When we look at the events of the Holocaust, we find ourselves looking through the eyes of those who were resigned to their fate. Some even felt like this was what they were born for and nothing could possibly change that. One Holocaust survivor, Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel, who was born in Sighet, Romania, on September 30, 1928 expressed that very sentiment concerning his time as a prisoner of the Nazi Regime. Wiesel’s early life was fairly normal, as it was a fairly peaceful time for the Jewish people. He was part of an average Jewish family consisting of his mother, father, and three sisters, but all that came to a screeching halt in 1944, when they were shipped off to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The Holocaust experience was so horrific and such an assault on both his body and mind, that it defined his life. He couldn’t even stand to talk about much of it for over 60 years.
Wiesel, when he could finally speak of the atrocious acts he and others were subjected to, told of how the Nazi Regime conditioned the prisoners in the camps to believe that their future was what it was, and that they had no say in it. When his own father was beaten in front of him, Wiesel just stood there. He was horrified, but he didn’t move…he didn’t dare. For years that life moment haunted him. His father told him that it wasn’t so bad, but as his father’s son, Wiesel knew he should have done something. Nevertheless, he like so many other Jewish prisoners of the Nazi Regime, was made to understand that the killer (Nazis) came to kill, and the victim (Jews) came to be killed…like it was their destiny from the beginning of time. Somehow they were taught that this was the reason they were born. They are expected to believe that that their life had no other purpose, and that their voice didn’t matter…that their lives didn’t matter.
Wiesel’s ordeal really began in 1940, at age 12, when Hungary, which was in alliance with Nazi Germany, annexed his hometown of Sighet, Romania…although he didn’t know it then. At first things seemed ok, but then all the Jews in the city were forced into a ghetto. This was the story so many Jews shared. By 1944, when Elie was 15, Hungary colluded with Germany to deport all residents of the ghetto to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, in Poland. They were trucked out of their homes, their possessions stolen, and then they were packed into a cattle car on a train. It was so tight that they had to stand up the whole trip. They had no food or water, and no restroom facilities. It was terribly degrading. Upon arrival at Auschwitz, Elie’s mother, Sarah, and youngest sister, Tzipora, were killed, and he and his father, Shlomo, were separated from his other sisters, Hilda and Beatrice. Elie and Shlomo were transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp, where his father died.
Then came some of the worst scenes he can remember. Wiesel describes it this way: “Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes…children thrown into the flames. (Is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?)” Wiesel battled with immense guilt and the ugliness of humanity for most of his life after surviving the Holocaust. Nevertheless, Wiesel was devoted to combating indifference, intolerance, and injustice. He became an accomplished writer, professor, and overall champion for human rights. Finally on April 16, 1945, American military personnel liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp. The survivors were barely alive, and even solid food ran the risk of causing their death, because their digestive systems were not prepared for much food, even though they were starving. The soldiers didn’t know the consequences, and gave them chocolate bars. The results were disastrous. They finally had to stop giving them anything, which was just as hard, if not harder than the problems caused by feeding them.
Thinking his family was gone, Wiesel eventually made his way to Paris, where he enrolled in the Sorbonne to study literature, philosophy, and psychology. By age 19, he was working as a journalist for a French newspaper, earing $16 per month…a pretty goo wage in those days. A few years later, in 1949, he was sent to Israel, to cover the early days of the new nation. Wiesel found out that two of his sisters survived, when his sister, Hilda saw his picture in a newspaper. While Elie was living in a French orphanage in 1947, a journalist took his photo, and it was published in the French newspaper where Hilda saw it. In an interview in 2000, Wiesel admitted he thought all his sisters had died in the Holocaust. “When I was still in Buchenwald, I studied the lists of survivors, and my sisters’ names were not there. That’s why I went to France…otherwise I would have gone back to my hometown of Sighet. In France, a clerk in an office at the orphanage told me that he had talked with my sister, who was looking for me. ‘That’s impossible!’ I told him. ‘How would she even know I am in France?’ But he insisted that she’d told him that she would be waiting for me in Paris the next day. I didn’t sleep that night. The next day, I went to Paris, and there was my older sister! After our liberation, she had gotten engaged and gone to France, because she thought I was dead too. Then one day she opened the paper and saw my picture [a journalist had come to the orphanage to take pictures and write a story]. If it hadn’t been for that, it may have been years before we met. My other sister had gone back to our hometown after our release, thinking that I might be there.” The following year, Elie reunited with Beatrice, in Antwerp, Belgium. She eventually emigrated to Canada, where she lived for the rest of her life. Elie Wiesel passed away on July 2, 2016.
As kids, we have all played hide and seek. It’s a common game, and it’s a lot of fun. At least the version we all played as kids, was a lot of fun. There is a version of hide and seek that was not only “not” fun, it was not a game. It was during World War II, when the Jewish people, and any other race not considered the Aryan race by Adolf Hitler, were forced to go into hiding or face slavery and deportation to the death camps. The only real difference between these two “games” was that one was for fun and one was life and death.
The stories of people who hid out during those tumultuous times, and those who hid them, are too numerous to tell, and the only ones we hear about are those about which someone kept a record, a diary, or lived through the events and was later able to tell the tale, but there are many unsung heroes, whose stories were never told, and yet those they helped will never forget their kindness. These were people from all walks of life, who turned their homes into hiding places by building a wall to make a tiny room, or turned their attics, basements, barns, or sheds into places of refuge for the many persecuted people upon whom Hitler had set his sites. Hiding these people would mean certain death, if they were caught, but they could not live with themselves, if they didn’t help their fellow man. Those in hiding knew that if they weren’t quiet, their host family would be killed right along side of those in hiding. They even managed to keep the babies quiet, some for years. The children seemed to instinctively know that their silence was imperative. And of course, God made a way for it all to work. Children are not instinctively quiet!! And yet these were. The was no coughing, sneezing, whispering, or moving around, when the Gestapo came calling. Those in hiding knew that their hosts were in just as much danger as they were, and they were forever grateful that their host family was willing to help them in their time of great need. Some were caught, and put to death, but many of the Jewish people and the others, managed to stay in hiding for years. Somehow, God made a way for some of the Jewish people, His chosen people, to survive….against all odds.
I can’t imagine finding myself in the position they did…the ones who hid the Jews, or the Jews being hidden. They had done nothing wrong. Their only crime was that they existed, and the only solution, in Hitler’s view, was their annihilation. I can’t imagine being so hated…even in these times of so much hate that we are on today. The people who hid these precious Jews are among the very best people ever to live, and they are owed a debt that can never be repaid. They used their imaginations to create hiding places where none had existed, and then protected their refugees, often with their own lives. It was a dangerous game of hide and seek, and those in hiding would pay for losing with their lives. Losing was simply not an option.
During the Holocaust, the majority of known Jews in any given country, had a very slim chance of surviving the war, but the Denmark Jews somehow managed to hold an impressive 95% survival rate record. Much of that was due to one man, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, who became an unlikely hero of the Jewish people…mainly because he was a German diplomat serving as an attaché for Nazi Germany in occupied Denmark at the time. In fact, that is what makes what he did so strange.
Duckwitz was born on September 29, 1904, in Bremen, Germany. He was part of an old patrician family in the Hanseatic City. After college, he began a career in the international coffee trade. From 1928 until 1932 Duckwitz lived in Copenhagen, Denmark. Upon moving back to Bremen, November 1932 he met Gregor Strasser, who was the leader of the leftist branch of the German nationalistic Nazi Party. While talking to Strasser, Duckwitz found that “elements of Scandinavian socialism [were] connected with nationalistic feelings” and this led to his decision to join the Nazi Party, and subsequently on July 1, 1933, to join the Nazi Party’s Office of Foreign Affairs in Berlin.
What had at first seemed to him to be a party who’s values agreed with his, he soon became increasingly disillusioned by Nazi politics. In a letter written June 4, 1935 to Alfred Rosenberg, the head of the office, he wrote, “My two-year employment in the Reichsleitung [i.e. executive branch] of the [Nazi Party] has made me realize that I am so fundamentally deceived in the nature and purpose of the National Socialist movement that I am no longer able to work within this movement as an honest person.” That move in itself strikes me now, as scary, considering how the known Nazi party functioned. He may not have realized hoe dangerous his words were, but I think they could have gotten him killed. Around the same time the Gestapo (secret police) made its first notes on Duckwitz after he sheltered three Jewish women in his Kurfürstendamm apartment during a local anti-Semitic Sturmabteilung event. He later wrote that during this time period he became “a fierce opponent of this [Nazi] system”.
After 1942, Duckwitz worked with the Nazi Reich representative Werner Best, who organized the Gestapo. On September 11, 1943 Best told Duckwitz about the intended round-up of all Danish Jews on October 1, 1943. A horrified Duckwitz travelled to Berlin in an attempt to stop the deportation through official channels. When that failed, he flew to Stockholm two weeks later, saying he was going to discuss the passage of German merchant ships. While there, he contacted Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson and asked whether Sweden would be willing to receive Danish Jewish refugees. A couple of days later, Hansson came back with the promise of a favorable reception. On September, 29, 1943, Duckwitz contacted Danish social democrat Hans Hedtoft and notified him of the intended deportation. Hedtoft warned the head of the Jewish community CB Henriques and the acting chief rabbi Marcus Melchior, who spread the warning. Sympathetic Danes in all walks of life organized an immediate mass escape of over 7,200 Jews and 700 of their non-Jewish relatives by sea to Sweden. Duckwitz’ immediate action and the willingness of the Danish and Swedish citizens saved the lives of 95% of Denmark’s Jewish population. They were the only European nation to save almost all their Jewish population from certain death at the hand’s of Hitler’s evil regime.
Somehow, Duckwitz was never caught committing his act of “treason” against the Third Reich, and he stayed in good standing with the Nazi regime. After the war, Duckwitz remained in the German foreign service. From 1955–1958 Duckwitz served as West German ambassador to Denmark and later as the ambassador to India. When Willy Brandt became Foreign Minister in 1966, he made Duckwitz Secretary of State in West Germany´s Foreign Office. After Brandt became Chancellor, he asked Duckwitz to negotiate an agreement with the Polish government. Brandt’s work culminated in the 1970 Treaty of Warsaw. Duckwitz worked as Secretary of State until his final retirement in 1970. On March 21, 1971 the Israeli government named him Righteous Among the Nations and included him in the Yad Vashem memorial. He died two years later, on February 16, 1973 at the age of 68.
Most people would not think that the things Dr Gisella Perl did at Auschwitz during the Holocaust were angelic in any way, but the prisoners there, the women whose lives she saved would say otherwise. To them, she was an angel of mercy…even if some of the things she had to do were so horrific that she tried to commit suicide after the war. Dr Perl was a successful Jewish gynecologist from Romania, where she lived with her husband and two children. Right before the Nazi soldiers stormed her home, she was able to hid her daughter with some non-Jews, but she, her husband, son, her elderly parents who captured and taken to Auschwitz. Once they arrived, Gisella was separated from her family. They would be sent to be slave labor or to be killed. She would never see any of them again. Because she was a doctor, she was to be used in a different way…a horrifically gruesome way. She was to work for Dr Joseph Mengele, to be at his beck and call, and the things he made her do nearly killed her. She was a doctor. She was supposed to save lives, not be involved in ending them…or worse, but that was the position he put her in.
First, he told her to round up any pregnant women. She thought she was going to be caring for these women, but after she turned over 50 women, and they were immediately sent to the gas chambers, a horrified Dr Perl made up her mind that somehow, she would do whatever she could to thwart the Nazis horrible plans. She had not understood what was goin to happen to the pregnant women she turned over, and the thought of her part in their loss of live, nearly killed her. The things she did after that first horrible mistake, might not seem to most people, including me, like the actions of an angel, but I can see that she had no real choices.
The women Dr Perl cared for had been treated horrible by the Nazi soldiers. Their wounds consisted of lashes from a whip on bare skin, to bites from dogs, to infections from the horribly unsanitary conditions. When she entered the room, the prisoners in the infirmary knew that she was there to help. That was the good part of her life at Auschwitz, but Dr Mengele was a cruel and evil man, and he was determined to kill any pregnant woman. This left Dr Perl with an extremely difficult decision to make. She could watch as the mother and baby were put to death, or she could abort the babies and give the mothers the chance to live to have a family later. The choice was unthinkable to her, but it was also a non-choice. She could lose one life or both. The abortions were performed in secret, often in darkness, and the women whose lives she saved…well, they were grateful, even though they mourned their babies and never truly got over the decisions they and Dr Perl made. Later in life, after the war, Dr Perl went on to deliver many live babies, rejoicing over each. She was bold with God, telling him, when a baby seemed unlikely to make it, that God owed her this baby, because of those she could not save in the Holocaust. God honored her prayers, and gave her the healthy babies she requested of Him. I think He considered her the Angel of Auschwitz too.
During his reign, Hitler was determined to rid the world of those people he decided were of an inferior race…basically anyone who was not blonde haired, blue-eyed, and fair skinned. It was a seriously strange idea considering that Hitler had dark hair, and it is rumored that Hitler may have had both Jewish and African ancestry. I don’t suppose he would have liked knowing that much, or maybe he knew and didn’t care.
Hitler had a plan in mind to create the “perfect” race. His plan was two-fold. Most people know about the Holocaust, and the mass killing of Jews, Gypsies, and other “undesirable” races, by starvation, beatings, and most notably, the gas chambers. It is not known exactly how many people were killed, but the number is estimated at 6 million Jews, and as many as 11 million other groups. It was horrific, but it was not the only plan Hitler had.
His other plan was the Lebensborn, which translates as “wellspring of life” or “fountain or life.” The Lebensborn project was one in which women…who were of the Aryan race, a historical race concept which emerged in the period of the late 19th century and mid-20th century to describe people of Indo-European heritage as a racial grouping. Heinrich Himmler founded the Lebensborn project on December 12, 1935, the same year the Nuremberg Laws outlawed intermarriage with Jews and others who were deemed inferior. In the beginning, the Lebensborn children were taken to SS nurseries. But in order to create a “super-race,” the SS transformed these nurseries into “meeting places” for “racially pure” German women who wanted to meet and have children with SS officers. The idea was that they were doing something great for “the cause.” The children born in the Lebensborn nurseries were then taken by the SS. The Lebensborn provided support for expectant mothers, we or unwed, by providing a home and the means to have their children in safety and comfort. For decades, Germany’s birthrate had been decreasing, and Himmler’s goal was to reverse the decline and increase the Germanic/Nordic population of Germany to 120 million. Himmler encouraged SS and Wermacht officers to have children with Aryan women. He believed Lebensborn children would grow up to lead a Nazi-Aryan nation. Once the children were born, the woman had the choice to marry the SS officer father, or give the child up for adoption. She was not allowed to keep the child on her own, and once she entered the Lebensborn she could not leave until the child was delivered.
Any children who were born with any defects were immediately put to death. The program had no room for any special-needs children. The children who were given up by the mothers, were usually kept at the Lebensborn for about a year before they were made available for adoption, and then only to SS or Wermacht soldiers families or members of the Nazi party. During their time in the SS nursery, they were named by Himmler. The whole purpose of this society (Registered Society Lebensborn – Lebensborn Eingetragener Verein) was to offer to young girls who were deemed “racially pure” the possibility to give birth to a child in secret. The child was then given to the SS organization which took charge in the child’s education and adoption. Both mother and father needed to pass a “racial purity” test. Blond hair and blue eyes were preferred, and family lineage had to be traced back at least three generations. Of all the women who applied, only 40 percent passed the racial purity test and were granted admission to the Lebensborn program. The majority of mothers were unmarried, 57.6 percent until 1939, and about 70 percent by 1940.
One of the most horrible sides of the Lebensborn policy was the kidnapping of children “racially good” in the eastern occupied countries after 1939. Some of these children were orphans, but it is well documented that many were stolen from their parents’ arms. These kidnappings were organized by the SS in order to take children by force who matched the Nazis’ racial criteria…blond hair and blue or green eyes. Thousands of children were taken to the Lebensborn centers in order to be “Germanized.” Up to 100,000 children may have been stolen from Poland alone. In these centers, everything was done to force the children to reject and forget their birth parents. The SS nurses were told to persuade the children that they were deliberately abandoned by their parents. The children who refused the Nazi education were often beaten. Most of those who rejected Nazi principles were transferred to concentration camps, usually in Kalish in Poland, and exterminated. The others were adopted by SS families. The whole Lebensborn program was twisted. It was like growing machines who would believe and do as they were told, which is what they thought the children would grow up to do.
Sometimes, it’s a close call that saves the life of a person, because a difference of inches could have meant the difference between life and death. That was the case for young Corporal Adolf Hitler when he was temporarily blinded on October 14, 1918, by a gas shell that was close enough to temporarily blind him, but unfortunately for the rest of the world, not close enough to kill him. The British shell was part of an attack at Ypres Salient in Belgium, and in the aftermath, Hitler found himself evacuated to a German military hospital at Pasewalk, in Pomerania. Of course, Hitler considered this a great good fortune, with the exception of the temporary blindness. I find myself wishing that the shell had been closer, because the difference of inches could have changed the world, and especially the victims of the Holocaust.
Like many young men of the period, Hitler was drafted for Austrian military service, but when he reported, he was turned down due to lack of fitness. In the summer of 1914, Hitler had moved to Munich. When World War I began, he asked for and received special permission to enlist as a German soldier. It all seemed like a noble thing to do. Hitler was a member of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. He traveled to France in October 1914. There, he saw heavy action during the First Battle of Ypres, earning the Iron Cross that December for dragging a wounded comrade to safety. These things rather surprise me, give Hitler’s reputation for thinking only of himself.
Over the course of the next two years, Hitler took part in some of the fiercest struggles of the war, including the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the Second Battle of Ypres and the Battle of the Somme. He was wounded in the leg by a shell blast on October 7, 1916, near Bapaume, France. Following his hospital stay. Hitler was sent to recover near Berlin, after which he returned to his old unit by February 1917. According to Hans Mend, a comrade of Hitler, he was given to rants on the dismal state of morale and dedication to the cause on the home front in Germany. According to Mend, “He sat in the corner of our mess holding his head between his hands in deep contemplation. Suddenly he would leap up, and running about excitedly, say that in spite of our big guns victory would be denied us, for the invisible foes of the German people were a greater danger than the biggest cannon of the enemy.” It would seem that Hitler’s crazed mind was beginning to present itself. As I look at a picture of Hitler as a young man, I wonder what happened to him that changed him so much. Yung Hitler didn’t look like the crazed, evil dictator the world knew
Hitler continued to earn citations for bravery over the next year, including an Iron Cross 1st Class for “personal bravery and general merit” in August 1918 for single-handedly capturing a group of French soldiers hiding in a shell hole during the final German offensive on the Western Front. Then, on October 14, 1918, Hitler received the injury that put an end to his service in World War I. He learned of the German surrender while recovering at Pasewalk. Hitler was furious and frustrated by the news. He said, “I staggered and stumbled back to my ward and buried my aching head between the blankets and pillow.” Hitler felt he and his fellow soldiers had been betrayed by the German people. I’m amazed that he did not put them in the camps too. In 1941, Hitler as Führer would reveal the degree to which his career and its terrible legacy had been shaped by the World War I, writing that “I brought back home with me my experiences at the front; out of them I built my National Socialist community.”
When I think of what might have been, but for a difference of inches, I find it very ironic. If that shell had hit just a few inches closer, perhaps Hitler would have died a hero in his nation, before he could become the epitome of evil…to the world, and to many of his own people. I suppose World War I and II, as well as the other wars, would have still happened, but maybe, quite likely, the Holocaust would not have happened. Just a few inches. If only.
Being Jewish during the Holocaust meant doing whatever it took to survive. For some, that means hiding in walls or changing one’s identity, then so be it. Still, there were other Jews who had no way of doing either of these things, so they had to make due with what they had. The path to freedom and life was a difficult one, no matter what path they chose. There were close calls, starvation, fear, and a lot of quiet. Two families decided that they had no choice, but to take refuge in a hayloft over a pigsty offered by the owner, Francisca Halamajowa, a kindly Polish Catholic woman, and her daughter, Helena, who protected these families.
The Malkin and Kinder families went into hiding in 1942, just before the town’s Jewish ghetto was liquidated, but unfortunately, after 4 year old Fay Malkin’s father and others were killed in an old brick factory nearby. Years later in 2011, Fay Malkin told of the heroic acts of Halamajowa. Fay Malkin almost died shortly before her 5th birthday, while hiding in that hayloft. She told the Holocaust remembrance gathering at UJA-Federation of New York on May 3rd: “Hitler didn’t win, we’re here.” Malkin tells of the 20 months that the family and two other families stayed hidden in order to stay alive…and to protect their protectors, who would have also lost their lives if they were caught.
The families worried that 4-year-old Fay would give them away with her crying. The little girl promised not to cry, but that is really a lot to ask of a little girl. Malkin couldn’t control herself once in the hayloft. After trying many other approaches, the adults finally made the excruciating decision to poison little Fay in order to save the rest. Malkin would have almost certainly been killed, if they were discovered. Malkin said her memory of the incident is faint, but she remembers pushing out the pill put in her mouth. Just before she was put in a bag to be buried, a doctor who was among those hiding felt a slight pulse. She was saved. “I became the miracle child,” she said. Having lived with the story her whole life, Fay smiled when she said that her crying after that was controlled by pillows. The families were saved, not only because of the kindness and courage of their fellow townspeople, but by the miracle of a little child that didn’t die. I realize that the fact that little Fay Malkin lived through the attempted poisoning may not seem like something that saved the families, but in reality, how could they have lived with themselves? Yes, they would have been alive, but they would have been almost as bad as the Nazis who were trying to kill them.
The Malkin family lived in Sokal, then part of Poland…now in Ukraine. Before World War II, there were 6,000 Jews in Sokal. By the end of the war, only about 30 had survived, and half of them were sheltered by Halamajowa. For 20 months, the families stayed in that tiny hayloft…never daring to leave or even make a sound. Halamajowa and her daughter, Helena, risked their lives by feeding them surreptitiously and otherwise helping them, all the while disguising their actions from her neighbors and the occupying German army. In July 1944, the town was liberated by the Soviets. When the Malkin and Kindler families were finally able to come down from the hayloft, they learned that Halamajowa had also been sheltering another Jewish family in a hole dug under her kitchen floor. What these two women did was above and beyond expectation, and very brave.
Of course, most Jews never spoke of the experience. They didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, and their protectors felt the same way. They didn’t trust the government, even with the war over. Halamajowa died in Russia in 1960…never having revealed her secrets. Nevertheless, in 1986 she was honored at Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile…a fitting title. In 2007, Malkin, Maltz, and several others from the hayloft and celler families, returned to Sokal. The trip was part of a film project that led to No. 4 Street of Our Lady. A basis for the film was the diary kept by Fay’s cousin, Moshe Maltz. Malkin said it was important but highly emotional going back to Sokal, especially seeing where her father was killed. Included in the group traveling there were the two granddaughters of Halamajowa, who now live in Connecticut. I’m sure it was very emotional.
Yesterday was National Holocaust Remembrance Day, I started thinking about all that happened to those poor victims of the Holocaust, and because yesterday was the day that the prisoners of Auschwitz were liberated, I began to contemplate what it must have been like for them as the exited that horrible camp. My guess is that their first thought was one of thankfulness that they had actually come out alive. Going into Auschwitz, I’m sure many had hopes that it would be just a camp for prisoners of war, and that they might be treated fairly, but as their friends began to disappear, never to return, I’m sure they knew to horrific truth. This was not a prisoner of war camp, is was a death camp, and the whole goal was to experiment, torture, and kill the prisoners. The people who worked there, were given authority to do as they pleased.
As the prisoners were taken out of the camp, I’m sure there was a mixture of feelings…relief and guilt. Relief because they had lived through one of the worst atrocities in history…and guilt, because they had lived through one of the worst atrocities in history…while so many others did not. The guilt would have been horrible. Parents who made it out, while their children did not; children who made it out, while their parents did not. They were free, but homeless. They were weary, and many were sick or dying of starvation. The experiments performed on them probably left irreparable damage to their bodies and minds. I’m sure their thoughts were racing as the walked away from the worst time in their lives.
Their futures were uncertain. They didn’t know if they would be accepted in their home country, or if they would have to immigrate to another country to find real freedom. And I’m sure that the worst thought was the possibility that it could happen again. Once something like the holocaust happened to a people, how could they possibly trust another nation again, and yet they would, because as horrible as the Holocaust was, there were many good people, and many good nations who were completely against the atrocities that happen during those years…people and nations who would never forget what happened. The Holocaust was an atrocity beyond the ability of most human beings ability to wrap their minds around, but it was something that was impossible to forget, for those who lived it. The horror they suffered would haunt them for the rest of their lives. It would be impossible to remove the nightmare they lived from their memory.
Kristallnacht, translated “Crystal Night,” referred to as the Night of Broken Glass, was an atrocious pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany that took place on November 9–10, 1938. It was carried out by Sturmabteilung (SA) paramilitary forces and civilians. The German authorities looked on without intervening as the mobs tore through the towns. The attacks were said to be retaliation for the assassination of the Nazi German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen year old German-born Polish Jew living in Paris. I guess I don’t understand why the act of one person should cost the lives of so many.
The name Kristallnacht comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed. Of course, the carnage didn’t stop with the windows. Estimates of the number of fatalities caused by the pogrom have varied. Reports in 1938 estimated that 91 Jews were murdered during the attacks, but modern analysis of German scholarly sources by historians such as Sir Richard Evans puts the number much higher. It also includes deaths from post-arrest maltreatment and subsequent suicides as well, and puts the death toll into the hundreds. Additionally, 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. The numbers of those killed there are unknown, but we can easily imagine based on what we know of the Holocaust.
Breaking windows wasn’t enough for these mobs either. Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools were ransacked, as the attackers demolished buildings with sledgehammers. The rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland, and over 7,000 Jewish businesses were either destroyed or damaged. The British historian Martin Gilbert wrote that no event in the history of German Jews between 1933 and 1945 was so widely reported as it was happening, and the accounts from the foreign journalists working in Germany sent shock waves around the world. At that time it was still hard to believe that mobs of lawless people could exist, but that was 80 years ago. These days we have no problem believing it, because these actions are almost commonplace.
The British newspaper The Times wrote at the time: “No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.” Kristallnacht was followed, of course, by additional economic and political persecution of Jews, and it is viewed by historians as part of Nazi Germany’s broader racial policy, and the beginning of the Final Solution and The Holocaust.
When we think of wartime atrocities, most of us think of the Holocaust, and that was indeed a horrible atrocity. Nevertheless, there have been a number of horrible dictators in history, and most of them committed some kind of atrocity. One of the worst atrocities in history, is one that very few people even know about. Most people have heard about the horrible experiments the Nazis performed on humans. The Nazi doctor, Joseph Mengele headed up that torture practice. But the Nazis weren’t alone in conducting cruel experiments on humans. The Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731. Some of the details of this unit’s activities are still uncovered. I don’t understand how anyone could have such little regard for human life, as to conduct some of the horrible experiments n them that some of these dictators and their cohorts did.
For 40 years, the horrific activities of “Unit 731” remained one the most closely guarded secrets of World War II. It was not until 1984 that Japan acknowledged what it had done and long denied. The vile experiments on humans conducted by the unit in preparation for germ warfare were atrocious. The Japanese doctors deliberately infected people with plague, anthrax, cholera and other pathogens. It is estimated that as many as 3,000 enemy soldiers and civilians were used as guinea pigs. Some of the more horrific experiments included surgery without anesthesia to see how the human body handled pain, and pressure chambers to see how much pressure a human could take before his eyes popped out.
The compound for Unit 731 was set up in 1938 in Japanese-occupied China with the aim of developing biological weapons. It also operated a secret research and experimental school in Shinjuku, central Tokyo. Its head was Lieutenant Shiro Ishii. Japanese universities and medical schools also supported the unit, by supplying doctors and research staff. I can’t imagine being assigned to such a facility. The picture now emerging about Unit 731’s activities is horrifying. According to reports, which were never officially admitted by the Japanese authorities, the unit used thousands of Chinese and other Asian civilians and wartime prisoners as human guinea pigs to breed and develop killer diseases. Many of the prisoners, who were murdered in the name of research, were used in hideous vivisection and other medical experiments, including barbaric trials to determine the effect of frostbite on the human body. To ease the conscience of those involved, if that is even possible, the prisoners were referred to not as people or patients, but as “Maruta”, which means wooden logs. I suppose they thought it would help, but I doubt if it did.
Before Japan’s surrender, the site of the experiments was completely destroyed, so that no evidence is left. I don’t suppose we would have known anything had it not been for the pictures that have surfaced, and people who have told the story later. After the site was destroyed, the remaining 400 prisoners were shot and the employees of the unit had to swear secrecy, or risk their own death. The mice kept in the laboratory were then released, which most likely cost the lives of as many as 30,000 people, because the mice were infected with the Bubonic Plague, and they spread the disease. Few of those involved with Unit 731 have admitted their guilt. Some were caught in China at the end of the war, were arrested and detained, but only a handful of them were prosecuted for war crimes. In Japan, not one was brought to justice. In a secret deal, the post-war American administration gave them immunity for prosecution in return for details of their experiments. Some of the worst criminals, including Hisato Yoshimura, who was in charge of the frostbite experiments, went on to occupy key medical and other posts in public and private sectors…their guilty feelings, if they had any, existed only in their own minds.