Thursday, July 18, 2013

A History Lesson

I spent the past week in an interdisciplinary workshop on the Holocaust. I have found that is a bit of a conversation stopper for many people who imagine a week of being bombarded with horrific images from death camps. As one who used to not be able to watch a Holocaust movie without leaving the room, part of me understands that reaction. For me it felt personal. It could have been me. Later I learned it was many of my family members. But as I've gingerly delved into this area, I've found subjects of great interest, especially in the realm of memory which was the focus of this workshop.

Most attendees were high school history teachers, but a friend and I decided to attend because of the multi-disciplinary aspect. The theme was how memory and history are shaped. Professors from different disciplines addressed such topics as how post-war trials and the law shaped memory as well as the impact of art, film, memoir and fiction. Because I've been doing more talks with high school and college kids on the stories behind my artwork, many of which relate to the Holocaust, I thought this might provide useful background. While I have read widely on the Holocaust and explored its history in my travels, as a self-taught person on this subject, there are gaps in my knowledge that I hoped to fill. Memory is a subject I deal with in my work so I found the vantage point of the course particularly intriguing.

The workshop was put on by the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS) at the University of Minnesota. CHGS is one of the repositories for the Shoah interviews done by Steven Spielberg and a resource for education about both the Holocaust and other genocides. While I thought I knew its scope, I was to learn of the many educational resources that it offered to educators.

The first day began with a review of the history of the Holocaust by Dr Ofer Ashkenazi. He gave a very succinct summary which I've outlined here. To say "never again" we need to understand how we got there. Our knowledge of the Holocaust is seldom neatly organized by its evolution as for most of us it comes from film or literature and maybe a chance mention in a history class on WWII.

The objective of the Nazis was to depopulate Eastern Europe and then populate it with Germans.The plan was to eliminate 20 million people or make them slave workers. While they started with Jews, Poles were next in line.

1. The process began long before the war. In 1933-39 Nazi Germany experimented with exclusion, persecution and violence.

Hitler became chancellor through a negotiation even though he didn't have a majority. Much to the surprise of some he became Fuhrer just two years later.

* In 1934 there were the first boycotts against Jewish businesses.

* 1933-38 saw the beginning of segregation, racial laws and definitions of who is Jewish

* 1938. Kristallnacht

* After Kristallnacht 75,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps as Jews (not as political prisoners) with many allowed back after a few months. This was consistent with the story as told by two German survivors who I had interviewed. Germany was still "encouraging" Jews to leave Germany, their version of self deportation.

* September 1, 1939 saw the outbreak of war, the invasion of Poland and the Ribbentrop agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union.

* By 1941 all of Europe except the Soviet Union was under German control or allies. While I knew of the individual countries involved, it was this sweeping statement that gave me pause.

2. 1939-42 was the beginning of the creation of ghettos and mass murder

Three weeks after the invasion of Poland there were the first orders restricting the movements and rights of Jews.

Germany had 500,000 Jews out of a population of 67 million, less than 1%. After 1939 many left and there were 200,000.

Poland had 3 million. The perceived "problem" of the Jews was largely resolved for Germany and Austria, but suddenly the "problem" grew when Germany invaded Poland. There was no escape for most Eastern European Jews. Anti-immigration policies of countries such as the US effectively barred the door even as they sent Hitler the message that no one cared about the Jews and he could proceed unchecked.

There were an estimated 10,000 ghettos. Life in ghettos varied, all had a Judenrat, a Jewish council, to govern everyday life. Many worked efficiently for their community facilitating the creation of schools and theaters. Ultimately the Judenrat was given the impossible choice of supplying names of those to be deported.

In the Fall of 1941 the Einsatzgruppe began killing Jewish populations in the Baltic territories and the Soviet Union. They worked independently from the military, but the military often cooperated in killings.

Initially the focus was on killing political officers, then Jewish men age 15-60 and then it was expanded to all Jews.

We forget about the many people who died in the forests near their own communities. Between 1 million and 1.5 million Jews were killed by a shot to the head. These were local initiatives and there was not a formal policy at this time. Many of the actions arose first on the local level. For example in Belzec the regional police chief initiated a local killing area for Jews who could not work. The regional police chief initiated a gas-van site in Chelmno to kill those from the overcrowded Lodz ghetto. Jews were sent from Germany to be killed on arrival in the Baltic states. These were at killing fields such as the Ninth Fort and Ponar as reflected in my artwork on Lithuania.

Meanwhile decisions were also being made from above. In Sept 1941 it was decided that deportation of Jews would start before the end of the war. Originally it was thought this would be a post-war activity. The approach was somewhat experimental. People conjectured what Hitler wanted done based on clues from his speeches and interpretation by his staff. I pictured a nation with wristbands bearing the legend WWHD (What Would Hitler Do).

In January 1942 there was a conference at Wansee, a Berlin suburb, with all the important people in Reich gathering to figure out how to implement the final solution.

3. 1942-44 saw the beginning of systematic mass murder through 2000 camps

There were centers of killing at places such as Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz, Chelmno and Belzec.

There was a shift from shootings due to logistics. They needed bullets for the front and shootings took more manpower. Most importantly was the response of troops to killing, especially the killing of women and children. According to Hoss, the former camp commandant of Auschwitz, it was causing suicides and alcoholism. A less direct method was felt to ease this distress. Also by limiting the number of people involved there were fewer who could talk about what was happening.

In a year and a half, 3 million Jews were killed in camps.

Most survivors are from Auschwitz or Majdanek which were both concentration camps and death camps. Both camps had a selection for life or death. Auschwitz had 500,000 prisoners, a number that stunned me. The population was as large as the city I live in.

One of the students asked why the camps were in Poland. The response reminded me of the old Willie Sutton quote on why people rob banks (that is where the money is). In this case, that is where the Jews were. It was essentially an operations problem, how to get the Jews to the camps most efficiently. Originally there were 3.3 million Jews in Poland of which 2.8 million were murdered. In Poland and the Baltics 90% of the Jews were murdered while less than 1% were killed in Bulgaria and Denmark which resisted the murder of the Jews within their population.

4. Death Marches were the final stage. Jews were marched west as the Soviets approached. Some Jews were kept alive at the end as a bargaining chip, some as labor. Part of the reason for death marches was to hide the evidence.

Most death camps were liberated by the Red Army, not the US. Those that the US saw were the better off camps, yet still horrified the soldiers.

One of the questions that has puzzled me were the efforts of the Nazis to hide their tracks. That would seem to indicate an awareness of at least the world's moral sense. I learned that they began to hide their tracks after 1943 when traces of Poles murdered by the Soviets were found at Katyn and the world responded with horror. That heightened the awareness of world perception and it occurred to them that they could be judged likewise.

This step by step progression begins to highlight points where actions could have altered the course of events. More open immigration policies, less isolationism, resistance by countries and the weight of public opinion all could have made a difference. How much we will never know.

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