‘Don’t mention the Jews’: How wartime BBC failed to issue Holocaust warnings

75 years after the Nazis marched into Hungary, ToI investigates whether Britain’s state broadcaster said too little, too late about the Final Solution

Illustrative: Anthony Eden opens an Organization for European Economic Co-operation council meeting in Paris, circa 1948-1957. (Public domain)

Illustrative: Anthony Eden opens an Organization for European Economic Co-operation council meeting in Paris, circa 1948-1957. (Public domain)

LONDON — On December 17, 1942, Britain’s foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, rose from his seat in the House of Commons and revealed that the Nazis were now carrying out Hitler’s oft-repeated threat to “exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.” He went on to condemn “this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination.”

After he had delivered the statement, which had been coordinated with other Allied governments, MPs stood in the chamber and observed a minute’s silence.

But there was a peculiar and troubling exception: the silence of the BBC’s broadcasts to Hungary concerning the fate of the Jews.

That silence was a deliberate policy. It is one, moreover, that remained in place right up to the moment that the Germans, rightly fearing that Hungary’s authoritarian ruler, Admiral Miklós Horthy, was about to abandon his allegiance to the Axis and switch sides, occupied the country 75 years ago this spring.

The position of Hungarian Jews had long been a precarious one. They were subject to a raft of domestic anti-Semitic laws and restrictions – the earliest of which long predated Hitler’s rise to power – and many died after around 50,000 men were conscripted in labor battalions and sent to the eastern front.

Hungarians were also complicit in other atrocities. Thousands of non-Hungarian Jews were handed over to the Nazis by Horthy’s regime and subsequently massacred in Ukraine in August 1941. Hungarian forces also murdered approximately 3,000 Jews and other civilians in Novi Sad, in northern Serbia, in January 1942.

But repeated German pressure to deport Hungarian Jews had hitherto been rebuffed by the government of then-prime minister Miklós Kállay. Indeed, when news of the Ukraine massacres reached Budapest, deportations were halted and five officers were court-martialed for the killings in Novi Sad. Thus, on the eve of the German occupation in March 1944, Hungary’s Jewish community was the largest – and last – in continental Europe to be mainly untouched by the Final Solution.

This photo provided by United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shows Hungarian soldiers as they execute Serbians and Jews on Miletic Street in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, January 23, 1942. (AP Photo/Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The BBC’s Hungarian Service finally broke its silence about the extermination of the Jews on March 24, 1944, five days after Hitler’s tanks rolled into Budapest. It then began to broadcast desperate appeals for Hungarians to aid the imperiled Jews, warnings about the justice which would meted out upon those who collaborated with the Nazis, and calls for resistance against the German occupiers.

“In the past, there were many people in Hungary who displayed their human feelings by assisting Jews and other victims of the Germans who fled to Hungary,” a March 24 broadcast suggested. “Today every Hungarian who helps the victims of persecution not only acts humanely, but he also serves his nation, because his deeds may be credited to his country by the United Nations at the final reckoning.”

It was, however, too late. Within weeks, the Nazis, aided and abetted by the Hungarian authorities, set in train the murder of nearly half a million Hungarian Jews.

So why had it taken the BBC so long to tell Hungarian Jews about the Final Solution, and why was its approach to Hungary in such stark contrast to that of other countries in Europe?

A strategic silence

The answer lies in a memo prepared two years prior by Britain’s foremost expert on Hungary, Prof. Carlile Aylmer Macartney. Macartney was a man from British Establishment central casting: a former diplomat in Vienna, secret service officer, Oxford academic and wartime adviser to the Foreign Office.

In early 1942, Macartney worked alongside the Political Warfare Executive, a government body which oversaw the BBC’s overseas broadcasts. Together, they devised a strategy for the BBC’s Hungarian Service. It aimed both to reduce Hungarian military support and supplies to Germany and “eventually to compel Germany to divert a certain number of troops to Hungary, either as a safeguard against disorders and sabotage, or as an occupying force.”

Illustrative: Arrow Cross and German troops in Budapest in October 1944. (Bundesarchiv bild)

In short, the British government, through the BBC, sought to drive a wedge between Nazi Germany and Hungary, and tie down Hitler’s forces in the east.

As Gabriel Milland, who has studied its approach towards the Final Solution, has argued: “The fundamental role of the BBC Hungarian Service … was as a weapon of political warfare.” But this posed a dilemma. “To secure influence it first had to achieve an audience and respond to their instincts,” he notes.

Macartney followed up this plan with a memo advising the BBC on what content might best appeal to those instincts, and what topics to avoid. Among the latter, according to Macartney, were: Communism; big business and capitalism; the aristocracy; liberalism and democracy; and “Jews in general.”

The subject of the Jews, Macartney argued, should simply not feature in broadcasts to Hungary: “We should not mention the Jews at all except to say that, on the one hand, we want a national Hungary, on the other hand, a tolerant Hungary – appeal to Hungary’s traditions real or imagined.”

Underpinning Macartney’s advice was what he called the Hungarian “floating vote.”

The “great majority” of Hungarians, he argued, were neither pro-Nazi nor pro-British. “The irreconcilables on either side are really very few, and include few Magyars [ethnic Hungarians] indeed: the irreconcilable pro-German group is mostly Swabian [referring to German-speaking Hungarians], the pro-British, Jewish.”

It was, he continued, “more important to gain the floating vote than to please the faithful supporters.” In order to gain a hearing in Hungary and thus help the Allied war effort, Macartney was arguing, the BBC needed to take into account the alleged anti-Semitism of much of the Hungarian populace.

Other BBC anti-Jewish policies

Prof. Frank Chalk speaks at the 99th Armenian Genocide Commemoration in Montreal, 2014. (YouTube)

Alerted to the existence of the memo in 2012 by Prof. Frank Chalk, director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University in Canada, BBC radio’s “Document” program decided to investigate.

Trawling the corporation’s archives, it revealed that Macartney’s strategy was not conjured up in a vacuum. Instead, it was a response to continuing concerns that the Hungarian Service was, in fact, too associated with Jews. A December 1939 internal BBC memo, for instance, detailed criticism the corporation had received that the service’s announcers had “Jewish-sounding voices” and that its six Hungarian staff were “purely or preponderantly Jewish.”

A further memo 18 months later showed that the critics had not let up. “One of the main criticisms of our broadcasts,” it reported, “has been on the ground of Jewish accents.” It was necessary, therefore, to bring in “a nucleus of Aryan voices.”

A minute of a meeting, attended by Macartney and others, to discuss the alleged shortcomings of the service, sarcastically stated: “At present the broadcasts were written and delivered,” it was felt, “by Hungarian bar-proppers to their fellow Jewish bar-proppers in Budapest and consequently were of very little use.” The present staff should be fired and material “more palatable to the mass of the Hungarian people” broadcast.

Macartney’s subsequent plan was assiduously followed by the Hungarian Service over the next two years, with the historian himself becoming a regular broadcaster. Delivered in Hungarian, his talks described life in Britain and offered analysis of the world situation. Crucially, he also commented on Hungary’s wartime policy. His talks, one Hungarian academic has suggested, “maintained a fine middle ground between supporting the Hungarian regime and criticizing it for pursuing … an overtly pro-German” foreign policy.

Regent of Hungary Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya (left) with Adolf Hitler, year unspecified (Wikimedia Commons)

But, as the BBC’s “Document” program also revealed, Macartney’s strategy – and the perception that he himself was too sympathetic to the Horthy regime – caused concern in government circles, disquiet among staff at the service, and anger among Hungarians living in Britain.

In August 1942, Robert Bruce Lockhart, the director-general of the PWE, weighed in.

“I’ve never been very happy about the general question of our propaganda policy towards Hungary,” Lockhart wrote to the head of the BBC Hungarian Service. “The picture of a pro-British Hungary has always been something of an optical delusion.” Macartney, he ordered, should be “given a rest from broadcasting.”

These concerns did not, however, appear to provoke a marked shift in tone or direction, even after Eden’s statement to parliament in December 1942. Indeed, the corporation’s official historian, Jean Seaton, admitted to “Document” that she’d never encountered any evidence in the BBC’s archives that this announcement had provoked an internal discussion on how the corporation might assist the effort to, in her words, “save the Jews of Europe.”

A warning unheeded

It is arguable, however, that the BBC owed a special responsibility towards Hungary’s Jews. The strategy it had adopted, albeit at the behest of the PWE, was predicated on forcing Hitler to send troops into Hungary. Such a move, it was known by 1942, would bring terrible consequences for Hungarian Jewry.

In October 1943, the Jewish Agency in London warned the Foreign Office that any defection by Horthy to the Allies at that time would provoke a German invasion. The result would be the “extermination of the last important body of Jewry left in Europe.”

But in his extensive research on the subject, Chalk has detected no sign that these concerns forced a rethink.

German and Hungarian soldiers transport arrested Jews to the Varosi theater in Budapest, October 1944. (Bundesarchiv bild)

“I have found no archival evidence,” he wrote, “that the British asked Hungary to delay its withdrawal from the alliance with Germany or that they took seriously into account saving the lives of Hungarian Jews.”

“British policy and the BBC’s Hungarian Service worked toward only one goal: to advance the cause of an Allied victory,” he wrote. For the British government, of course, that goal and bringing an end to the Final Solution were inseparable.

Thus, throughout the early months of 1944 before the German occupation, the Hungarian Service repeatedly urged acts of resistance and encouraged an uprising to increase pressure on the Horthy regime.

As Milland has exhaustively detailed, after the Germans marched into Hungary, the BBC began to pump out news bulletins and broadcasts underlining the imminent threat to Jews in the kingdom. On March 25, for instance, it ran comments by Roosevelt about war crimes and the need to protect the “hundreds of thousands of Jews who had found a safe haven from death in Hungary … and who were now threatened with annihilation.”

Hungarians could resist the Nazis, a broadcast the following day stated, by doing “their utmost to help all those other Hungarians or others who are persecuted by the Germans and their Hungarian agents.”

There were also insistent warnings about the post-war reckoning that would await those Hungarians who participated in what one broadcast called “the shedding of blood of innocent people.” Such individuals, it continued, would be “ruthlessly punished.” The PWE also instructed the Hungarian Service to run Roosevelt’s statement that those in the Hungarian authorities who participation in “racial persecution” would be held accountable for “war crimes.”

Broadcasts sought above all to appeal to Hungarian’s patriotism, linking that to the fate of the Jews, and offering pointed reminders of the heroic actions of the Danes. “What is at stake for Hungary is the reputation of its people, the question whether or not … in a community of free nations, the name of the country will be besmirched with [the] Yellow Patch of cowardice and pusillanimity,” suggested one.

German and Hungarian soldiers transport arrested Jews to the Varosi theater in Budapest, October 1944. (Bundesarchiv bild)

The Hungarian Service also attempted to carefully target its appeals. Religious figures, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, were deployed to deliver messages to the “Christian people of Hungary,” telling them that “Christian discipleship” demanded they do all in their power to assist persecuted Jews. Trade unionists were similarly given air time to appeal to workers in key industries, such as the railways.

More unanswered questions

Nonetheless, there remain difficult questions as to why the Hungarian Service, although making appeals on behalf of “persecuted” Jews, appears to have delayed reporting news of deportations, and certainly mass murder, when other BBC outlets were already doing so.

Indeed, Milland’s survey of the broadcasts suggests that it was not until July 1, 1944, that the Hungarian Service directly mentioned for the first time that deported Jews were being butchered at “the notorious German camp in Polish Galicia.”

Thereafter, explicit messages were broadcast. To Hungarian railway workers, a senior British trade unionist made a simple appeal: “Delay the ‘death-trains’! Help the Jews to their escape!”

There was a particularly cruel irony, however, that these appeals were broadcast shortly after Horthy – under intense pressure from the Catholic Church, the Allies, and neutral Sweden – defied the Germans and ordered a halt to the deportations.

What might account for the Hungarian Service’s delay in reporting the onset of mass murder? Even without confirmed reports, asks Milland, could not the BBC have simply used its knowledge of the fate that had befallen Jews in other countries the Nazis had occupied? But such a stance, he continues, would “have run counter to BBC policy of only broadcasting what was known to be absolutely true and confirmed – a crucial part of [its] strategy in securing an audience.”

Arrow Cross leader and German-installed prime minister of Hungary Ferenc Szalasi enters the presidential Sandor Palace, October 18, 1944. (Bundesarchiv bild)

The respite ordered by Horthy was, however, all too brief. In October, the Germans finally removed the unreliable regent after he had once again attempted to conclude an armistice with their enemies. The fascist Arrow Cross under Ferenc Szálasi, which shared Hitler’s desire to eliminate the approximately 200,000 Hungarian Jews who had thus far survived, was now installed in power. Deportations commenced and the Arrow Cross set about massacring Jews in Budapest. Again, however, the Hungarian Service went silent about the tragic events, unable to obtain the confirmations it required to broadcast news of them.

There remains a difficult, but ultimately unanswerable, question as to whether, had the BBC’s Hungarian Service acted differently, it could have helped to reduce the number of Jews the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators were able to murder. Historians are split, both on this question and the wider one of how much information Hungarian Jews anyway possessed.

“The odds are strong, given the authority of the BBC in the minds of Hungarian Jews, that explicit warnings specifically addressed to them would have broken down the psychological barriers immobilizing their defense mechanisms” wrote Chalk.

Uprisings and greater acts of resistance might have ensued, slowing the killings and tying down more German troops. “Very many Jews would have died in any case, but their deaths while resisting and seeking to escape would have had more meaning and the war would have ended sooner,” he said.

But, for Milland, “the simple answer” as to whether the BBC could have saved lives is “no.”

“Once Germany occupied Hungary, the Jews were its prisoners,” he wrote. “In this context both the potential and actual impact of the BBC on Hungarian Jewry was limited.” Indeed, he noted, the appeals it made to Hungarians to assist their Jewish neighbors largely went unheeded.

The late David Cesarani, one of the foremost experts on the Holocaust, took a similar stance. “It wasn’t the job of the BBC to warn Jews that the Nazis were coming to get them. The responsibility lay elsewhere. The BBC was doing everything it could to help win the war,” he told the “Document” program in 2012.

“Some could have built bunkers, hideaways, some could have tried to get false papers. But we’re talking about 750,000 people, surrounded by a hostile population, by countries either allied to the Nazis, or occupied by the Germans. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run,” he concluded.

Auschwitz Is Not a Metaphor

The new exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage gets everything right—and fixes nothing.

A boxcar used for the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz rests outside the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

A boxcar used for the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz rests outside the Museum of Jewish Heritage.SPENCER PLATT / GETTY

The week I bought my advance timed-entry tickets for “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away,” the massive blockbuster exhibition that opened in May at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan, there was a swastika drawn on a desk in my children’s public middle school. It was not a big deal. The school did everything right: It informed parents; teachers talked to kids; they held an already scheduled assembly with a Holocaust survivor. Within the next few months, the public middle school in the adjacent town had six swastikas. That school also did everything right. Six swastikas were also not a big deal.

“Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away” is a big deal. It is such a big deal that the Museum of Jewish Heritage had to alter its floor plan to accommodate it, making room for large-scale displays such as a reconstructed barracks. Outside the museum’s front door, there is a cattle car parked on the sidewalk; online, you can watch video footage showing how it was placed there by a crane. The exhibition received massive news coverage, including segments on network TV. When I arrived before the museum opened, the line for ticket holders was already snaking out the door. In front of the cattle car, a jogger was talking loudly on a cellphone about pet sitters.

This was in the 1990s, when Holocaust museums and exhibitions were opening all over the United States, including the monumental United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Going to those new exhibitions then was predictably wrenching, but there was also something hopeful about them. Sponsored almost entirely by Jewish philanthropists and nonprofit groups, these museums were imbued with a kind of optimism, a bedrock assumption that they were, for lack of a better word, effective. The idea was that people would come to these museums and learn what the world had done to the Jews, where hatred can lead. They would then stop hating Jews.

It wasn’t a ridiculous idea, but it seems to have been proved wrong. A generation later, anti-Semitism is once again the new punk rock, and it is hard to go to these museums in 2019 without feeling that something profound has shifted.

In this newest Auschwitz exhibition, something has. The New York display originated not from Jews trying to underwrite a better future, but from a corporation called Musealia, a for-profit Spanish company whose business is blockbuster museum shows. Musealia’s best-known show is the internationally successful “Human Bodies: The Exhibition,” which consisted of cross-sectioned, colorfully dyed cadavers (sourced, it was later revealed, from the Chinese government) that aimed to teach visitors about anatomy and science. Its other wildly popular show is about the Titanic. This is, of course, not a disaster-porn company but rather an educational company—and who could argue against education?

Perhaps the earlier Holocaust museums built by the Jewish community were unsuccessful simply because of their limited reach; despite the 2 million annual visitors to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, two-thirds of Millennials in one recent poll were unable to identify what Auschwitz was. Six hundred thousand people saw Musealia’s Auschwitz exhibition during its six months in Madrid before it arrived in New York. Those 600,000 people have all now heard of Auschwitz. There is clearly public demand.

And the Musealia people clearly know what they are doing. The Auschwitz exhibition was produced in cooperation with numerous museums, most prominently the Auschwitz site museum in Poland, and was carefully curated by diligent historians who are world-renowned experts in this horrific field. It shows.

The exhibition checks all the boxes. There are wall texts and artifacts explaining what Judaism is. Half a room describes premodern anti-Semitism. There are sections on the persecuted Roma, homosexuals, the disabled; the exhibition also carefully notes that 90 percent of those murdered in killing centers like Auschwitz were Jews. There are home movies of Jews before the war, including both religious and secular people. There are video testimonies from survivors.

The exhibition is dependable. There is a room about the First World War’s devastation, and another on the rise of Nazism. The audio guide says thoughtful things about bystanders and complicity. There are cartoons and children’s picture books showing Jews with hooked noses and bags of money, images familiar today to anyone who has been Jewish on Twitter. There are photos of signs reading kauft nicht bei judendon’t buy from jews, a sentiment familiar today to anyone who has been Jewish on a college campus with a boycott-Israel campaign. There is a section about the refusal of the world to take in Jewish refugees. Somewhere there is a Torah scroll.

The exhibition is relentless. After an hour and a half, I marveled that I was barely past Kristallnacht. What the hell is taking so long? I found myself thinking, alarmed by how annoyed I was. Can’t they invade Poland already? Kill us all and get it over with! It took another hour’s worth of audio guide before I made it to the Auschwitz selection ramp, where bewildered Jews were unloaded from cattle cars and separated into those who would die immediately and those who would die in a few more weeks.

Somehow after I got through the gas chambers, there was still, impossibly, another hour left. (How can there still be an hour left? Isn’t everyone dead?) Forced labor, medical experiments, the processing of stolen goods, acts of resistance, and finally liberation—all of it was covered in what came to feel like a forced march (which, yes, was covered too). It was in the gas-chamber room, where I was introduced to a steel-mesh column that, as the wall text explained, was used to drop Zyklon B pesticide pellets into the gas chamber, killing hundreds of naked people within 15 minutes, that I began to wonder what the purpose of all this is.

I don’t mean the purpose of killing millions of people with pesticide pellets in a steel-mesh column in a gas chamber. That part, the supposedly mysterious part, is abundantly clear: People will do absolutely anything to blame their problems on others. No, what I’m wondering about is the purpose of my knowing all these obscene facts, in such granular detail.

I don’t mean giving people ideas about how to murder Jews. There is no shortage of ideas like that, going back to Pharaoh’s decree in the Book of Exodus about drowning Hebrew baby boys in the Nile. I mean, rather, that perhaps we are giving people ideas about our standards. Yes, everyone must learn about the Holocaust so as not to repeat it. But this has come to mean that anything short of the Holocaust is, well, not the Holocaust. The bar is rather high.

Shooting people in a synagogue in San Diego or Pittsburgh isn’t “systemic”; it’s an act of a “lone wolf.” And it’s not the Holocaust. The same is true for arson attacks against two different Boston-area synagogues, followed by similar attacks on Jewish institutions in Chicago a few days later, along with physical assaults on religious Jews on the streets of New York—all of which happened within a week of my visit to the Auschwitz show.

Lobbing missiles at sleeping children in Israel’s Kiryat Gat, where my husband’s cousins spent the week of my museum visit dragging their kids to bomb shelters, isn’t an attempt to bring “Death to the Jews,” no matter how frequently the people lobbing the missiles broadcast those very words; the wily Jews there figured out how to prevent their children from dying in large piles, so it is clearly no big deal.

Doxxing Jewish journalists is definitely not the Holocaust. Harassing Jewish college students is also not the Holocaust. Trolling Jews on social media is not the Holocaust either, even when it involves Photoshopping them into gas chambers. (Give the trolls credit: They have definitely heard of Auschwitz.) Even hounding ancient Jewish communities out of entire countries and seizing all their assets—which happened in a dozen Muslim nations whose Jewish communities predated the Islamic conquest, countries that are now all almost entirely Judenrein—is emphatically not the Holocaust. It is quite amazing how many things are not the Holocaust.

The day of my visit to the museum, the rabbi of my synagogue attended a meeting arranged by police for local clergy, including him and seven Christian ministers and priests. The topic of the meeting was security. Even before the Pittsburgh massacre, membership dues at my synagogue included security fees. But apparently these local churches do not charge their congregants security fees. The rabbi later told me how he sat in stunned silence as church officials discussed whether to put a lock on a church door. “A lock on the door,” the rabbi said to me afterward, stupefied.

He is young, this rabbi—younger than me. He was realizing the same thing I realized at the Auschwitz exhibition, about the specificity of our experience. I feel the need to apologize here, to acknowledge that yes, this rabbi and I both know that many non-Jewish houses of worship in other places also require rent-a-cops, to announce that yes, we both know that other groups have been persecuted too—and this degrading need to recite these middle-school-obvious facts is itself an illustration of the problem, which is that dead Jews are only worth discussing if they are part of something bigger, something more. Some other people might go to Holocaust museums to feel sad, and then to feel proud of themselves for feeling sad. They will have learned something important, discovered a fancy metaphor for the limits of Western civilization. The problem is that for us, dead Jews aren’t a metaphor, but rather actual people we do not want our children to become.

The Auschwitz exhibition labors mightily to personalize, to humanize, and these are exactly the moments when its cracks show. Some of the artifacts have stories attached to them, such as the inscribed tin engagement ring a woman hid under her tongue. But most of the personal items—a baby carriage, a child’s shoe, eyeglasses, a onesie—are completely divorced from the people who owned them.

The audio guide humbly speculates about who these people might have been: “She might have been a housewife or a factory worker or a musician …” The idea isn’t subtle: This woman could be you. But to make her you, we have to deny that she was actually herself. These musings turn people into metaphors, and it slowly becomes clear to me that this is the goal. Despite doing absolutely everything right, this exhibition is not that different from “Human Bodies,” full of dead people pressed into service to teach us something.

At the end of the show, onscreen survivors talk in a loop about how people need to love one another. While listening to this, it occurs to me that I have never read survivor literature in Yiddish—the language spoken by 80 percent of victims—suggesting this idea. In Yiddish, speaking only to other Jews, survivors talk about their murdered families, about their destroyed centuries-old communities, about Jewish national independence, about Jewish history, about self-defense, and on rare occasions, about vengeance. Love rarely comes up; why would it? But it comes up here, in this for-profit exhibition. Here is the ultimate message, the final solution.

Then as now, Jews were cast in the role of civilization’s nagging mothers, loathed in life and loved only once they are safely dead. In the years since I walked through Auschwitz at 15, I have become a nagging mother. And I find myself furious, being lectured by this exhibition about love—as if the murder of millions of people was actually a morality play, a bumper sticker, a metaphor. I do not want my children to be someone else’s metaphor. (Of course, they already are.)

My husband’s grandfather once owned a bus company in Poland. Like my husband and some of our children, he was a person who was good at fixing broken things. He would watch professional mechanics repairing his buses, and then never rehired them: He only needed to observe them once, and then he forever knew what to do.

Years after his death, my mother-in-law came across a photograph of her father with people she didn’t recognize: a woman and two little girls, about 7 and 9 years old. Her mother, also a survivor, reluctantly told her that these were her father’s original wife and children. When the Nazis came to her father’s town, they seized his bus company and executed his wife and daughters in front of him. Then they kept him alive to repair the buses. They had heard that he was good at fixing broken things.

The Auschwitz exhibition does everything right, and fixes nothing. I walked out of the museum, past the texting joggers by the cattle car, and I felt utterly broken. There is a swastika on a desk in my children’s public middle school, and it is no big deal. There is no one alive who can fix me.


How Hollywood idol Audrey Hepburn helped save Dutch Jews during the Holocaust

Veteran star chronicler Robert Matzen traces Hepburn’s roots in the Netherlands, her mother’s fleeting Nazi sympathies, and her covert activities against the occupying Nazi regime

Audrey Hepburn starred in a constellation of memorable roles, from Manhattan socialite Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.” The 1953 classic “Roman Holiday” — in which she portrayed Princess Ann, a royal exploring the Eternal City with Gregory Peck — earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress. And Hepburn is among the select few to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award.

Yet her most important role is perhaps her least-known. It’s the story of a Dutch aristocrat, raised by parents with controversial political allegiances, who aided her country’s resistance to the Nazis while enduring tragedy and starvation — and, despite it all, becoming a prima ballerina en route to Hollywood stardom. It’s her real-life coming-of-age story, told in a new book, “Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II,” by Robert Matzen.

A veteran Hollywood chronicler, Matzen learned about Hepburn’s war years while researching his previous book, a biography of Jimmy Stewart, who had been a WWII fighter pilot before becoming the all-American star of such films as “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Some of Stewart’s men had been shot down over the Netherlands, and when Matzen visited the city of Arnhem, he learned Hepburn had lived there during the war. That sparked his next project, one that would bring to light Hepburn’s war experiences, which he called in an interview with The Times of Israel, “a side of Audrey that nobody knows.”

Audrey Hepburn, right, shown with Fred Zinneman and Rosalind Russell, left, in this April 10, 1967 photo taken at the 1967 Academy Award presentations. (AP Photo/ File)

According to the book, there were aspects of Hepburn’s early life that she wished to forget. Her Dutch mother, the Baroness Ella van Heemstra, met Hitler in the 1930s and wrote admiringly about him in British fascist publications — but changed her mind during the brutal Nazi occupation of the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945. (By contrast, the continuing Nazi sympathies of van Heemstra’s English ex-husband, Hepburn’s father Joseph Ruston, kept him jailed throughout the war.)

Audrey Hepburn’s mother Ella, Baroness van Heemstra, in the early 1930s. (Dotti Collection)

The baroness aided the Dutch Resistance after the Nazis executed Hepburn’s beloved uncle, Otto Ernst Gelder, Count van Limburg Stirum. Hepburn’s grief was so deep that she never mentioned her uncle by name afterward, Matzen said.

Hepburn also was affected by the larger tragedies that befell her nation, and she displayed heroism on behalf of individuals in danger. Volunteering for the resistance, she aided Jews in hiding, raising funds through dancing to keep them safe.

Despite these and others’ efforts, less than 25 percent of Dutch Jews survived the Holocaust, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Invited in 1958 to play the role of the most famous Dutch Holocaust victim in the film version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Hepburn found the subject too close to home and turned it down, although she met with Frank’s Holocaust survivor father, Otto Frank. According to the book, she also declined the role out of fears over what might happen if Ella’s past was plumbed.

Another trauma Hepburn did not wish to relive was the 1944 Allied defeat in the battles of Arnhem and Oosterbeek. After the execution of her uncle two years earlier, she and her mother had relocated from Arnhem to the village of Velp three miles away — close enough to hear the destruction of Hepburn’s former hometown.

Her family members risked their lives sheltering a British soldier, and she and her mother assisted as nurses. Nazi reprisals included rounding up Dutch women and girls to work in German kitchens; Hepburn was among those rounded up for what could have been a grim fate, but she escaped. Decades later, in 1976, she declined a role in the cinematic retelling of the battles, “A Bridge Too Far.”

In 1957, the stress of a day in Switzerland with Elfriede and Otto Frank is visible on Audrey Hepburn’s face. He had asked her to portray his daughter Anne Frank in an upcoming film; she will tell him that, for a variety of reasons, she can’t. (Eva Schloss, photographer; Anne Frank House)

Matzen sees his book as not only filling a gap in knowledge about Hepburn’s war years, but also explaining how they had a lifelong effect on her, including her work as a UNICEF ambassador who aided children affected by war.

He connects her suffering in the Dutch “Hunger Winter” of 1944-1945 with later health issues (she died an early death at age 63). Yet, he says, the overall message of the book is an inspiring story, one that he partly credits for it achieving bestseller status two weeks before it was released on April 15, less than a month prior to what would have been Hepburn’s 90th birthday.

The person behind the star

Hepburn was born Audrey Kathleen van Heemstra Ruston on May 4, 1929. Her family had aristocratic connections on both sides. Her Dutch grandfather, the Baron van Heemstra, was a former governor of the South American colony of Suriname, and a former mayor of Arnhem. Her English father claimed a royal pedigree through his 16th-century ancestor, James Hepburn, the third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Young Audrey, or Adriaantje, as she was known to her family, grew up shuttling between Belgium, England and the Netherlands. Her parents visited Germany with prominent British fascists (including Sir Oswald Mosley) and met Hitler at his Munich headquarters in 1935. Ella returned to Germany for the Nazi Party Congress later that year and praised Hitler in British fascist publications. The book states that Hepburn herself was never pro-German.

Five-year-old Audrey Hepburn poses with her aunt Meisje and uncle Otto during an extended 1935 stay in Oosterbeek while her parents met with Hitler. (Dotti Collection)

While Matzen’s low opinion of Ruston remained constant (he did not stay in contact with his daughter after he and Ella divorced), his views on Ella changed.

“When I got into the project, I thought of her as an evil character,” Matzen said. “I was afraid I was not going to understand her.”

However, input from Dotti about his grandmother softened the author’s opinion.

“If she were alive today, she would be like a goth, an artist wearing black,” Matzen said. “She rebelled against her parents, more than anything, any authority figure who told her to act a certain way. She had an inclination to act differently. You can see the shock value in her embrace of Adolf Hitler.”

Ella initially continued supporting the Nazis after they occupied the Netherlands. She developed a romance with a German official, and planned and performed in an evening of German-approved music in Arnhem in late 1941, in which her daughter and son Ian also performed. Ironically, Hepburn’s ballet teacher, Winja Marova, was Jewish and hid her identity from the occupiers.

Matzen calls Ella’s support of the Nazis during this period a path of least resistance that protected her children. Yet her other son Alex became an onderduiker, a member of the resistance who went into hiding. And the Nazis arrested her brother-in-law, Hepburn’s uncle Otto, a court prosecutor, for disobeying their policies. On August 15, 1942, he was executed in a mass killing with another relative, Baron Schimmelpenninck van der Oye.

Robert Matzen, author of ‘Dutch Girl,’ signing copies of the book, which quickly sold out, at the BookExpo trade show in New York, May 2019. (Courtesy)

A new chapter begins

Otto’s execution was “a turning point… when the war became real,” Matzen said, calling him “such an optimistic and positive force in the family. He did not believe til the last morning of his life that anything bad was going to happen to him. When it did, it shook the family to the core.”

Ella and Audrey relocated to Velp, where they lived with Audrey’s grandfather, the Baron van Heemstra, and Otto’s widow, Meisje.

Near the end of her stay in Elham, Audrey Hepburn (fourth from left) waves the Union Jack. (Dotti Collection)

“The family bonded together and joined the resistance,” Matzen said. “They did everything they could against the occupation.”

That included refusing an order to join a Nazi artists’ committee, ending Hepburn’s burgeoning dance career, which had made her Arnhem’s most famous ballerina by 1944, Matzen said. Hepburn also assisted a remarkable doctor, Hendrik Visser ‘t Hooft, who helped shelter hundreds of Jews in Velp throughout the war.

“He was instrumental,” Matzen said. “He knew where all the Jews were in Velp. Audrey was involved. She knew some of the things he knew. She was one of the ones [bringing] messages to families protecting Jews. She danced [to raise money] for the resistance, money to feed Jews in hiding. Nobody [wrote about] how enmeshed in the Jewish story she was.”

Audrey Hepburn sits in the hilly Sonsbeek section of Arnhem in February 1942. (Dotti Collection)

The postwar discovery of Anne Frank’s diary added to this story. In an eerie development, when Hepburn and her mother lived in Amsterdam after liberation, their fellow lodger was the editor working on publishing the diary. Hepburn and Frank were born just weeks apart in 1929 — Frank would have celebrated her 90th birthday on June 12 — and both lived in the Netherlands during the war. But Frank was apprehended in 1944 and died at Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Hepburn is quoted in the book describing Frank as a soul sister.

“I believe Audrey felt survivor’s guilt,” Matzen said. “She survived. Anne Frank did not.”

Hepburn also survived the Battle of Arnhem, which left her hometown devastated. The battle marks its 75th anniversary this September; Matzen will travel to Arnhem and Oosterbeek, including the Airborne Museum Hartenstein, for the occasion.

In the wake of Allied defeat, hunger and starvation pervaded the Netherlands, accompanied by explosions from Hitler’s last-ditch weapons, the V-1 and V-2 rockets, all of which the book conveys in excruciating detail.

Liberation brought its own complications. Hepburn became fond of the cigars carried by Allied soldiers and developed erratic eating habits worsened by the rigors of ballet, according to Matzen. The newly-restored Dutch authorities began punishing collaborators and summoned Ella for interrogation; they cleared her after an evaluation, after which mother and daughter eventually left for England, where Hepburn found success not through ballet, but film.

Audrey Hepburn strums a guitar with her costar George Peppard between takes on the set of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ at a film studio in Hollywood on December 7, 1960. (AP Photo)

Hepburn ultimately came to terms with her past. Years after becoming a household name, she took part in public readings of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and served as a UNICEF ambassador, including in war-torn Somalia shortly before her death.

“She had always been affected by children suffering in wars started by adults,” Matzen explained. It is part of the book’s powerful message.

As Matzen said, “here is a woman who, as a girl, experienced horrible things, and channeled them into beauty and positivity, spreading messages of peace and survival.”

‘Her story belonged to all of us’: Hundreds mark 90th birthday of Anne Frank

UNESCO director general addresses gathering in Frankfurt birthplace of teenage Holocaust diarist

Anne Frank, whose diary chronicles her two-year stay at a secret annex in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam with her family and several other Jews during Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. (Wikimedia Commons)

Anne Frank, whose diary chronicles her two-year stay at a secret annex in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam with her family and several other Jews during Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. (Wikimedia Commons)

JTA — Several hundred people gathered at a church in Frankfurt, the city of Anne Frank’s birth, on the occasion of the teenage diarist’s 90th birthday.

The event, organized Wednesday at the iconic St. Paul’s Church by the municipality of the German city and the Basel-based Anne Frank Foundation, featured an address by philosopher Agnes Heller, a Hungarian-Jewish Holocaust survivor who was born one month before Frank.

“She was like one of the relatives and friends I lost, kids killed by the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross,” Heller said. “Her story belonged to all of us.”

Audrey Azoulay, the director-general of UNESCO, the United Nations agency for education and heritage, touched on an ongoing debate concerning Anne Frank’s legacy and whether it should be taught as a specifically Jewish story or a universal one.

The diary “is an intimate story of a teenager and that of the Shoah,” Azoulay, who is Jewish, said in a speech at the gathering using the Hebrew-language word for the Holocaust.

Separately, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry criticized German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas for a statement on Anne Frank’s birthday that did not mention Jews. Her story, Maas said, is a “warning against discrimination, marginalization and persecution and as a symbol of humanity.”

“Anne Frank’s diary is NOT a warning about wishy washy pseudo universal values!” Emmanuel Nahshon tweeted. “Anne Frank’s legacy is a warning against the hatred and persecution of JEWS. The attempt to ‘universalize the lessons of the Shoah’ is nothing less than a dishonest rewriting of history.”


Nuremberg prosecutor’s life story to be adapted as screen feature.


Michel Hazanavicius, a French-Jewish director who won an Oscar for 2011’s The Artist, has teamed up with StudioCanal for an animated feature film set during the Holocaust, according to Variety. Hazanavicius is set to adapt the novel La Plus Precieuse Des Marchandises by Jean-Claude Grumberg, which translates to “The Most Precious of Merchandise.”

According to StudioCanal, production on the animated movie will begin next year, and the film is slated for theatrical release in 2022. The tale by Grumberg weaves together the stories of a poor family living in the Polish forest who cannot have children, and a Jewish family who were arrested in Paris and deported to Auschwitz. The Jewish father, desperate to save his children, throws one of his newborn twins out of the moving train. The Polish woman, desperate for a child, suddenly discovers the one thing she’s been waiting and hoping for.

“Opposing the force of life to the industry of death, Grumberg’s tale succeeds in finding something beautiful to tell about [a period] that will forever remain a stain on the history of mankind,” said Hazanavicius, according to StudioCanal.

Separately, two filmmakers behind the recent documentary Prosecuting Evil about the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, are teaming up again to tell the story in a dramatic adaptation. Barry Avrich and Patrice Theroux, who produced this year’s Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz, have purchased the film and television rights to Ferencz’s story for a scripted project, according to Deadline.
Ferencz, now 99, was the lead prosecutor at the Einsatzgruppen trial, one of the 12 Nuremberg trials. As a 27-year-old lawyer, Ferencz oversaw the conviction of 22 Nazi officials who were tried for operating mobile death squads responsible for murdering more than one million Jewish men, women and children.

“I am honored to take this journey,” said Ferencz, according to Deadline. “I never dreamed as a 27-year-old standing in a Nuremberg courtroom prosecuting Nazis that my life would be the subject of a film. I am now in my hundredth year; let’s get this done!”

Avrich told Deadline that “this is an extraordinary honor to tell the story; one of the most iconic and historic figures of our time. I feel a real responsibility to continue to bring this important story to as many people as we can, this time through a scripted project.”

Neighbors of San Francisco Holocaust memorial receive anti-Semitic hate mail

Pamphlet provides a reading list of books denying the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis

The Holocaust Memorial at California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco's Lincoln Park.(Aaron Zhu/ Wikimedia Commons via JTA)

The Holocaust Memorial at California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park.(Aaron Zhu/ Wikimedia Commons via JTA)

Residents of San Francisco that live on the same street as a Holocaust memorial received anti-Semitic hate mail including a reading list of Holocaust denial titles.

The letters arrived at every home on San Francisco’s 34th Avenue in late May, J. The Jewish News of Northern California reported.

The full-page, single-spaced letter was signed by the Barnes Review. The Barnes Review is a bi-monthly magazine founded in 1994 by Willis Carto’s Liberty Lobby and headquartered in Washington, D.C. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, The Barnes Review is “one of the most virulent anti-Semitic organizations around,” and its journal and website are “dedicated to historical revisionism and Holocaust denial.”

The Holocaust Memorial at California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park is located in a grove of trees outside the Legion of Honor museum. Mounted in 1984, it depicts a man standing behind a barbed wire fence, flanked by corpses. It is maintained by the San Francisco Arts Commission.

The San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, which hosts the sculpture, responded in a statement.

“These hateful mailings prove the necessity of hosting pieces like the Holocaust Memorial in our public spaces,” Tamara Barak Aparton, spokesperson for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, said in a statement. “The Holocaust Memorial inspires empathy in thousands of our visitors each year and reminds us to be vigilant against the rising tide of anti-Semitism.”

The letter also reportedly was sent to every home on Grove Drive, in Los Angeles, where the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust is located.

Last survivor of Sobibor death camp uprising dies, aged 97

Semyon Rosenfeld took part in famous revolt, in which Jewish prisoners turned on their Nazi guards; later moved to Israel

Near 'the ramp' at the former Nazi death camp Sobibor, in Poland, September 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Near ‘the ramp’ at the former Nazi death camp Sobibor, in Poland, September 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Semyon Rosenfeld, who was the last living Holocaust survivor who participated in the revolt and escape from the Sobibor death camp, died Monday at the age of 97 in a hospital in Rehovot, near Tel Aviv.

Rosenfeld, who moved to Israel from the Ukraine in 1990, was survived by his two sons and five grandchildren. He had been living in a retirement community in Yad Binyamin in central Israel.

“Seymon Rosenfeld, Holocaust survivor and the last from Sobibor, has passed away,” Netanyahu wrote. “Semyon was born in 1922 in a small village in Ukraine. He joined the Red Army, was taken captive by the Nazis, but managed to escape the death camp and continue to fight the Nazis. May his memory be blessed.”

Blue and White party No. 2 MK Yair Lapid tweeted, “I salute the memory of Semyon Rosenfeld, a Holocaust survivor who participated in the revolt in the Sobibor death camp where a quarter of a million Jews were murdered. May his memory be blessed, may we be worthy of his death with our lives.”

Jewish agency chairman Isaac Herzog tweeted of his “great sadness” at Rosenfeld’s death. “A true hero, it is our duty to transmit from generation to generation the story of his life and all those of his generation. Condolences to his family and to all those who knew him.”

Rosenfeld was born in the small town of Ternivka in 1922, and in 1940 joined the Red Army. While he was away fighting the Germans, his entire family was killed by the Nazis and buried in a mass grave near the town.

According to Channel 12, Rosenfeld once said that before the war there was no anti-Semitism where he lived.

He was captured by the Germans in 1941 after being seriously injured in the leg and sent to a labor camp in Minsk, Belarus, with over 200 other Jewish prisoners from the Red Army.

From Minsk he was sent in 1943 to Sobibor in Poland, a notorious extermination camp where over 250,000 Jews were murdered between April 1942 and October 1943.

Rosenfeld once recalled that when he arrived he lied to the Nazis about having a profession, a tactic that saved his life. While he was sent to work in the carpentry shop, others were quickly murdered, Channel 12 reported.

A few weeks after his arrival at Sobibor, he asked a German officer about the whereabouts of all the other prisoners who had arrived with him. The officer pointed to the smoke coming from the crematorium and said, “Your friends are there.”

At the former Nazi death camp Sobibor in Poland, the commandant’s Holocaust-era house has been preserved, September 2017 (Matt Lebovic/Times of Israel)

In October 1943, a group of prisoners, led by Red Army officer Aleksandr “Sasha” Pechersky, revolted in a bold attempt to liberate all of the camp’s inmates. They succeeded in killing 11 Nazi camp officers before the plan was discovered and guards opened fire. Some 300 prisoners tried to flee the camp, but most were either killed immediately or in the following days as the Nazis rounded them up.

Shortly after the revolt and escape, the Nazis dismantled the camp and tried to hide its existence by planting trees over it.

Rosenfeld survived by hiding in the woods with a handful of other prisoners until 1944, when he rejoined the Red Army and participated in the capture of Berlin. He was demobilized in 1945 and returned to his homeland, later moving to Israel.
Some of his family now lives in the US.

The prison camp revolt was the subject of the 1987 film “Escape from Sobibor” staring Rutger Hauer as Pechersky, who also survived the escape.

Dutch museums will return 2 Nazi-looted paintings to Holocaust survivor’s family

Move follows recommendation by government body on restitution set up in 2002

Illustrative: A combination of photos released by prosecutors in Augsburg, Germany on November 12, 2013 show five of the more than 1,500 paintings believed looted by the Nazis, seized from a Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt. (Lostart.de/Augsburg prosecutors/AFP/File)

Illustrative: A combination of photos released by prosecutors in Augsburg, Germany on November 12, 2013 show five of the more than 1,500 paintings believed looted by the Nazis, seized from a Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt. (Lostart.de/Augsburg prosecutors/AFP/File)

Two museums in the Netherlands have agreed to return two Nazi-looted paintings to the descendants of a Holocaust survivor.

The Central Museum in Utrecht will return to the family of Jacob Lierens the painting titled “Pronkstilleven” by Jan Davidsz, which the Jewish collector was forced to sell under duress, the news site jonet.nl reported last week. He survived the Holocaust and died in 1949.

The decision to return the paintings, which are worth thousands of dollars, followed a recommendation by the Advisory Committee on the Assessment of Restitution Applications for Items of Cultural Value and the Second World War, a government body set up in 2002.

The committee has identified and returned hundreds of stolen items.

But it has also faced criticism over its recommendations to keep some Nazi-looted art, citing “public interest” in keeping them on display — a reasoning that according to a 2018 expose by the NRC Handelsblad daily sets the commission apart from its counterparts elsewhere in the world.