Bob Schwartz

Category: History

Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day

Birkenau – Gerhard Richter

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a memorial day for those who died in the Holocaust, a Greek word meaning “sacrifice by fire.” Established by Israel in 1951, the day is now commemorated around the world. In the U.S., Congress has made it part of the week-long Days of Remembrance.

A new study released today “finds significant lack of Holocaust knowledge in the United States.” Without repeating the painful findings, it is enough to say that if trends continue, in a couple of generations a large majority of Americans will have very vague and erroneous views of what took place, if they know anything about the Holocaust at all. Painful but not surprising, given that Americans’ knowledge of their own history is pretty vague and often erroneous.

In 2018, and at any point in history, the phenomenon of the Holocaust matters for a lot reasons. Here at just a few.

The depths of human depravity exceed our imagination. The heights of human heroism, which the Holocaust also demonstrated, exceed our imagination too.

Whatever identity group you belong to, you can never be confident that you will not be the next despised “other” who must be totally eliminated. Which means that hatred of the other is to be avoided and acceptance of the other is to be applauded.

Science and technology can be very evil. It is true that Hitler couldn’t rely only on sophisticated chemical gas to kill Jews, supplementing that with old-fashioned mass shootings and body pits. But if he had had the opportunity to complete his work on rockets and atomic bombs, for example, who knows what the number of eliminated non-Aryans might have been?

As important as remembrance is, it is not as important as living, acting and speaking in ways to relieve current suffering. Dead and displaced at the hands of an evil leader is not history. It is now. “Never again” cannot be just for what happens to Jews. “Never again” is for everybody, or it is for nobody.

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Calling All Magicians or Time Travel Technologists: Help Bring Back the Original American Revolutionaries

Practical magic is a very popular subject for fictional speculation. So is time travel. If either of those turn out to be real, the one thing I would do with those practices is to bring back the venerated founders of America—our original revolutionaries and constitutional architects.

Their inspired vision of an enlightened democracy was a gift to us and to all civilization. Since at this moment there seems to be major misunderstanding, misrepresentation or ignorance of the essential principles, these political heroes would be the best people to explain themselves.

I see them making the rounds of the news networks. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, the whole lot, appearing on CNN, MSNBC and especially Fox News. They would be subject to vicious criticism and character assassination, of course, but those who stood up to and defeated King George III would have little trouble dealing with the 2018 Republican Party and Sean Hannity.

Ben Franklin would have a particularly good time. Besides his scathing wit, Franklin would focus on Trump’s frequent reference to attending the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin was founder of the University of Pennsylvania, and would suggest that if he knew Trump would someday be bragging about it, he would never have founded the university in the first place.

So, if you are a magician or time travel technologist, here is an opportunity to do immense good with your skills. Bring back the Founders. Now.

Shabbat and International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Shabbat. Today is also International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Sabbath is a celebration, compared to a wedding day. The Holocaust is not. A paradox, perhaps.

From The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The Sabbath is a bride, and its celebration is like a wedding.

“We learn in the Midrash that the Sabbath is like unto a bride. Just as a bride when she comes to her groom is lovely, bedecked and perfumed, so the Sabbath comes to Israel lovely and perfumed, as it is written: And on the Seventh Day He ceased from work and He rested (Exodus 31:17), and immediately afterwards we read: And He gave unto Moses kekalloto [the word kekalloto means when he finished, but it may also mean] as his bride, to teach us that just as a bride is lovely and bedecked, so is the Sabbath lovely and bedecked; just as a groom is dressed in his finest garments, so is a man on the Sabbath day dressed in his finest garments; just as a man rejoices all the days of the wedding feast, so does man rejoice on the Sabbath; just as the groom does no work on his wedding day, so does a man abstain from work on the Sabbath day; and therefore the Sages and ancient Saints called the Sabbath a bride.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day:

The United Nations General Assembly designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this annual day of commemoration, the UN urges every member state to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.

Nowhere in all of our obligations are we asked to make sense of things. Celebrate? Yes. Remember? Yes. Make sense of things? That would be a miracle.

And speaking of miracles, from Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach:

A Kvitl on the Frankfurter’s Grave

RABBI ISRAEL PERLOW (1869–1922), KNOWN AS THE BABE OF KARLIN-Stolin, was one of the most famous Hasidic rabbis of Lithuanian Hasidism. He became a Hasidic leader at the age of four when his father, Rabbi Ascher of Karlin, passed away. Rabbi Israel was a scholar, a fine composer, and had a commanding knowledge of the sciences. He died in Frankfurt an Main during one of his many travels and was buried there. After his death he was sometimes referred to as the Frankfurter. Despite the desecration of many Jewish cemeteries in Nazi Germany, the rabbi’s grave was never vandalized.

After liberation, Germany became the center for displaced persons. Most of them were people who had been liberated from the concentration camps; the others were those who came to seek possible survivors of their families and ways to emigrate to Palestine and America. Among the many refugees were a handful of Hasidim from Karlin-Stolin. For them, the Frankfurter’s grave was a source of strength and solace.

One day a Hasid of Karlin-Stolin who, along with his son, had been fortunate enough to survive the horrors of the war, came to pray at the rabbi’s grave. He placed a pebble on the gravestone as is customary, and said a few chapters of Psalms. Then he poured out his heart before the holy grave, begging the Frankfurter that his holiness would intercede with the Almighty so that his son would find a proper mate, befitting a pious young man. As is also customary, he wrote his son’s name and his request on a piece of paper, folded the kvitl neatly, and placed it in one of the crevices of the tombstone. The Hasid left the Frankfurter’s grave in high spirits, sure that his prayers and request would be answered.

A few days later another Hasidic Jew, also a Karlin-Stolin Hasid, made his way to Frankfurt to the Babe of Stolin’s grave. Like the thousands before him, he told his bitter tale and asked the rabbi’s blessing. He too was fortunate, more than many others. Though he had lost almost his entire family, one daughter of marriageable age survived. He prayed now on his daughter’s behalf, that she should meet a Jewish boy who would find favor in the eyes of God and men, and if possible, also be a Hasid of Karlin-Stolin. As he was about to write his request, he realized that he did not have anything to write on. Just then a gentle wind blew and a piece of paper fluttered to his feet. He picked up the paper and wrote his request in the customary manner. As he was about to fold the kvitl, he noticed that the other side also had writing on it. It was the kvitl of none other than the first Hasid of Karlin-Stolin who had appeared earlier.

A few days later, a wedding took place in a D.P. camp in Germany. The two young people whose fathers had prayed on the zaddik’s grave were united in matrimony. And so you see that the miracles of the Frankfurter Rebbe do not cease unto this very day.

American Nazi Rally, Madison Square Garden

This post was drafted a month ago, but I decided that maybe I had been mentioning Nazi Germany too frequently. If you’ve read some of those earlier posts (here and here, for example), you see that I have never made an explicit connection between the current situation and that one.

Now President Obama has been bold enough to speak of this expressly:

“We have to tend to this garden of democracy or else things could fall apart quickly.…That’s what happened in Germany in the 1930s, which despite the democracy of the Weimar Republic and centuries of high-level cultural and scientific achievements, Adolph Hitler rose to dominate. Sixty million people died. . . .So, you’ve got to pay attention. And vote.”

Naturally, the reaction has been swift from Trump apologists—who already hate Obama—claiming that it is heinous to compare Trump to Hitler, and no such death of democracy is in the offing. On the contrary, they say, we are finally on our way to reviving our past glory.

The message in a democracy is inarguable: know your history, pay attention, and vote. Part of not knowing and not paying attention is the delusion that “it can’t happen here.”

Above is a picture of the American Nazi Rally at Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939. It was a full house of 22,000 “patriots”, with a giant god-like image of George Washington on stage, thought of as the father of their White Christian America.

Those who tried to disrupt the Madison Square Garden rally were arrested. Which is worse: being silent knowing that something is horribly wrong, or not being believed—actually being arrested—when you speak up?

 

Sophie Scholl: “Somebody, after all, had to make a start.”

Readers of Brigitte, the largest women’s magazine in Germany, voted Sophie
Scholl the most important woman of the 20th century.

You probably do not know Sophie Scholl. She was a founder of the White Rose movement, a tiny group of German students who distributed leaflets opposing the Nazi regime. In 1943 she and two others were arrested, tried and immediately executed for treason. At the trial she simply said, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start.”


From A Noble Treason: The Story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Revolt Against Hitler:

A young Munich barrister named Leo Samberger opened his mail one morning in February of 1943, and, as he said afterward, he couldn’t believe his eyes. That was a time when every new day seemed to bring some new event to unsettle the nerves or stun the senses. The war, in its fourth year, had made the unexpected routine and the startling commonplace.

Even so, Leo Samberger was shaken when he opened what he thought was a letter but turned out to be a leaflet. It was neatly typed, singlespaced, with no illustration or typographical flourish of any kind. It was a solid block of type that made no more concession to the reader than a page from a textbook. But Leo Samberger caught his breath as he ran his eye down the page. “The day of reckoning has come, the reckoning of German youth with the most detestable tyranny that our people has ever endured. . .”…

With an intensity that broke through every phrase, the leaflet denounced the “corporal of World War I” whose amateur strategy had just cost the German people three hundred thousand of their sons in the bloodbath at Stalingrad. Here the leaflet, in its bitterness, used sardonically the saying that the Ministry of Propaganda had popularized to hail the achievements of Adolf Hitler: “Führer, wir danken Dir!” (Leader, we thank you!).

Then, at the end, came an impassioned call for revolt: “The name of Germany will be disgraced forever unless the German youth rises up, in both atonement and vengeance, to crush its tormentors and to build a new and nobler Europe.”…

The story circulated that some students had been caught scattering leaflets along corridors on the stairway between floors, and in the central hall under its high, domed skylight. The leaflets had been swiftly gathered up and spirited away by custodians before they could spread their corruption among the students. Copies were being closely examined in the rector’s office, to which, again, the Gestapo had been summoned. The names of the perpetrators were not immediately made known, nor was their fate….

Now it became clear why the chief judge of the People’s Court had been hastily flown from Berlin to preside at this trial and why the courtroom was so liberally seeded with representatives of the armed power of the state. The charges that Freisler had read from the indictments were among the gravest that could be brought against a German by his government in wartime.

It appeared from the evidence that the infamous deeds cited by the prosecution had been perpetrated over a period of many months by an organization with the curiously incongruous name of “the White Rose”. Page after page told of the activities of this group that had secretly and subversively produced thousands of leaflets attacking the government and the war effort and circulated them in many different cities, thereby threatening the very survival of the Reich.

Freisler made no pretense of being judicial. He ranted. He bellowed. He encouraged the prosecution and ignored the defense. At his post in the doorway Leo Samberger turned his eyes from the flaming figure on the bench to the defendants. There were three of them. Though he didn’t know them, he recognized their faces from seeing them many times in the concert halls of Munich that he himself frequented. They were college students, young, educated, clean-cut—his own sort. It seemed hardly credible that they were sitting in the dock with a death penalty over their heads as a consequence of what had happened at the university only three days before….

All three maintained their self-possession in a way that won a grudging admiration even in that room, but Sophie made a particular impression. Not only did she stand out as the lone female caught up in these proceedings, but she had an indefinable quality of her own. She was twenty-two years old, dark, and with a curious aura of mingled girlishness and gravity. Now and then during the trial, her brow would crease into a quick, musing frown, which those who knew her would have recognized as characteristic. Even here, in the courtroom with her life at stake, the frown did not signify anxiety or dismay. It meant that she was turning over in her mind a point, an implication, or a shading and weighing it to get it right.

She was wearing a rumpled and rather mannish sort of coat that contributed little to her appearance. She had endured three days of nearly unbroken interrogation in a Gestapo prison, and she looked worn and tired. But her quiet appeal, hovering always between girl and woman, was unimpaired. It was overlaid, now, with a kind of subdued defiance apparent in the cast of her features and the set of her head. Once Roland Freisler, squirming with fury inside his scarlet robe, demanded to know how any German could possibly do what the indictment charged against the trio in the dock. It was Sophie who responded, clearly and coolly:

“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare to express themselves as we did.”

As the proceedings wore on, it became obvious that no defense worth the name would be offered. The court-appointed defense attorneys scarcely troubled to conceal their aversion to their task or to disguise their approval of the charges. The verdict itself was never in doubt. Berlin had not sent Roland Freisler winging down to Munich to preside over an acquittal.

Yet there was, as Leo Samberger noted, a pronounced tension in the courtroom as the words were about to be spoken that would, quite literally, cost three young people their heads. Such a thing had never happened before even in a Nazi courtroom. And the words came from the bench as expected: “. . . for the protection of the German people, and of the Reich, in this time of mortal struggle, the Court has only one just verdict open to it on the basis of the evidence: the death penalty. With this sentence the People’s Court demonstrates its solidarity with the fighting troops!”

Even before the auditorium was drained of its gray, black, and brown uniforms, the condemned trio was hurriedly surrounded by a cordon of police, put in manacles, and led away.

The three of them were taken directly from the court to the place of execution, to Stadelheim, on the outskirts of the city. There, that same afternoon, all three were beheaded, the girl, Sophie, going under the guillotine first. It was all done with a speed and brutality that signaled something like panic in high places.

Letting Off Steam: Jokes About Hitler in Nazi Germany

Did German citizens tell jokes about Hitler during the Third Reich? Actual jokes like this:

Hitler and Göring are standing on top of the Berlin radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on the Berliners’ faces. Göring says, “Why don’t you jump?”

Were these people punished? Did the jokes have any effect?

These are some of the questions addressed in Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany by Rudolph Herzog. Herzog explains:

Contrary to a common myth, targeting Hitler using quips and jokes didn’t undermine the regime. Political jokes were not a form of resistance. They were a release valve for pent-up popular anger. People told jokes in their neighborhood bars or on the street because they coveted a moment of liberation in which they could let off a bit of steam. That was ultimately in the interests of the Nazi leadership. Consequently, the Führer and his henchmen rarely cracked down on joke-tellers and if they did, the punishments were mild – mostly resulting in a small fine. In the last phase of the war when the regime felt threatened by “dissenters,” though, this changed. A handful of death sentences were handed down to joke-tellers, though the true reason for this was rarely their actual “crime.” The jokes were taken as a pretext to remove blacklisted individuals – people the Nazis feared or detested because of who they were rather than because of what they had done. Among others, these included Jews, left-wing artists, and Catholic priests. As I show in my book, a staunch party member could walk free after telling a joke, whereas a known “dissenter” was executed for exactly the same quip.

We can’t deny the significance of laughing and humor during the hardest times, personal and social. Jokes, like other subversive art, have a way of digging deep and even encouraging change. There is the example of the king’s fool, who was allowed to say things that others feared to say. But make no mistake, when the king was unhappy, not even the fool was protected from retribution and punishment.

American Dislike of Studying History and Government Comes to Haunt Us

I have loved reading about American history and government since, well, since I have been reading. I was an officer in our high school Future Voters of America club, and I was a delegate to a mock presidential convention. A nerd then, and maybe still.

That is not typical for a large number of Americans, who seem disinclined to read much (and that is read, not just listen or watch) about these subjects. Partly that is because these subjects are usually required in school and are not always very well taught, with all due respect to those who have the sometimes thankless job of teaching.

My high school American History teacher was also our basketball coach, a decently smart and affable guy who happened to have been given one of the all-time exciting American History textbooks to teach from: The American Pageant, which thanks to the unique approach of its original author, historian Thomas A. Bailey, remains in print in its 16th edition. It was, and hopefully still is, one of the most fun reads of any textbook on any subject. Yes, I said “fun.” Without speaking for my classmates, I was excited to read each chapter.

I don’t believe all Americans think of learning about history and government as fun. More like work, maybe hard and distasteful and avoidable work. Except that avoiding knowing history and government means that when, as can happen, things get way out of whack, you won’t recognize what is happening, or recognize that as a historical matter, the consequences may be unfortunate, if not dire.

As can happen, things may get way out of whack, and they have. Maybe those who find learning about American history and government useless might squeeze it into their busy schedules. Particularly if they love America, because as we know, true love means learning about the one you love.

U.S. Days of Remembrance, Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Babi Yar

These are the official Holocaust Days of Remembrance in the U.S., coinciding with Yom Hashoah, the Day of Remembrance. The U.S. Congress established the Days of Remembrance as the nation’s week-long annual commemoration of the Holocaust.

In looking for a poem to include, I discovered that the great poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko died this month at the age of 84. This news did not receive the sort of coverage it deserved. If ever a poet lived the life of poetry as insurgent art, he did.

Yevtushenko also wrote one of the definitive poems about the Holocaust. From the Guardian:

Yevtushenko gained notoriety in the former Soviet Union while in his 20s, with poetry denouncing Joseph Stalin. He gained international acclaim as a young revolutionary with Babi Yar, an unflinching 1961 poem that told of the slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews by the Nazis and denounced the antisemitism that had spread throughout the Soviet Union.

Until Babi Yar was published, the history of the massacre was shrouded in the fog of the cold war….

Yevtushenko said he wrote the poem after visiting the site of the mass killings in Kiev, Ukraine, and searching for something memorializing what happened there – a sign, a tombstone, some kind of historical marker – but finding nothing.

“I was so shocked,” he said. “I was absolutely shocked when I saw it, that people didn’t keep a memory about it.”

It took him two hours to write the poem that begins: “No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid.”

Babi Yar
Yevgeny Yevtushenko

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
Dreyfus.
The Philistine
is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
Beset on every side.
Hounded,
spat on,
slandered.

Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
‘Beat the Yids. Save Russia!’
Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.
O my Russian people!
I know
you
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
Anne Frank
transparent
as a branch in April.
And I love.
And have no need of phrases.
My need
is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much—
tenderly
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They’re coming here?
Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
No, it’s the ice breaking . . .
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
turning grey.
And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
each old man
here shot dead.
I am
every child
here shot dead.
Nothing in me
shall ever forget!
The ‘Internationale,’ let it
thunder
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian!

More poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

China’s Big Long View: “Swords Drawn and Bows Bent”

In a story about current tensions between the United States and North Korea, this was reported:

“The United States and South Korea and North Korea are engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent, and there have been storm clouds gathering,” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said in Beijing, according to Xinhua, the state news agency.” (emphasis added)

It is hard to imagine the American President or Secretary of State using such poetic language to describe such a serious situation. But allusions to swords and bows is not just poetic. It reflects the thousands of years that China has had to deal with situations just like this.

In the world, few nations, and none so powerful, are as young as the United States. We tend to equate power with enlightened perspective, but that is silly. Even the European nations can’t compare their histories to the long and hard lessons that many Asian nations have learned.

It is no accident that in the years since the end of a series of modern Asian wars involving the West—World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War—Asian nations have to some degree risen and dominated in various ways. China in particular. These nations have had to ride the wave of history, going back to times when swords and bows were the tools of strategy and subjugation, of victory and defeat.

Many Americans think that the most significant global affairs began a couple of centuries or so ago, when this nation emerged in North America as the perfection of what our European ancestors tried but failed to accomplish. Like all precocious children, we think that it is all about us, especially because of our might and our ability to damage and destroy. Those who have seen it all before are careful not to provoke us, but know that no matter how big our weapons, they are only swords and bows, about which they have much more experience.

Twilight Zone America: Characters in Search of an Exit

The strange and uninformed version of history that Sean Spicer recounted today is just one more episode in what increasingly seems like Twilight Zone America. The Washington Post:

Spicer brought up Hitler unprompted during Tuesday’s White House briefing while emphasizing how seriously the United States takes Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

“We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had a, you know, someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer said. “So you have to if you’re Russia, ask yourself: Is this a country that you, and a regime, that you want to align yourself with? You have previously signed onto international agreements, rightfully acknowledging that the use of chemical weapons should be out of bounds by every country.”

Later in the briefing, a reporter read Spicer’s comments back to him and gave him the opportunity to clarify. Spicer’s answer only added more confusion.

“I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no — he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing,” Spicer said, mispronouncing Assad’s name. “I mean, there was clearly, I understand your point, thank you. Thank you, I appreciate that. There was not in the, he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that. What I am saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent, into the middle of towns, it was brought — so the use of it. And I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.”

Twilight Zone America. Consider the episode Five Characters in Search of an Exit (see image above), in which an Army major finds himself in a room with an odd assortment of four other people. Rod Serling explains at the opening:

“Clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper, and an Army Major—a collection of question marks. Five improbable entities stuck together into a pit of darkness. No logic, no reason, no explanation; just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness, and the unexplainable walk hand in hand through the shadows. In a moment, we’ll start collecting clues as to the whys, the whats, and the wheres. We will not end the nightmare, we’ll only explain it—because this is the Twilight Zone.”

And closes with this:

“Just a barrel, a dark depository where are kept the counterfeit, make-believe pieces of plaster and cloth, wrought in a distorted image of human life. But this added, hopeful note: perhaps they are unloved only for the moment. In the arms of children, there can be nothing but love. A clown, a tramp, a bagpipe player, a ballet dancer, and a Major. Tonight’s cast of players on the odd stage—known as—the Twilight Zone.”

Clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper, Army major. And Sean Spicer. Yep, that’s Twilight Zone America.