ALEX MAWS: From the Holocaust Educational Trust, I’m Alex Maws and this is the 70 Voices podcast. 70 Voices is a digital commemorative project from the Holocaust Educational Trust marking 70 years since the end of the Holocaust by documenting its history through 70 unique sources. Follow the project as it unfolds online at www.70voices.org.uk or download the 70 Voices app available for most smartphones and tablets.
And I’m once again joined this week by Martin Winstone, my colleague from the Holocaust Educational Trust, who researched all of the 70 voices that you’ve been following along on that app and on the website. So this week we have been looking at Jewish communities and specifically the means by which these communities were destroyed: the round-ups, the deportations to the killing sites. So can you explain a little bit more about this process?
MARTIN WINSTONE: Sure. Maybe if I start with the rationale behind this, because this is, I think, an area of the Holocaust which is sometimes slightly overlooked. We tend to know quite a lot about the persecution of Jews, both before the war and maybe during the war and what happened in ghettos, and we know a lot about the killing sites but actually that stage in between them is actually a very important one which has quite significant implications for our understanding. Essentially, there is a difference of some sort in between what happened in eastern Europe and elsewhere. In eastern Europe, what typically happened was what the Germans or the Nazis termed ‘Aktions’ or ‘Aktionen’ which involved armed round-ups in the community, sometimes the entire community, for larger towns and cities probably a series of round-ups. So the SS, the police and others would come into the ghetto, forcibly group people together and then, depending again on the size of the community, either take all of them or take some of them to a killing site. That journey could vary, we tend to associate the Holocaust with trains, and of course that’s really important; at the same time in many places in eastern Europe, as with the first reading of this week about Riga, victims were sometimes taken on foot because the killing sites were often not that far away from their homes. And also it’s worth saying that in eastern Europe that these roundups were often accompanied by shootings in ghettos. The research that I’ve done, for example, on the General Government, which was the main killing site during the Holocaust in occupied Poland, I would tend to guess that maybe about 5-10% of people were actually shot in ghettos, they never got to the supposed killing site, so there’s this extraordinary violence that’s associated with this. In western and central Europe the process was different. Typically there, Jews would be arrested, usually by the police, maybe taken to a central holding point because there weren’t ghettos in these countries, so they were not already necessarily imprisoned. So, for example, in Amsterdam there was a theatre in the centre of the city where Jews were held before their deportation. They would then be sent often towhat was known as a transit camp, a camp to specifically to hold people before they were then sent on by train to a killing site somewhere else, usually in eastern Europe.
AM: So why was it different in western Europe then?
MW: I think there are a number of reasons there, maybe two especially. One is perhaps the nature of Nazi occupation. In eastern Europe they tended naturally to be more brutal. In western Europe there was to an extent a greater sensitivity to public opinion in the sense that the Nazis, not just with the Holocaust but with a number of other things, tried to hide to some extent what was really happening. So in, say, France or the Netherlands and in certainly in Germany itself, there was a sense of trying to do this out of sight whereas in Poland or the Soviet Union they didn’t really care what the local population felt – and it’s fair to say not all of the local population felt negatively about this process - and so much more of it took place in plain sight.
I think also though it’s partly just a question of logistics because most of Europe’s Jews lived in eastern Europe. For example, the Jewish population of the city of Warsaw was bigger than that for the whole of France. So logistically the operations in eastern Europe were much bigger in scale and therefore there tended to be a much more violent aspect to them because it was seen as every day, more or less, these units were clearing out these ghettos, and so they just became habituated to this use of violence, whereas in western Europe it’s partly that this is a much less frequent process but also partly – and I think this is quite an important issue – it’s not necessarily always Germans who were carrying this out and that’s obviously quite a significant phenomenon.
AM: And as is so often the case when we think about the history of the Holocaust, these historical details that you’re explaining actually help us to gain a better understanding of the Holocaust as a whole and the ideology and the rationale behind it so what you’re describing about the nature of these deportations, what does it tell us about the Holocaust, what does it reveal?
MW: It tells us quite important things which I think we will return to in subsequent weeks, but I think particularly that idea that I’ve already alluded to, that there was a wider range of people involved in this process. So, in the round-ups themselves, it wasn’t just the SS; across Europe there were regular German policeman who were used. It’s an often overlooked fact that probably the largest proportion of the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not actually members of the SS, they were ordinary police, whether they were German or for that matter whether they were citizens of other nations. So, for example, in Paris when the big round-ups took place, it was French police who generally carried them out. And in eastern Europe there were auxiliary forces, semi-official police forces working with the SS, in places like Lithuania for example, made up of far right nationalists and they played a very active role in this process. So in the actual roun-ups themselves, there are huge numbers of people involved, but also this is only one part of a wider process.
To actually transport Jews from their home cities to the killing sites involves quite a lot of logistics, particularly if people were being transported across Europe so that then involves the roles of, for example, the German railways and for that matter the railways of other countries. There’s this phrase which is often used by German historians which translates as ‘desk perpetrators’: essentially people who didn’t personally kill anyone but who were all part of this process, signed orders, timetabled trains and so on, knowing, for the most part, that this was going to bring about the deaths of large numbers of people. And also on the ground, civilian German officials, or actually civilian officials in other countries, played a key role in terms of issues like indexes of names of Jews or in eastern European ghettos deciding which Jews would get labour cards which might mean that they would survive for the time being as key workers and which would not. So I think that the range of perpetrators or potential perpetrators is huge and it’s important to understand that.
Also, as I say, in eastern Europe the fact that these often violent rounds-ups were taking place in the middle of towns and cities means that the Holocaust was actually quite visible. Again this is a theme that we will return to but one certainly finds, where Jews were being shot in some cases in the middle of cities, in other cases were being forcibly removed, then clearly lots of people were witnesses to this and that has implications for our understanding of phrases like ‘bystander’. Being a bystander, say, in Germany in the 1930s when one sees the persecution of Jews, even on a violent event like Kristallnacht, is very different to being a bystander in somewhere in Poland or Belarus, say, in 1942 when mass murder is happening outside your front door, literally quite often for many people.
AM: I think it’s so important when we talk about this period of history that we don’t merely describe events like round-ups and deportations in very clinical and logistical terms, thinking about how did the perpetrators go about carrying this out, what was their thinking behind it. I think one of the things I’ve really appreciated reading this week’s sources on 70 Voices is that we’re really looking at how these events were experienced by the people who were taken away from their communities, in some cases those communities were their actual hometown, in some cases it might have been a ghetto that they had previously deported to and so I think that the sources you’ve chosen this week really do a very good job of highlighting how this was experienced by the Jews So can you talk a little bit more about how Jews themselves reacted to these types of events?
MW: I think we can see certainly, maybe particularly with the first three sources we had this week, that initially and overwhelmingly the common reaction was just of shock first of all and of a sense of despondency, of despair, and I think this links to a point we’ve touched on in previous weeks and will recur I think, the speed with which the Holocaust happened. We sometimes get people saying things like ‘why didn’t they fight back?’, ‘why didn’t they do something?’, ‘why didn’t they run away?’, and actually some people did that. But once Nazi policy had evolved in 1941-42, to turn into what we consider to be the Holocaust, then it was something that was carried out extraordinarily quickly. It’s often not known that a majority of victims of the Holocaust, an absolute majority, were murdered in a single calendar year, 1942. So I think particularly with the source this week from the nurse in Lublin, which is the city which marked the start of Aktion Reinhard, the biggest killing operation, there’s just this sense of people were taken by surprise. They knew that Nazi intrusions in the ghetto were a regular occurrence but nothing on this scale and I think for many people, at least initially, there was this sense of powerlessness because it seemed in many cases that escape was impossible.
However, over time I think, for those who survived the initial waves of deportations in 1942, there were increasing efforts to resist this, and this is a theme that we will be looking at in subsequent weeks, and equally large numbers of people did try to escape and that in itself raises significant issues, because it wasn’t enough just to be able to escape from a ghetto or from a western European city: one needed to be able to hide and usually, for most people, that required non-Jews to be there to offer assistance. The extent to which that was the case was something that varied: there are a large number of people who owed their lives to the efforts of very courageous people. But equally, again as we’ll see in later weeks, there were others whose experience was rather different, so I think for most Jews confronted with this there was a sense of, I’d say first of all shock, but also trying to avoid this process. Again it takes us back to this idea we discussed last week that most of the time Jews were not always in control of their destiny. Ultimately their freedom of manoeuvre was very much dependent on the actions and attitudes of others, obviously the Nazis, but not just the Nazis.
AM: It really hits home hearing you describe this range of reactions that so much would vary depending on time, place, circumstances, that to try to say Jews responded in this way or that way when confronted with these situations is really almost impossible. There’s such a broad range and I suppose that’s really why we’re trying to show a range of different types of responses. One of the really challenging ones, I suppose, was the one from Chaim Rumkowski, the Chair of the Jewish Council in the Łódź Ghetto. Last week, when we had Jeremy Leigh on the podcast and we were talking about ghettos, the issues about the Judenrat, the Jewish Councils, came up and what we talked about was sort of the’ choiceless choices’ and Chaim Rumkowski is possibly the prototypical example of someone confronted with that type of situation. He was asked by the Nazis, as the Jewish representative in the Łódź Ghetto to hand over Jewish children, and he had to ask the adults in the ghetto to do just that, so it just raises this highly uncomfortable complex moral question: was Chaim Rumkowski a perpetrator?
MW: I would say not a perpetrator. This is, though, a very controversial issue, was at the time, has been ever since. We work, and have worked over the years, with a number of survivors of the Łódź Ghetto who have expressed very different views about it. Rumkowski was not the nicest man, it’s fair to say: he was a sexual predator, he would sometimes include people who’d crossed him on the list of Jews to be deported. At the same time, he was confronted with this appalling dilemma in September 1942, when the Nazis demanded all elderly people, all children under the age of 10. Rumkowski wanted to ensure the survival of at least a part of the ghetto and his strategy for doing that was to make it a productive ghetto. Łódź, probably more than any other ghetto in eastern Europe, had lots of factories located in it, working in essential industries for the German war effort. Rumkowski believed therefore that those Jews would survive, but that then raised the question of what of those who could not work because they were too old, too young, and the view that he took which obviously very many people condemned at the time and have condemned since, was to hand over. It’s also worth saying that the majority of Jewish parents did not respond to that call, they hid their children or tried to, but Rumkowski believed that that was the only way to ensure survival. As I say, most Jewish parents did not hand over their children; nonetheless, the Nazis came into the ghetto and took them anyway.
But, to some extent Rumkowski’s strategy seemed to be relatively successful from his point of view. By that, what I mean is that after those deportations there were no major deportations from Łódź for more than a year and a half, in fact almost two years. It was the very last ghetto to be liquidated, in the summer of 1944, because it contained these essential factories, there were still more than 70,000 Jews living in the ghetto at that time. Now as it turned out, Himmler finally decided to liquidate the ghetto and the Jews were either murdered at Chełmno or, predominantly at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but it almost worked. If the bomb plot against Hitler in July of 1944, for example, had succeeded, maybe those Jews would have been saved. If the Red Army had not ground to a halt outside Warsaw, then they would have been saved, So Rumkowski failed ultimately, but he came close to saving maybe 70,000 Jews which would have been the largest surviving Jewish community in eastern Europe.
It’s instructive to compare him to someone we mentioned last week, his equivalent in Warsaw, Adam Czerniaków, who in July of 1942, when he was essentially given the same demands to hand over Jews for deportation, committed suicide which for many people was the honourable thing to do. At the same time, it did not stop those deportations and close to a quarter of a million people in Warsaw, including Janusz Korczak and his orphans who we’ve also looked at this week, were deported to their deaths at Treblinka. So in a sense, all Jewish leaders were in this invidious position where whatever they chose to do was ultimately not going to have a significant impact on the course of events. So there are still many people who cannot forgive Rumkowski for what he did; at the same time, though, it’s very difficult for us, certainly those of us who didn’t experience this, to pass judgement upon him and it does epitomise as you say this concept of the ‘choiceless choice’.
AM: Moving on from there, then the final reading of the week comes from Helen Lewis who highlights the conditions in which Jews were transported to killing centres such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and it truly is horrific: why were the conditions as horrific as they were?
MW: I think again, awful as it sounds, it’s partly out of logistics from the Nazi perspective, in the sense that they wanted to transport as many people as quickly as possible. But that obviously in itself reveals this Nazi view of Jews as less than human. Ironically, in certain parts of Nazi-occupied Europe, there were actually laws on how many cattle could be put in a cattle truck, because of the Nazi concern with animal welfare, but for Jews they just did not care. I think in that sense, and we can see this in some of the records of the perpetrators where, for example, there were police officers who were escorting these transports to their destinations: typically they write in very dispassionate tones about the people, using words like ‘cargo’, and what they’re mainly concerned about are things like the policeman guarding the train was not given enough food for the journey – they don’t pay any attention to the needs of the people on those trains.
But also I think, more broadly, it’s sometimes been suggested that this is linked to this wider concept of dehumanisation, that it perhaps made it easier for the perpetrators to think of the Jews in these term. And certainly when they arrived at the killing sites, if they were already starving – as some survivors said, they’d already been driven mad through hunger – then it was easier to see them in that way as somehow less than human. And this actually relates to a concept that we’ve discussed before, which comes up a lot with Holocaust education, about dehumanisation and re-humanisation. The great Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, who we’ve discussed in previous episodes, has said that it’s not actually the victims who were dehumanised, in a way it’s the perpetrators. They essentially are the people who have abandoned what we would normally consider to be civilised human values, and by seeing the victims in this way that the perpetrators did and the way they wrote about it, then in a sense that does tend to highlight that, because ultimately what it comes down to is obviously the ingrained antisemitism of many perpetrators, but underpinning this is this broader sense of just seeing fellow human beings as somehow less than fellow human beings. That is a very disturbing concept, because not all of these people were fanatical Nazis who joined the party from very early on, and, again, when we look at perpetrators in later weeks, I think that’s a thing that we will return to: what was it that made these people, many of whom would be regarded as just ordinary people, loving family men or women, what turned them into these perpetrators who did not regard the Jews, or sometimes other victims, as fellow human beings? And that is a very disturbing question.
AM: And, of course, the end result of all of these processes and policies that we’re talking about is the destruction of communities all across Europe and as you mentioned particularly in the eastern part of Europe and that adds, I think, another layer or dimension to this commemoration that we’re taking part in through 70 Voices. We often talk about commemorating the lives of individuals, which is absolutely of course the right thing to do, we talk about 6 million who were murdered, but there’s this other things that these 6 million made up which is they were all parts of communities, and so all across Europe there are effectively these absences, these communities that just no longer exist and all of the things that we associate with communities that aren’t there anymore. It’s kind of a bit more of an abstract concept, I think to commemorate a community, we understand what it means to commemorate the life of a person, but how do we commemorate the destruction of a community? I’m very glad that you’ve helped both in this week’s 70 Voices sources and then in this discussion that we’re having today, just to highlight the process behind that and to shift our thinking to think about, yes, individuals but also the larger collective groups, the communities that they made up as well, so thank you very much for sharing your thoughts on this very challenging topic once again this week.
Read more by Martin Winstone: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Martin-Winstone/e/B003W3SI1U/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1