The Horror of Survival

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Horror of Survival


Byline: James Srodes, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Hard as it is to admit it, all significant historical events - even the ghastly Holocaust - tend to flatten and diminish as time draws us away from the moment they occurred. This meticulously researched book forcibly yanks us back with a fresh, close confrontation with what it was like to face the full horror of the Nazi state's extermination campaign - and to survive it.

This is not by any means a rival to the magisterial two-volume Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933-1945 by Saul Friedlander, which is the standard reference on the inexorable evolution from harassment, to expropriation and to final extermination that Adolf Hitler and his henchmen visited on Germans who because they were Jewish, or were otherwise undesirable, lost all of the protections we associate with civilization, law or simple humanity.

Rather, while the onrushing reality of mass murder hangs as an evil storm cloud over this narrative, this book chronicles the equally harrowing story of what it was like to live in the heart of the Nazi beast and what one faced in the simple, instinctive struggle to stay alive, to protect one's loved ones, to bargain with and finally evade the Nazi killing machine. The book itself is a compilation of an exhaustive archival research project shared by two postwar institutions dedicated to gathering, preserving and making sense of the personal documents, photos, diaries, letters and government records of a once great Jewish community that had flourished in the capital of what was believed to be one of the most cultured, civilized nations of the world.

Beate Meyer is a researcher at the Institute for the History of German Jews in Hamburg, while Hermann Simon is director and Chana Schutz is vice director of the New Synagogue Berlin-Centrum Judaicum Foundation. Here is how the editors sum up the stark story line: Berlin was the largest of Germany's Jewish Communities. Of the 522,000 German Jews living in Germany in 1933 (566,000 according to Nazi racial definitions), more than 160,000 lived in the capital. By May 1939 roughly half had fled the country. In the summer of 1941- that is, on the eve of the first deportations - the Berlin Jewish community still counted about 65,000 members. To this 9,000 more were added, people who did not consider themselves Jewish but whom the Nazis nonetheless persecuted as such.

The deportations were, of course, first masked as efforts to resettle the deportees in new agricultural communities in the conquered territories of Eastern Europe and Russia; very quickly it became clear to all that a campaign of systematic killings was under way. Between October 1941 and March 1945, more than 55,000 Berlin Jews were shipped to death camps such as Auschwitz or to bogus holding areas such the showplace camp at Theresienstadt; it made little difference, for in the end most were killed outright while those who were not faced the slow death of starvation, disease and brutal treatment. Only 1,900 of the Berlin deportees lived to return to their city after the war.

But despite frenzied efforts, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister and the capital's Gauleiter, remained frustrated in his pledge to make the city completely judenfrei. There were those who stayed on. Between 1,400 and 1,500 U-Boote submarines ) survived underground in the city, and an additional 4,700 people were protected through their marriages to important or wealthy non-Jews.

This is where the story fills with the harsh complications and ambivalence that faced those who were awaiting the bureaucratic lottery of deportation and those determined to escape certain death by whatever means. …

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