head of a Warsaw orphanage who died at Treblinka.

In 1980, in Florida, Ford died at his own hand.

While I normally tsk at people who talk during movies, I was lucky enough to end up near a group of Yiddish scholars who really knew their stuff. This completed print was something of a dream. “I’ve never seen this bit!” was excitedly murmured multiple times.

As one of the children sang a nursery rhyme, an older woman behind me whispered, “my mother used to sing that to me!”

There was also a little criticism at some of the Yiddish translation.

“That’s not what that really means!” a man fumphered.

“I know,” his friend sighed back, and even though I couldn’t see him I knew he was shrugging with a “whaddyagonnado” on his face. (Fact is you get the same with the subtitles at any movie, but with so few people speaking Yiddish, it feels a little extra important to get everything right.)

At one close-up of a counselor one of the gang behind me piped-up, “Oh, I think that’s Mrs. Kowarski.”

I don’t know if he knew her, or had read about her, or heard stories, or maybe was just telling a private joke. And I may even have the name wrong, as I was jotting notes of what was on the screen, not what the voices behind me were saying.

Naturally, when the movie ended they were gone and I couldn’t follow up. Maybe I imagined it. The whole afternoon felt a bit like a séance anyway.


Head of college Shoa education center retires

Harriet Sepinwall increased Holocaust awareness for decades

by Robert Wiener

sepinwallofficecom_600_400_90Thirty-six years after Harriet Sepinwall joined the faculty at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Convent Station, the Catholic school’s professor of Holocaust studies and cofounder and director of its Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education has retired.

She is being succeeded by Amy Weiss, a New Providence native, who holds a PhD in Jewish studies from New York University. A reception will be held in Sepinwall’s honor at CSE on Tuesday, Sept. 27.

Despite her retirement, Sepinwall said her abiding interest in the Shoa, which began when she was a five-year-old girl in East Harlem, will continue.

“It started when my mother received a phone call that a nephew in Czycew, Poland, Seymour Moncarz, had been located by an American soldier after World War II,” Sepinwall told NJ Jewish News in a Sept. 8 interview in a campus conference room.

Moncarz was young Harriet Lipman’s first contact with the Holocaust. “He was the nicest, most generous person you could imagine, but he never spoke about his experiences at all. My mother told him, ‘Seymour, the war is over. You are starting a whole new life. Forget about it.’ There was no opening for him to share his feelings.”

Years later, one of Moncarz children persuaded their father to tell his story for the first time to a video camera. He spoke on tape of his arrest by the Nazis and how because of his skills as a carpenter, he was assigned to a work camp, not a death camp.

“Seymour was the only surviving member of my mother’s family,” said Sepinwall. “He weighed about 65 pounds after surviving slave labor camps. He lived with us in East Harlem before moving out and getting a job as a carpenter. He married a fellow survivor and fathered four children.”

Growing up as the only Jewish child at PS 80, she had firsthand exposure to anti-Semitism. “When I was in sixth grade, one of my ‘friends’ said to me, ‘You’re not so bad for someone who is Jewish.’ I was also beaten up by other girls,” she said.

In spite of such adversities Sepinwall clung to her Jewish identity. In East Harlem her family attended a small Orthodox synagogue whose name she no longer remembers.

But after she graduated from junior high school there her family moved to the Bronx, where she attended William Howard Taft High School and joined a Conservative congregation called Adath Israel. She now belongs to Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell.

“I always wanted to be a teacher. Since I was five-and-a-half, I played school and I loved being the teacher,” she said. At City College of New York she majored in history and social studies. She received her doctorate in history from Rutgers University.

After stints as an instructor at Montclair High School, William Paterson College, Montclair State University, County College of Morris, and Kean University, in 1980 Sepinwall began teaching world culture studies and American culture studies at CSE. Part of her world cultures course included a unit on the Holocaust. “It was my way of teaching the influence of history in showing how people get along — or don’t,” she said.

That year she received a fellowship from Ramapo College to travel to Poland and Israel to study the Holocaust and Jewish resistance during World War II. “It was a life-changing experience,” she said.

Gradually, the administration began increasing Sepinwall’s involvement in Holocaust studies. She was assigned to organize a Week of Holocaust Remembrance at CSE; beginning in 1990 and held around the date of Kristallnacht in November, the week’s programming offers a roster of talks, films, discussions, testimonies, and classes.

At one point Sepinwall combined her class on world history with a theology class to discuss the Christian roots of anti-Semitism.

In 1998 she taught her first course dedicated completely to the Holocaust.

Since then, Saint Elizabeth’s has become one of the state’s institutions for training teachers of Holocaust studies. Despite Pope Pius XII’s controversial relations with the Hitler regime before and during World War II, Sepinwall said, her Catholic institution was fully supportive of her educational efforts.

“From the minute I arrived, I was encouraged to do my thing,” she said. “The Sisters of Charity, the order of Catholic nuns that operates Saint Elizabeth’s, has been extremely supportive in ways I cannot begin to describe.”

Despite retirement, Sepinwall said, she is “still available to the college” and plans to return for the Week of Remembrance this November.

Beyond that, she intends to stay at home in Pine Brook “to have some time to think and just be. I love jazz and the theater and reading, and I’m going to get up in the morning, go for a walk, and go to the library,” she said.

She also plans to spend more time with her husband, Jeffrey Rosenberg, and their two daughters, one son, and five grandchildren.

During her years of scholarship, Sepinwall has received numerous honors, including the Saint Elizabeth’s Caritas Award, the Sister Rose Thering Award presented by the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, and the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education Community Service Award.

“She will always be a valued member of the CSE community,” wrote college president Helen Streubert in an e-mail to NJJN. “Her devotion to study and sharing knowledge of the Holocaust and genocides has led to increased awareness among our students, faculty, and the community.”

As she reflected on her career, Sepinwall told NJJN, “In all of my years working and teaching about the Holocaust, this work has strengthened me and made me more optimistic and positive. I think about the Holocaust all the time and how I can best convey the meaning of the Holocaust to honor those people who perished and those who survived but suffered so greatly and teach this to my students and teachers.

“It became all-consuming for me and my life. I was very fortunate.”


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.


Michigan high schools required to teach Holocaust, genocide

(JTA) — Michigan public schools must teach about genocide, including the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide, under a new law.

The legislation, which was signed into law on Tuesday by the state’s governor, Rick Snyder, calls for six hours of instruction about genocide between eighth and 12th grade. It specifically mentions the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide, which began in 1915, but other mass killings must be taught, according to The Associated Press.

“Teaching the students of Michigan about genocide is important because we should remember and learn about these terrible events in our past while continuing to work toward creating a more tolerant society,” Snyder said in a statement following the signing.

“There are, unfortunately, other instances, of atrocities that would be beneficial for students to learn about regardless of whether they meet a certain definition. When and how to teach students about these events would be best left to the educational experts trained to do so.”

Michigan had not mandated Holocaust or genocide education, Michigan Department of Education spokesman Bill DiSessa told the AP, but added that high school students in the state do learn about the Holocaust.


Anne Frank story to be told in street theater across Amsterdam

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (JTA) — A Dutch Jewish broadcaster is co-organizing the launch of an annual Holocaust commemoration event featuring theater shows about Anne Frank and other victims at their former homes.
A blueprint of the event by the Joodse Omroep Jewish broadcaster, or JO, and its Christian partner, the Evangelische Omroep, or EO, was leaked last week to the Dutch blog
The initiative, titled “National Remembrance Walk,” is set to debut next year, the 75th anniversary of the murder of the Dutch Jewish diarist Anne Frank at a German concentration camp, with an event called “Anne Frank: One face out of millions.”
According to the blueprint, the event will launch on May 4, the Netherlands’ official day for Remembrance of the Dead, at several locales connected to Anne’s life. The concept has participants walking in a silent procession from one location to another in Amsterdam, the Dutch capital.
But the plan is in an early phase and “may change before the actual date,” said Alfred Edelstein, JO’s director. “We still need to look at the various elements.”
The project aims to produce “an integrated account of a victim and their personal story in a way which places the lessons of the past at the center of the present,” according to the leaked document, which also describes the initiative as a way to combat persistent anti-Semitic attitudes and indifference and ignorance of the Holocaust among young Dutch people.
According to the document, National Remembrance Walks from 2016 onward will focus on other Holocaust victims from elsewhere in the Netherlands, which lost 75 percent of its Jewish population of 140,000 in the Holocaust, the highest death rate in Nazi-occupied Western Europe.
The concept, which was drawn up with assistance from the communications firm Eye2Eye Media, has Dutch actress Carice van Houten of the hit series “Game of Thrones” portraying Miep Gies, a resistance fighter who tried to save Anne Frank and her family during their two years in hiding from the Nazis before their capture in 1944. The cast will include additional Dutch actors and celebrities, and the walks will feature public singing of songs from World War II, the concept said.
But in a statement on Twitter, van Houten wrote that she had been unaware of the plan before it was leaked.

Considering future, Claims Conference weighs shutting down vs. Holocaust education


NEW YORK (JTA) — A special panel tasked with examining the governance and strategic vision of the Claims Conference is recommending that the organization shift its long-term focus to Holocaust education and remembrance, JTA has learned.
The panel was appointed last year following a scandal involving the Claims Conference’s failure to detect a $57 million fraud scheme there that persisted until 2009. It also recommended cutting in half the size of the board’s executive committee and the number of special board committees.
The special panel did not, however, recommend any changes to the composition of the Claims Conference’s board, which critics have complained is unrepresentative because it does not include enough Israeli or survivor groups and includes too many once-robust Jewish organizations that are quite small today.
The new recommendations, outlined in two hefty documents sent to Claims Conference board members last week and this week and obtained by JTA, will go to a vote when the board holds its annual meeting in New York on July 8.
Consisting of board members and outside experts and guided by Accenture consultants, the special panel was charged with reviewing the administration, management and governance structure of the Claims Conference, which obtains Holocaust restitution and compensation from Germany and Austria. The central question the panel examined was what the Claims Conference should do after the last of the survivors dies.

Read more:

Where Did Yiddish Come From?

An explosive debate erupts from footnotes suggesting that Ashkenazi Jews are Europeans

This is the first of two articles on the origins of the Yiddish language. This week, the late historian Cherie Woodworth provides an outstanding explication of the origins and historical stakes of the split that is roiling modern Yiddish scholarship. Next week, staff writer Batya Ungar-Sargon profiles the academic personalities and their battles in the field of linguistics.


There are several hundred thousand Yiddish speakers today, perhaps even half a million, but the shtetls of Ukraine and Lithuania, where Yiddish was woven into the fabric of everyday life, have faded into dust. Yiddish was born in about the 10th century and thus rounded out an even millennium before being pulled under by the tide of history. If you want to know not just what Yiddish is but where it came from, how it managed to survive and even to flourish, you can do no better than the new edition of Max Weinreich’s History of the Yiddish Language—but be sure to read the footnotes. They extend for over 750 pages, are now published in English for the first time in the new Yale edition, and contain the most interesting, and controversial, part of what had seemed till now a fairly straightforward and unchallenged historical narrative.

Weinreich’s original text and notes were published in 1973, four years after his death. A partial translation into English—without the notes—was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1980. Yale’s new edition thus finally makes available for the first time the greater part of Weinreich’s work—the notes are longer than the text—thoroughly edited by Paul Glasser. The notes cite research in two dozen languages and took more than a decade to edit and check even after they were translated. These notes are not just the usual formal apparatus, reassuring to any scholarly reader: They are essential to understanding Weinreich’s many-stranded argument about the relationship between culture and language. They also provide a subtle counter-argument to his lifelong thesis. Weinreich was a careful, fair, and judicious scholar, and it was in the notes to his monumental work that he gave place to the vexing confusion of counter-evidence to his main, and beloved, story of Yiddish origins and, by implication, the origins of millions of East European Jews and their descendants in America.