Institute for Historical Review

Institute for Historical Review

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The Myth of the Six Million

7. The Nature of some Jewish Memoirs and Reminiscences of Concentration Camp Experiences during World War II

One may well consider today the feelings of any alert and patriotic German on reading Eugene Heimler's Night of the Mist (N.Y., 1960). This highly praised and widely celebrated book consists of alleged memoirs from the years 1944 and 1945. The hero is a sensitive young Jewish poet of Hungary who awakens on March 19, 1944, to discover that the Nazis are occupying the country because of Regent Horthy's attempt to conclude a military armistice with the Soviet Union.

The arrival of the Nazis is considered by every Jew to be a death warrant. The hero is persuaded to hide as a patient in a mental hospital. After some time he sneaks out to marry his sweetheart, Eva. They are rounded up along with other Jews, and on July 4, 1944, they are packed off to Auschwitz concentration camp in a cattle truck. A German officer promises them excellent treatment, but one of the captives is allegedly killed by an SS guard during the journey. The hero testifies that he was twice severely beaten after his arrival. He has not been long at the camp when he learns that his wife has died of dysentery. He has a passionate love affair with a gypsy girl, Cara, for several weeks, but one day she is no longer at their hideaway in the camp to embrace him, and he assumes that she has been killed.

The hero finds himself at Buchenwald by August, 1944, his stay at Auschwitz apparently having lasted a very brief time. He works in a factory, and later in one of the camp kitchens, where the SS place him in charge of a group of non-Jewish people, working there. An elderly German Social Democrat inmate screams that he will not work along with a Jew, but the hero pacifies him by threatening to beat him. The sound of artillery later reveals the approach of the American forces, but the SS compel a group of inmates to march with them to Bohemia. There they are overtaken by the end of the war, and the hero returns to Hungary. He has managed to survive, but he is sickened by the alleged effort of Hitler to annihilate every Jew in German occupied Europe, although he has never actually seen anyone gassed.

Primo Levi, If This is a Man (N.Y., 1959), recounted his alleged experiences as a frail young Italian Jew caught in the Nazi vice. Mussolini had established his Italian Social Republic, and the hero, who has been roaming about the countryside in search of plunder, is captured by Fascist militia on December 13, 1943. This terminates his career as a volunteer with the Communist Italian partisans seeking to overthrow Mussolini. He is taken in January, 1944, to the Italian detention camp at Fossoli near Modena.

German officials arrive at Fossoli on a visit, and they complain that conditions and facilities for the prisoners are not sufficiently healthy. There is an announcement on February 22, 1944, that a small group of 650 Jews will be sent to Germany. The hero reaches Auschwitz, where he is assigned to work in the Buna synthetic rubber factory. Conditions are wretched, and the humdrum Sunday concerts and football matches are no consolation for him. He receives a camp tattoo nunber on his arm signifying that he has become merely another cipher. There are constantly rumors that most of the Jews will end their lives in gas chambers.

Hungarian becomes the second language in his camp area next to Yiddish after the spring of 1944, because the Nazis have been able to lay hands on so many Hungarian Jews. There are excellent camp news facilities for the inmates. They learn at once of the Allied landings in Normandy and of the attempt on Hitler's life in 1944. Auschwitz is bombarded from the air by Allied planes; both the attitudes of the guards and the conditions in the camp become progressively worse. At last the Russians approach Auschwitz. The camp is evacuated on January 18, 1945, but many of the sick prisoners are left behind. The hero is one of them, and he is freed by the Russians on January 27, 1945. This is a joyous occasion for him which be celebrates with great enthusiasm.

Levi and Heimler agree that the main purpose of the Nazis has been to liquidate as many Jews as possible. Another former Auschwitz inmate, Miklos Nviszli, Auschwitz: a Doctor's Eye-Witness Account (N.Y., 1960), has contended that adequate facilities existed there to liquidate the Jews of all Europe. These men consider themselves extremely fortunate to have avoided contact with gas chambers and crematoria about which so many dreadful stories have been circulated.

The German reader might wonder what Regent Horthy of Hungary and Premier Mussolini of Italy thought about the high-handed manner in which Hitler is said to have prompted his loyal SS to dispose of the fate of Hungarian and Italian subjects. Nicholas Horthy complained in his Memoirs (N.Y., 1957, pp. 174ff.) that the Jewish minority in Hungary prior to World War II received no less than 25 per cent of the national income, and that the Jewish problem was a serious one for Hungarians. He also maintained that, in 1939, Hitler favored a peaceful accomodation with Poland and that the war was forced upon Germany. Nevertheless, Horthy did everything possible to protect Hungarian Jews from German interference as long as he was in control of his country. The same was true of Mussolini, who became more dependent on Hitler after Otto Skorzeny rescued the Italian leader from prison following his initial overthrow in July, 1943.

Luigi Villari, Italian Foreign Policy under Mussolini (N.Y., 1956, pp. 197ff.), has explained that the Duce also did everything he could until 1945 to prevent German interference with Italian Jews and to intercede on their behalf when they were transported to Germany. This was true despite the fact that Mussolini was sincerely, opposed to Jewish influence in Italy. A German observer would not fail to note the contrast between the mildly critical attitudes and policies of Horthy and Mussolini toward the Jews and the openly anti-Jewish policy of Hitler.

The sensibilities of Mussolini in the Jewish question were well-known to Heinrich Himmler, the top German SS leader. He told Mussolini on October 11, 1942, during a visit to Rome, that German policy toward the Jews had gradually taken on a new aspect during wartime solely for reasons of military security. Himmler complained that thousands of Jews in the German-occupied territories were partisans or had conducted sabotage and espionage. Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader of the Jewish agency in London, had declared war on Germany on behalf of all Jews throughout the world as early as September 5, 1939. It was because of the critical stage of the war that Himmler now defended the new German policy of transporting Jews in occupied territories to restricted regions and internment camps.

Himmler complained that there had been cases of Jewish women and children working with the partisans in the USSR, and he admitted that many Jews actually apprehended in partisan activities in that area had been summarily shot by German military units. Himmler also referred to captured Soviet Jews engaged in military construction work under conditions in which be admitted that the death-rate was probably higher than normal. Mussolini firmly reminded Himmler that the Catholic Church was strongly opposed to any extreme measures against the Jews, and he intimated that a policy of German excesses might change the attitude of Pope Pius XII, who favored an Axis victory over the USSR in World War II (Vierteliahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 1956/4).

Himmler's references to the resistance of Soviet Jews was intended to justify the tougher German policy toward the Jews which began with the outbreak of the Russo-German war on June 22, 1941. A Canadian Jewish journalist, Raymond Arthur Davies, Odyssey through Hell (N.Y., 1946), stated that the Soviet Red Army should receive the principal credit for saving Jewish lives in Europe during World War II. Davies extolled the military achievements of Soviet Jews both as partisans and regulars on both sides of the front. Schachno Epstein, the chief of the Anti-Fascist Committee of Soviet Jews, told Davies that the Soviet Union, by evacuating Jews and by other measures, had saved the lives of at least 3,500,000 European Jews. Incidentally, this would have made it rather difficult for the Nazis to get hold of 6,000,000 to exterminate.

Davies spent most of the war in the Soviet Union, and be was convinced that in no other belligerent country bad the Jewish role attained comparable significance. He emphasized that thousands of Soviet war plants were managed by Jews, and that a remarkably large number of Jews held top positions in the Soviet armed forces and administration. He noted that 250,000 Polish Jews from the German sphere of occupation fled to the USSR in 1939, and they were to be encountered in every Soviet province. He had received official Soviet information that no less than 35,000 European Jews were fighting for Tito in the illegal partisan war against Germany. He surmised that most of Rumania's Jews bad emerged from the war unscathed because of the impact on Rumanian policy of Germany's defeat at Stalingrad. Davies enjoyed contacts with many American Jews who had emigrated to the USSR in the 1930's and were playing a prominent part in the Communist war effort. He also encountered many Jewish Red Army officers who boasted of killing their regular German army prisoners in gigantic mass executions. Davies entered Berlin with the Red Army, and he pronounced the wanton destruction and rape of that city equitable and just. Davies immediately established close contacts with the leaders of the Berlin Jewish community after the Reich capital fell. One of the prominent members of the Berlin Jewish community was Hildegard Benjamin, who later, as Communist, Minister of justice in Soviety Central Germany, compelled the Germans to accept the Soviet, legal system instead of keeping one of their own.

Davies rejoiced that these thousands of Berlin Jews had also been liberated by the Soviets and not by the West. He was convinced that Zionism had become superfluous for Jews in the Soviet environment despite the fact that anti-Jewish feeling persisted at the grass-roots level in many parts of the USSR.

Ralph Nunberg, The Fighting Jew (N.Y., 1945), offered an equally graphic account of the role of the Soviet Jews in World War II. Nunberg noted with pride that no less than 313 Soviet front line generals were Jews. He saw the USSR victorious under the aegis of Karl Marx, another "fighting Jew" (Ibid., p. 198).

Nunberg admitted -that many Jews from Central Europe, as well as from other parts of the world, had been victims of the gigantic Soviet purges between 1936 and 1939, but this slaughter was incidental and ideological and was not part of an openly anti-Jewish policy on the part of Stalin. The USSR and some of her later satellites were the only countries in the world where anti-Jewish utterances were a capital offense. But Soviet initiative did lead to the deportation. of "undesirable" Jews to Germany during the period of the 1939-1941 Russo-German non-aggression pact.

Margarete Buber, Under Two Dictators, (London, 1950), presented the memoirs of a German-Jewish woman who was sent to the German concentration camp at Ravensbrück in August, 1940, after spending several years in the brutal and primitive conditions of a Russian concentration camp. She was considered to be too dangerous to be given her freedom in Germany, and she noted that she was the only Jewish person in her contingent of deportees from Russia who was not released forthwith by the Gestapo. She found that conditions in Ravensbrück presented a striking contrast to the filth, disorder, and starvation of her Russian camp.

German concentration camps in August 1940 were few and far between, and the number of prisoners was small in contrast to the vast camps of the Soviets. The number of inmates in all German camps at the outbreak of war in September 1939 has been previously cited at 21,300. Most of these inmates were the usual types of criminals, and there was only a small percentage of Jewish people. After one year of war, the total concentration camp population was still less than 40,000 in contrast to the many millions detained in the USSR camps.

The camp the heroine entered at Ravensbrück was immaculately clean with spacious lawns and flower beds. Regular baths, and a change of linen every week seemed sheer luxury after her earlier experiences. At a first meal consisting of white bread, sausage, margarine and sweet porridge with dried fruit, the heroine could not resist asking her neighbor at table if August 3, 1940, was some sort of holiday or special occasion. Her neighbor was quite blank, and the heroine proceeded to ask if the food was always so good. The neighbor replied in the affirmative, but she wondered why anyone should be so pleased with it. The heroine did not attempt an explanation. She also considered her barracks at Ravensbrück a palace compared to her crowded mud hut in the Soviet camp. Her first Sunday meal of goulash, red cabbage, and potatoes was a veritable feast. The heroine spent many years at Ravensbrück. The camp was crowded by 1943. Some of the old cleanliness was lost, and many flowers were trampled down. This was a consequence of the never-ending war. Prisoners from Auschwitz and other camps poured in toward the end of the war. The heroine noted that the Auschwitz inmates arrived "half-starved and exhausted" early in 1945. It should be recalled that tens of thousands of eastern German refugees literally died of starvation during this same period.

All postal communication between the Ravensbrück inmates and the outside world ceased in January, 1945, and confusion reigned. At last the end came, the German guards fled, and the heroine was released. She had witnessed the progressive deterioration of conditions at the camp over a long period. Corporal punishment for major offenses had been introduced after her arrival, and since the winter of 1941-1942, she had heard the usual malicious rumors that gas executions were being practiced in some cases.

Another Ravensbrück Communist political prisoner, Charlotte Bormann, has insisted in Die Gestapo läßt bitten (The Gestapo Invites You), that the rumors of gas executions were tendentious inventions deliberately circulated among the prisoners by the Communists. Margarete Buber was not accepted by this group because of her imprisonment in the USSR. Charlotte Bormann's memoirs never found a publisher, and she was not permitted by the prosecution to testify at the Rastadt trial of the Ravensbrück camp leaders in the French occupation zone. This has been the usual and typical fate of authors seeking to present the story from the side of those who denied the extermination legend.

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