Book Review of 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam

Across the country of Slovakia in March 1942, town criers announced that unmarried Jewish girls between ages 16-36 had to register at the high school (or some other community center) for government work. They would have to leave their families for three months to do this work. What the girls and their families didn’t yet know was that the “government work” really meant that they would be taken to Auschwitz concentration camp. Many never saw their families again.

Though books like Elie Wiesel’s Night are often taught in schools, the perspective of women in the Holocaust is taught less often. In extensive interviews with survivors from the first transport of girls taken to Auschwitz, Macadam’s book shows the reader how women’s experience of Auschwitz differed from that of men.

All prisoners entering Auschwitz had to give up luggage and jewelry before having every hair on their bodies shaved. Girls from the first transport were additionally subjected to “gynecological exams” that amounted to rape. Survivor Bertha Berkowitz eventually got a job as a leichenkommando, which meant that she moved the dead bodies of other girls. One small advantage of this job was that Bertha got to grow her hair back, but Bertha had hers shaved again when she was caught stealing. The experience brought back the horror of the first day when she was shaved and raped. It was “the only time I really wanted to commit suicide,” Bertha said.

640px-Auschwitz_gate_june2005

Entrance gate at Auschwitz concentration camp, June 2005 by Muu-karhu

Men and women battled diseases like typhus which is carried by lice and fleas. However, Commandant Rudolph Hoss stated that “conditions in the women’s camp were atrocious and far worse than the men’s camp.” Prisoners were “piled high to the ceiling. Everything was black with lice.”  When family transports arrived, any women who had children were immediately gassed.

Girls, like men, might die from the work they were forced to do. Construction work was especially dangerous. Girls demolished houses by hitting walls with heavy iron rods and tried not to get killed by falling debris.

Other women had jobs that gave them a better chance at survival than men. Girls doing secretarial work got better clothes and food than even the other women. It was important for them to look good because they worked directly with the SS. As more prisoners arrived at Auschwitz, sorting clothes was another job often given to women. Trying to smuggle clothes for themselves or their friends could lead to the gas chamber, however.

One girl from the first transport, Helena Citron, caught the attention of SS Franz Wunsch. Although at first Helena wanted nothing to do with him, she started to fall in love with him. Their relationship meant that Wunsch did what he could for Helena, including saving her sister who had children from the gas chamber. He walked into the chamber’s changing room, separated Helena’s sister from her children, and marched out with her.

Both male and female prisoners needed help from friends and family to survive. Women without family needed a lagerstrasse sister–the term prisoners used to describe friendships that were as close as blood ties. When Edith Friedman lost her sister Lea to typhus, she also lost the will to live. Elsa Rosenthal became Edith’s lagerstrasse sister, making sure she ate the meager food and repeatedly telling her how much Elsa needed her.

The book 999 is a valuable addition to Holocaust research. I recommend it for ages 14 and up.

 

Why it Matters that Donald Trump did not Mention Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Fact: Donald Trump failed to mention Jews in his statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Question: does his failure to mention Jews make a difference?

In an opinion piece, The Jewish Journal says that since Mr. Trump asked a descendent of Holocaust survivors to write the statement, it must be acceptable. It is possible that the original draft might have mentioned Jews and Mr. Trump simply decided not include them in the final statement. Yet historically what presidents say, or fail to say, does have consequences.

For example, in the 1940s some of FDR’s staff members urged him to make statements emphasizing the importance of rescuing Jews, but he would either have those words buried in a later paragraph of his speech or chose not to use them at all. FDR’s prevarications ensured that the rescue of Jews would not be a priority.

800px-arbeit_macht_frei

Entrance to Auschwitz Concentration Camp Photographer: Jochen Zimmerman

Even when nearly all the Jews had been murdered, FDR preferred to use the term “victims of enemy oppression” rather than refer to Jews specifically when he created the War Refugee Board, an agency that was designed to help victims of the Holocaust from 1944-1945. Most of the victims, though certainly not all, were Jews.

The Jewish Journal suggests that Mr. Trump deserves an apology from his critics. After all, he is not Jewish, so how could he be expected to know that more Jews died in the Holocaust than any other group, or that the Nazis employed “unprecedented resources” to “identify and annihilate the Jews?” Well, I am not Jewish, and yet I know these facts.

I might be more willing to give Mr. Trump the benefit of the doubt if he had shown any love or tolerance for any other group of people than rich white men during his campaign and thus far, his presidency. Yet he fails to denounce the Ku Klux Klan and threatens to create a Muslim registry. These are not hopeful signs. Should Mr. Trump change course, however, I would be happy to acknowledge it.

Sources:

Statement by the President on International Holocaust Remembrance Day January 27, 2017.

https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/27/statement-president-international-holocaust-remembrance-day

#Never again by Jonathan Greenblatt CEO of the Anti-Defamation League January 29, 2017.

HTTP://blog.ADL.org/Greenblatt/neveragain

Back story behind the Holocaust statement proves Trump’s a mensch. By Rabbi Dov Fischer, Jewish Journal opinion, January 31, 2017.

http://jewishjournal.com/opinion/214118/back-story-behind-Holocaust-statement-proves-trumps-mensch/

 

Limited Time Book Sale for Holocaust and U.S. History Buffs!

My book Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the U.S. War Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II is ON SALE until Christmas here: http://amzn.to/2gBVVD8

It’s the story of a few good men who tried to save Jews and others from the Holocaust at the last minute. These ordinary people had hope in the face of impossible odds, and isn’t that what we could all use this holiday season?

Available for $0.99 on Kindle and $8.99 paperback. Happy holidays to my readers.

518itdt0ynl

Book Review: The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler

The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler by James Giblin 223p.

Giblin’s middle grade biography traces Hitler’s life from nearly homeless artist to ruthless dictator.

The first chapter is short and sets up the story with what kids will know about Adolph Hitler: he once ruled Germany and he’s dead. Giblin explains that while young people might not know exactly who he was or what he did, they have older family members who were influenced by Hitler’s actions. Questions that kids might ask about Hitler, such as why didn’t people stop him sooner, are posed and the author promises to explore them in the book.

adolf hitler

Adolph Hitler as a baby

Giblin’s straightforward storytelling of Hitler’s childhood makes him, at least at this point, more relatable to young people. For example, kids that tried out and didn’t make a sports team could understand Hitler’s disappointment when he didn’t get accepted to art school. Any one who has lost a family member can understand why Hitler didn’t want to accept his mother’s cancer diagnosis.

The book goes on to explain Hitler’s crushing disappointment after World War I. He had nearly gone blind trying to defend his country, but Germany lost anyway. Like other German soldiers, Hitler resented the Versailles Treaty which made Germany pay nations like Britain and France for the cost of the war. When the German army needed instructors to teach the evils of Communism and the importance of nationalism to the troops, they had little idea that they were helping to launch the career of a dictator. Through his speeches Hitler learned that he had the power to persuade audiences–a skill he would use again and again in the coming years.

Unlike other biographers, Giblin does not pretend to have all the answers. For example, while other biographers have speculated that Hitler may have disliked Jews because his mother’s doctor was a Jew, Giblin points out that Hitler only had kind words for the doctor. Giblin comes to the conclusion that there is no obvious reason for Hitler’s feelings but that hating Jews was a main feature of Hitler’s life from 1919 until his death.

The book points out why the Nazi party was popular with some Germans during the Great Depression. Hitler’s rise to power coincided with an increase in jobs and better working conditions. People were healthier, too. Hitler even suggested that an affordable car called the Volkswagen (the people’s car) be produced so that the middle class could drive around town and go on vacations. Though the lives of Jewish people were increasingly restricted, Hitler often didn’t emphasize his anti-Semitic beliefs in his pre-World War II speeches.

As Giblin explains, World War II came about because of serious misunderstandings between Hitler and the British and French. Britain and France didn’t want another war, so they stood by while Hitler took over territories like Austria and Czechoslovakia for Germany. Britain warned that it would stand by Poland, however. Hitler thought the British were bluffing and proceeded with his invasion only to find himself at war with Britain, France, and eventually the Soviet Union and U.S.

Although Giblin does talk about the Holocaust, his coverage of the extermination of the Jews is somewhat brief, perhaps because Hitler delegated the working of concentration camps to other Nazi officials. The book does quote Hitler’s book Mein Kampf which outlined his hatred for Jews. It also covers the laws restricting Jewish participation in society in the 1930s.

Giblin does a good job of incorporating stories from and about young people. He includes  members of the Hitler Youth, a group that indoctrinated young people in the policies of the Nazi Party. Hitler’s troubled relationship with his niece Geli and his odd romance with the young Eva Braun are explored. In addition, Giblin includes stories of young people like Sophie Scholl and her brother who bravely opposed Hitler’s political agenda.

Extensive photos help Giblin’s gifted storytelling come to life. Included are rare photos of Hitler in private, family photos and paintings, and photos of Hitler’s Nazi followers.

Readers would have benefited from short summaries of important people in Hitler’s political life. It can be hard for young readers to keep track of people with similar names, such as Himmler and Heydrich.

The book ends with a cautionary note: leaders like Hitler can still come to power under the right conditions, but hopefully future generations will use their knowledge of others’ mistakes to prevent such an event.

Overall, The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler provides young people with a solid introduction to the career of one of the most infamous men in history.

My Book FREE on Amazon Kindle

To my readers: My book, Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the U.S. War Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II will be free on Amazon Kindle September 16th and 17th here:

http://amzn.to/1GDI2qq

Passionate Crusaders Cover SMALL AVATAR

If you don’t have a Kindle but know someone who likes free books, please spread the word!

Book Review of Holocaust Memoir Dry Tears by Nechama Tec

In contrast to other Holocaust memoirs that describe what it took to survive the concentration camps, Dry Tears is the story of a Jewish young girl with blond hair and blue eyes trying to pass as a Christian in Nazi-occupied Poland. At the beginning of the book, Nechama’s father worries that she and her sister will fall behind in school. Of course, her learning cannot take place in a traditional school since the Nazis have closed them to Jews. Even private tutoring becomes impossible.

Yet Nechama acquires different kinds of knowledge during the war years. Nazis made it extremely difficult for Poles to find enough to eat because of the activities of the Polish underground. Jews were not supposed to be in Poland at all, so there were no food rations for them. Since she looked Aryan, Nechama could pass for a Pole and venture out of her family’s hiding place. She learns to bargain for the cheapest food prices on the “black market.” Later, she learns to sell her mother’s rolls at the same market when the family finances are low.

Child vendor in ghetto during the Holocaust

Child vendor in ghetto during the Holocaust (Nechama is not living in a ghetto, but she still sells food illegally to other Poles)

Nechama also acquires knowledge about human nature most eleven year olds do not. The Christian family that takes her and her family into their small home in the Polish countryside do not do so out of charity, but out of their own self-interest. Poles were unpopular with the Nazis as it was, and hiding any Jew was punishable by death. However, no one could survive on the wages that Nazis provided to Poles, so families like the Homars decide to “keep cats,” meaning that they took in Jews in return for handsome sums of money.

Some of the members of the Homar family treat Nechama very well. Helena, the family matriarch, even encourages the girl to call her Grandma. Yet despite her affection for Nechama, Helena says that she initially disagreed with having Jews come to stay in her home because Christian blood should not be spilt for Jewish blood. The Homars, like most other Polish families, are anti-Semitic. They emphasize that Nechama and her family are “not really Jewish” because “real Jews were greedy and dishonest”–qualities that Nechama’s family abhors.

Nechama cannot understand how the Homars could like her family and still think bad things about Jews. Her father tells her that the Homars’ anti-Semitism comes from hating an abstraction, a caricature of Jews that does not exist. Soon Nechama discovers that adults are not the only ones who think Jews are evil. Children that she socializes with in the small Polish village of Kielce also make anti-Semitic remarks. She says, “in a sense, they were unconsciously telling me that I was their friend only for as long as they thought I was one of them.”

As Nechama gains knowledge, the reader learns that a trying to pass as a Christian in Poland during World War II is fraught with almost as many dangers as trying to survive a concentration camp. There are random raids on Poles that threaten to deport even Aryan looking Jews. Certain members of the Homar family are less trustworthy than others, making their hiding place precarious. Nechama’s efforts to get food and money for her family place her in special danger since Nazis hate the Poles’ black market activities.

The fact that her looks give her the opportunity to pass does not ensure her survival or her family’s. Nechama’s unique struggles make this memoir a must-read for anyone with an interest in the Holocaust years or students of human nature.

My History Book FREE on Amazon Kindle this Sunday

To my readers: My book, Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the US war Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II, will be FREE Sunday, March 29 here:

http://amzn.to/1GDI2qq on Amazon Kindle. If you don’t have a Kindle but know someone who likes free books, spread the word! Thanks.

French Attacks about more than Freedom of Speech

I believe in the right to free speech and my right to express my opinions on this blog and elsewhere. I realize that free speech will also allow some people to express themselves in ways that I or others might find offensive.

I also believe that people have the right to freedom of religion and the right not to be discriminated against. Those last two points have been trampled on by some in France in recent years. For example, in December 2014 three armed men broke into a flat occupied by a Jewish couple. The men tied them up, robbed them, and raped the woman.

These incidents do not get much news coverage. In contrast, I can turn on any news station and see pictures of the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Some called them artists, but it is not artistic to belittle other religions through cartoons or any other medium. Regardless, murdering people for drawing tasteless cartoons is wrong.

Charlie Hebdo Shooting Press Coverage Photo by Remi Mathis

Charlie Hebdo Shooting Press Coverage Photo by Remi Mathis

In a country where fear and dislike of people who are different is increasingly common, the killers have only succeeded in making a bad situation worse. Innocent, God-fearing Muslims are much more likely to be mistreated because people will say, “See, Muslims do evil things.”

Some light has been thrown on anti-Semitism in France since the attacks on the kosher supermarket. France’s Prime Minister and others have expressed their shock. But how long will it take before French citizens again turned a blind eye to the less dramatic acts of hatred against Jews and other religious groups?

Josiah DuBois and the Creation of the War Refugee Board

On Christmas Day 1943, a young US Treasury Department employee wrote something that would change the lives of more than 100,000 Jews in Europe. Josiah DuBois worked on this document despite the fact that he was risking his job and had little time to spend with his family on the holiday.

US Treasury Department photo by Roman Boed

US Treasury Department photo by Roman Boed

The document was entitled The Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews. It accused the US State Department “of gross procrastination and willful failure to act” and “willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.” DuBois’ report showed that State Department officials not only followed the United States strict immigration laws, but tried to prevent Jews from immigrating to the US altogether.

Visas for potential refugees were delayed because of State’s requirement that refugees produce two letters of reference from American citizens who could either help support the refugees or who could prove the refugees could take care of themselves. In addition, visa applicants were often turned away if they had close relatives in Europe. The theory, or excuse, for not admitting them was that the enemy might persuade immigrants to become Nazi spies.

As DuBois pointed out in his report, the new immigrants would not threaten national security.  If President Roosevelt was concerned about potential spies, refugees could be placed in internment camps “and released only after a satisfactory investigation… Even if we took these refugees and treated them as prisoners of war it would be better than letting them die.”

In DuBois’s mind all human beings worth saving. Sadly, from late 1941 to early 1945 only 10% of the small quotas from Axis controlled countries were filled.

Yet DuBois did accomplish something by turning his report into his boss Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau. By outlining State’s lack of concern for people fleeing from the Holocaust, DuBois showed that immigration issues shouldn’t be handled by the State Department. A new agency was needed to help people in Europe who were trying to escape from Hitller. This new agency would become known as the War Refugee Board.