Were there any ghosts in the Rosenberg diary? You think?

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First things first: Anyone who is interested in history, especially the history of the ideas behind Adolph Hitler, is going to amazed by the twists and turns that unfold in the new Los Angeles Times “Column One” feature about the search for the lost diary of Nazi intellectual Alfred Rosenberg. This is one amazing ride, with the son of a Holocaust survivor acting as a kind of quiet, peaceful, but highly motivated Indiana Jones on the quest to find the Great White Whale of Holocaust studies.

Here is how reporter Richard Simon begins this riveting tale, which has a Washington, D.C., dateline:

Henry Mayer had long heard of the lost Nazi diary.

Mayer helped maintain the vast collection of artifacts at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and knew the diary had been kept by Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi Party’s chief ideologue and a confidant of Adolf Hitler.

The diary was found in the final days of World War II, hidden behind a false wall in a Bavarian castle. Excerpts were introduced into evidence at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

Then the 425-page diary disappeared. Half a century later, Mayer, the son of a Holocaust survivor, made it his mission to find it.

Simple and to the point. The problem is that the Mayer and other historians kept finding more and more Rosenberg papers — including materials that surprised them — yet the diary continued to elude them. It’s kind of like a ghost.

The key to the story is tied up in that simple phrase at the top of the story, that Rosenberg was the “Nazi Party’s chief ideologue.” Yes, that includes the fine-tuning of the hellish racial, scientific and religious formula that led to the Holocaust. As the story notes:

Mayer and others long hoped to secure the diary because of the prominent role Rosenberg played in the Nazi hierarchy.

“It was Rosenberg, the intellectual high priest of the ‘master race,’ who provided the doctrine of hatred which gave the impetus for the annihilation of Jewry,” Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, the chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, said at the tribunal.

Rosenberg was hanged on Oct. 16, 1946, at age 53.

Yes, the story delivers on the details of the eventual recovery. In this case, there is no need to whisper “Spoilers,” to quote the famous scholar Dr. River Song. However, I believe that there is a major hole in the story at that point.

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Haaretz and Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

Do you remember Tom Lehrer, the composer/comedian/mathematician? I have long loved his music, which I discovered as a young boy when exploring my parent’s record collection.

A recent article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz set spinning in my head one of Lehrer’s LPs this Christmas and to the embarrassment of my children I broke into song, serenading them with the refrain from Lehrer’s satiric gem National Brotherhood Week (1965).

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
And everybody hates the Jews.

My fertile mind however, added an additional line — “And Haaretz does too!”

Hates the Jews that is.

How else can one explain this article, “The Myth of the Warsaw Ghetto” published last week in the leftist Israeli daily? Writing on the website of Commentary magazine, Eugene Kontorovich summarized the article’s thesis, stating that Haaretz believed that if:

the fighters had not been so uppity, if they had not made a fuss–then the Nazis, who had already murdered 500,000 Jews of Warsaw, might have let the remaining 50,000 live. Maybe! It is not a new argument. Rather, the author amazingly resurrects and endorses the arguments of the Judernat, the Jewish collaboration government of the Ghetto. With every new deportation, they urged restrain with increasing urgency–maybe they will let the rest of us live, and if you fight, all the past deportations would be a sacrifice in vain.

Haaretz’ story discusses the controversy over the number of Jews who fought and the number of Nazis killed, and also offers its view of the political and national symbolism of the Warsaw uprising for modern-day Israel. The article concludes:

The 50,000 or so Jews who remained in the Warsaw Ghetto after the transports of 1942 had survived, as in other ghettos in occupied Poland, largely because they worked in factories for Germany. Many of these factories were owned and managed by Germans, who negotiated with the German authorities and the SS to hold on to their workers.

In light of all this, the Jews’ belief grew that somehow they could survive. They had two bad options: Flee the ghetto to the hostile Polish side or continue working in the German factories. Both options meant living day to day in the hope the war would end quickly.

At the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews survived in Poland and Germany. In Warsaw alone the number of survivors is estimated at about 25,000. Death in battle, as the ghetto fighters planned, did not keep with the intentions of the vast majority of Jews remaining. … Thus the question has never been raised: What right did a small group of young people have to decide the fate of the 50,000 Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto?

Commentary was scathing in its response. Haaretz had:

shown that it exists in a world entirely divorced from any Jewish consensus, and cannot claim the title of loyal opposition. It has crossed all prior bounds of decency and published a criticism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, calling it a “myth,” and accusing its heroes of being responsible for the ultimate liquidation of the Ghetto. Despite disagreements on diplomatic, territorial, and religious issues, the memory of the Holocaust–its heroes and victims–had been the great unifying porch in post-War Jewish consciousness. Now the Holocaust is fair game too.

It concluded:

There can be no more terrible case of “blaming the victim” than laying any responsibility for the liquidation of the Ghetto at the feet of the fighters. It is true, the Jewish “communal leadership”–and the rabbis–opposed the uprising. That is what made it brave. The Judenrat had no right to decide if residents of the Ghetto died in gas chambers or fighting for their freedom.

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WSJ gets the tone right on Holocaust survivor story

There’s so much bad reporting about religion and religion-related stories these days — the continual surprise evidenced by The New York Times that the leaders of Roman Catholic institutions may choose to act, well, in a Catholic manner, for example — that it’s not a bad thing, I believe to highlight instances where a given reporter (and publication) get it right.

Such a refreshing, if deeply sobering, example comes from reporter Naftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal. A Congressional correspondent for the paper, he ventured somewhat far afield to extensively report on “A Race to Preserve the Voices of Holocaust’s Last Survivors.” The opening sets the tone, of course:

JEMEPPE-SUR-SAMBRE, Belgium – Simon Gronowski, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor, mesmerized schoolchildren in this small town recently with a detailed account of jumping off a train to Auschwitz and hiding from the Nazis for three years.

The students lobbed close to 50 questions at him, ranging from the unsophisticated — “Did you meet Hitler?” — to the sensitive, like his feelings about losing the mother and sister who stayed on the train.

But the talk exhausted Mr. Gronowski. His knees bother him, he doesn’t hear that well, and it isn’t clear how much longer he can deliver such talks, though he has no plans to stop. “My children and my grandchildren will talk about it,” he said. “I can’t do any more than I’m doing.”

Although there are believed to be 160,000 survivors of the Shoah, or “destruction,” as Jews often refer to the Holocaust, still alive, their numbers are dwindling. As each one passes, a voice, a recollection and even the physical evidence of having survived — the numbered tattoo on a forearm — is lost:

A survivor who was 20 when Auschwitz was liberated would be 88 today, and already few are left who were adults during the war. “Nothing has as much impact as seeing the person in real life,” said Regina Sluszny, 74, who was hidden from the Nazis as a child. “But we have no choice. We can’t live forever.”

The need for living witness, ironically, grows as generations are more and more removed from the actual events of World War II.

I was born during Eisenhower’s second presidential term, and as a child and teen there were plenty of documentaries, interviews, films and mini-series focusing on the National Socialists and their reign of terror. Now, such documentaries are fewer and farther between, it seems, even if some notable ones are still appearing.

Examined in closer detail, the numbers are even more dire:

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NY Times gets religion … in Rome!

The New York Times published a lengthy travel piece with tons of religion in it. It’s written by David Laskin, and nicely weaves religion, history and travel together. A reader complained about one portion, incorrectly, but before we get to that, let’s look at the top of the story.

For half a millennium, the Portico d’Ottavia has been the heart of Rome’s Jewish ghetto, four cramped blocks wedged between the Tiber, the Turtle Fountain, the Theater of Marcellus and the Palazzo Cenci. Amid today’s celebration of earthly pleasures, I had trouble finding the small wall plaque that commemorates “la spietata caccia agli ebrei” — the merciless hunting down of the Jews — that took place here on Oct. 16, 1943.

Seventy years ago, the world was at war, Rome was occupied by the Nazis, and the ghetto was a virtual prison for a large part of the city’s Jewish community. On the morning of Oct. 16, 1943, SS Captain Theodor Dannecker ordered that the prison be emptied.

Trucks pulled up on the cobblestoned piazza beside the Portico d’Ottavia, the neighborhood was sealed, and 365 German soldiers fanned out through the narrow streets and courtyards. Families hid at the backs of their shuttered shops. The able-bodied and quick-witted jumped from their windows or fled along the rooftops. The unlucky were hounded from their homes at gunpoint and herded into the idling trucks. Of the more than 1,000 Roman Jews seized that day and later transported to Auschwitz, only 16 survived.

On a balmy night in April, I sat pondering that dark time with my wife and two of our daughters on the terrace of Ba” Ghetto, a lively restaurant near the Portico d’Ottavia. All around us, waiters were bearing platters of grilled meat and assuring tourists that their fried artichokes alla giudia were the best in Rome. Deep into the night, a sparkler ignited atop a slice of cake and everyone sang “tanti auguri a te” (happy birthday to you) to a 20-something beauty.

It was impossible not to be stunned by the contrast between the festive present and the somber past. Even a dozen years ago, when we first visited the ghetto, the neighborhood felt forlorn and insular. Old, suspicious eyes sized us up as we made our way past kosher butchers and shabby tailor shops. Jews had been confined to these flood-prone riverside streets in 1555 by Pope Paul IV, and in 2001, an aura of melancholy still lingered.

I had irreligious friends who lived near Portico d’Ottavio 15 years ago and they never described the neighborhood as forlorn or insular — far from it. Always good to remember that different people’s perspectives of a given neighborhood might vary quite a bit. This is just one (very good) travel writer’s perspective. And I’m thankful for a religion writer who understands the role religion plays in the character of a place.

The piece is long, and I want to quote extensively from it, but it’s best if you just read it. The writer acknowledges that the nine-month occupation by German forces was just a blip on what he calls “this city’s 2,000 years of glorious and inglorious history.” Of course, if we’re going to include all of its history, might it be better to refer to its 3,000 years? In any case, there’s some great World War II history, a mention of the Protestant cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried, and various other tidbits. He visits “San Lorenzo’s mellow 12th-century brick campanile” and learns how American bombs caved in the roof of the basilica’s roof and shattered parts of the mosaic floor, one of the most beautiful in Rome (since set back into place). There:

As my guidebook instructed, I descended a short flight of steps at the end of the nave to find the tomb of St. Lawrence, who was martyred over hot coals in the year 258.

But the moment that will stay with me came in the 12th-century cloister. Amid the dainty paired columns and drifts of myrtle and herbs, I stumbled upon a fragment of a bomb’s casing that was pried out of the rubble in 1943 — a shard of American steel displayed incongruously in a sacred Roman garden.

St. Lawrence’s story is one of my favorites, and it’s nice to see a mention. The next paragraph is poignant as well. He asks locals if they have any bitterness over what the United States armed forces did to San Lorenzo. They explain that they are grateful to Americans for liberating them from the Nazis.

Here’s the part for which we received a reader complaint:

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Faith, fear and the Holocaust

Back in March, this title on a New York Times news analysis grabbed my attention:

The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking

I found the article itself fascinating, but the headline struck me as more suited for a New York tabloid than the Old Gray Lady. I mean, I’m not sure how the systematic killing of millions of Jews could be any more shocking.

While no expert on the atrocities that occurred, I was blessed in 2004 to write an in-depth Associated Press story about the children of two Holocaust survivors finding each other — and finding answers. That piece remains one of the most memorable I have had the privilege of writing, and I remain enthralled by survivors’ stories.

I want to pull one such story, published a few weeks ago, out of my GetReligion guilt file. It’s a front-page feature by one of our favorite Godbeat pros, Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal. 

This is one of those cases where I wish GetReligion had a simple template for posting links and screaming, “READ THIS!!!”

The top of the story:

As a Jew living in neutral Switzerland in October 1942, John Rothschild took the extraordinary risk of walking into an internment camp in Nazi-dominated France — unnerved but undeterred by the ominous closing of the gate behind him.

He arranged to speak to the French camp commander, part of the right-wing puppet government of France that was shipping Jews by the trainload north to death camps such as Auschwitz.

Rothschild recalls placing a package of Swiss cigars on the commander’s desk, along with the business card of a helpful local lawyer whom the commander owed a favor. As Rothschild introduced himself, the commander said, “Oh, for the Swiss I would take the moon down from the sky.”

“I told him, ‘You don’t have to do that much. Let my fiancée go,’ ” Rothschild recalled.

His fiancée, Renee, was on a list to be deported to Auschwitz. The commander told Rothschild to return in two days for his decision.

In the meantime, Rothschild sought Renee out in the camp.

“I didn’t even know he was coming,” Renee Rothschild recalled in a recent interview with the couple more than 70 years later in Louisville, where they now live.

OK, you say, but what’s the news angle?

Glad you asked:

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European values after Auschwitz

Seventy years after the Holocaust, Germany has constructed the first monument honoring the half million gypsies murdered in the Holocaust.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung  reported the news with a photo of the memorial above the fold in Wednesday’s edition along with an inside story entitled “Denkmal für die ermordeten Sinti und Roma wird eingeweiht”.

Published from Munich, the Süddeutsche Zeitung or SZ is Germany’s largest circulation daily newspaper and follows a centre-left editorial line. The SZ story reports the facts of inauguration of the monument in Berlin — and also takes a few shots at the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel for its asylum policies. The thwack it gives Germany’s interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich of the CSU party (Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern) — a local boy from Bavaria — is not unexpected. Yet its attack, voiced through the mouth of Mr. Romani Rose, the leader of Germany’s Central Council of Sinti and Roma, is expressed on the moral grounds of not being in accordance with European values.

I am sympathetic to the gypsy spokesman, Mr. Rose’s, denunciation of German attitudes and government policies towards gypsies. But what exactly are European values? Once upon a time they were Christian values, albeit imperfectly followed but piously espoused. In a post-Christian, post-Auschwitz  Europe what exactly underlies the concept of moral value?

The SZ story begins by recounting the ceremony in Berlin that marked the opening of the monument to the gypsies murdered between 1933 to 1945. The monument had been planned for almost 20 years, but disagreements with the Central Council of Sinti and Roma led to the delay in its construction. The importance of the ceremony was underscored by the presence of Germany’s chancellor, president and political leaders — a point made by Berlin’s Die Tageszeitung. The top half of the SZ story closes with this paragraph:

Mit dem Denkmal setze die Bundesregierung ein Zeichen, “das nicht allein in die Vergangenheit weist, sondern vor allem Verantwortung für Gegenwart und Zukunft symbolisiert”, betonte das Dokumentations- und Kulturzentrum Deutscher Sinti und Roma. Die zwölf Millionen Sinti und Roma in Europa seien “noch heute täglicher Diskriminierung ausgesetzt”. Der “zunehmende Rassismus in Europa” bedrohe nicht nur die Minderheiten, “sondern die europäischen Werte an sich, deren Kern die Menschenrechte und die Menschenwürde sind”.

Which roughly and imperfectly translated means:

With this monument the Federal Government has put up a sign “that points not only to the past, but is symbolic above all of its responsibility for the present and future” said the Documentation and Cultural Center of German Sinti and Roma. Europe’s twelve million Sinti and Roma are “still exposed to daily discrimination”. The “rise of racism in Europe” threatens not only minorities, “but the core European values of human rights and human dignity.”

The SZ then has fun and gives Mr. Rose the opportunity to chastise the interior minister for the government’s “discriminatory” and racist asylum policy, which he charges prevents gypsies from escaping to Germany from the Balkans. The quote provided by the minister is wonderfully pompous and bureaucratic, essentially saying that gypsies do not meet the criteria of a persecuted people in Serbia and Macedonia. In giving the minister equal space, the SZ has allowed him to make a fool of himself. The exchange is framed in such a way as to make the interior minister seem heartless — lacking in the European values of die Menschenrechte und die Menschenwürde (human rights and human dignity).

Where is the God-shaped hole in this story you ask? It is in the claim that Europe’s core values are human rights and human dignity. What does that mean?

Whose conception of rights? What understanding of dignity?

The ghosts I see hovering in the background of this story are the continuing shadow the Nazi era casts over Germany and the debate over the place of Christianity in the European identity. The place of Christianity — including the concept as to whether human rights and human dignity are innate as they are God-given, or constructs of the secular state — has animated debates over the place of God in the EU constitution.

The post-Nazi era treatment of the gypsies reflects this grappling with morality without grounding in God. The Nazis exterminated the gypsies — why? One Romani scholar noted that some histories of the Holocaust failed to understand that the “criminality” associated with gypsies

was attributed by the Nazis to a genetically transmitted and incurable disease, and was therefore ideologically racial; instead, writers focused only on the “antisocial” label resulting from it and failed to acknowledge the genetic connection made by the Nazi race scientists themselves.  In 1950 the Württemburg Ministry of the Interior issued a statement to the judges hearing war crimes restitution claims that they should keep in mind that “the Gypsies were persecuted under the National Socialist regime not for any racial reason, but because of their criminal and antisocial record,” and twenty-one years later the Bonn Convention took advantage of this as justification for not paying reparations to Romanies, claiming that the reasons for their victimization during the Nazi period were for reasons  of  security  only. Not one person spoke out to challenge that position, the consequences of which have hurt the survivors and their descendants beyond measure, though at that time the French genealogist Montandon did however observe that “everyone despises Gypsies, so why exercise restraint?  Who will avenge them? Who will complain? Who will bear witness?”

Am I a cynic, or overly fussy, when I hear newspaper talk of European values and the European ideal? How should a thoughtful journalist handle this issue? There is a danger of entering a suffering Olympics — ranking the sufferings of Jews, gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, Catholics, socialists/conservatives/communists at the hands of the Nazis. I am not speaking here about special pleading for one group, but asking how a reporter can report on the language of European morals in a post-Auschwitz world?

Or, is this a loaded question? When did you Germans stop beating your wives? Is it time to forget and move on? What say you GetReligion readers?


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