Captivity, Flight, and Survival in World War II

By Alan J. Levine | Go to book overview

5
` Escape from the Kingdom of Death: Jewish Escapes in Occupied Europe

For Jews who fell under Nazi control, survival and escape, of one sort or another, were intertwined in a way that was not true for almost any other group caught up in World War II. Escapes were all too rare, yet some took place, even under the most horrible conditions. Jews fled ghettos, trains carrying them to the extermination camps, and hardest of all, the camps themselves, often making journeys of hundreds of miles to reach safety (often only relative safety); they hid among Christians or took refuge in forests, to eke out a precarious existence for months, even years.

In most places, from 1939 to 1941, Nazi conquest was so quick that few Jews could get out ahead of it. Indeed, surprisingly few tried, for while no Jews (at least outside the USSR) doubted that the Nazis were hostile, few understood the enemy's intentions. Contrary to a now widespread belief, only a minority of European Jews, outside Germany and Austria, had wanted to leave their homes before the outbreak of war, and now it was too late. That the rulers of one of the world's most advanced countries were not just tyrants and oppressors, but were bent on their complete destruction seemed unbelievable to both Jews and others. The Nazis carefully concealed what they were doing and cultivated the Jews' illusions until the last minute. Many never realized what was happening until they were inside the extermination camps. Some Soviet Jews, like many of Stalin's subjects, even welcomed Hitler's troops as liberators, only to discover their error when they were mowed down by SS machine guns.

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