Tag Archives: Nazis
Nearly all the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland, were murdered – either sent to the gas chambers or worked to death. Life expectancy in many of these camps was between six weeks and three months.
While male and female slave laborers in Auschwitz faced the same ultimate fate, my research on gender and the Holocaust finds that some of their behaviors and responses to captivity differed.
Methods of sabotage
Gender has been long overlooked in Holocaust research. Writing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, early scholars such as Joan Ringelheim and Sybil Milton had to fight for their legitimacy in a field that insisted that separating stories of Jewish men and women under the Nazi regime was a blow to their joint fate or to Jewish solidarity.
Today, however, the topic is being explored in depth, allowing us to better understand not only how Jews died during the Holocaust, but also how they lived.
During the late 1980s, I conducted a study of Jewish men and women who had been part of Auschwitz’s “Canada Commando,” the forced labor detail responsible for sorting through the possessions inmates had brought with them to the camp and preparing those items for reshipment back to Germany for civilian use.
Since the barracks were the only place in the camp where one could find almost unlimited food and clothing, this forced labor troop was named after Canada – a country seen as a symbol of wealth.
Examining the behavior of the men and women of the Canada Commando, I noted an interesting difference. Among the items of clothing sorted there were fur coats. While both male and female prisoners in the Canada Commando tried to sabotage this work, acts punishable by death, their methods differed.
Male prisoners would usually rip the lining and seams of the coat to shreds, keeping only the outer shell intact. At first use, the coat would come apart, leaving the German who wore it coatless in the winter.
The few surviving women in the commando whom I interviewed did not use this tactic. Rather, they told me, they decided together to insert handwritten notes into the coat’s pockets that read something along the lines of: “German women, know that you are wearing a coat that belonged to a woman who has been gassed to death in Auschwitz.”
The women, in other words, chose psychological sabotage. The men, physical.
Coping with hunger
One of the most central experiences of all camp prisoners during the Holocaust was hunger. While both men and women suffered from hunger during incarceration, male and female prisoners used disparate coping methods.
While men would regale each other with tales of the fantastic meals they would enjoy once liberated, women would often discuss how they had cooked they various dishes they loved before the war, from baking fluffy cakes to preparing traditional Jewish blintzes. Cara de Silva’s 1996 book, “In Memory’s Kitchen,” movingly documents how this phenomenon played out among women prisoners in the Terezin camp.
The differences between men’s and women’s coping methods may have derived from the gendered behavior in their lives before the war, in which men ate and women cooked – at least in the middle and lower classes.
In the case of women, this may also have been a female socialization process meant to solve two dilemmas simultaneously: the psychological need to engage – at least verbally – with food, and the educational need to prepare the young girls in the camp for culinary and household tasks after the war.
Under normal circumstances, mothers would have taught their daughters by example – not story.
Motherhood under Nazi rule
Various historical studies make mention of motherly sacrifices during the Holocaust, such as women who chose to accompany their children to death so that they would not be alone during their last moments on Earth.
During the “selections” at Auschwitz – when prisoners were sent either to live or die – prisoners arriving were usually divided by sex, with the elderly, mothers and small children being separated from men and older boys. The mothers with small children, along with the elderly, were automatically sent to death.
Borowsky writes about a number of young mothers who hid from their children during the selection, in an attempt to buy themselves a few additional days or possible hours of life.
If a German soldier found a small child alone at a “selection,” Borowsky writes, he would take the child up and down the rows of prisoners while screaming, “This is how a mother abandons her child?” until he tracked down the hapless woman and condemned them both to the gas chambers.
At first, the female Auschwitz survivors I’ve interviewed said they’d never heard of any such thing. Eventually, however, after I returned to the question several times via different topics, a few women admitted to hearing that a handful mothers who arrived in Auschwitz with small children did indeed try to hide to save their own lives.
Historians are not judges. I do not mention the actions made in mortal fear to condemn these women but rather to contribute, 75 years later, to our understanding of Jewish life and death under Nazi terror. Doing requires relinquishing preconceived notions about both men and women, mapping out a broader canvas of the grim reality at Auschwitz.
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Every November, communities around the world hold remembrances on the anniversary of the Nazis’ brutal assault on the Jews during “Kristallnacht.”
Also known as “the Night of Broken Glass,” it’s one of the most closely scrutinized events in the history of Nazi Germany. Dozens of books have been published about the hours between Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, when Adolf Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, decided to unleash violence against Jews across Germany and the annexed territory of Austria with the aim of driving them out of the Third Reich.
Attacks on Jewish homes, however, are barely mentioned.
It’s an aspect of the story that has rarely been researched and written about – until now.
A pattern emerges in survivor accounts
In 2008, when I arrived at the University of Southern California from Germany, I had been researching Nazi persecution of the German Jews for 20 years. I had published more than six books on the topic and thought I knew just about everything there was to know about Kristallnacht.
The university happened to be the new home of the Shoah Foundation and its Visual History Archive, which today includes over 55,000 survivor testimonies. When I started to watch interviews with German-Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, I was surprised to hear many of them talk about the destruction of their homes during Kristallnacht.
Details from their recollections sounded eerily similar: When Nazi paramilitary troops broke the doors of their homes, it sounded as though a bomb had gone off; then the men cut into the featherbeds, hacked the furniture into pieces and smashed everything inside.
Yet none of these stories appeared in traditional accounts of Kristallnacht.
I was perplexed by this disconnect. Some years later, I found a document from Schneidemühl, a small district in eastern Germany, that listed the destruction of a dozen synagogues, over 60 shops – and 231 homes.
These surprising numbers piqued my interest further. After digging into unpublished and published materials, I unearthed an abundance of evidence in administrative reports, diaries, letters and postwar testimonies.
A fuller picture of the brutal destruction of Jewish homes and apartments soon emerged.
For example, a Jewish merchant named Martin Fröhlich wrote to his daughter that when he arrived home the afternoon of that fateful November day, he noticed his door had been broken down. A tipped-over wardrobe blocked the entrance. Inside, everything had been hacked into pieces with axes: glass, china, clocks, the piano, furniture, chairs, lamps and paintings. Realizing that his home was now uninhabitable, he broke down and – as he confessed in the letter – started sobbing like a child.
A systematic campaign of destruction
The more I discovered, the more astonished I was by the scale and intensity of the attacks.
Using address lists provided by either local party officers or city officials, paramilitary SA and SS squads and Hitler Youth, armed with axes and pistols, attacked apartments with Jewish tenants in big cities like Berlin, as well as private Jewish homes in small villages. In Nuremberg, for example, attackers destroyed 236 Jewish flats. In Düsseldorf, over 400 were vandalized.
In the cities of Rostock and Mannheim, the attackers demolished virtually all Jewish apartments.
Documents point to Goebbels as the one who ordered the destruction of home furnishings. Due to the systematic nature of the attacks, the number of vandalized Jewish homes across Greater Germany must have been in the thousands, if not tens of thousands.
Then there are devastating details about the intensity of the destruction that emerge from letters and testimonies from postwar trials.
In Euskirchen, a house was burned to the ground.
In the village of Kamp, near the Rhineland town of Boppard, attackers broke into the house of the Kaufmann family, destroyed furniture and lamps, ripped out stove pipes, and broke doors and walls. When parts of the ceiling collapsed, the family escaped to a nearby monastery.
In the small town of Großauheim, located in the state of Hesse, troops used sledgehammers to destroy everything in two Jewish homes, including lamps, radios, clocks and furniture. Even after the war, shards of glass and china were found impressed in the wooden floor.
‘Everything ravaged and shattered’
The documents I found and interviews I listened to revealed how sexual abuse, beatings and murder were commonplace. Much of it happened during the home intrusions.
In Linz, two SA men sexually assaulted a Jewish woman. In Bremen, the SA shot and killed Selma Zwienicki in her own bedroom. In Cologne, as Moritz Spiro tried to stop two men from destroying his furniture, one of the intruders beat him and fractured his skull. Spiro died days later in the Jewish hospital.
In a letter dated Nov. 20, 1938, a Viennese woman described her family’s injuries to a relative:
“You can’t imagine, how it looked like at home. Papa with a head injury, bandaged, I with severe attacks in bed, everything ravaged and shattered… When the doctor arrived to patch up Papa, Herta and Rosa, who all bled horribly from their heads, we could not even provide him with a towel.”
The brutality of the attacks didn’t go unnoticed. On Nov. 15, the U.S. consul general in Stuttgart, Samuel Honaker, wrote to his ambassador in Berlin:
“Of all the places in this section of Germany, the Jews in Rastatt, which is situated near Baden-Baden, have apparently been subjected to the most ruthless treatment. Many Jews in this section were cruelly attacked and beaten and the furnishings of their homes almost totally destroyed.”
These findings make clear: The demolition of Jewish homes was an overlooked aspect of the November 1938 pogrom.
Why did it stay in the shadows for so long?
In the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht, most newspaper articles and photographs of the violent event exclusively focused on the destroyed synagogues and stores – selective coverage that probably influenced our understanding.
Yet, it was the destruction of the home – the last refuge for the German Jewish families who found themselves facing heightened public discrimination in the years leading up to the pogrom – that likely extracted the greatest toll on the Jewish population. The brutal attacks rendered thousands homeless and hundreds beaten, sexually assaulted or murdered.
The brutal assaults also likely played a big role in the spate of Jewish suicides that took place in the days and weeks after Kristallnacht, along with the decision that tens of thousands of Jews made to flee Nazi Germany.
While this story speaks to decades of scholarly neglect, it is, at the same time, a testament to the power of survivor accounts, which continue to change the way we understand the Holocaust.
Wolf Gruner, Shapell-Guerin Chair in Jewish Studies and Professor of History; Founding Director, USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
This article is part of our series of explainers on key moments in the past 100 years of world political history. In it, our authors examine how and why an event unfolded, its impact at the time, and its relevance to politics today.
Warning: some of the following photos may be disturbing to readers.
The event traditionally defined as the Holocaust — by which I mean the systematic extermination of European Jewry between 1941 and 1945 — defies an overly simplified explanation.
With that being said, making sense of the who, what, where and when presents the somewhat easier task.
The Jews of Europe have been traditionally understood by historians as the principal targets of annihilation by the Nazis. Though Germans were perpetrators of this genocidal act, so too were other complicit Europeans, who either directly participated in murder or looked the other way.
Eastern Europe housed the sites of mass death (ghettos, labour camps, and concentration and death camps) built by the Nazis to “eliminate” Europe of Jews. Scholars generally point to 1941 – 1945 as constituting the woeful years in which approximately 6 million European Jews were killed by the Nazis.
The question of why the Nazis murdered the Jews of Europe remains somewhat thornier and far more controversial amongst scholars.
When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, the issue of how to handle the so-called “Jewish problem” ranked high on their agenda. The Germans held a racialised view of antisemitism, which defined Jews as not only biologically distinct from Germans, but also a critical threat to the health of the German nation.
Given their view of Jews as parasites, sapping the strength of the national body, the German Nazis experimented with a series of mechanisms to “eliminate” Jews from German life. The notion of murdering the Jews of Europe, we should note, had not yet surfaced.
Rather, in the early years of the regime, the Nazis saw emigration as an acceptable solution to the Jewish problem.
Legislation that disenfranchised Jews, stripped them of their financial assets, and denied them their livelihoods sought to clarify to Jews their new degraded position within Germany. The days of their security, stability, and equality under the law had come to an end. It was time to make a new life elsewhere. But these measures failed to bring about the results desired by the Nazis.
By 1939, slightly more than half of German Jews had decided to chart a new course abroad. Unfortunately, the outbreak of war the same year only served to exacerbate the dilemma of eliminating Germany of Jews within its domain.
As Germany quickly and violently occupied large swaths of territory in eastern and western Europe, the number of Jews in its territory exploded. Whereas the population of Jews in Germany in 1933 stood at roughly half a million, approximately nine million Jews resided in Europe as a whole.
Emigration no longer seemed like a viable option. Which nation would be the new home to all those Jews? As it stood, the half a million Jews of Germany struggled to find nations willing to house them.
And it was soon decided that new solutions needed to be found.
The impact of the Holocaust
Scholars debate why and when and even who arrived at the new solution of mass murder to solve Europe’s so-called “Jewish problem.”
We know that in 1939, when war broke out in the East and Germany occupied Poland, the Nazis turned to the creation of ghettos in Poland, which served to concentrate and isolate Jews from the greater Polish non-Jewish population. In these ghettos, often surrounded by high walls and gates, Jews engaged in forced labour and succumbed in great numbers to starvation and disease.
We also know that in 1941, when war broke out with the Soviet Union, the Nazis turned to rounding up Jews in the towns and villages of eastern Europe and murdered them by bullets. At least 1.6 million eastern European Jews died in this fashion. But why this turn from “passive murder” in the ghettos to “active murder” in the killing fields and later the concentration and death camps of eastern Europe? Who proposed this radical solution?
These questions defy scholarly consensus. It may be that the earlier policies of emigration, isolation and concentration of Europe’s Jews were eventually perceived as insufficient; it may be that the murder of Europe’s Jews by starvation and later bullets proved too slow and costly. And perhaps it was not Hitler who first arrived at the idea of mass murder, but Nazi bureaucrats and functionaries working on the ground in eastern Europe, who first conceived and experimented with this genocidal policy.
Regardless, by 1942, Jews across Europe were rounded up — from their homes, their hiding places, and Nazi run ghettos and labour camps to be deported to killing centres and concentration camps, where the vast majority lost their lives.
The legacy of the Holocaust has loomed large for more than 70 years, and continues to inform our culture and politics. It has come to be seen as arguably one of, if not the, defining events of the 20th century.
The Holocaust is commonly perceived as a truly rupturing occurrence in which a modern state used the mechanisms of modernity — technology, scientific knowledge and bureaucracy – not for the benefit of humanity but to inflict suffering and death.
We are now well aware that modernity does not necessarily result in progress and an improved standard of living, but that it comes with a dark underbelly that can lead to the violent purging of segments of society perceived as undesirable.
In its aftermath, the Holocaust became paradigmatic for defining genocide. The murder of European Jewry inspired the term “genocide”, which was coined by the jurist Raphael Lemkin in 1944. It later prompted the Genocide Convention agreed to by the United Nations in 1948.
The 1948 Genocide Convention, the memory of the Holocaust, and the phrase “never again” are thereby routinely invoked in the face of atrocity. And yet these words ring hollow in the face of genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, and the current genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
It happens again and again. Not to mention that the largest refugee crisis since the second world war is occurring this very moment as desperate Syrians undertake perilous journeys across the Aegean.
Approximately 80 years ago, Nazi persecution likewise culminated in an international refugee crisis. World leaders recognised the plight of Europe’s Jews during the 1930s and into the 1940s, even if they could not foretell their eventual genocidal fate.
International leaders even convened a conference (the Evian Conference) in which they debated how best to aid German Jews. Country after country expressed their sympathies with Jewish refugees but ultimately denied them refuge.
International news at the time closely followed the journey of the SS St Louis, as it sailed from port to port with 900 Jewish refugees unable to disembark because nations refused to grant asylum. We now know the future that befell many of these refugees.
These days, images of desperate Syrians undertaking perilous journeys across the Aegean, or the Rohingya fleeing their persecution in Myanmar, occupy our front pages. As we contemplate our responsibility towards these desperate individuals, the SS St Louis and the Evian Conference have been routinely invoked in our public discourse as a reminder of the devastating consequences of restrictive refugee and immigration policies.
We must remain haunted by our past failings. It is the legacy of the Holocaust that compels us to examine our responsibility to intervene and turn our attention to the plight of refugees. And we should consider whether that legacy has remained sufficient or whether we need a reminder of the dire consequences that comes with numbing ourselves to the suffering of others.
The images from Charlottesville, Va., of white supremacists marching with Nazi banners reminded us, as if we needed it, that the swastika remains a potent symbol of racist hate.
In Germany, where neo-Nazis also march, it’s illegal to display the swastika, and citizens there initiate private or neighbourhood efforts to remove it from graffiti and other street art.
But attempts to eradicate the swastika can sometimes misfire, as happened recently in Quebec. Corey Fleischer, known by the Instagram handle erasinghate, was stopped by police when he tried to blot out swastikas embossed on salvaged anchors on public display in the small St. Lawrence River community of Pointes-des-Cascades.
Plaques suggested that the anchors were from the Third Reich, but a Radio Canada correspondent reported that they were made by the English company W.L. Byers before the Nazis came to power. The company used the swastika as a symbol of good luck, a common practice in the early 20th century.
Fleischer remained unmoved by this historical explanation. As he told CityNews: “The swastika is no longer a sign of peace. It’s a sign attached to a party that literally almost wiped out an entire culture.”
I come across this obsession with swastikas time and time again. In my university courses on German cultural history, students are repelled yet fascinated by the horror it symbolizes. When I ask whether the swastika should be banned in North America the way it is in Germany, some say yes, whereas others point to its innocent use in other cultures.
The debate is similar to the dispute between Pointes-des-Cascades and Corey Fleischer. Should the 25 years it was a symbol of Nazi racism outweigh its millennia-long use as a talisman of good fortune?
A diverse and ancient history
The swastika wasn’t always an odious symbol of hate. Far from it. The word svastika is Sanskrit in origin and means “conducive to well-being.”
As a symbol, the swastika’s power resides in its simplicity and balance. Graphic designer Steven Heller notes that “the swastika’s geometric purity allows for legibility at any size or distance, and when on its axis, the whirling square gives the illusion of movement.”
Its form, according to Heller, is “sublime,” so it’s no wonder that it has found a place in so many cultures.
In Buddhism, the swastika is thought to represent the footprints of the Buddha. It takes on a liturgical function in Jainism, and in Hinduism the clockwise symbol (the swastika as we know it, with the arms pointing right) and the counterclockwise symbol, the sauvistika, pair up to portray opposites such as light and darkness.
In Mesopotamia it was used on coins, and the Navajo nation wove it into blankets. It has been found on ancient pottery in Africa and Asia. It was sometimes used as a single element, but often it was repeated as a series of interlocking swastikas to form a border on a garment or in architecture, as was common in Roman times.
It made an appearance in Germanic and Viking cultures, and you can find it in medieval churches and religious vestments across Europe.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the swastika became well-established in western culture as a good luck symbol, similar to a four-leaf clover or a horseshoe.
Companies used it as logo; it adorned birth announcements and greeting cards. American Boy Scouts could get a swastika badge, and the Girls’ Club published a magazine called The Swastika. Finland, Latvia and the United States have all used it as a military insignia.
In Canada, a mining community in northern Ontario was named Swastika, just as you might name a town New Hope or Bounty. Windsor, N.S., and Fernie, B.C., both had hockey teams called the Swastikas. In 1931, Newfoundland issued a $1 stamp commemorating important moments in transatlantic aviation; each corner had a swastika.
The late 19th century saw the newly formed German empire caught up in an era of unrestrained nationalism. Some nationalists sought to prove German racial superiority, subscribing to a now discredited idea that an ancient Aryan race — the original Indo-Europeans — were their ancestors. Evidence was needed to connect the Germans with the Aryans.
Nazis appropriated the symbol
The swastika provided the necessary link.
In the early 1870s, when German businessman and archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann thought he had discovered the ancient Greek city of Troy, more than 1,800 instances of the swastika were unearthed. Since the swastika was also present among the archaeological remains of the Germanic tribes, it didn’t take long for nationalists to jump to the conclusion that the Germans and the Greeks were both descendants of the Aryans.
And if you believe that Germans form a separate “race” superior to other ethnic groups around it, it becomes easier to claim that you need to keep that “race” pure. In that context, anti-Semitism followed.
The Thule Society, an anti-Semitic organization promoting the superiority of German Volk (folk in English), was founded at the end of the First World War. It used a stylized swastika as its logo. The society sponsored the fledgling Nazi party, and in a bid for greater public profile, the party created a banner that incorporated the swastika as we know it today.
Hitler was convinced that a potent symbol would rally the masses to his xenophobic cause. With a black swastika (called the Hakenkreuz in German, or hooked cross) rotated 45 degrees on a white circle set against a red background, the Nazi banner modernized the ancient symbol while evoking the colours of the recently defeated German empire.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler took sole credit for the design and attempted to give it meaning: “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man.” Tortured symbolism aside, the swastika banner did what it was supposed to do —it gave visual identity to the Nazi movement.
When the Nazis assumed power in 1933, they sought to unite the country behind their racist Aryan ideology, and the use of their symbol infiltrated all aspects of German life.
You can still see it sometimes, including in mosaic ceiling tiles at Hitler’s Haus der Kunst in Munich. The banner became the official flag of the country in 1935, and although it wasn’t everywhere as Hollywood might have you believe, it was very much present.
The way forward
Steven Heller subtitles his book, The Swastika, with a simple but pertinent question: Symbol Beyond Redemption? In those cultures where it’s been used for centuries in religious practices or in the decorative arts, this question is unnecessary. The symbol doesn’t carry any negative connotations there.
But objects like the swastika do not have any inherent meaning; the symbolism is constructed by the people who use them. In our western society, the swastika is tainted. The Nazi movement’s violent crimes against humanity gave the Hakenkreuz a meaning that can’t be concealed or erased.
In places like Pointes-des-Cascades, where pre-Nazi swastikas exist, extra care must be taken to contextualize their presence. But in all other instances the symbol really must be shunned.
Its hate-filled racist intentions are clear. It wasn’t an innocent symbol for the Nazis, nor is it for latter-day neo-Nazis and white supremacists.