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The Holocaust: `May history attest to us' -- resistance, collaboration and survival

Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Warsaw, Poland.

Hitler’s Priests, by Kevin Spicer, Northern Illinois University Press, 2008, 369 pp. US$34.95

Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive, by Samuel D. Kassow, Indiana University Press, 2007, 523 pP., US$34.95

Kasztner’s Train: the True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust, by Anna Porter, Scribe, 2008, 548 pp., A$32.95

The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman, Pantheon, 1996, 296 pp., US$35.

Review by Barry Healy

July 28, 2009 -- In October 2008 the Catholic Synod of Bishops convened in Rome for a four-day theological discussion. Without warning, on the first day, Pope Benedict XVI suspended discussion and ordered the 200 participants to attend a special commemoration mass for Pius XII, who was the pope between 1939 and 1958.

The sudden decision was part of an attempt to stampede the Catholic Church into accepting the beatification of Pius XII. According to the English Catholic newspaper, The Tablet, Pius’ beatification “has been bogged down by longstanding criticism, especially from Jewish groups, that the Second World War-era pope did not speak out sufficiently against the Holocaust”.

That Benedict has to resort to such bizarre tactics is a small measure of how the decisions made during the Holocaust still resonate today.

More than just an example of Søren Kierkegaard’s famous aphorism, “Life must be understood backwards; but ... it must be lived forward”, it shows how the Holocaust still lives today, effecting individuals, families and whole nations. The struggle to understand it is part of the battle of ideas to comprehend the modern world.

The Holocaust was a maelstrom; all those caught in it had to make choices to survive. Some chose to look after themselves, even acquiring fortunes and lying afterwards, others lived exemplary lives -- and died.

Many just died. These four books recount some of these individual choices and their consequences.


SS Einsatzgruppen shootings of Eastern European Jewish men started in June 1941. In July they began murdering Jewish women and children, and in August and September annihilating whole Jewish districts.

It was here that Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Becher of the SS Death’s Head Division started to rise through the ranks. He was to later feature in the mass slaughter of Hungarian Jews, and his alliance with the Zionist Rezso Kasztner is central to Anna Porter’s Kasztner’s Train.

By the end of 1941, a million Jews in the Soviet Union and the Baltics had disappeared. The figures come from a July 16, 2009, article by Timothy Snyder in the New York Review of Books. By the end of 1942 the Holocaust had claimed two-thirds of its victims. These were mainly Polish and Soviet Jews shot or gassed by carbon monoxide from engines pumped into chambers at Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.

Then the Nazis’ attention turned to the slaughter of Western European Jews, Roms and others. Approximately 10 per cent of Holocaust victims were Hungarian.

In 1944, with the Nazi defeat obvious to all, the killings continued. Adolf Eichmann dispatched so many Jews to Auschwitz from Hungary that the gas chambers were overwhelmed. Pits were dug, giant graves.

“Those that what finished in the gas chambers before they got pushed in these graves, it was the lucky ones”, Art Spiegelman recounts his Polish father telling him in Maus, A Survivor’s Tale. “The others had to jump in the graves while they were still alive. Prisoners what worked there poured gasoline over the live ones and the dead ones and the fat from the burning bodies they scooped and poured again so everyone could burn better.”

The screams of the dying are graphically, hideously depicted in Maus.


After the war US diplomat Robert Daniel Murphy asked German Catholic Cardinal Michael Faulhaber about “the disturbing reports that during the war some of the Catholic clergy in Bavaria fell under Nazi influence”. It was “unfortunately true”, Faulhaber admitted. Luckily only five priests in his archdiocese had aligned themselves with the party. And the good cardinal had relieved them of their duties and, furthermore, three of them were now dead and the other two had disappeared.

Cardinal Faulhaber was a bare-faced liar. Kevin Spicer meticulously shows at least 180 Catholic priests actively supported the Nazis up to and including spying on other clergy for the fascists. Beyond these 180, there was a vast network of sympathetic priests and Bishops who quietly supported the Reich.

They celebrated the oppression of Jews and blessed Nazi flags. How these priests could be won to fascism and be tolerated by their superiors was due to a commonality between Nazism and Catholicism: hatred of Jews.

Where they differed was in how to deal with Jews. The Nazis wanted to kill them, the Catholics wanted to baptise them and “save their souls”.

Also, Nazi social totalitarianism conflicted with Catholic social domination through schools and its other structures. So, while the relationship was not perfectly harmonious, the overlap of ideology allowed for enough of a commonality of interests that the Church did not lead a resistance to the Nazis.

Catholic Church resistance?

Not all priests were collaborators. Previously, Spicer has written of priests who opposed the Nazis, at the expense of their lives.

Today, as part of Pope Benedict’s beatification push for Pius XII, archivists have been delving deep into Vatican records. The Vatican now claims that a document has been found showing that Pius ordered Catholic clergy to resist the Nazis.

If true, there is no evidence that people were aware of it at the time. It could be that the Vatican is self-servingly using partial evidence.

Approximately around the same time that Murphy was chatting with Cardinal Faulhaber, Kurt Becher was arrested and charged with war crimes for his part in the mass murder of Hungarian Jews. Luckily he had Rezso Kasztner, a skilled lawyer, to speak in his defence at the War Crimes Tribunal, effectively acting as his defence attorney. Kasztner was “repaying a debt of honour”, says Anna Porter.

According to Porter, Kasztner owed Becher because while Becher had been working with Eichmann to kill Jews, Kasztner had been working with Becher to save them. The accusation has hung over Kasztner ever since that he connived with Becher to save some wealthy and influential Jews in exchange for collaboration in the murder of masses of other Hungarian Jews.

Becher got off, returned to Germany, and within a year mysteriously acquired great wealth, became a rich businessman and rose to be a confidant of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It can be safely assumed that Becher’s riches came from the treasure trove of bribes he took during the Holocaust.

Emanuel Ringelblum

In early August 1942 a 19-year-old member of the Jewish underground resistance wrote feverishly, deep inside the burning Warsaw Ghetto about another, different trove of riches: “What we were unable to shriek to the world we buried in the ground…May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened…We may now die in peace… May history attest to us.”

Finally, he asked whoever might find the buried items to send them to the Borochov Museum in the “United Soviets of Palestine” – a brave testament to his vision of a better, communistic, post-WWII world.

The treasure that David Graber and his revolutionary comrades were toiling to bury was the Oyneg Shabes Archive, a massive collection of essays, historical investigations and contemporary publications that preserved the story of ghetto life. The leader of the secret group of archivists was the radical historian Emanuel Ringelblum.

Ringelblum was a stalwart member of the Jewish revolutionary group the Left Poalei Zion (LPZ) – the radical faction of the Poalei Zion (Zionist Worker's) party inspired by Ukrainian-born thinker Ber Borochov. Borochov sought to develop Marxist theory to address Jewish oppression.

The LPZ was a major player in the intense politico-social life of pre-WWII Jewish Poland. It attacked the social-democratic Bund, which sought Jewish assimilation into a social-democratic Polish nationality. As in the rest of Europe the Zionists were a minority trend.

“Although the entire spectrum of Jewish political activity in interwar Poland required a high degree of personal dedication and commitment, it is fair to say that the LPZ attracted an exceptionally devoted membership”, Kassow writes. One of Ringelblum’s early employers sniffed that he was “more Communist than the Communists”.

The LPZ defended the USSR even though they were aware of its “mistakes and shortcomings'', Kassow says. However, the LPZ wanted a socialist, Jewish Palestine and was convinced that only “a world revolution, directed by the Soviet Union” could produce it.

Ringelblum’s political formation, based on faith in the masses, proved essential for the most demanding role of his life within the Warsaw Ghetto as leader of the legal Aleynhilf (Self-Help Society) and the clandestine Oyneg Shabes Archive. Interestingly, Ringelblum was at a conference in Switzerland at the beginning of WWII and could have sat out the war there. He chose to return to his family and his revolutionary duties in Poland.

In 1940, in the Warsaw Ghetto, he drew together members of all Jewish factions into the Oyneg Shabes, which collected and buried two huge archives (one survived unscathed). Of the 60 members of the group only three survived.

Ringelblum was determined that the record be meticulously objective so that future generations could understand the suffering of the Jews. It was his contribution to a future in which racism and anti-Semitism would be no more.

From this archive we know, for instance, of the many German soldiers who would visit the ghetto and converse in Yiddish-German, sharing their secret thoughts about Hitler and his gang. Also reported are stories of corrupt Jews eagerly joining Germans and Poles in extorting money from their unfortunate brethren.

And also, astonishing stories of commitment to human values in the face of Nazism. Such as the teachers Janusz Korczak, Esther Karasiowna, Aaron Koninski and Stefania Wilczynska, who, when the Nazis collected children for deportation, chose to accompany them on their final journey, with full awareness of the consequences, in order to calm their fears.

An essay by Ringelblum himself describes the last meeting of the LPZ in Warsaw, at the opening of a party soup kitchen in the Ghetto in 1942. They reiterated their belief that the war would end with the collapse of capitalism and the victory of the Soviet Red Army.

LPZ leader Shakhne Zagan explained his certainty that “the working class in so-called democratic countries would not repeat the mistakes of 1918 and not let the fruits of victory slip away”, Ringelblum reported.

Kassow explains that “mistakes of 1918” were the “the decision of the German Social Democratic Party to set up the Weimar Republic instead of a Soviet state and the failure of workers in other countries to help the Bolsheviks”.

“Convinced that dying capitalism had spawned Nazism and, with it, the murder of European Jewry, this belief in world revolution gave Ringelblum a rare glimmer of hope,” Kassow writes.

The Oyneg Shabes produced documentary evidence of the gas chambers and smuggled it out to the Allies, demanding that action be taken to stop the death trains. The Allies’ choice to not bomb the rail lines echoes down the years as an unanswered question from WWII.

Warsaw Ghetto uprising

Eventually, Jewish youth groups, led by Zionist youth, armed themselves and led the heroic Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. Ringelblum and the LPZ encouraged the uprising, which lasted for months. Funds were garnered by armed expropriations from rich Jews in the Ghetto.

After hiding in an underground bunker for an extended period Ringelblum was captured by German soldiers on March 7, 1944, with his wife and son. He was tortured to try to get his contacts in the underground.

Other Jewish prisoners gathered money to save him by bribing the Nazis. The prisoner who took the proposition to Ringelblum found him sitting, bearing the signs of his beatings, with his beloved son on his lap. Ringelblum refused the offer, because it would have saved him only.

Some days later, thought to be around March 11, 1944, Emanuel Ringelblum, his wife and son, along with others, were shot by the Nazis in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. Presumably their bones are under the foundations of modern Warsaw.

Rezso Kasztner

Rezso Kasztner had a completely different relationship with the German occupiers of Hungary and remains a controversial figure because of it.

After WWII he was denounced in a world famous Israeli court case. It was said that he was a collaborator who connived with Eichmann to facilitate the transport of Hungarian Jews in exchange for money and some Zionists, destined for Palestine.

He was also denounced as having saved the mass murderer Becher at Nuremberg. Novelist Anna Porter has written what she calls a “popular history” in order to exonerate him. Porter argues that Kasztner was in fact responsible for saving the lives of more than 20,000, doing the best in impossible circumstances.

Australian writer Thomas Keneally, famous for his novel based on history, Schindler’s Ark, calls Porter’s work “a classic of the times it deals with”. He is right in that Porter certainly communicates with novelistic power the terrible Nazi oppression in Hungary.

Unfortunately she has, as she puts in the introduction, allowed herself “the leeway to reconstruct scenes and dialogue”. She has copious footnotes but it is hard to discern exactly what is fact and what is fiction. Attributing emotions or thoughts to people using novelistic techniques is a great way of swaying the reader rather than reporting facts, and that is her method.

It is quite noticeable that Porter rigorously defends Kasztner's morality while assassinating the characters of many others. Even the physical appearance of anyone who disagreed with him gets poison pen treatment.

Kasztner is the only person in this book with pristine motives. He is brave, robust, good looking and the only person truly concerned to save Jewish lives. Why? Precisely because he was a staunch Zionist.

Porter reports that Eichmann liked dealing with Zionists because he sympathised with their desire to separate from non-Jews and establish a homeland. As with the Catholic Church, Porter hints at enough of a commonality of ideology to allow for a commonality of interest.

While other Hungarian Jews starved, Krasztner, head of the Hungarian Jewish Agency Rescue Committee, night clubbed with Nazis all night, eating and drinking the very best. Later, in the 1950s, in an Israeli courtroom, survivors said that Jews boarded Nazi trains to the camps unaware of their doom because Krasztner withheld the information he had about the gas chambers.

When, Kasztner, who Porter says was an extremely intelligent and eloquent lawyer, had the courtroom as his forum in which to demonstrate that he had acted with the best of intentions, he was completely demolished.

Porter offers a series of excuses for this, none of which are persuasive.

She says that Kasztner was responsible for saving the lives of more than 20,000 people. Yet, these survivors failed to step forward to speak on his behalf while others who did speak denounced him. In fact, Porter rails against “Rezso’s so-called friends who had encouraged him to testify and then, when they were on the stand, had lied that they had no idea about the exterminations, that they would not have gone into the trains had they known.”

Porter attributes this to a psychological quirk by which people who owe their lives to another person come to resent the fact. It is an unsupportable claim. The Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg is warmly remembered to this day for saving Hungarian Jews.

The added drama of the court case was that Kasztner was not even the defendant. It was a libel action brought by the Israeli government on Kasztner’s behalf against an obscure pamphleteer who had attacked him. Porter says that the judge was originally leaning towards Kasztner but as his testimony proceeded, turned against him, finally damning him in his judgement.

After the judgement, Kasztner was assassinated in what appears to have been a political hit carried out by people associated with Israel's secret police Mossad, possibly because he was an international embarrassment.

After his death, in a divided opinion, Israel's Supreme Court overturned part of the lower court’s verdict, thus allowing Porter to say that Kasztner’s name had been cleared. But Porter’s book opens as many questions as it seeks to close. Porter is not denying that Kasztner got as close as he could to the Nazis, that he had early knowledge of the death camps and chose to not pass that on to others.

Hungarian Jews testified that they believed they were being sent to work, not death, because Kasztner withheld the truth. Porter even mentions one occasion on which fascist goons acted on Krasztner’s orders against Jews.

No better path?

Was his behaviour acceptable because, regrettably, no better path was available, as Porter argues? Or was no other path available because of Kasztner's politics, making him contemptuous of non-Zionists?

Kasztner said in court that the “Hungarian Jew was a branch which long ago dried up on the tree”, meaning that, because Hungarian Jews were assimilated they were morally depleted. Therefore, they could not be expected to resist and were not worthy to be saved from slaughter.

Astonishingly, the majority of Israel's Supreme Court agreed with him. “From this point of view no rescue achievement could have resulted by disclosing the Auschwitz news to the Jewish leaders”, the judges said.

The Supreme Court delivered two verdicts: in one they ruled that Kasztner's accuser had been right that Kasztner had defended the war criminal Becher at Nuremberg, but they split four to one on the accusation that Kasztner had collaborated with the Nazis.

The assassins’ bullets had already solved the political and legal quandary for the Israeli government of the legal requirement to prosecute Kasztner for having saved Becher. The complex Supreme Court decision created enough of a loophole for Kasztner’s defenders to claim vindication.

The government saw to it that the killers were released very early from prison.

This is murky business and Porter puts as good a gloss as possible on all of it. However, her history with novelistic flourishes actually raises the ghosts of the Hungarian Holocaust rather than settling them.

Fascism, never again!

Art Spiegelman is one who has lived with such Holocaust demons all his life. The child of two survivors he became an early leader of the Zap comic graphic style in the USA and editor of Raw magazine. Beginning in the 1980s he started interviewing his father and translating the conversations into graphic form. The Pulitzer prize-winning work has been rewarded with many reprintings.

Spiegelman's style is deceptively simple. Jews are drawn as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs and so on with other nationalities.

By slightly distancing the reader from the human form the utter depravity of Nazism somehow becomes the more shocking, cutting in under conscious defences. And all the horror of the Holocaust, up to and including Auschwitz is displayed.

What is more, Spiegelman writes himself into the narrative so that the past terror becomes intertwined with revealing the painful difficulties of the father/son relationship in the present.

Spiegelman's father never really recovered from his experiences. He was a neurotic, paranoid and demanding individual and the son struggled to fully understand him.

The subtitle “A Survivor’s Tale” ironically raises the question of who is the survivor: the father whose terrors affected his parenting, or the son, coping with the transferred fears he carries in himself.

It is Spiegelman's unwavering honesty, exposing both himself and his father, which makes this work essential for understanding the Holocaust and its consequences. It is perfect for presenting to children when they are of an age to deal with the Holocaust.

It stands in such contrast to the manoeuvrings of Pope Benedict and Anna Porter. It stands in the tradition of Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archive and the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Moreover, it amplifies those howling voices from the burning pit of Auschwitz, which must never be silenced and must always be answered with “Fascism, never again!”

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