Category Archive: History

In Trump’s push for ‘America First,’ troubling echoes of anti-Semitic chapter

The president’s rallying cry recalls the 1940s America First Committee, which saw known bigots such as Charles Lindbergh blame the Jews for US involvement in WWII

America-FirstBOSTON — Donald Trump stood on the red and blue draped steps of the US Capitol to give his inauguration address as the 45th President of the United States and declared, “From this day forward it’s going to be only America first.” He then paused and repeated with deliberation those last two words: “America First.”

Cheers rippled through the crowd below.

But the pithy slogan Trump has embraced to define his new foreign policy also served as the rallying cry in what is now considered a dark chapter in American history, when an isolationist movement of the same name blamed American Jews for conspiring to pressure the government to join World War II against the interests of America.

“The concept of standing up for American rights is a legitimate concept, but the words themselves have historical relevance because of what happened in the 1930s and 1940s,” said Kenneth Jacobson, the deputy national director of the Anti-defamation League. Jacobson has been with the ADL for 45 years and serves as something of its resident historian.

“The new president has every right to consider the direction of American policy but it’s better not to use this phrase,” said Jacobson. “Unfortunately, the emotional connections are there.”

The ADL went on record last spring when Trump first brought up the term to remind Americans, most of whom have no living memory of the term or movement, why there is a visceral reaction against it.

The isolationism embraced by some Americans following World War I that helped birth the America First Committee was not unique in American history. Opposition to American involvement in overseas conflict dates to the colonial era and continues to the present day.

Founded by a group of Yale University students in the fall of 1940, the America First Committee arose as the country was steeped in intense dispute over whether to join the British in fighting Nazi Germany. By then Germany had already rolled its way over Poland and into Western Europe including France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and persecution of the Jews had begun with some already being arrested and shipped to concentration camps.

At the time the movement arose, it tapped into the unhappiness many Americans felt about the United States’ entry into World War I.

Professor James Kloppenberg, a professor of American history at Harvard University an author of the recent “Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought,” said that with this discontent came, “a great deal of animosity towards those who were considered to have been war profiteers. And as has been true since the Middle Ages, Jews became targets for their associations with banking and loans.”

What began as an anti-war profiteering movement, he said, “morphed into alliances that were pretty ugly between the Nazi movement and anti-war sentiment.”

Meanwhile, the America First Committee gained in membership and popularity, especially in the Midwest.

As Susan Dunn, a professor of humanities at Williams College and author of “1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler — The Election Amid the Storm” noted in an essay published by CNN, among America First’s executive committee members were initially two powerful men and known anti-Semites — Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, and Avery Brundage.

Ford was responsible for printing and distributing half a million copies of the anti-Semitic propaganda text “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

As chairman of the US Olympic Committee, Brundage prevented two Jews on the 1936 US Olympic team from running in the finals of the 400-meter relay race in Berlin.

Brundage and Ford were later removed from the committee as the movement tried to distance itself from charges of anti-Semitism.

But cementing America First Committee’s anti-Semitic association for the ages was Charles Lindbergh, a member of the executive committee who was prized as the dashing American pilot-turned-national hero, celebrated for making the first solo Transatlantic flight.

Lindbergh had become enamored with Nazi Germany during visits in the late 1930s, even briefly planning to move there. He lobbied the US government to remain neutral, arguing that Germany’s victory in Europe was inevitable.

On September 11, 1941, he made a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, that revealed the extent of his anti-Semitism.

“The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration,” he said. Lindbergh continued that “Instead of agitating for war, Jews in this country should be opposing it in every way, for they will be the first to feel its consequences. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”

His comments were widely condemned. Just three months later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the debate over whether or not to enter the war was over.

Laurel Leff, a professor with a joint appointment in Journalism and Jewish Studies at Northeastern University has written about this period in her book, “Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper.”

“To embrace this movement,” she said of Trump’s embrace of the America First slogan, “is either ahistorical or, more frighteningly, is picking up on anti-Semitic sentiment.”

Whether intentional or not, the new president’s continued use of this slogan — and what it represents — remains to be seen.

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Trump’s Holocaust day statement fails to mention Jews or anti-Semitism

President vows to ensure ‘the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good’; ADL chief calls absence of specific Jewish reference ‘puzzling and troubling’

AP_17026679667080-e1485542961947WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump issued a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day Friday in which he vowed to combat the forces of evil, and called to “make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world,” but failed to mention Jews or anti-Semitism.

The absence of any specific mention of Jews or anti-Semitism was highlighted and criticized by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

“It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust,” the president said. “It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.”

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt promptly took to Twitter to exclaim it was “puzzling and troubling” that the 117-word statement did not specifically cite the persecution of the Jewish people that was central, though not exclusive, to the Nazi genocide.

Trump’s statement, Greenblatt said, “misses that it was six million Jews who perished, not just ‘innocent people.’”

In his statement, Trump vowed to use the power of the presidency to safeguard the world from allowing an atrocity such as the Holocaust to repeat itself.

“In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good,” Trump said. “Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.”

It is not the first time an international leader has failed to mention Jews while honoring the memory of those murdered by Adolf Hitler’s regime.

Last year, Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau caused a similar reaction when he issued a statement that lacked any reference to Jews or anti-Semitism.

This year, Trudeau avoided making that a tradition. “Today, on the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we remember the more than six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust and the countless other victims of Nazi brutality,” he said.

Trudeau further pledged to use the day of remembrance to “reaffirm our commitment to stand against anti-Semitism, xenophobia and prejudice in all its forms.”

Trump was among several world leaders who devoted statements in memory of Holocaust victims on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which in 2005 the United Nations set for Jan. 27 — the day in 1945 that the Red Army liberated the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. More than 1 million Jews out of the 6 million murdered in the Holocaust were killed there.

“Tragically, and contrary to our resolve, anti-Semitism continues to thrive,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement made Thursday in New York that was read out the following day at UN headquarters in Geneva. “We are also seeing a deeply troubling rise in extremism, xenophobia, racism and anti-Muslim hatred. Irrationality and intolerance are back.”

In Germany, outgoing Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is to become president this year, noted during a speech the political instability in the world today.

“History should be a lesson, warning and incentive all at the same time,” he said. “There can and should be no end to remembrance.”

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Nazi death camp heroine known as the ‘mother of Belsen’ gave orphans hope after her own family were murdered

After her own relatives died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Hadassah Bimko could have easily given up hope, yet she found the strength to love and care again

PROD-Hadassah-Bimko-Captain-Winterbottom-and-Dr-Ruth-GutmanShe had been a daughter, a wife and an adoring mum – but by the time Hadassah Bimko arrived at the death camp of Bergen Belsen, every one of those roles had been ripped away.

The 33-year-old lost her parents, husband and five-year-old son, Benjamin, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Most people would have lost all hope too.

But Hadassah clung on to the love she could no longer give her own son and decided to become a mother again – to all the children who had lost their parents.

She risked her life to create a children’s home for Belsen’s orphans. One of them was the then 14-year-old Mala Tribich and speaking ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day today, she says Hadassah saved her.

“She was the mother of Belsen,” says Mala. “But I never knew she lost a child of her own. I owe my life to her, we’d not have survived without her care. Me and my cousin Ann, who was seven, arrived at Belsen alone. We had lost our parents and I had been caring for Ann for two years.

“I knew at Belsen there was no way we would survive, then I heard about this lady.

“It was terribly overcrowded but I remember her saying, ‘I am sure we can manage these two little Jewish girls’.”

Hadassah passed away in 1997 but with tears in her eyes Mala, now 85, is telling her story as she meets Menachem Rosensaft – a man she views as a brother in many ways, because he is Hadassah’s son.

Although she was grieving for the child she had lost, she found the strength to love again in Belsen. In the Displaced Persons Camp created after its liberation by the British Army, she met Josef Rosensaft, a survivor who had lost his wife.

They married and she had Menachem in the camp, where she kept on working, in 1948. “For my parents, me being born was a new beginning,” he says, sitting close to Mala. “It was a spark of life.”

Reaching out to her, he adds: “Meeting Mala means so much. These children my mother helped are my brothers and sisters. She never spoke very much of that time.

“But I’m certain, because she’d been unable to protect her own child, she felt the needed to do that for others and always considered them as her own children.”

Hadassah, also known as Ada, and her family were from Sosnowiec, Poland, where she was a dentist. The Nazis deported them to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1943.

Menachem says: “Upon her arrival, she was separated from her parents, her husband and her son, who were all sent directly into one of the gas chambers.”

Hadassah spoke of that terrible final moment with her son in her memoirs – Yesterday, My Story. She wrote: “One SS man started the selection. With a movement of his finger, he was sending some to the right and some to the left. Our son went with his father. He asked, ‘Mummy, are we going to live or die?’. I didn’t answer.”

Menachem recalls his mother’s devastation, saying: “As the Germans intended, she felt disoriented, humiliated and deprived of her sense of self.”

She could have given up then – but she was given a purpose. Due to her medical training the notorious Josef Mengele, Birkenau’s chief medical officer, chose her to work as a doctor. The camp’s infirmary simply patched up weak and injured inmates for more labour. But Hadassah used the opportunity for good.

“She would camouflage inmates’ wounds and send them out when she knew gas chamber selections were expected, so they’d avoid them,” says Menachem.

In November 1944, Mengele sent Hadassah to work at Belsen. There, she found the Nazis cared much less – but she realised she could use the desperate conditions to her advantage.

“In December, she and some other women found 49 Dutch children outside their barracks,” Menachem explains. “The parents had been taken away. So she took them in. One SS doctor said, ‘What is this?’ but my mum said, ‘We are taking care of them’. He just walked away.

“By February, they had 150 – and 149 survived until the liberation. This children’s house became a project.”

Among the children were Mala and her young cousin, Ann Helfgott. Mala and her family, who were Jews from Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland, had been herded into a Nazi ghetto.

Her mother and sister were murdered in an SS round-up while her father was at work. Mala survived because her mother pleaded with the guard that she was ill. But her reprieve did not last long.

The guards returned and rounded up Mala, her father and brother, and Ann. They were deported to a labour camp and then to Ravensbruck concentration camp.

She never saw her father again – he was shot on a death march. Thankfully, her brother survived but she did not find out until after the war. For now, the young, scared girls were alone.

When they were sent to Bergen-Belsen in February 1945, they were close to death. On hearing of “Dr Bimko’s” children’s home, Mala took Ann there in desperation.

“At 14, I knew I was probably too old,” she admits. “The barracks were overcrowded but she made it happen. I’ll never forget her. She gave us a feeling of security, as much as you could have in that place.”

When the British liberated the camp, Hadassah stayed on and testified in the first Nazi war crimes trial. Mala married and had two children, settling in Sweden then the UK. Ann emigrated to Australia.

Hadassah and her new family eventually moved to New York, where she rarely spoke of those times or the family she had lost.

But Menachem says she did talk about her “other children” in Belsen. “She spoke about singing to them and getting food and medicine for them,” he recalls.

In 1981, at a Holocaust memorial, Mala was finally able to see her again briefly. But she says only now, through Menachem, can she express the real weight of her thanks.

After all, they share an unbreakable bond. “Because in that camp she was my mother, too,” she smiles.

For more information about the Holocaust Educational Trust visit www.het.org.uk

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Researchers uncover vast numbers of unknown Nazi killing fields

The ‘Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos,’ set for completion in 2025, has now documented 42,500 sites of Nazi persecution — over eight times more than predicted. And the number keeps on rising

Lohhof-Abb.-1-e1485348225643-965x543MUNICH — In 2000, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, tasked researchers with creating a comprehensive, single-source record that would accurately document the thousands of persecution sites the Nazis had established. The USHMM estimated that the team would uncover about 5,000 persecution sites, which would include forced labor camps, military brothels, ghettos, POW camps, and concentration camps.

But as the research got underway that number skyrocketed.

In 2001, the number had doubled. A few years after that, researchers had already discovered 20,000 sites. Now, the “Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945” contains more than 42,500 sites that the Nazis used to persecute, exploit, and murder their victims.

“But quite frankly, you could put it much higher than that,” said Geoffrey Megargee, the project leader, who has coordinated the publication of the first two books of the seven-book series. The final encyclopedia book will be published in 2025.

“You could not turn a corner in Germany [during the war]… without finding someone there against their will,” said Megargee, speaking ahead of Friday’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

For Megargee, counting the sites was one of the main challenges of the project. For example, there were camps that changed purposes over time and brothels that existed within camps. To err on the side of caution, sites like these were counted only once. Researchers also refrained from counting sub-camps, of which there were tens of thousands.

For researchers to conclude that a site had existed, they could not just rely on one person’s testimony. It was imperative that multiple witness testimonies and official documents corroborated each other in order for a site to make the series.

Because a gap of more than half a century existed between when the last camp was liberated and when the project began, one can only imagine how many sites will remain forever unrecorded. Not only were records and testimonies destroyed or lost during and after the war, they were also in a myriad of languages, or hidden by embarrassed, indifferent or unapologetic parties. Some were taken to graves by witnesses and victims who had died before the new millennium.

Still, the number of persecution sites discovered was more than eight times that which experts at the USHMM — the vanguard for Holocaust research — had predicted.

Perhaps, however, it was only possible to reach this shocking figure precisely because of the passage of time — for time brought to the project an element that nobody had foretold.

Skeletons in the closet

When Hermann F. Weiss decided to dig into his family’s past in 2001, his siblings had disapproved. His brother told him that there was already enough written about the Holocaust. Weiss disagreed.

“My family was anxious,” Weiss admitted. “They were afraid I would discover things about my father that were terrible.”

His father, whom Weiss describes as an “accomplice,” was an engineer overseeing the construction of infrastructure for Schmidding, a German missile development company. Weiss needed answers. His father’s role during the war had haunted him.

Weiss had even moved to the United States partly as a way to escape this familial and national burden, but the weight crossed the Atlantic with him. He felt depressed and ashamed. The only thing that Weiss saw as a reasonable response was “to give voice to the many unknown [victims].”

He focused his research on Silesia, a region that spans parts of Poland, Germany, and what is today the Czech Republic. Silesia was where his father had worked for Schmidding and it was where, in 1944, Weiss had spent the seven happiest months of his childhood because “there was no bombing.”

But investigating the atrocities in Silesia seemed to have no starting point. “Most historians do not touch [these sites],” he said, “because there are too few war-time documents.”

After pouring through this limited number of documents and survivor memoirs, Weiss frequently turned to a practice despised by those forced to use it: cold calling. For example, he had read a memoir about a forced labor camp in Silesia that accused a commander named Kurt Pompe of barbaric acts. Weiss had learned that the first name of Pompe’s youngest son was Herbert. He found six Herbert Pompes in the German online phone directory, and his second call was answered by Kurt Pompe’s daughter-in-law.

The conversation revealed a number of things, including where and when Kurt Pompe had died. This fact allowed Weiss to uncover Pompe’s denazification file, which showed that the Americans had been unaware of Pompe’s crimes. Weiss set the record straight in a Yad Vashem publication, and, in much briefer terms, in encyclopedia entries for camps where Pompe had committed his crimes.

“The encyclopedia entries have to be very condensed,” Weiss explained, a hint of regret in his voice.

Weiss’s research helped him to produce about two dozen entries on forced labor camps in Silesia for the encyclopedia series. Prior to his digging, most sites had little information published about them. Six sites, in fact, had never been written about before and were Weiss’s very own discoveries.

And yet some of Weiss’s most indelible memories from his research have no place in the encyclopedia.

For instance, on a trip to Silesia, Hermann Weiss discovered one undocumented persecution site that appeared as it would have days after the arrival of Soviet troops. Villager testimonies allowed Weiss to locate six unmarked graves, where three Poles and three Jews who had been murdered were buried. Four of the six mounds were still visible. There was no space in the encyclopedia to tell these stories. But like the specter of his father’s work, it was these stories that gnawed at him.

“The seeming insignificance of it,” Weiss explained, “was so significant.”

Dining with a murderer

Katherina von Kellenbach had grown up referring to Alfred Ebner as her uncle. Yet when the family got together with Ebner after World War II, his presence at the table never sat quite right with von Kellenbach.

Ebner had been responsible for setting up, running, and orchestrating the mass killings of more than 20,000 Jews in Pinsk, where 86% of ghetto residents were women and children. After the war, when the courts pursued top Nazis, Ebner was granted clemency, having been diagnosed with a form of dementia.

But at the family table, he seemed perfectly fine to von Kellenbach. In fact, the other family members had viewed Ebner as the victim. They considered that it was Ebner who had suffered because of these so-called unfounded accusations.

If the courts would not hold Ebner accountable and if Belarus had no public memory of these atrocities, von Kellenbach decided that she would investigate.

In 1999, she began her inquiry into her uncle’s past, visiting the Yad Vashem archive to gather data on Pinsk. But many documents were in Hebrew or other languages foreign to her. She needed help making sense of things. When she learned of a survivor from Pinsk who could be of assistance, she hesitated.

“It was hard to call up some survivor and say ‘I’m the niece of Alfred Ebner,’” she said. But that’s just what she did, and for two days she and survivor Nahum Boneh sat at his kitchen table with all of the documents, unpacking Ebner’s crimes.

For years, von Kellenbach worked to rescue documents trapped in other countries’ archives and at times had to run a cloak-and-dagger research operation. Since authorities would never have allowed her to conduct an unfettered investigation on a well-known perpetrator from the Pinsk region, she pretended to research partisans stationed in the vicinity of Pinsk. This gave her access.

Her family cast a hostile eye on her work. But the research whittled at the lies, and Ebner’s credibility in the family weakened. For the most part, everyone stopped protesting her efforts, though Ebner’s children continued to view their father “as a good man, who helped many people,” said von Kellenbach.

During one session with the documents, von Kellenbach had discovered writings in which a police officer under her uncle’s command complained about not knowing whether he should kill the child before the mother, or vice versa. On the day in question, Ebner had orchestrated the murders of more than 7,000 people.

“There’s no way you walk out [from the archive] at 5:00 p.m. as a human being,” von Kellenbach said after reading those documents.

Time is on our side

The researchers are far more diverse than the relatives of perpetrators and accomplices. While the project has many dyed-in-the-wool historians on board, there are researchers who survived one or more of the 42,500 sites, as well as the descendants of survivors.

Hannah Fischthal, for example, researched sites where her uncles had been imprisoned. Her work has helped to debunk inaccuracies. Karwin is a camp where her uncle had been imprisoned. It had always been considered a POW camp because of how it was characterized in a documentary film about an Italian prisoner. But Fischthal proved that Karwin was, in fact, a predominantly Jewish camp. The record was corrected and the Jewish victims were recently honored with a plaque at the site.

Some researchers are finding camps in the way paleontologists might dig up dinosaurs. Now that the technology is available, forensic archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls has conducted ground-penetrating radar research near Adampol, where she has uncovered buried evidence that corroborated witness testimony and yielded new finds.

Martin Dean, who worked as the series editor on the encyclopedia before leaving the museum and the project at the end of 2016, had originally been employed as a war crimes investigator with Scotland Yard. Dean had spent years building cases against perpetrators, but most yielded inadequate results — some former Nazis were excused because of poor health, others died before being brought to trial.

While Dean’s expertise as an investigator was restricted by the courts, his acquired knowledge helped to correct the record for numerous previously unknown persecution sites, including some of the 300 ghettos that had never been documented before this project.

Bunker buster

About 14 kilometers (eight miles) north of Munich, is the town of Unterschleissheim. The entire area was once a persecution site, and researcher Max Strnand helped to document the Lohhof flax-retting plant, the camp that had once occupied these grounds.

Besides the camp, Strnand explained, there was hardly anything in Unterschleissheim during the war. The location then only had a train line, a warehouse, and a tower, all of which still exist today: the train station is just down the road from where the warehouse and tower — now swathed in modern day advertisements — sit inside a locked compound.

Because the land had been empty, the Nazis brought Jewish slaves and POWs to the fields to lay and dry out flax. The fibers from the stalk were then brought to the warehouse, where they would be stored as raw materials for linens.

Before Strnand, there was no single source that told the story of the camp in Unterschleissheim and facts were scattered about like confetti after a hurricane. But Strnand patiently unearthed an entire history, including information about the prisoners, of which there were typically 200 at any one time.

“We don’t know if people were executed here, but there were many accidents,” Strnand said. He noted, however, that only 10% of Jewish prisoners who came through Unterschleissheim survived the war, as the Jews from this camp were usually sent directly to extermination camps like Treblinka or Sobibor.

“This topic is something that concerns everyone who lives here,” Strnand said, who now sees his book about Lohhof implemented into local schools’ history lessons. Prior to his book’s publication, most people in town had never known that a camp had existed.

According to the city’s Head of Culture, Daniela Benker, there are plans to build a memorial site by 2018. But since the structures belonging to the former camp are behind a gate on private land, the aim is to build a memorial elsewhere — perhaps at the train station down the road — where it can be visible to the public.

While Strnand walked the site, a truck approached the compound and the gate opened. He followed the truck inside and found a hulking electrician ending his day. Strnand introduced himself and asked permission to walk the grounds. The electrician pulled out a key that accessed a supply shed, a former Nazi bunker.

The bunker looked like a typical storage shed; however, the reinforced roof that once provided additional safety against a bombing was still visible. What was most shocking was Strnand’s surprise. The researcher, who knew more about the camp than anyone else, was seeing the insides of this building for the very first time. Even the experts were still uncovering new facts about the hidden stories of the Holocaust.

The work is never done

The truth is much will remain unknown about the victims or the places that the Nazis used to dehumanize people and commit murder. But the encyclopedia series is the largest effort to most thoroughly document as many sites and include as much testimony as possible. When it is completed in 2025, many of the project’s researchers will still continue their work.

After Hermann Weiss finished correcting the record on Kurt Pompe, the Nazi from Silesia, he looked into the records of other criminals never brought to justice. Weiss came across hundreds of testimonies about a man named Hauschild, one of the most sadistic perpetrators in the Silesia region. Despite the accounts and accusations against Hauschild, the man remains Weiss’s greatest puzzle. Weiss cannot connect him to any particular Nazi organization and thus cannot condemn the man or his record accurately.

“I keep collecting. I keep looking,” Weiss said. “This is an example of how so many things about the Holocaust might be unknown forever… [The encyclopedia] will provide some basis for further work.”

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How Auschwitz Can Be Both a Memorial and a Center for Education

20-1485285708How should we define the authentic remains of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, which today are protected and preserved by the Auschwitz Memorial?

Should we define it as:

  • 150 buildings, about 300 ruins, including those of five gas chambers and four crematoria in Birkenau that are especially important to the history of the camp.
  • Over 13 kilometres of fences, and more than three thousand concrete fence posts.
  • About 110,000 shoes and 3,800 suitcases of victims, 2,100 of which bear the names of their owners.
  • About 39,000 negatives of registration photographs of prisoners, 48 volumes with about 70,000 of their death certificates, 248 volumes of Zentralbauleitung documents, and 13,000 letters and cards mailed from the camp by prisoners.

This is just the beginning of the list which summarizes the extent and the challenge of our Museum.

There is also another priceless part of our authentic collection: the archives, with over 30,000 pages of testimonies of survivors and eyewitnesses as well as over 45,000 pages of their memoirs. These are individual stories of people who survived, stories which can help us today to comprehend the existing architecture of the former camp through personal experiences, emotions and dilemmas.

I agree with the words of Menachem Rosensaft quoted by Tom Tillett that “as much as any other event, if not more so, the Holocaust requires the chronicler to be scrupulously accurate.” Yet Tillet is not accurate in saying that “the large building where most prisoners first entered Auschwitz I and went through processing is lost due to its contemporary usage,” since, in fact, this building was never actually completed during the war.

Historical Decisions

This year the Auschwitz Memorial will be 70 years old. It was created thanks to the efforts of survivors in July 1947 and in many ways, the way we operate today is based on their decisions. One such decision was to organize and house exhibitions, archives, collections and the whole management of the institution of memory in the much better constructed buildings of Auschwitz I, and to leave Birkenau in as authentic a condition as possible.

Another key decision made by survivors was to create replicas of a few structures in Auschwitz I that Germans had destroyed: They reconstructed the execution wall and one of the gallows, and used original parts to reconstruct two crematoria ovens inside the building that had housed both the original crematorium and the original gas chamber. They wanted to allow people to enter the only standing building of a former gas chamber, as all the other gas chambers and crematories in Birkenau were ruins, and those ruins were kept as such.

Almost all visitors see both parts of the Memorial. They see exhibitions and learn many historical facts about the creation and functioning of the Auschwitz complex — including Birkenau. After this educational introduction, they have the unique opportunity to better understand what they learned by looking at the remains of Birkenau itself.

We are aware that the main exhibition was created by survivors in 1955. This is why one of the most important current projects of the Memorial is creating a new exhibition, which will not only tell the story of extermination and concentration camps from the perspective of victims but will also show the world of perpetrators and the place of Auschwitz among Nazi German state institutions. The three parts of the new exhibition should be open in 2021, 2023 and 2025, respectively.

Current Challenges

We also are aware that the Memorial’s infrastructure, which was originally set up decades ago to serve up to 500,000 people annually, is not equipped for the volume of visitors we receive today (in 2016, for instance, we received over two million visitors.) We understand that people who visit and spend long hours at the Memorial need some basic accommodations, such as a bookstore, restrooms, and even a small vending area. This is why we have already started the project of creating a completely new visitors center — importantly, outside the core historical area.

We are aware that tourists visit the Memorial, but from our perspective the Auschwitz Memorial is not a tourist attraction. First and foremost, it is a place where we commemorate the fate and life stories of the 1.3 million people deported there: 1.1 million Jews, 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Sinti and Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and others. The visitors are told at the beginning of every guided tour that they are about to enter a cemetery-like site, and they should behave appropriately. Most people respect that.

The Memorial is also an important center of preservation. Our modern laboratories and conservation experts fight against time to save every single authentic remaining object— a toothbrush, a house key, a fragment of eyeglasses, a family photograph, an SS document, or the ruins of a gas chamber or a wooden barracks for prisoners (Tillett is again mistaken about the wooden barracks in Birkenau — they were not rebuilt, they are original.)

It’s also important to note that no other former German Nazi concentration camp or extermination center sites in Europe is in such authentic condition today, nor have any been so successfully preserved. The management at the Memorial can be so effective in our preservation efforts because of international consensus granted to us by the International Auschwitz Council, a consultative-advisory organ of the Polish Prime Minister’s office dedicated to preserving, maintaining and developing the site of Auschwitz and other Memorials located in today’s Poland. Its members include world-renowned authorities on the history of concentration camps and the Holocaust.

Education

The Auschwitz Memorial is also a place of education, with learning activities developed at the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, which was created in 2005. Last year, we finally secured funding that will allow us to create a modern headquarters for the center, with lecture rooms and all necessary infrastructure to conduct more extensive education programs for people from around the world.

362 days a year, our 286 educators explain the difficult and sensitive history of Auschwitz and its victims in 17 languages. They help visitors coming from all around the world to understand this complicated topic using all the authentic objects and locations at hand. They walk through the historical sites, they use exhibitions, and, as a result, they keep the authentic stories of survivors alive by telling them to people.

Many visitors come to the Memorial prepared. Teachers and educational leaders understand the role of bringing their students to the historic site not only as a lesson of history but also one of civic education — as Auschwitz has been and will continue be a warning to humanity. But we also truly believe that many people who begin their visit as tourists later became messengers of remembrance, and that this happens thanks to experiencing the authenticity of the site as guided by educators. Visiting the former camp itself is a valuable personal experience which can teach and change people. The fact that visitors might initially attend the site as tourists does not change that.

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Can Auschwitz Be a Graveyard and a Tourist Destination?

krematorium-1-has-been-rebuilt-1484847651Menachem Rosensaft once wrote that “as much as any other event, if not more so, the Holocaust requires the chronicler to be scrupulously accurate.” He further notes that “the greater the popularity of this subject, the greater the need for vigilance regarding the treatment it is accorded.” As we approach International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we need to be vigilant.

Since my most recent visit to Auschwitz, in 2015, I have been particularly concerned that while its museum often uses the term “authentic experience,” visitors are exposed to a variety of nonauthentic experiences. To provide just a few examples, the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the main gate is a reproduction; the Auschwitz I footprint actually extended into the current main parking lot and beyond; the gas chamber/crematorium (Krema I) usually shown at the end of the tour is a reproduction, and in Auschwitz II–Birkenau, the line of barracks (Section BIIA) upon entering to your right have been entirely rebuilt. To be fair, the guides will acknowledge this if asked, but the pressure of mass tourism means that they are rarely asked.

I have the utmost respect for the staff at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. They have an extraordinarily difficult job where literally every decision or official comment can quickly become controversial, yet they accept the challenge with grace, commitment and passion. The staff must navigate Polish politics, a huge increase in visitors severely straining the infrastructure and financial issues, and they must reconcile various stake-holder groups, each of whom have legitimate, though often conflicting, agendas.

But these convenient educational props can undermine their central aim if Holocaust deniers can accurately point to inconsistencies. And while the unprecedented growth in visitors to Auschwitz is in many ways a welcome development, that very surge is hastening the day when the museum’s senior staff, as well as foundation and council members, must decide if Auschwitz is simply an attraction to be checked off a tourist’s list or a sacred site as the location of the largest graveyard in the world created by the greatest crime in human history.

In his book “Dark Tourism and Crime,” Derek Dalton describes his fascination in Auschwitz from his teenage years, and the “lure” he felt to it. I am not Jewish, and have no family connections to the Shoah, but since I read a book on the prisoner uprising at Treblinka when I was 13, I’ve felt that same “lure.” My passionate interest in the Holocaust — and, in particular, Auschwitz — has led me to visit the camps on a number of occasions and study the history with more than touristic interest.

Auschwitz has come to represent the Holocaust for countless people like me worldwide, and that places a singular burden, responsibility and moral obligation on the museum. The victims and survivors unconditionally deserve historical accuracy in documenting the crimes, proper contextualization, absolute authenticity, respectful memorialization and the most up-to-date interpretations. But despite its best efforts, the museum is not succeeding in providing all this.

Historical accuracy is at times compromised by how various items are shown. The disturbing and powerful exhibition in Block Four with the hair of about 90,000 victims shown behind a long glass wall — along with similar displays of luggage and artificial limbs — do not make clear that the hair, limbs, and luggage were taken not there but at Birkenau. Also, the Gypsy-Roma experience predominantly unfolded in Birkenau Section BII, yet the excellent exhibit telling their story is in Auschwitz I. The critical historic importance of the large building where most prisoners first entered Auschwitz I and went through processing is lost due to its contemporary usage as a security checkpoint, bookstore, theater, cafeteria and group tour staging area.

If the Auschwitz complex of camps is indeed a sacred place deserving solemnity, reverence and reflection, then the immediate area just outside the actual camp (Auschwitz I) falls far short in signaling to visitors they are about to step on consecrated ground. The dilapidated parking lot with a small white trailer as the main (and only) ticket office also houses an ice cream vendor and a souvenir shop before visitors reach a main entrance in a sad state of disrepair. Neither solemn memorial nor authentic representation, arrival at Auschwitz is now just a shabby trap for the masses of dark tourists. Frankly, the victims and survivors deserve better.

The last example is the least comprehensible, most disheartening and, frankly, shocking. The Auschwitz II – Birkenau gatehouse — the Gate of Death — is arguably the most widely recognized building in the world, an iconic manifestation of pure evil. But today, the gatehouse contains a bookstore, restrooms, a small vending area, a rundown guard tower and storage rooms. Does using the gatehouse this way properly memorialize the thousands upon thousands of starving, freezing, emaciated and terrorized prisoners in their paper-thin uniforms and ill-fitting wooden clogs who went through this gate in the morning knowing that there was a good chance they would not return? How can this be the best use of a horrifying historical building that welcomed some 1.1 million victims to this camp of death?

Can Auschwitz be both a tourist attraction and a mass graveyard without making compromises that betray the memory of the victims? The decision needs to be made soon.

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Populist who urged end to Nazi guilt can stay, German party rules

Local AfD party chairman Bjoern Hoecke called Berlin’s Holocaust memorial ‘a monument of shame’

FILES-GERMANY-POLITICS-HISTORY-HOLOCAUST-AFDBERLIN, Germany — German right-wing populist party AfD decided Monday not to expel a leading member over a speech criticizing Berlin’s Holocaust memorial and urging the country to stop atoning for its Nazi past.

The AfD executive board held a three-hour telephone conference in which it voted 10-3 to instead impose “disciplinary measures” against Bjoern Hoecke, party chairman in the central state of Thuringia, sources told German media.

Amid an internal power struggle ahead of a September general election, AfD leader Frauke Petry had called Hoecke a “burden on the party” last week after his address in which he condemned the sprawling Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame in the heart of the capital.”

“We need nothing less than a 180-degree shift in the politics of remembrance,” he added in the remarks Tuesday in Dresden to chants of “Germany, Germany.”

Hoecke’s comments met with an instant uproar, with Social Democrat vice chief Ralf Stegner accusing him of making a “hate incitement speech” — which is illegal in Germany — that called for history to be rewritten.

Germany’s Central Council of Jews also expressed outrage, saying Hoecke was trampling on the memory of six million Jewish Holocaust victims murdered by the Nazis.

But AfD deputy chief Alexander Gauland, who like Hoecke belongs to the hard nationalist wing of the party, defended the politician, telling national news agency DPA that he had “in no manner criticized the remembrance of the Holocaust.”

The AfD started out in 2013 as an anti-euro party, but has since morphed into an anti-immigration outfit railing against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policy which brought some 890,000 refugees to Germany in 2015 alone.

The party, which also disputes the place of Islam in Germany, is polling nationwide at around 12 to 15 percent ahead of a general election on September 24.

A poll Sunday in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper showed that 61 percent of Germans believed Hoecke should be kicked out of the AfD for his speech.

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Risking Everything to Defy the Nazis

The tale of Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who lied and deceived their way to saving more than 100 Czech Jews during the Holocaust.

ShowImage (2)They bullied and bluffed, bamboozled and bedeviled bureaucrats, politicians and soldiers.

They climbed mountains and traversed other treacherous terrain. They fed the hungry and clothed the nearly naked. They smuggled refugees out of countries in which they were in mortal danger, into other lands, some of whose borders were supposed to be closed and most that were unenthusiastic about accepting the fugitives. They regularly risked their lives.

Leaving their two young children with friends, Rev. Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha did all that and more in their efforts in 1939 and 1940 to rescue Jews and others fleeing or hiding from the Nazis.

Their remarkable story is told by their grandson Artemis Joukowsky in Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, which complements the documentary of the same name, co-directed by him and the wellknown American filmmaker Ken Burns.

Both works are based on a thorough study of the Sharps’ papers and interviews with those whose lives intersected with the couple.

It is difficult to quantify the Sharps’ efforts, their grandson writes. However, in the few months they were in Czechoslovakia and later for a short time in Vichy France, they apparently helped about 125 people flee to freedom from an almost- certain death at the hands of the Nazis. The two also provided money for transportation and clothes for other people to get to ports where their visas would allow them to escape.

In addition, the Sharps set up a feeding program in Prague that kept 264 people alive long enough to get out and provided milk for 800 starving French children for a month.

Even more amazing than the “what” is the “how.” Neither had much experience or training in deception, covering their trails or money laundering. But because the Nazis were stealing money sent by legal means, Waitstill Sharp set up bank accounts in neighboring countries by which he would receive money from donors and disburse funds to refugees from those bank accounts.

He also illegally exchanged dollars for Czech currency, because people allowed to leave were forbidden to take out any hard currency. Operating as an illegal money changer left Sharp with suitcases of local currency. With that money, he donated funds to the Salvation Army in Prague, which was feeding thousands of Social Democrats who were living on the streets or underground to avoid being captured by the Germans. He also gave large sums to the YMCA to expand its summer-camp program and for the reconstruction of a refugee orphans’ home.

Helping those that the Nazis wished to kill or capture was extremely dangerous.

A day or two before leaving Prague, an informant told Martha she was on a list of people the Nazis intended to imprison.

What motivated these two to undertake such a dangerous assignment – so risky that 17 other Unitarian ministers had turned down the offer of going to Europe before the Sharps finally accepted? On a ship back to America, German- Jewish writer and anti-fascist activist Lion Feuchtwanger, who had been rescued from his hiding place in southern France by Waitstill Sharp, asked his rescuer what motivated him to do what he was doing.

He received no money for saving people, the Unitarian minister assured the writer, and he was a sinner and no saint.

“But I believe the will of God is to be interpreted by the liberty of the human spirit,” Sharp continued. “So I do what I do without any piety at all but ad magna gloria libertatis humani spiriti [to the greater glory, freedom of the human spirit].

“As my friend Dick Ball said, ‘I don’t like to see guys pushed around.’” Upon her return to America, Martha Sharp, among other activities, helped in fund-raising with Youth Aliya, the Hadassah program that rescued European children and brought them to Palestine. In 1947, Hadassah sent her to pre-state Israel to see firsthand and learn about programs she had been supporting.

Later, she wrote of what she had seen during her six-week stay: “A great powerful stream of sacrifice and idealism is bringing about the birth of a nation. We are witnessing an epic like that of America. The pioneers are giving their lives and are challenging us to help in time.”

In 2006, Martha and Waitstill Sharp were named “Righteous Among the Nations.”

It was an honor duly earned.

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