What Was The Holocaust?
In 1933, the Jewish population of Europe stood at over nine million. Most European Jews lived in countries that Nazi Germany would occupy or influence during World War II. By 1945, the Germans and their collaborators killed nearly two out of every three European Jews as part of the “Final Solution,” the Nazi policy to murder the Jews of Europe. Although Jews, whom the Nazis deemed a priority danger to Germany, were the primary victims of Nazi racism, other victims included some 200,000 Roma (Gypsies). At least 200,000 mentally or physically disabled patients, mainly Germans, living in institutional settings, were murdered in the so-called Euthanasia Program.
As Nazi tyranny spread across Europe, the Germans and their collaborators persecuted and murdered millions of other people. Between two and three million Soviet prisoners of war were murdered or died of starvation, disease, neglect, or maltreatment. The Germans targeted the non-Jewish Polish intelligentsia for killing, and deported millions of Polish and Soviet civilians for forced labor in Germany or in occupied Poland, where these individuals worked and often died under deplorable conditions. From the earliest years of the Nazi regime, German authorities persecuted homosexuals and others whose behavior did not match prescribed social norms. German police officials targeted thousands of political opponents (including Communists, Socialists, and trade unionists) and religious dissidents (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses). Many of these individuals died as a result of incarceration and maltreatment.
Administration of the “Final Solution”
In the early years of the Nazi regime, the National Socialist government established concentration camps to detain real and imagined political and ideological opponents. Increasingly in the years before the outbreak of war, SS and police officials incarcerated Jews, Roma, and other victims of ethnic and racial hatred in these camps. To concentrate and monitor the Jewish population as well as to facilitate later deportation of the Jews, the Germans and their collaborators created ghettos, transit camps, and forced-labor camps for Jews during the war years. The German authorities also established numerous forced-labor camps, both in the so-called Greater German Reich and in German-occupied territory, for non-Jews whose labor the Germans sought to exploit.
Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) and, later, militarized battalions of Order Police officials, moved behind German lines to carry out mass-murder operations against Jews, Roma, and Soviet state and Communist Party officials. German SS and police units, supported by units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, murdered more than a million Jewish men, women, and children, and hundreds of thousands of others. Between 1941 and 1944, Nazi German authorities deported millions of Jews from Germany, from occupied territories, and from the countries of many of its Axis allies to ghettos and to killing centers, often called extermination camps, where they were murdered in specially developed gassing facilities.
The End of The Holocaust
In the final months of the war, SS guards moved camp inmates by train or on forced marches, often called “death marches,” in an attempt to prevent the Allied liberation of large numbers of prisoners. As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Germany, they began to encounter and liberate concentration camp prisoners, as well as prisoners en route by forced march from one camp to another. The marches continued until May 7, 1945, the day the German armed forces surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. For the western Allies, World War II officially ended in Europe on the next day, May 8 (V-E Day), while Soviet forces announced their “Victory Day” on May 9, 1945.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many of the survivors found shelter in displaced persons (DP) camps administered by the Allied powers. Between 1948 and 1951, almost 700,000 Jews emigrated to Israel, including 136,000 Jewish displaced persons from Europe. Other Jewish DPs emigrated to the United States and other nations. The last DP camp closed in 1957. The crimes committed during the Holocaust devastated most European Jewish communities and eliminated hundreds of Jewish communities in occupied eastern Europe entirely.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “The Holocaust.” Holocaust Encyclopedia.
OF ALL THE JEWS WHO BORE THE BRAND OF
HITLER’S DEATH CAMPS ON THEIR ARM,
ONLY A MERE HANDFUL LIVED TO TELL OF
THE HORROR THAT WAS THE HOLOCAUST
Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust
The Nazification of Germany
Adolph Hitler and Frankliin Roosevelt came into office during a world-wide depression that threatened democracy in both nations. In his inaugural address, president Roosevelt told the American people “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”. In Germany, Chancellor Hitler used ‘fear itself’ to justify the burning of the Reichstag and to make himself dictator. Within weeks he legislated all civil rights out of existence and issued edicts to establish his police state. Dissenters were taken to Dachau and Oranienburg concentration camps. The barbaric ‘scapegoating’ of German Jews had begun.
Jews whose families had lived in Germany for over a thousand years were assaulted in the streets, forced from civil service and schools, and had their businesses boycotted. Before 10933, ended Hitler renounce the Versailles Treaty, started secret rearmament, quit the League of Nations and signed a concordat with the Vatican. As America strengthened its democracy, Hitler intensified his terrorist tactics. Nazi student stormed university libraries and bookstores, cating into bonfires books authored by defenders of democracy and believers on free ideas.
A century earlier the German poet, Heinrich Heine, prophesised: “Where on burns books, one will, in the end, burn people”.
It only took eight years.
The Night of the Long Knives
In violation of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany initiated an ambitious military rearmament program to restore its military strength; covert air reconnaissance missions commenced. Germany began to secure its national borders.
On January 26, Germany and Poland signed a non-aggression agreement.
The SS became a dominant force in Germany after Ernst Rohm, commander of the Storm Troopers (SA) and other prominent members of the SA leadership, who threatened Hitler’s authority, were murdered on Hitler’s orders on June 30, The “Night of the Long Knives”. All concentration camps came under SS jurisdiction.
On July 25, Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss was assassinated by Austrian Nazis in a failed attempt to gain control of that country.
With the death of German President Paul Von Hindenburg on August 2, Hitler moved quickly to establish a dictatorship. Offices of president and chancellor were combined. Hitler became supreme commander of German Military Forces. The military no longer bore allegiance to the state; The German soldier in his oath swore “I will render unconditional obedience to Adolph Hilter, The Fuhrer”.
New laws discriminating against Jews and other minorities were enacted; unofficial boycotting and random attacks against Jews Continued.
Legalization of Nazi Racism
The Saar Region, granted to France by the Versailles Treaty, was returned to Germany on January 13. German mandatory military service resumed on March 16, in breach of the Versailles treaty, Jews were barred from the armed forces.
Virulent attacks in the press raised new concerns for Jews. Throughout Germany signs proclaimed “Jews not wanted here” or bathing prohibited to dogs and Jews”. Local officials, exceeding their authority, excluded German Jewish citizens from public facilities and even for a time, from public transportation.
Nazi youth mobs rampaged on the Kurfurstendamm, Berlin’s main commercial district, in mid-July destroying stores and assaulting those presumed to be Jewish.
On September 15, The Nuremberg Laws were enacted, providing the legal basis for Jewish disenfranchisement. Under Reich citizenship law, German Jews no longer had any political rights. Only “Aryan” Germans and those of “related blood” were accorded citizenship.
The law for the protection of German blood and honor prohibited marriages or sexual relations between Germans and Jews; the employment of German women under the age of 45 and the raising of the German flag by Jews. For the First time, Jews were persecuted because of their “race”, not because of their religion.
False peace of the Berlin Olympics
Offices of the Reich leader of the SS and the chief of the German police were combined on June 17 under Heinrich Himmler, German police came under SS control.
International demands to have the Olympic games moved from Berlin out of fear that the games would be exploited for Nazi propaganda failed During the games, the Nazis removed offensive signs and allowed Jews to compete. The games opened in August, despite the German military occupation of the Rhineland. Jesse Owens, an African-American track star, went on to win 4 gold medals.
On-going boycotting and harassment of Jews led to the “voluntary” transfer of many businesses to non-Jewish Germans, a process known as Aryanization.
To prepare Germany militarily and economically for inevitable war, Hitler appointed Hermann Goring to oversee his four year plan. Strategic alliances were cemented with Spain and General Franco’s independent forces in summer, with Italy on October 25, and with Japan on November 25.
The world, Hitler believed, had been “drifting” toward a new conflict, “whose essence and aim, however, are solely the removal of those strata of mankind which have until the present provided the leadership and their replacement by international Jewry”.
On March 21, Pope Pius XI issued “Mit Brennender Sorge” (“With Burning Concern”), an encyclical read from Catholic pulpits throughout Germany attacking racism.
In mid-May the gestapo ordered the Jehovah’s Witnesses, their supporters and other “anti-socials”, including gypsies, beggars, vagrants, pimps, those with criminal records and those who were “not prepared to fit into the national community”, to be taken immediately into protective custody at concentration camps. Imprisonment of these groups followed the incarceration of political prisoners and homosexuals.
In response to the emergence of the Berlin-Rome “Axis”, President Franklin Roosevelt on October 5, condemned “unnamed aggressors”, warning that if left unchecked, they might attack the “western hemisphere” in the future. A policy of isolation and neutrality alone would no longer be sufficient to guarantee the security of the United States. On November 5, Hitler unveiled his political and military strategy for war to his top military leadership. Only through force would Germany gain adequate living space (“Lebensraum”) essential to safeguard its racial and national supremacy. Austria and Western Czechoslovakia would provide some space; “Russia and her vassal border states” would provide the rest.
“Aryanization” increased substantially. Tens of thousands of Jewish civil servants, professionals, and others were barred from working in the German economy.
Opposition to Hitler in the German Foreign office and in the military were removed during January and February thus allowing the implementation of his policies; The annexation of Austria in March, and of the Sudetenland in October.
In June, The SS ordered nationwide detention of able-bodied male “anti-socials” and criminals into concentration camps; 1,500 Jews were included. Detainees became forced labor for projects vital to the SS and Nazi leadership.
Anti-Semitic activity increased; official status of Jewish organizations was rescinded. Property registration was required. Jewish physicians were restricted to treating only Jewish patients. Identification cards were issued. The name “Sarah” was mandatorily added to all Jewish female names; “Israel” to all males. Jewish passports were stamped with a “J”.
The Evian conference sponsored by 32 nations failed to solve problems of Jewish Refugees seeking asylum. Approximately 18,000 stateless Jews were expelled from Germany to Poland on October 27-28. In retaliation for his family’s expulsion, Hershel Grynszpan shot Ernst Vom Rath. Third Secretary of the German Embassy in Paris.
Vom Rath’s death was used to justify Krystallnacht riots in Germany and Austria on November 9-10. Businesses, home and synagogues were burned. Physical attacks began against Jews. At least 30,000 German Jewish males were sent to concentration camps and released upon condition of emigration.
The Nazi Conquest of Europa
Bohemia and Moravia were declared a German protectorate on March 15. A Euthanasia decree was signed on September 1, affecting mental patients, incurably ill and social misfits. Poland invaded by Germany on September 1 and by the Soviet army on September 17. Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3. A secret agreement was reached on August 23, between Germany and Soviets, to partition Poland was implemented on September 28.
Hitler’s order to expel Jews and gypsies from newly incorporated territories was revealed on September 21. Until the “final aim” could be implemented, Jews were to be concentrated in large towns with railroad junctions. Jewish councils (“Judenraete”) established in every district to enforce Nazi rule.
Polish-Jewish property was seized, synagogues burned and mass shootings carried out. Jews forced to wear a distinctive Jewish Star. Thousands of Jews were sent to Nisko area near Lublin to establish a Jewish reservation.
Jews seeking asylum had limited options. The British government severely restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. The United States refused entry to 20,000 refugee children, and the coast guard prevented the S.S. St. Louis with more than 900 refugees aboard to land in Miami. The Ship returned to Germany where most died in the camps.
Between 1939-1940, approximately 10,000 Poles including teachers, priests and political leaders were killed to prevent them from reuniting the country against the Nazis.
Blizkrieg in West/Terror in East
The German conquest of Europe continued: Denmark capitulated in April; Belgium and Holland in May; Norway and France in June; Italy enter the war on the German side in June. The Rome-Berlin-Tokyo agreement was signed on September 27.
Territorial solutions were considered to solve the “Jewish Problem”. Approximately 95,000 Jews were deported to Nisko by March. A plan to establish a Jewish reservation was abandoned after international protests and intervention from Hans Frank, Governor of the general government. A second solution involved deporting the Jews of Europe to the African equatorial island of Madagascar. The inability of Germany to defeat great Britain and gain control of the seas and Hitler’s decision to attack Russia doomed this alternative. Policy toward Jewish immigration changed after abandonment of Madagascar plan. Jews were no longer allowed to emigrate. They were cut off from the free world.
Jews were isolated in ghettoes. Lodz Ghetto was sealed on April 30 and the Warsaw Ghetto gates closed in mid-November. Ghettoes suffered from over-crowding, lack of food and proper sanitation, ultimately precipitating epidemics (notably Typhus), widespread starvation and mass deaths. Amid the misery, Jews maintained religious, cultural educations, political, and social welfare institutions.
Barbarossa and Pearl Harbor
On June 22, The army invaded the Soviet Union and mass extermination of Jews Began. The decision to annihilate rather than exile had been made.
Four mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen) were assigned to execute communist officials, gypsies, and Jews. Three of these commanders held PH. DS.
Jews in small towns were killed almost immediately. In larger areas, the elderly and weak were chosen first. Able-bodied persons were used for slave labor until they too were killed.
Germans encouraged local populations to kill Jews and confiscate their property. Auxiliary police comprised of local collaborators from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine became indispensible.
Jews were rounded up and taken outside the city. Forced to strip naked, they were then shot. Victims fell into mass graves some even before they were dead.
According to an official German report, 33,771 Jews were machine gunned on September 29-30, at Babi Yar, Ukraine. Gassing of Jews began on December 8, at Chelmo Extermination Camp in Western Poland.
On December 7, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The next day the United States declared war on Japan.
Final Slaughter of Innocents
On January 20, The Wannsee Conference was held to coordinate the destruction of European Jewry; the “Final Solution”. Einsatzgruppen techniques which by late 1942 had been used to liquidate approximately 14 million Jews of Europe and others single out for destruction. Assembly line extermination factories equipped with gas chambers were developed.
Deportations to extermination and concentration camps began in March; 300,000 Jews from Warsaw were deported. Armed resistance took place in Lachwa, Kremenets, Tuchin, Mir, and Kletsk Ghettoes. Partisan units organized in forests.
Absence of identity papers, places of refuge, reluctance to abandon families, open hostility or fear of local population to get involved limited escape.
At Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Chelmno, Jews were murdered shortly after arrival. At Auschwitz and Majdanek, children and elderly, the handicapped and women, unable to work were also killed upon arrival. Able-bodied teenagers and adults were used as slave labor for German industry until they too were sent to gas chambers and replaced. At Dachau, Mauthausen and other camps, Jews were worked to death or died of starvation, disease and torture.
On December 17, the allies proclaimed that those responsible for annihilation of the Jewish people would be punished.
Ghetto Revolts and Partisans
The Plight of Refugees discussed on April 19, 1943 at Bermuda conference, British and Americans prohibited food shipments to Jews and others, refused ships
for those who managed to escape, and forbade rescue negotiations with Nazis. A number of individuals, underground organizations, clergy,
and public officials were involved in rescue activities in Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Italy, and elsewhere.
Despite Mass murder being viewed as inconceivable to most Jews; The isolation of the ghettoes which precluded coordinated action: The Fear of massive reprisals;
The lack of trained military officers and sufficient arms; and encouragement from the West; armed rebellions took place in Warsaw (April 1043) and in Vilna (September 1943).
Over a hundred Jewish underground organizations resisted in ghettoes and other areas. Tens of thousands in Central And Western Poland fled to the forests.
Revolts in Camps were initiated by Jews who had worked there a long time and understood their fate; new arrivals were too disoriented and exhausted. Deceptions to
allay the inmates fears occurred as often as brute force; both hindered organized resistance, despite the numerical superiority of inmates over guards. Rebellions occurred at
Sobibor (October 1943), Treblinka (August 1943) and Auschwitz (October 1944).
Death Marches and Liberation
As millions of Jews were being killed, the Nazis also murdered hundreds of thousands of others including gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, the mentally disabled, anti-Nazis, and chronically ill. Sadistic
medical” experiments were conducted on hundreds of healthy subjects under guise of scientific research those not tortured to death were left scarred for life.
Allied forces landed on Normandy on June 6, 1944. As they neared the camps, hundreds of thousands of inmates were evacuated with little food or clothing and marched or taken in open transports from camp to camp. those unable to keep up were shot. Between 300,000-400,000 other Jews were evacuated to construct military fortifications in southern Germany and Austria.
Efforts to destroy evidence of Nazi atrocities using Jewish labor failed because of the magnitude of the task.
Auschwitz liberated on January 26, 1945 by the Soviet army. Buchenwald on April 11 by Americans. Bergen-Belen on April 15 by the British; Dachau on April 29 and Mauthausen on May 3, by the Americans. The war ended on May 8, 1945.
From October 1945 to October 1946, the International Military Tribunal, deliberating in Nuremberg, tried twenty-two leading Nazis. Twelve were sentenced to death, three to life in prison, four for long terms in prison and thru were not convicted.
Whether western civilization will learn to respect the rights of Jews and other minorities remains unanswered. Let us hope that the lessons of the Holocaust will never be forgotten and become an eternal warning against the dangers of Nazism, bigotry and hatred.
The last time I visited Yad Vashem was with the Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper, a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people. We went through the exhibition rooms which present heartbreaking documentation of the destruction of European Jewry.
Today in my office, I met Felah, an 82 year old Holocaust survivor. It was important to her to tell me on this day of all days how her memories as a child of seven who was forced to leave her two year old sister behind to die, how those memories are always with her. She told me, “I don’t remember what happened yesterday or the day before that, but as is the way of memories from that age, I remember the tearing, sad eyes of my two year old sister”.
I met Shalom, an 89 year old Holocaust survivor, who told me how he left home at 18. He was 13 and the conditions in the ghetto were deteriorating so he, a young boy, decided to leave. He said, “Mother objected and wailed and Father was quiet. He stood and put his hand on my heard and blessed me and told me to save myself”.
All the exhibition rooms here are filled with such heartbreaking stories. When we left Yad Vashem, I told the Canadian Prime Minister that the primary duty of the Prime Minister of Israel is to ensure that there will be no more memorial sites like this, that there will never be another Holocaust.
I have said many times in this place that we must identify an existential threat in time and take action in time. Tonight, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I ask myself: why, in the years preceding the Holocaust, did the overwhelming majority of world leaders and Jewish leaders fail to detect the danger in time? In retrospect, all the warning signs were there: the strengthening of the Nazi regime year after year; the horrific anti-Semitic propaganda which grew stronger with each passing month; and the murderous attacks on Jews which began as a trickle and transformed into a huge wave.
In retrospect, there is a direct line connecting the racial laws and the gas chambers.
Very few world leaders understood the enormity of the threat to humanity posed by Nazism. Churchill was one of them. Few among our leaders, primarily Jabotinsky, warned against the imminent destruction facing our nation, but they were widely criticized and their warnings were disregarded, and they were treated as merchants of doom and war mongers.
So I ask: How is it possible that so many people failed to understand the reality? The bitter and tragic truth is this: it is not that they did not see it. They did not want to see it. And why did they choose not to see the truth? Because they did not want to face the consequences of that truth.
During the 1930′s, when the Nazis were gaining momentum, the influence of the trauma of the First World War was still fresh. Twenty years earlier, the people of the West experienced a terrible trench war, a war which claimed the lives of 16 million people. Therefore, the leaders of the West operated on the basis of one axiom: avoid another confrontation at any cost, and thus they laid the foundation for the most terrible war in human history. This axiom of avoiding conflict at any cost, this axiom was adopted not only by the leaders. The people themselves, primarily the educated ones, shared it too.
In 1933, for example, the year Hitler rose to power, there was a meeting of the Oxford University student organization – an institute from which generations of British leaders had emerged. Following a heated debate, the students voted for a resolution stating that they “would under no circumstances fight for their King and Country”. This resolution passed by an overwhelming majority only ten days after Hitler entered the Chancellery of Germany.
And believe me: that message reverberated in Berlin.
This example illustrates the West’s feeble attitude vis-à-vis the rise of Nazism.
Month after month, year after year, more and more information was received in London, Paris and Washington regarding the capabilities and intentions of the Nazi regime. The picture was becoming clear to everybody. However, “they have eyes, but cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear.”
When you refuse to accept reality as it is, you can deny it. And this is precisely what the leaders of the West did. They dismissed the murderous Nazi rhetoric as internal German politics; they downplayed the seriousness of the danger of the military build-up of the Nazis, claiming that it was the result of the natural will of a proud nation, that it should be taken into consideration, that it should be accepted.
The reality was clear, but it was cloaked in a bubble of illusions. This bubble was burst by the stealth attack by the Nazis on Europe. And the price of the illusion and desire was very heavy because by the time the leaders of the West finally acted, their people paid a terrible price. World War II claimed the lives not of 16 million people, the unimaginable number of victims during World War I, but of 60 million, including one third of our people, who were butchered by the Nazi beast.
Citizens of Israel, my brothers and sisters,
Has the world learned from the mistakes of the past? Today, we are again facing clear facts and a tangible threat.
Iran is calling for our destruction. It is developing nuclear weapons. This is the reason it is building underground bunkers for the enrichment of uranium. This is the reason it is establishing a plutonium-producing heavy water facility. This is the reason it continues to develop inter-continental ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads to threaten the entire world.
Today, just like then, there are those who dismiss Iran’s extreme rhetoric as one that serves domestic purposes. Today, just like then, there are those who view Iran’s nuclear ambitions as the result of the natural will of a proud nation – a will that should be accepted.
And just like then, those who make such claims are deluding themselves. They are making an historic mistake.
We are currently in the midst of fateful talks between Iran and the world powers. This time too, the truth is evident to all: Iran is seeking an agreement that will lift the sanctions and leave it as a nuclear threshold state, in other words, the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons within several months at most.
Iran wants a deal that will eliminate the sanctions and leave their nuclear capabilities intact. Such a deal, which will enable Iran to be a nuclear threshold state, will bring the entire world to the threshold of an abyss.
I hope that the lessons of the past will be learned and that the desire to avoid confrontation at any cost will not lead to a deal that will exact a much heavier price in the future.
I call on the leaders of the world powers to insist on a full dismantling of Iran’s capability to manufacture nuclear weapons, and to persist until this goal is achieved.
In any event, the people of Israel are strong. When faced with an existential threat, the situation of our people today is entirely different than it was during the Holocaust.
Today, we have a sovereign Jewish state. As Prime Minister of Israel, I do not hesitate to speak the truth to the world, even when faced with so many blind eyes and deaf ears. It is not only my right, it is my duty. It is a duty I am mindful of at all times, but particularly on this day, in this place.
On the eve of the Holocaust, there were Jews who avoided crying out to the world’s nations out of fear that the fight against the Nazis would become a Jewish problem. Others believed that if they kept silent, the danger would pass. The kept silent and the disaster struck. Today, we are not afraid to speak the truth to world leaders, as is written in our Bible: “I will speak of your testimonies before kings, and I will not be ashamed…listen, for I will speak noble thoughts; the opening of my lips will reveal right things.”
Unlike our situation during the Holocaust, when we were like leaves on the wind, defenseless, now we have great power to defend ourselves, and it is ready for any mission. This power rests on the courage and ingenuity of the soldiers of the IDF and our security forces. It is this power that enabled us, against all odds, to build the State of Israel.
Look at the remarkable achievements we have made in our 66 years of independence. All of us together – scientists, writers, teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, employees, artists, farmers – the entire people of Israel, each one in their own field – together we have built a glorious state. The spirit of the people of Israel is supreme, our accomplishments tremendous. Seven decades after the destruction of the Holocaust, the State of Israel is a global wonder.
On this day, on behalf of the Jewish people, I say to all those who sought to destroy us, to all those who still seek to destroy us: you have failed and you will fail.
The State of Israel is stronger than ever. It is a state that seeks peace with all its neighbors – a state with a will of iron to ensure the future of its people.
“The people will arise like a lion cub and raise itself like a lion; it will not lie down until it consumes prey, and drinks the blood of the slain.”
Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Anne Frank – A Life In Pictures
A Holocaust Pageant that Was ‘Too Political’ for FDR
Rafael Medoff, JNS.org
March 4, 2013
Seventy years ago this week, 40,000 New Yorkers watched as Jewish activists and Hollywood celebrities joined hands to bring news of the Holocaust to the vaunted stage of Madison Square Garden. But a requested message of greeting from President Franklin D. Roosevelt never arrived, because the White House decided the mass murder of the Jews was too “political” to touch.
In January 1943, a Gallup poll asked Americans, “It is said that two million Jews have been killed in Europe since the war began. Do you think this is true or just a rumor?” Although the Allied leadership had publicly confirmed that two million Jews had been murdered, the poll found that only 47 percent believed it was true, while 29 percent dismissed it as a rumor; the remaining 24 percent had no opinion.
The failure of the news media to treat the Nazi genocide as a serious issue contributed to the public’s skepticism. To some extent, editors were following the lead of the Roosevelt administration, which, after issuing a condemnation of the mass murder, made no effort to publicize the tragedy or aid Jewish refugees.
Ben Hecht, the newspaper columnist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, responded in the way he knew best: he picked up his pen and began to write.
With his out-sized dramatic sense in high gear, Hecht authored a full-scale pageant called “We Will Never Die.” On a stage featuring forty-foot-high tablets of the Ten Commandments, it would survey Jewish contributions to civilization throughout history, describe the Nazi slaughter of the Jews, and culminate in an emotional recitation of Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, by a group of elderly rabbis.
“Will it save the four million [Jews still alive in Europe]?” Hecht wrote on the eve of the opening. “I don’t know. Maybe we can awaken some of the vacationing hearts in our government.”
Hecht was involved with a small group of Jewish activists led by Hillel Kook, a Zionist emissary from Palestine who operated under the pseudonym “Peter Bergson.” The Bergson Group booked Madison Square Garden for the evening of March 9 and set about trying to convince the established Jewish organizations to cosponsor “We Will Never Die.”
Bergson’s well-meaning attempt at Jewish unity flopped. A meeting of representatives of several dozen Jewish groups, hosted by Hecht, deteriorated into shouting matches as ideological and personal rivalries overshadowed the massacres in Europe. It was an example of what the historian Henry Feingold has described as the sad tendency of some Jewish organizations to “allow themselves the luxury of fiddling while Jews burned.”
Hecht succeeded, however, in persuading some of Hollywood’s most prominent Jews to volunteer their services. Actors Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Sylvia Sydney and Stella Adler assumed the lead roles; Kurt Weill (“The Threepenny Opera”) composed an original score; Moss Hart (“You Can’t Take It With You”) agreed to serve as director, and famed impresario Billy Rose signed on as producer.
It was Rose who decided to approach President Roosevelt. Through White House adviser David Niles, Rose asked the president for a “brief message” that could be read aloud at the pageant. Nothing bold or controversial, of course, just something that would say “only that the Jews of Europe will be remembered when the time comes to make the peace.” Rose assured the White House, “There is no political color to our Memorial Service.”
But apparently even the very mention of the Jews was “political” in the eyes of official Washington. White House aides warned the president that sending the requested message would be “a mistake.” Despite Rose’s assurance, “it is a fact that such a message would raise a political question,” Henry Pringle of the Office of War Information advised.
What Pringle meant was that publicizing the slaughter could raise the “political question” of how America was going to respond to the Nazi genocide. And since President Roosevelt had decided the US was not going to take any specific steps to aid the Jews, raising that question would be embarrassing. Hence Rose was informed (by presidential secretary Stephen Early) that the “stress and pressure” of the president’s schedule made it impossible for FDR to provide the few words of comfort and consolation that the Bergson Group sought.
None of this deterred the irrepressible Ben Hecht and his comrades from making sure that the show would go on. More than 20,000 people jammed Madison Square Garden on the frigid evening of March 9. Since there were so many people gathered on the sidewalks outside who were unable to enter the packed hall, the cast decided on the spot to do a second performance immediately after the first. The second show, too, filled the Garden.
Editor and children’s book author Miriam Chaikin, who at the time was a member of the Bergson Group’s office staff, attended the first performance. “The atmosphere was electric,” she told JNS.org. “People in the audience were stunned by the pageant—and by the whole idea of Jewish issues being presented in such a place. In those days, it just wasn’t done. It really brought home the suffering of Europe’s Jews in a very powerful way, which really shook people up.”
“If there was a dry eye at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night, it wasn’t mine,” wrote reviewer Nick Kenny in the New York City daily PM. “It was the most poignant pageant we have ever witnessed. It is a story that should be made into a moving picture, just as it was presented at the Garden, and shown in every city, town and hamlet in the country.”
The Bergson Group did, in fact, take the show on the road. In the months to follow, “We Will Never Die” was performed before sell-out crowds in Chicago Stadium, the Boston Garden, Philadelphia’s Convention Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and Washington, DC’s Constitution Hall. All together, more than 100,000 Americans attended the performances.
More than 200 members of Congress, numerous members of the international diplomatic corps (“ambassadors from everywhere,” Hecht called them), six justices of the Supreme Court, and Eleanor Roosevelt attended the Washington event. It was not the first time that the famously independent First Lady failed to toe the president’s line.
Mrs. Roosevelt was so moved by the performance that she devoted part of her next syndicated column, “My Day,” to the pageant and the plight of Europe’s Jews. For millions of American newspaper readers, it was the first time they heard about the Nazi mass murders.
Shattering the wall of silence surrounding the Holocaust was the first crucial step in the process of mobilizing the American public against the slaughter. Throughout 1943, Bergson and Hecht organized a series of public rallies, full-page newspaper ads, and Capitol Hill lobbying efforts that culminated in the introduction of a congressional resolution urging the creation of a US government agency to rescue Jewish refugees. The public controversy caused by Congressional hearings on the resolution, combined with behind-the-scenes pressure from Treasury Department officials, convinced President Roosevelt to establish that agency, the War Refugee Board, in January 1944.
The War Refugee Board’s activities, which included financing the rescue work of Raoul Wallenberg, helped save the lives of an estimated 200,000 people during the final 15 months of the war. Seventy years ago this week, “We Will Never Die” helped set in motion the process that led to the saving of those lives.
Behind its worldwide acceptance as a creative tool was a family-owned, socially oriented firm that, during the Nazi era, acted with uncommon grace, generosity and modesty. E. Leitz Inc., designer and manufacturer of Germany ‘s most famous photographic product, saved its Jews.
And Ernst Leitz II, the steely-eyed Protestant patriarch who headed the closely held firm as the Holocaust loomed across Europe , acted in such a way as to earn the title, “the photography industry’s Schindler.”
As soon as Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, Ernst Leitz II began receiving frantic calls from Jewish associates, asking for his help in getting them and their families out of the country. As Christians, Leitz and his family were immune to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg laws, which restricted the movement of Jews and limited theirprofessional activities.
To help his Jewish workers and colleagues, Leitz quietly established what has become known among historians of the Holocaust as “the Leica Freedom Train,” a covert means of allowing Jews to leave Germany in the guise of Leitz employees being assigned overseas.
Employees, retailers, family members, even friends of family members were “assigned” to Leitz sales offices in France, Britain, Hong Kong and the United States, Leitz’s activities intensified after the Kristallnacht of November 1938, during which synagogues and Jewish shops were burned across Germany ..
Before long, German “employees” were disembarking from the ocean liner Bremen at a New York pier and making their way to the Manhattan office of Leitz Inc., where executives quickly found them jobs in the photographic industry.
Each new arrival had around his or her neck the symbol of freedom – a new Leica camera.
The refugees were paid a stipend until they could find work. Out of this migration came designers, repair technicians, salespeople, marketers and writers for the photographic press.
Keeping the story quiet The “Leica Freedom Train” was at its height in 1938 and early 1939,delivering groups of refugees to New York every few weeks. Then, with the invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Germany closed its borders.
By that time, hundreds of endangered Jews had escaped to America, thanks to the Leitzes’ efforts. How did Ernst Leitz II and his staff get away with it?
Leitz, Inc. was an internationally recognized brand that reflected credit on the newly resurgent Reich. The company produced cameras, range-finders and other optical systems for the German military. Also, the Nazi government desperately needed hard currency from abroad, and Leitz’s single biggest market for optical goods was the United States.
Even so, members of the Leitz family and firm suffered for their good works. A top executive, Alfred Turk, was jailed for working to help Jews and freed only after the payment of a large bribe.
Leitz’s daughter, Elsie Kuhn-Leitz, was imprisoned by the Gestapo after she was caught at the border, helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland . She eventually was freed but endured rough treatment in the course of questioning. She also fell under suspicion when she attempted to improve the living conditions of 700 to 800 Ukrainian slave laborers, all of them women, who had been assigned to work in the plant during the 1940s.
(After the war, Kuhn-Leitz received numerous honors for her humanitarian efforts, among them the Officier d’honneur des Palms Academic from France in 1965 and the Aristide Briand Medal from the European Academy in the 1970s.)
Why has no one told this story until now? According to the late Norman Lipton, a freelance writer and editor, the Leitz family wanted no publicity for its heroic efforts. Only after the last member of the Leitz family was dead did the “Leica Freedom Train” finally come to light.
It is now the subject of a book, “The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train,” by Frank Dabba Smith, a California-born Rabbi currently living in England .
Thank you for reading the above, and if you feel inclined as I did to pass it along to others, please do so. It only takes a few minutes.Memories of the righteous should live on.
The US government has recovered 400 pages from the diary of Alfred Rosenberg, one of Adolf Hitler’s closest confidantes.