February 24, 1942 – Soviets Torpedo Ship Full of 791 Jewish Refugees, Killing All But One

The Struma was a ship attempting to take 791 Jewish refugees, among them more than 100 children, from Romania to Palestine to escape from the Holocaust. The vessel was the last to leave Europe in wartime. The ship was actually an old cargo barge used to carry cattle along the Danube and suited for no more than 150 passengers. The diesel engine failed several times between her departure on December 12, 1941 from Constanţa on the Black Sea to her arrival in Istanbul on December 15th, and the Struma had to be towed into Istanbul. On February 23, 1942, with her engine still inoperable and her refugee passengers aboard, Turkish authorities towed Struma through the Bosphorus out to the coast of Şile in North Istanbul. Within hours, in the morning of February 24th, the Soviet submarine Shch-213 torpedoed her, killing an estimated 781 refugees plus 10 crew, making it the Black Sea’s largest exclusively civilian naval disaster of World War II.

Many of the passengers were trapped below decks and drowned. Others survived the sinking clinging to pieces of wreckage, but for hours no rescue came and all but one of them died from drowning or hypothermia.

Struma’s First Officer Lazar Dikof and the 19-year-old refugee David Stoliar clung to a cabin door that was floating in the sea. The First Officer died overnight but Turks in a rowboat rescued Stoliar the next day. He was detained by Turkey for six weeks. Simon Brod, a Jewish businessman from Istanbul, who helped rescue an untold number of Jewish refugees who reached Turkey, arranged for Stoliar’s meals during his incarceration. Upon his release, Brod brought Stoliar home. He provided him with clothes, a suitcase, and a train ticket to Aleppo after Britain gave him papers to go to Palestine. Stoliar lived to age 91.

David Stolier in February 1946

The Struma disaster joined that of SS Patria – sunk after Haganah sabotage while laden with Jewish refugees 15 months earlier – as rallying points for the Irgun and other Zionist movements, encouraging their violent revolt against the British presence in Palestine.

November 20, 1938 – Influential Catholic Priest, Father Charles Coughlin, Blames Jews for Nazi Violence Against Them

Charles Edward Coughlin (October 25, 1891 – October 27, 1979) was a Canadian-American Roman Catholic priest serving in the United States near Detroit, Michigan. One of the first political leaders to use radio to reach a mass audience, he was known throughout the country as Father Coughlin. During the 1930s, an estimated 30 million listeners tuned to his weekly broadcasts. The Holocaust Museum history of Coughlin reports that a new post office was constructed in his Michigan town just to process the letters that he received each week—80,000 on average. He also produced a journal, Social Justice, that eventually reached one million subscribers.

Coughlin was antisemitic, anti-Communist, pro-fascist, and isolationist.

A Photo of Charles Coughlin by Hamilton Spectator, circa 1938.

Coughlin attacked Jews explicitly in his broadcasts, in particular after Kristallnacht (or “Night of Broken Glass”) on November 10, 1938. This was the name for the coordinated terror against Jews all over Nazi-controlled areas. The brutal action was characterized by burning, looting, and murder.

Coughlin defended the state-sponsored violence of the Nazi regime, arguing that Kristallnacht was justified as retaliation for Jewish persecution of Christians. He explained to his listeners on this day in history, November 20, 1938, that the “communistic government of Russia,” “the Lenins and Trotskys,…atheistic Jews and Gentiles” had murdered more than 20 million Christians and had stolen “40 billion [dollars]…of Christian property.”

Coughlin also began to promote fascist dictatorship and authoritarian government as the only cure to the ills of democracy and capitalism. He increasingly attacked President Franklin Roosevelt’s policies, which probably was what ultimately led to his demise.

The Roosevelt administration decided that, because the radio spectrum was a “limited national resource” and regulated as a publicly owned commons, broadcasting was not afforded full protections under the First Amendment. In October 1939, the Code Committee of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) enacted new limitations on the sale of radio time to ‘spokesmen of controversial public issues.’ Manuscripts now had to be submitted in advance, and radio stations were threatened with the loss of licenses if they failed to comply. As a result, on September 23, 1940, Coughlin announced in “Social Justice” that he had been forced from the air.

In addition, the U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle met with banker Leo Crowley, a Roosevelt political appointee and friend of Bishop Edward Aloysius Mooney of Detroit. Crowley relayed Biddle’s message to Mooney that the government was willing to “deal with Coughlin in a restrained manner if he [Mooney] would order Coughlin to cease his public activities.” Bishop Mooney complied, ordering Coughlin to stop his political activities and to confine himself to his duties as a parish priest, warning of potentially removing his priestly faculties if he refused. Although forced to end his public career, Coughlin served as parish pastor until retiring in 1966.

September 10, 1901 – Birth of Feng Shan Ho, Savior of Thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Austria

After Austria’s annexation to Nazi Germany in March 1938, the 185,000 Jews who lived there were subjected to a reign of terror, and Jews were desperate to emigrate. Most countries closed their borders to them, but Shanghai opened their doors to these desperate people without requiring a visa. The Nazis did require a visa to grant Jews permission to leave, however, so Feng Shan Ho, the Chinese Consul-General in Vienna, issued visas to Shanghai to all requesting them, even to those wishing to travel elsewhere but needing a visa to leave Nazi Germany.

Ho Feng Shan

Some 20,000 European Jews flooded into Shanghai in the late 1930s, may of them helped by Ho.

Feng-Shan Ho was given the title of Righteous Among the Nations posthumously in 2000 for his humanitarian courage in issuing Chinese visas to Jews in Vienna in spite of orders from his superior to the contrary.

Yad Vashem has posted many touching testimonials to Ho from those he helped, such as by Eric Goldstaub. He related how, in July 1938, he received Chinese visas for his entire family after spending “days, weeks, and months visiting one foreign consulate or embassy after the other trying to obtain visas for [himself, his] parents and [their] near relatives, numbering some 20 people.”

Similarly, Lilith-Sylvia Doron, who had immigrated to Israel, met Ho accidentally as both watched Hitler entering Vienna, on 11 March 1938. Ho accompanied Doron home to protect her, and later managed to get her brother released from the Dachau Concentration Camp, where many Jews were sent after Kristallnacht in October, 1938.

A Shanghai visa signed by Dr. Ho Feng Shan with a serial number of 3639.

Yad Vashem explains that Ho refused to abide by the instructions of his superior, the Chinese ambassador in Berlin, Chen Jie. Chen Jie, hoping to cement closer ties between China and Germany, had forbidden Ho to issue visas on such a large scale, estimated to run into the hundreds, perhaps even thousands. It is believed that the “demerit” which was entered in Ho’s personal file in 1939 was linked to his insubordinate behavior towards his immediate superior, the ambassador in Berlin, regarding the issue of the visas.

In May 1940, Consul General Feng Shan Ho left Vienna. After the war, Ho chose to remain loyal to the Chinese Nationalists, who had fled to Taiwan. He served as ambassador in Egypt, in Middle Eastern countries, Mexico, Bolivia and then Colombia.

In 1973, after four decades in the diplomatic service, Feng Shan Ho retired to San Francisco, where he was a founding member of the Chinese Lutheran Church.

Throughout his long life, Ho never mentioned his heroic deeds during World War II — not to his wife, his children or friends.

Ho retired in 1973, and died in 1997, at the age of 96. Literally thousands lived because of his courage.

Yad Vashem ceremony in honor of Ho Feng Shan on January 23, 2001 showing his children in front of the wall of honor.

July 2, 2016 – Death of Elie Wiesel and Review of “Elie Wiesel: An Extraordinary Life and Legacy” edited by Nadine Epstein

This moving collection of speeches by Wiesel, pictures of him, and essays about him by others pays tribute to the life of Elie Wiesel, who died on July 2, 2016.

Eliezer Wiesel was born in 1928 in Romania, and was deported to Auschwitz in Poland by the Nazis in 1944. There his mother and sister were immediately sent to the gas chambers. He and his father were put in a work camp, and later sent on a death march to concentration camps in Germany in advance of the Allied armies. They ended up in Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. Elie’s father died in late January, 1945. His last word was “Eliezer.”

His father missed his freedom by three months. The Soviet Allies had reached Auschwitz eleven days earlier, and the Americans were making their way towards Buchenwald. On April 11, American tanks arrived at the gates, and Buchanwald was liberated by the United States Army. Elie was 16.

Elie Wiesel (circled) in Buchenwald a few days after the camp was liberated

In 1955 Elie wrote a book about his experiences in the concentration camps, first in Yiddish and then translated (by him) into French. An abridged version of the memoir was published in English in 1958, called Night. The book would eventually be translated into 35 languages. He went on to write 56 more books, as well as to deliver talks around the world in defense of human rights.

In the Foreword to this tribute, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:

“Whatever he did and wherever he went, Elie carried with him six million fragments of our people. He was the voice of memory when others sought to forget.”

It may seem like too much of a burden for one man, but as essayist and Wiesel biographer Joseph Berger observed, Wiesel told him “I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead. That was their obsession, to be remembered.” More than anyone else, Berger averred, Elie Wiesel made sure the six million would be remembered.

But he had another message to impart as well.

Sara Bloomfield writes:

“If you wanted to boil down everything to its essence with Elie, the biggest sin was indifference. He felt that indifference was a bigger sin than hate and evil. So he himself had to lead his life that way. That meant speaking truth to power. . . for him, voice was action.”

Ronald S. Lauder said he still hears Elie’s voice, “telling us what he would say to anyone who would listen: that people of good conscience have a moral obligation to speak out, be heard and fight bigotry.”

Many of the essays about Wiesel are testimonials from people who were influenced by him to choose the career paths they took, or to take actions different than they might have otherwise taken. They felt embraced by him, inspired by him, and gained courage from his example.

People looked to Wiesel to deliver some insights into the nature of evil in the world and how to understand it. Where was God during the Holocaust? Where is God in the face of all the other suffering in the world? Michael Berenbaum said that it took Wiesel until the 1990s to make peace with God. But he did so; the cantor who conducted his funeral service said that “Elie was a man of profound faith and sincerity…”

Weisel, in an interview with Nadine Epstein in 2013, included in the book, spoke about his relationship with God, saying:

. . . with God, the question, ‘Where is God?’ has obsessed me for many years and still does without an answer.’ But, he explained, he remained profoundly attached to his parents and grandparents and thought ‘What good do I do them if I say goodbye to God?’”

In a 1972 commencement address he urged graduates to have faith in spite of the mystery of God. He said:

“. . . anyone who tells you he has the answers to the questions — with all apologies to your teachers — I do not believe them. There are no answers to true questions. There are only good questions, painful sometimes, exuberant at others. Whatever I have learned in my life is questions. And whatever I have tried to share with friends is questions.”

As “The Economist” pointed out in its obituary for Wiesel, the questions about God never stopped for him:

“His Talmud-studying childhood had been devoted to God, but where had God been in the camps? Why had He allowed Tzipora, the little golden-haired sister, to die for nothing? Why had He caused old men to fall down from dysentery on forced marches, when they might have died peacefully in their beds? Why had God created man, if only to abandon him? What exactly did God need man for?

. . . He railed at God, and yet still strapped on his tefillin and recited his prayers as fervently as he had done on the day of his bar mitzvah. For ritual, too, was part of memory. And besides, how could he ever get closer to the mystery of God, unless he battered Him with his doubts?”

He may not have had answers about God, but he did have opinions on mankind. In an interview with David Axelrod in 2013, Axelrod asked him how he still believed in God in light of the Holocaust. Wiesel replied in effect, “Why look at God?  Why not look at man?”

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Elie Wiesel speaks with David Axelrod at the University of Chicago in 2013. (University of Chicago Institute of Politics / YouTube)

Elie Wiesel seemed to reflect that school of Jewish thought that holds that God created mankind, gave them rules by which to live, and then left them to it. In the face of evil, the emphasis should not be on asking “Where is God?” [i.e., “passing the theological buck” to a deity who has given us free will, per Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg] but on putting the responsibility for evil on human beings. Rabbi Ruttenberg points out, just as Elie Wiesel might have said himself, that it is human beings who have the power to build gas chambers or dismantle them, or to stand idly by and do nothing.

In a speech he gave at the White House on April 12, 1999 reproduced in this book, Wiesel said that indifference was more dangerous than anger and hatred:

“…indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor – never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. . . . in denying their humanity we betray our own.”

Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, at which time the Committee called him a “messenger to mankind”, stating that through his struggle to come to terms with “his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s death camps,” as well as his “practical work in the cause of peace,” Wiesel had delivered a message “of peace, atonement, and human dignity” to humanity.

An Afterword by Ted Koppel sums up Wiesel’s character by way of explaining why he would never have made a good President of the United States:

“He would have been incapable of the shallowness, the sheer nastiness. Elie Wiesel could never have adjusted to the constant demands of moral compromise. He was, simply, an unwavering symbol of uncompromising decency.”

Discussion: Perhaps there is no better time for this book to be published. It is not only that the incidence of anti-Semitic acts been on the rise. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported an increase of nearly 60 percent in anti-Semitic incidents between 2016 and 2017. During the Trump-instigated insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Nazi Holocaust imagery and rhetoric could be seen and heard among the participants. Antisemitic incidents reported to the ADL increased sharply during the 2021 Israel-Hamas conflict.

In addition, alarming figures reported by CNN document widespread lack of knowledge about the Holocaust:

Ignorance about the Holocaust is growing, particularly among young people. In the United States, a 2018 survey showed that 66% of millennials could not identify what the Auschwitz concentration and death camp was.

A recent CNN poll in Europe revealed that about a third of the 7,000 European respondents across seven countries knew “just a little or nothing at all” about the Holocaust. In France, nearly 20% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 said they had never heard of the Holocaust.”

This shocking amount of unfamiliarity with what happened in the not too distant past puts not only Jews at risk, but even the idea of what civilization should be, and how different right is from wrong (as opposed to, say, the amoral assessment of Neo-Nazis versus protestors as consisting of “good people on both sides.”)

We desperately need the reminder provided by this book about the twisted ideologies, fear, and prejudice that led to this horrifying lapse of humanity. Elie Wiesel, as Rabbi Sacks stated, “was the voice of memory when others sought to forget. …” There is so much danger in forgetting. In honoring Wiesel, we honor memory just as we honor life more than its destruction from hate.

Evaluation: It would be hard to exaggerate how inspirational this book is. Elie Wiesel, as Ted Koppel said, converted pain, injustice, and horror into love, compassion, and tolerance. This tribute does not focus on the horror, however, but on the steps Wiesel took to fight silence and indifference, and to advocate for compassion and justice. Wiesel was a living embodiment of what humanity can mean. This book would make an excellent gift for everyone you know, but especially, for everyone you love.

Rating: 5/5

Published by MomentBooks, an imprint of Mandel Vilar Press, 2019

December 30, 1942 – President Franklin Roosevelt Receives Detailed Dossier About the Holocaust from the Polish Underground

On this date, President Franklin Roosevelt and Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles received a dossier reinforcing and expanding on information about the Holocaust they had already learned from other sources.

The 130-page document titled “Reports on Poland and Lithuania” contained details about the Belzec concentration camp in southeastern Poland:

Inside and outside the fence Ukrainian sentries are posted. Executions are carried out in the following manner: a train carrying Jews arrives at the station and is moved up to the wire fence where the guards are changed. Now the train is brought to the unloading place by German personnel. The men are taken into barracks on the left, where they have to take their clothes off, ostensibly for a bath.”

It went on to describe how men and women were herded into a building and killed, their bodies buried in a ditch that had been dug by “Jews who, after they have finished the job, are executed.”

The dossier also revealed the existence of mobile extermination trucks in which poison gas was used to murder Jews, described the Auschwitz concentration camp, liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, and atrocities in Lithuania. An appendix containing photographs of corpses stacked like firewood and other horrors made it difficult even for anti-Semites in the State Department to doubt the authenticity of the information. (Source, Steven Usdin, Bureau of Spies, pp. 185-186, citing documents available at the FDR Library)

Though the level of detail was new, the fact that the Holocaust was taking place was not news to FDR. Beginning with the Kristallnacht attacks in Germany on Jews in November 1938, Roosevelt had expressed his shock “that such things could occur in a 20th century civilization.” But letting in Jewish refugees was another thing entirely.

Both the Americans and the British maintained that the best way to stop the Nazis’ “systematic, mechanized killing” was to defeat Hitler’s Germany in war. (Henry L. Feingold, The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938-1945, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1970, excerpt online at the FDR Library, here)

Meanwhile, after Germany annexed Austria (“The Anschluss”) in March 1938, tens of thousands of desperate Jews added their names to the waiting lists for entrance to the United States. Nevertheless, shortly after the Anschluss, Roosevelt merged the German and Austrian immigration quotas, so that a maximum of 27,370 quota immigrants born in “Greater Germany” could immigrate to the United States each year. By June 1939, more than 300,000 Germans were on the waiting list for American immigrant visas, and anticipated a wait of up to ten years. (Source: Holocaust Museum Encyclopedia)

As the Holocaust Museum Encyclopedia also reports:

FDR . . . called an international conference, which opened in Évian-les-Bains, France, in July 1938, to discuss the refugee problem. Roosevelt hoped that the thirty-two participating countries would pledge to admit significant numbers of refugees, but that did not occur at Évian.”

Despite a building refugee crisis in Europe, FDR did not ask Congress to consider expanding the immigration quotas, even though First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out in favor of it.

FDR’s public justification was bad enough. At a press conference on June 5, 1940, FDR stated:

Now, of course, the refugee has got to be checked because, unfortunately, among the refugees there are some spies, as has been found in other countries. And not all of them are voluntary spies—it is rather a horrible story but in some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.”

What he thought privately was even worse.

In July, 1942, FDR gave the green light to “the M Project,” which was “a secret study of options for post-war migration (hence ‘M’) of the millions of Europeans expected to be displaced by the war.” (Usdin, p. 196)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, September 1942

As early as 1925, FDR, in an editorial for the Macon Telegraph, voiced his opinion that:

It goes without saying that no sensible American wants this country to be made a dumping ground for foreigners of any nation, but it is equally true that there are a great many foreigners who, if they came here, would make exceedingly desirable citizens. It becomes, therefore, in the first place, a question of selection.”

Ah, there’s the rub.

What he was in favor of, just as Trump is today, is “the right stock,” like this example FDR gave:

A few years later some other families came in from Northern Italy, the right type of emigrant — they, too, have borne and are bearing their share in the general improvement of conditions.”

Thus for his “M Project,” FDR commissioned an advisory committee to be led by Aleš Hrdlička, an Austro-Hungarian anthropologist who came to the United States with his family in 1881. At the outset of WWII, Hrdlička was curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Aleš Hrdlička

As Usdin observes:

Roosevelt, the scion of two families that considered themselves American aristocrats, was especially attracted to Hrdlička’s notions of human racial ‘stock.’”

In fact, Hrdlička was convinced of the superiority of the white race and obsessed with racial identity. . . .

FDR used a go-between, John Franklin Carter, to convey his goals for the committee to Hrdlička. In particular, FDR wanted them to study South America and Central Africa as possibilities for post-war settlement. The committee should ascertain what percentage of “base stock of their own” should be mixed with immigrant stock for the best effect.

Roosevelt pointed out, Carter informed Hrdlička, “that while most South American countries would be glad to admit Jewish immigration, it was on the condition that the Jewish group were not localized in the cities, they want no ‘Jewish colonies,’ ‘Italian colonies,’ etc.” Keeping with this theme, the president also tasked the committee with determining how to ‘resettle the Jews on the land and keep them there.’” (Usdin, p. 199. You can also see the actual correspondence online via the FDR library, here.

Usdin notes that Hrdlička ultimately refused to participate in the M Project because Roosevelt wouldn’t give him absolute control. His replacement wasn’t much better: Isaiah Bowman, president of John Hopkins University, was a known anti-Semite. (Even after WWII, when most Americans were at least trying to feign sympathy for Jews, The Johns Hopkins University under Bowman’s leadership implemented a Jewish admissions quota while other American universities were terminating their discriminatory policies. It should also be noted that during the presidency of Isaiah Bowman (1935-48) not a single African-American student was admitted. (See “Dark Places Around the University: The Johns Hopkins University Admissions Quota and the Jewish Community, 1945-1951” by Jason Kalman, Hebrew Union College Annual, Vol. 81 (2010), pp. 233-279 online here.)

TIME Magazine Cover: Isaiah Bowman — Mar. 23, 1936

American Jews knew none of this, but they did know FDR was refusing to take action. According to “The Nation,” in early 1943, at the height of the Holocaust, Freda Kirchwey, a staunch New Dealer, Roosevelt supporter and editor in chief of “The Nation” denounced President Roosevelt’s response to the Nazi genocide in harsh terms:

‘You and I and the President and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to the crime and share Hitler’s guilt,’ she wrote. ‘If we had behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent, cowardly ones, the two million Jews lying today in the earth of Poland and Hitler’s other crowded graveyards would be alive and safe…. We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and we did not lift a hand to do it—or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we lifted just one cautious hand, encased in a tight-fitting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits, and a thick layer of prejudice.’”

Finally, on January 22, 1944, responding to both public pressure and pressure within his administration, FDR issued an executive order establishing a War Refugee Board (WRB), an independent agency tasked with carrying out a new American policy to rescue and provide relief for Jews and other groups being persecuted by Nazi Germany and Axis collaborators.

By that time, however, most European Jews had already been murdered. For example, a diary entry on January 25, 1944 by Hans Frank, Gauleiter of Poland, concerning the fate of 2.5 million Jews originally under his jurisdiction read “At the present time we still have in the General Government perhaps 100,000 Jews.”

As for the M Project, Usdin writes:

The M Project expanded far beyond Roosevelt’s original charge, producing thousands of pages of reports, maps, and charts analyzing the suitability of locations around the globe for settlement by Europeans who were expected to be displaced by the war, analyzing the characteristics of myriad racial and ethnic groups, and theorizing about optimal proportions in which to combine them in their new homelands.” (Usdin, p. 199)

Usdin also writes that few knew about the reports, and they had no discernable impact on policy decisions. He does opine:

In retrospect, the M Project’s principal accomplishment was to shed light on FDR’s thinking about race and immigration….”

After Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, John Franklin Carter wrote to Truman explaining the project, offering to continue it, and urging that it still be funded (which it had been at the enormous rate at that time of $10,000 per month, translating in 2018 dollars to over $140,000 per month).

Truman decided it cost too much, and terminated the project.

Review of “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris

Lale Sokolov, born in Krompachy, Slovia in 1916, was transported by the Nazis to Auschwitz on April 23, 1942. Late in his life, he told his story to the author. She decided to call this book a “novel” because she created dialogue based on what Lale told her, and because of the uncertainty of the veracity of memory. Nevertheless, she states:

“Lale’s memories were, on the whole, remarkably clear and precise. They matched my research into people, dates, and places.”

At the time he was sent to Auschwitz, Lale was 24, healthy, and could speak a number of languages, all of which proved very fortunate for him. In fact, as inappropriate as it seems to speak of an inmate of Nazi concentration camps having a lot of “luck,” the truth is that Lale, in spite of his circumstances, had an inordinate amount of it. Even one of the S.S. marveled he was like a cat with nine lives. Almost without exception, those who tried to do what he did in the camps were executed – or tortured first and then executed.

Lale became a Tätowierer, or tattooist, for the camp, one of the men assigned to brand the prisoners when they arrived, just as was done to Lale when he came to Auschwitz. The Nazis used the tattoos to identify bodies after they killed them, in order to facilitate their meticulous record-keeping that chronicled who arrived and who was killed.

Children at Auschwitz showing their tattooed arms

Lale hated the job, but it was a way to keep alive, and he vowed when he came there that he would survive and see those who were responsible pay a price. He held on to that thought using it like a mantra to make himself get up each morning, and the next and the next.

Lale Sokolov showing his own tattoo from Auschwitz

He soon got another reason to go on living, after meeting a girl whose tattoo had faded and needed to be redone: Gita Furman (born Gisela Fuhrmannova) was also from Slovakia. Lale was entranced by her dark eyes, and began a secret courtship with her. He was helped by a number of factors. Because he was one of only two Tätowierers, he had more freedom than other prisoners, and even got extra rations. He was able to walk around and befriend two local (non-Jewish) workers who came from the nearby town, and from whom he received meat, chocolate, and even medicine, for which he paid in jewels confiscated by the Nazis from incoming prisoners. He got those from the girls who worked in “Canada,” where the possessions of new arrivals were collected and processed. The girls transferred jewels and money to Lale, and he used it as payment for goods from the outside. These he shared not only with the girls from Canada but with others.

Women’s Barracks

He was in this way able to help get Gita penicillin when she was sick. After she recovered, he also managed, through bribes, to obtain a job for her in the camp office where life would be easier. He paid the guard in charge of Gita’s barrack to get time to see her. He helped anyone he could (everyone in the camp always wanted more than what the camp provided), and he was repaid in kind when he himself needed help. Thus both he and Gita survived until 1945, when the Russians were closing in and the Germans abandoned the camp. But first, the Nazis tried to kill remaining prisoners. In the ensuing chaos, Lale and Gita independently escaped and made their separate ways back to Slovakia.

Lale went to the main train station in Bratislava every day, hoping to find Gita among the many survivors arriving daily. And after two weeks, there she was. They were married in October, 1945. When he got into trouble with the new government in Czechoslovakia, again Lale got lucky, and he and Gita escaped, making their way to Australia in 1949.

The author met Lale in 2003, after Gita died and when Lale wanted to tell his story to a writer who was not Jewish, so would more likely be without personal baggage or preconceptions. She visited Lale two or three times a week for three years until his own death in 2006 and gradually learned his story.

PHOTO: Lale and Gita with their son Gary in the 1960s.

The author concluded:

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a story of two ordinary people living in an extraordinary time, deprived not only of their freedom but also their dignity, their names, and their identities. It is Lale’s account of what they needed to do to survive. Lale lived his life by the motto: ‘If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.’ On the morning of his funeral I woke knowing it was not a good day for me, but that it would have been for him. He was now with Gita.”

I would only counter that I didn’t think of Lale and Gita as “ordinary” at all. As Lale said to Gita about her friend Cilka, who was forced to perform sexual acts with one of the SS:

“Tell her I think she is a hero. . . You’re a hero, too, my darling. That the two of you have chosen to survive is a type of resistance to these Nazi bastards. Choosing to live is an act of defiance, a form of heroism.”

Lale also, to me, was heroic, and extraordinary.

The book includes photos and some additional information about the fate of others mentioned in the story.

Evaluation: This powerful book of courage and hope when there is no justification to feel either is an incredible story, and highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018

Holocaust Remembrance Day & Review of “My Real Name is Hanna” by Tara Lynn Masih

This book for young adults (and older) is based on the true story of the Stermer family, who were in the five percent of Jews who survived the Holocaust in the Ukraine, out of a total of between 1.2 and 1.6 million Jews. (Many Ukrainians died during the war period as well but they were not targeted by the Einsatzgruppen, or Nazi advance troops, whose mission was primarily to kill Jews in advance of the arrival of German troops.) A large number of Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis, but Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Center – has some 2,600 Ukrainians registered as “righteous Gentiles” who helped save Jews. [N.B. the population of the Ukraine in 1939 was 40 million.]

In this story, the Slivka family is helped by some of those righteous gentiles, as was the case, in real life, with the Stermer family. It is difficult to see how anyone could have survived at all otherwise.

When the book begins, Hanna Slivka, the narrator, is about to tell her history to her daughter, so we know that at least she herself survived. She begins her story in 1941 when she was age 13, before the Nazis arrived in her small town of Kwasova in the Ukraine.

Hanna is close to an older gentile neighbor, Alla Petrovich, who lets Hanna help her make her pysanky eggs (what we call Ukrainian Easter eggs). Later, Alla helps the Slivka family escape from the Nazis, first by giving them a cross to put on their doorway, and later, by giving them what little food and monetary help she can give.

But the Gestapo are relentless, determined to make the area Judenfrei, free of all Jews.

Before long, Hanna and her family have to go into hiding, first into a crude cabin deep in the woods, and later inside deep and dark underground caves. There the Slivkas stay for almost 400 days, although the Stermers stayed even longer – over 500 days!

Throughout their time of both figurative and literal darkness, Hanna’s papa counseled them to keep hopeful, not to lose faith, and not to become like their oppressors. “Life is not good, however you are living it,” Hanna learned from him, “if you become like those who don’t value you.” And there was an additional important incentive to carry them through. When Hanna’s mama first saw the cave and muttered, “I have never lived on dirt,” Papa said to her:

This is what those Nazis make us do, huh? Live like barbarians. But the best revenge, my Eva, is just that – to live….”

Evaluation: This is one of the most inspirational stories you will read. As the author said in her Historical Note at the end of the book about the Stermer’s experience, “their family story of survival and transcendence would not let me go.” Neither will Hanna’s story. The subject is difficult, but insofar as it really happened (though just not to these made-up characters) it is so important that people know about it.

The author also said:

Little did I know that my agent and I would be submitting the final manuscript during a time in which the KKK and White Nationalists would march again and bring forth from the depths of an ugly, deadly history their rallying racist and anti-Semitic chants and their anti-Semitic acts, some violent, by an increase of 57 percent in 2017. I dream of a day when we will no longer need Holocaust stories to remind us to be kind to each other, and to be watchful of those who aren’t.”

Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Mandel Vilar Press, 2018

January 25, 1940 – Nazis Decide to Construct a Concentration Camp Near Auschwitz and Review of “Smoke Over Birkenau” by Liana Millu

On January 25, 1940, the SS [the Schutzstaffel, a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (NSDAP) in Nazi Germany, and later throughout German-occupied Europe during World War II] decided to construct a concentration camp near Oswiecim (Auschwitz). This central location and its proximity to rail lines allowed the Nazis to deport people to the camp from all over Europe.

After shortly more than a year, Reichsfuehrer SS and Chief of German Police Heinrich Himmler determined that the space was not adequate for the expected influx of prisoners and on March 1, 1941 ordered the building of an additional camp roughly two miles from the first. This second camp became known as Auschwitz II or Birkenau.

Birkenau served primarily as an extermination camp. Most of the rooms for “showers” supposedly for delousing incoming prisoners were actually gas chambers. The Jewish Virtual Library explains:

At Birkenau, only about 10 percent of Jewish transports were registered, disinfected, shaven and showered in the ‘central sauna’ before being assigned barracks as opposed to being sent directly to the death chambers. In the spring of 1942, two provisional gas chambers at Birkenau were constructed out of peasant huts, known as the ‘bunkers.’

The victims murdered in the ‘bunkers’ were first obliged to undress in temporary wooden barracks erected nearby. Their bodies were taken out of the gas chambers and pushed to pits where they were burned in the open.”

Women and children on the Birkenau arrival platform known as the “ramp”. (via Yad Vashem Auschwitz Album)

The majority — probably about 90% — of the inmates in Auschwitz Concentration Camp died in Birkenau. This means over a million people. More than nine out of every ten were Jews. A large proportion of the more than 70,000 non-Jewish Poles who died or were killed in the Auschwitz complex perished in Birkenau. So did approximately 20 thousand Gypsies, in addition to Soviet POWs and prisoners of other nationalities. 

Liana Millu was a Jewish Italian Partisan who was arrested in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the 672 people in her transport, 57 lived to return home. Smoke Over Birkenau is one of the few testimonies to record the experience of women in the Nazi concentration camps. The six vignettes in this slim volume tell the stories of some of the women who were the most memorable to Liana. The continuation of quotidian “human” occupations in the midst of such inhumanity is amazing: generosity, greed, jealousy, swapping recipes, celebrating birthdays, secret births, and of course, constant death. The details of life in the women’s barracks are frightening, humbling, and engrossing.

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The inmates often struggled with the big question: where was God? At one point, Liana recalls herself asking:

Whatever will become of me? I wondered, the mud splattering at my feet. Whatever will become of me? And of Lili, and all the rest? It wasn’t so much the fear of death that pained me, but rather the galling futility of this existence suspended between two voids. Here today, gone tomorrow. What could be the point of all this suffering, bounded by parentheses, in the midst of nothing? Was it possible some God was looking down on me from above? Why did he put me here in the first place if I was simply to suffer and vanish without a trace? Had he no mercy, this God?”

Lotti, another inmate who chose to become a member of the Auschwitz Puffkommando (brothel), was bemoaning the rejection by her sister and fellow-inmate Gustine over her choice:

She was always dragging God’s name into it, Gustine was. It became an obsession with her. ‘God won’t forsake his creatures. God knows what he’s doing. God can’t allow injustice to triumph.’ And meanwhile the crematorium just keeps puffing away and ashes are dropping on my head.”

Most of the vignettes end with ashes. Yet Millu gives life again to the many women who joined the columns of smoke rising from the crematoria of Birkenau.

Published in English by Northwestern University Press, 1998

Note: Translation by Sharon Schwartz was the winner of the PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award

Review of “The Secrets of My Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy” by Peter Sichel

Don’t be put off by the rather dull cover of this book: there is treasure within! This is an incredibly interesting memoir/history by Peter Sichel (pronounced like seashell), who escaped Nazi Germany, worked for the CIA, and eventually became a top vintner.

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I have read many accounts of the Holocaust and of escapes from Germany, but never involving someone from a family with the money and connections so helpful for leaving. Sichel grew up in Mainz, Germany, where his family had established a very successful business buying and selling wine. His parents were well-educated; his father came from a well-to-do family, and his mother was from “a politically conscious home.” It was she who insisted they had to leave; his father was in denial – he could not accept that this country to which he had given his loyalty and love would reject him like this.

Sichel family members had started wine import companies in France, London, and New York, which proved critical when the family needed to get out of Germany. France and London became way stations for Sichel before he eventually landed in New York. Most of his family was able to get out of Germany, in spite of (1) being Jews, and (2) having assets coveted by the Nazis.

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In World War II, Sichel was assigned to the intelligence division, then called the OSS. He remained when it became the CIA, spending a total of sixteen years in the intelligence services. He left in the middle of the Cold War, after realizing, as he explained:

“. . . my ideas of what was necessary for the United States to prevail in that war did not coincide with the then-prevailing US government policy.”

Specifically, Sichel objected to the “action side” of the CIA that, at the government’s behest, was involved in effectuating regime changes around the world, leading to a series of debacles resulting in severe blowback for the U.S. He lamented that the “action side” of the CIA paid no heed to the “intelligence side” and failed to take into account “local, cultural, and political realities.”

As Sichel observes about U.S. policies at that time:

“The overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, as well as the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba, are good examples of when and where our American presidents found it expedient to dispose of those whom they and their national security advisors perceived as inimical rulers, to be replaced often by rulers and systems that were infinitely worse.”

[Note that in a book I recently reviewed, America’s War in the Greater Middle East, Andrew Bacevich, makes exactly these same points about our current policies, i.e., that the continued efforts of the U.S. to employ military might to advance our own interests and values without any consideration for the inhabitants of those countries or their needs or grievances, or even in the wider geopolitical repercussions, but in the putative pursuit of “freedom” for them, is only having disastrous consequences and fueling the recruitment success of terrorists.]

Mossadegh - Man of the Year and applauded as a democratically elected leader, until he nationalized the Iranian oil industry, removing it from the grasp of the West

Mossadegh – Man of the Year and applauded as a democratically elected leader, until he nationalized the Iranian oil industry, removing it from the grasp of the West

Sichel also has some interesting observations about the extent of alcoholism in those who served in the OSS and CIA. The dangers faced by agents, particularly in other countries; the necessity of getting others to loosen up and talk; and the feelings of being outside the usual laws all contributed to these problems. He recalls that almost no business was conducted in the afternoons; agents had already consumed too much alcohol.

Sichel was no stranger to this practice but managed to overcome it, and even get into the family’s wine trade business after leaving the CIA. He eventually became famous in the wine world for having made Blue Nun Liebfraumlich a global marketing success in the 1980s, and for taking leadership roles in promoting the wine industry generally around the world.

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The last chapters in the book have a great deal of information about wine, albeit more about the selling end than the growing process. Nevertheless, it is quite fascinating as he details the many demands of the wine business. Especially important is ensuring that a blend for a particular label is relatively consistent over time, given the vagaries of grape sourcing and harvesting, weather, etc. One of the biggest challenges now is that wines are increasingly higher in alcohol content than twenty years ago because of global warming. He remarks:

“High-alcohol wines often do not blend well with food; the alcohol tends to burn the mouth and palate.”

Who knew?

Evaluation: This book is more than a memoir; it is also a history of an era distilled through the lenses of a colorful, intelligent, and talented tour guide and oenologist. [Ironically, the old word for guide, cicerone, would have been perfect here, but it has been usurped by the beer trade to mean expert on beer, analogous to a wine sommelier.]

Sichel has a remarkable memory which he supplemented with interviews with people from his past, and with a great deal of reading, for which he appends a bibliography. He knew many famous people in his time, and rarely has a bad word to say about anyone. His inside look at the OSS and early days of the CIA by itself makes the book worth reading.

This consistently fascinating book includes a selection of photographs.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Archway Publishing, 2016

Note: There is also a film on Sichel’s life, which you can get on DVD. After reading this book, you may not be able to resist!

Cover of DVD, "Peter Sichel: A Spine-lingling Journey From Nazai Germany to the CIa to International Wine Master."

Cover of DVD, “Peter Sichel: A Spine-lingling Journey From Nazai Germany to the CIa to International Wine Master.”

October 23, 1941 – Order Banning Emigration of Jews from the Reich During World War II

One of the reasons for the relatively low number of refugees leaving Europe prior to World War II was the barrier of stringent immigration policies enacted by the prospective host countries. Jewish immigration in particular was limited by countries including the United States, where antisemitism flourished.

Father Charles Coughlin, known as ‘the founder of hate radio,’ was a leading proponent of American anti-Semitism during the 1930s

As Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton explain in “The Nazis and the Jews in Occupied Western Europe, 1940-1944” [The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Dec., 1982), online here], during a short period prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Germans were in favor of Jewish emigration. At that time, there were no operative plans to kill the Jews. The goal was to induce them to leave, if necessary, by the use of force. Indeed, while many German Jews were initially reluctant to emigrate, the majority sought to do so following Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), November 9-10, 1938. Had havens been available, more people would certainly have emigrated.

The policy of Germany changed however at the start of World War II. Why not get rid of Jews once and for all?

Thus, no more Jews were allowed to emigrate; it would be preferable to kill them.

On this day in history, a new order was issued by the Schutzstaffel or SS. This was a paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (NSDAP) in Nazi Germany, and later throughout German-occupied Europe during World War II.:

Secret
Re: Emigration of Jews
Reference: none

The Reichsfuehrer SS and Chief of the German Police has decreed that the emigration of Jews is to be prevented, taking effect immediately. (Evacuation Aktionen will remain unaffected.)

I request that the internal German Authorities concerned in the area of service there may be informed of this order.

Permission for the emigration of individual Jews can only be approved in single very special cases; for instance, in the event of a genuine interest on the part of the Reich, and then only after a prior decision has been obtained from the Reich Security Main Office.”

The Holocaust Museum Encyclopedia notes:

The ‘Final Solution’ was the code name for the systematic, deliberate, physical annihilation of the European Jews. At some still undetermined time in 1941, Adolf Hitler authorized this European-wide scheme for mass murder.”

SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Reich Security Main Office and one of SS Chief Heinrich Himmler’s top deputies, convened the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 for government officials to plan the implementation of the “Final Solution” per Hitler’s instructions.

Mass murders of Jews had in fact already begun by the Einsatzgruppen, particularly in the the German-occupied areas of the Soviet Union and in Serbia. The Einsatzgruppen, special SS and police units, had the task of murdering Jews and political opponents ahead of the arrival of armed forces.

Heydrich indicated that approximately 11,000,000 Jews in Europe would fall under the provisions of the “Final Solution.” In this figure, he included not only Jews residing in Axis-controlled Europe, but also the Jewish populations of the United Kingdom, and the neutral nations (Switzerland, Ireland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, and European Turkey). He anticipated German victories in Europe and wanted to plan accordingly.