When fear takes over

I Remember!

My sweet grandmother on my Mom’s side, Hermine Borger, nee Weinberger, had two brothers, Solomon whom I hardly knew and Arnold, whom we all knew very well. Arnold was a big strapping fellow and I remember him best from his powerful smacking the cards onto the table during the traditional Sunday afternoon card games at my grandparents’ home on the Polish side of our town.

Uncle, or rather grand uncle Arnold owned a bakery in an area close to the Czech elementary school I attended. Every so often my mother picked me up from school and we visited the bakery. Freshly baked kaizer rolls were absolutely delicious when topped with butter and a slice of cooked ham from a butcher shop nearby.

The German occupation of our town on September 1, 1939, spelled the end to uncle Arnold’s bakery and our snacks there. A Volksdeutscher, a local German Nazi, took over the business. As simple as that.

When my father was forced to head the Jewish representation vis a vis the GESTAPO he selected uncle Arnold to be one of its members to work with him in what was called the Judenrat.

Perhaps as early as in 1940 it became clear that one of the most important priorities for the Jewish communities in Nazi occupied Poland was to save Jewish young children for whom the Nazis had no use and thus, given their vulnerability, were threatened with elimination.

Moshe Merin, a Jewish man from the city of Sosnowitz who by the GESTAPO was tapped to oversee all things Jewish in occupied Polish Silesia which included our territory, was well aware of the danger in which the Jewish children found themselves, turned to my father to come up with a plan to bring these little ones to safety.

In short, it was decided to organize an exodus of children from the threatened areas by bringing them to our town and then, guided by people who knew the way into Slovakia via a mountain pass, and onward south to the river Danube and the Black Sea and from there to a Mediterranean port, from where they would be shipped to Palestine and safety.

Given the complexity of the operation of transfering the children once arrived in our area to a mountain guide who would take them into Slovakia, my father delegated the organization and supervision of the operation to my uncle Arnold, member of the Judenrat who did this clandestine job well. While I do not know the numbers of kids involved in these secret transfers, I do know that dozens of children were saved in this manner.

Then, one day, the GESTAPO arrested uncle Arnold. Someone must have turned traitor. The operation suddenly ground to a halt. I need not go into details to describe the fear that took hold of us all. We knew where, in all probability, Arnold was held by the Nazi police. Today, a bronze plaque on one of our town buildings commemorates the horrors of the place:

“In this building, in the years 1939-1945 the GESTAPO had its office and torture chambers in which died hundreds of honorable nationals from both sides of the Olza river.”

The waiting game now began. When and what will the inevitable sequel to Arnold’s arrest be? The when was a realistic question whereas to the what we all knew the answer: wholesale punishment of the Jewish population. This could amount to a police dragnet of arrests, deportation or immediate total destruction. The days dragged on. Every time the door bell rang, we anticipated the worse. My father’s pride and joy was his gold Schaffhausen pocket watch, a veritable chronograph that kept the time within two or three seconds of the noon time signal broadcast by many European radio stations. When the door bell rang the tradition had become for my father to hand to my Mom the gold watch and to place a kiss on her forehead, followed by kisses given to Edith and me on our heads. Only after having done this, my father went down to open the house entrance to whoever the visitor was. A truly chilling tradition!

During those waiting days grand-aunt Else, wife of imprisoned Arnold, regularly came to visit. We heard her arguing with my father behind closed doors, asking him, imploring him for advice as to what to do in this calamitous time. Again and again she begged that he intervene with the GESTAPO and demand the release of her husband. Clearly my father could not do so. Jews had become outlaws and making oneself a nuisance with the Nazis, as they saw it, brought about very dangerous repercussions which made the situation only worse. And so unbearable waiting times and hushed conversations continued and we expected the worst.

Five weeks into this misery Else visited with my father once again but this time what in the past had been requests for help, turned into threats. We noticed upon her arrival that her physical appearance had significantly deteriorated. She had lost a lot of weight, her usually kind facial expression had turned severe and tears had turned into frowns. We heard her scream,

“Leo, if you do not make it clear to the GESTAPO that it is you who are the responsible person who delegated the children’s operation to Arnold, I will go down there and make this clear to them myself. It is you who are responsible for the operation and not Arnold. Only such an admission by you will save my husband. Consider this an ultimatum! And make it quick because I will not wait any longer!”

This time she did not wait for a response from my father. Slamming the doors behind her she stalked out.

The next few days were pure hell. My father seriously considered requesting the local GESTAPO chief, a certain SS Hauptsturmfuhrer (captain) Schweim, for the release of uncle Arnold. My Mom, of course, begged him not to do it. In retrospect I am certain she was right. Suddenly there was tension in our home between father and mother and both Edith and I were distraught. This sort of thing had never occurred before.

And then it happened: uncle Arnold was released. He had not been tortured.

Peace returned to our family but the prior happy relationship with aunt Else was never quite restored.

Why am I telling this story?

To convey to you how one’s psyche can be impacted by fear and how this fear can change one’s basic orientations, relationships and even world view. In our case, Else had been a loved and esteemed member of our family. Fear had distorted her friendship and love to the extent that she was now ready to jeopardize the very life of my father in an effort to save her husband. Love had turned into hatred. The good that had been accomplished by saving the lives of a large numbers of children thanks to the work of Else’s husband had receded into the past. To save her husband, the blame for the transgression of Nazi law had to be pinned on someone else although by doing so that person would receive a death sentence.

I cannot help but see a parallel between the story I related and on a much vaster scale the political situation in our land and more specifically the fear mongering that is done by president Trump to which our population is exposed almost daily.

Surely, you remember the case of the DACA young people who still are in limbo, with the protective legislation by former President Obama revoked. Surely you remember the attempt to instill fear in us by Trump’s reporting about the “caravan” of thousands of Latin Americans marching to our southern border. The already existing border patrols had to be reinforced by thousands of military and police personnel to protect us. The rape accusations against these poor people were again resurrected and our president, protector of women par excellence (wow!), continues alternately to plea with and threaten Congress into financing the billions necessary for the building of his promised wall that would put an end to the dangerous illegal immigrant incursions from the south. As it turned out, a “caravan” of about 200 people showed up at the wall, mostly women and children, fleeing from terrible situations in their own countries.

From a report received earlier today (5/4/2018) I learned that the Trump administration is now ending temporary protected status for tens of thousands of Hondurans. Since last year the US administration has scrapped similar protections from immigrants that were allowed to stay in the US since 1999, following a hurricane that ravaged their country. The Trump administration has scrapped similar protections for immigrants from other countries, including Nepal, El Salvador, Haiti and Nicaragua. These immigrants holding temporary legality in the US who would love to remain here have had children here, worked hard, started companies, made investments, etc. Now they don’t know what will happen. More limbo for people who in desperation sought and received asylum in this country which is now being revoked for no good reason, other than…!

Here is what I am worried about. Based on my lived experience in Nazi Germany I know that falsehoods and lies when heard long enough sink in and their toxicity is absorbed. The lies spread by the Nazis concerning the Jews took deep root and in some quarters remain alive to this day. Will we, a population consisting of immigrants and children of immigrants have the strength to resist infection by the avalanche of fearmongering and lies coming from our president and his surrounding, or will this spreading of fear negatively affect our country’s long held generally favorable attitude toward strangers, immigrants, refugees and empathy for others’ suffering even though these “others” do not belong to our tribe? It is my hope that we will overcome xenophobia because, yes, we can.

Our Jewish tradition cherishes a text attributed to 18th cent. rabbi Nachman of Breslov which reads, “kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar me’od, veha-ikar lo lefached klal,” or in translation, “The hole world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid at all.” If you want to hear it beautifully sung, Google it, and listen to Ofra Haza sing it on YouTube. It may give you courage as it does me, every time I hear it and sing along.

Refugees, illegal immigrants and Cities of Refuge (Part II.)

When Jews from Germany, occupied France and various other German occupied countries of Europe fleeing for their life came to the small town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in south central France seeking refuge, Andre Trocme, pastor of the Reformed Church of France (Eglise Reformee de France) congregation and his wife Magda took them in and dispersed them among the congregants of the church who hid them from both the French police and the German SS and Gestapo. Le Chambon became a Sanctuary City for these refugees.

The people who hid these women, men and children on the run from the Nazi police put their lives on line in doing so. I lived and worked among these folk who were veritable heroes, risking their lives by defying both the French collaborator government and the German Nazi occupying forces. Books, articles and movies have been produced to celebrate their action and both a tree was planted and a commemorative plaque in honor of pastor Trocme and his wife Magda, as well as the good people of the little town of Le Chambon, were placed at Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based Holocaust authority into its Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles.

During my five years in Le Chambon after the war, I preached and taught in the town’s Protestant church or temple, as it was called. On one of these occasions while having a conversation with some congregants after the church service, Monsieur Chazot, one of the men, came up to me and thanked me for the sermon. I, in turn, thanked him for the admirable actions he and his fellow congregants had done in hiding and saving the 3,500 refugee Jews who found a safe haven in the little town and its environs. Being relatively new in town, I asked Monsieur Chazot what it was that motivated him and his wife and many of the other town people to take the extraordinary risk of giving shelter and providing safety for the Jewish refugees who in desperation had come to find refuge from their persecutors’ antisemitic wrath. Without saying a word, Monsieur Chazot smiled and pointed his finger to the inscription engraved in stone over the church entrance. It read aimez vous les uns les autres or “love one another,” – a quote from the gospel of John 13:34-35.

I understood.

How did the Chambonais make it from this gospel text to becoming a safe haven for the Jewish refugees? The answer lies in the preaching of their pastor Andre Trocme, both a learned man, a biblical scholar and morally upright person, i.e,. a genuine Christian. Trocme knew about the the Cities of Refuge (Hebrew: arey miklat) cited in the Old Testament and taught that Le Chambon become such a city for the refugees fleeing Hitler and his ilk.

We read in Joshua 20:

“Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood. When they flee to one of these cities, they are to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state their case before the elders of that city. Then the elders are to admit the fugitive into their city and provide a place to live among them. If the avenger of blood comes in pursuit, the elder must not surrender the fugitive, because the fugitive killed their neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethought. They are to stay in that city until they have stood trial before the assembly…..’ “

In the case of Chambon, there is no question of fugitives having killed someone unintentionally and fleeing from the avenger of blood. It is rather the case of totally innocent people fleeing from Nazi police who are pursuing them with the intent of imprisoning and/or killing them for racist reasons. The motivation for providing these women and men a safe haven is, however, the same as in the numerous biblical texts that deal with such Cities of Refuge, namely their presumed innocence.

Against the above background let me now quote from one of our president’s tweets addressed to Californians who, in his opinion, would like to disengage from living in cities who joined the American sanctuary movement: sanctuary cities are “crime infested and breeding concepts [sic]…Sanctuary cities are undermining US laws.” (Trump Tweet, 4-18-2018)

While I and many other readers are at a loss of understanding what the president means by “breeding concepts,” I suggest we do not lose sleep over Mr. Trump’s disability of writing proper English.

I do, however, lose sleep when I consider the callousness of the president of our country as the 700 children come to mind who since October 2017 have been forcibly separated from their parents by I.C.E. I do, however, lose sleep when I consider the transformation that within a relatively short time has taken our country from a land of generosity to a land of narrow and selfish attitude, with an extreme xenophobic outlook, forgetting that our ancestors or we, with the exception of our native nations, have come here as refugees and immigrants.

I thank and congratulate all those who take the idea of sanctuary cities and places seriously and stand up for their inviolability and sanctity, providing safety for innocent women, men and children on the run from persecution and non-viable life situations.

Leviticus 18:16:

“Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

I remember!

Refugees, illegal immigrants and Cities of Refuge (Part I.)

I remember!

My mother Anny (z”l) was one of seven children, five brothers and one sister. Ernst, one of her older brothers, was a non-practicing medical doctor who had married Gerda Kohn, daughter of the owner of a large leather factory in our town and subsequently switched his professional orientation from medicine to making leather. The two had a daughter, a very pretty girl, whose name was Hanne, a germanized form of the Hebrew Channah. Ernst and family were our “rich” family members. They lived in a fancy villa close to the river and owned a Chrysler automobile, driven by a chauffeur with a real chauffeur’s cap on his head. We, cousins of Hanne, considered it an honor to be invited to the villa on her birthday to an afternoon fancy, formal snack, to play with their little dog Quickie and some playing ping-pong on a real ping-pong table in their lovely garden.

The good life came to an end with Hitler. As the rumors of a war with Poland became ever more audible and believable, many of our Jewish population fled east toward the interior of Poland. So also uncle Ernst and his family left for the city of Lwow, German name Lemberg, now a city in the Ukraine, renamed Lviv.

Our nuclear family remained in Teschen (previously Cesky Tesin) because my father, highly educated, cultured but also naive as he was, felt we had nothing to fear from the Nazis, basing this totally erroneous attitude on the illusion that he, having studied law in Vienna, Austria, would be exempted from Nazi persecution of the Jews. Having stayed in town, we lost track of those who fled.

Our nuclear family survived the Holocaust. A few of those who had fled east were also lucky enough to survive. It is they who, after the war, told us what happened to uncle Ernst, Gerda his wife and Hanne their daughter, in Lemberg, the German occupied Polish city of Lwow.

Ernst, presumably, had purchased a set of Aryan identity documents, (in German: Ariernachweis), for the family. The GESTAPO, ever eager to hunt down Jews, often closed certain streets that were forbidden to Jews and then demanded identity documents from the folks who now were caught in their dragnet.

Despite uncle Ernst’s possession of Aryan identity papers, he had given to his wife and daughter a capsule of cyanide poison, just in case they were caught in a totally unexpected life threatening event. Just such an event did happen as all three of them found themselves in a street that had been closed, in which the GESTAPO stopped and demanded these so-called Ariernachweise from the pedestrians.

Uncle Ernst, for reasons unknown, carried with him both his Jewish and his Aryan papers. When forced to show his identity papers, he mistakenly presented the Jewish ones. With just enough time to signal his wife and daughter to swallow the cyanide, he was shot on the spot and both Gerda and Hanne, having swallowed the pill, died instantly.

Why tell you this terrible story?

Because I do not like uniformed men to stop folks in the street, demanding to see their identity documentation. When this was the case in fascist/Nazi lands, it was done by profiling on the basis of pseudo science elaborated by pseudo scientists, like Hitler himself: short or tall? hair color: dark or blond? hair texture: Caucasian, African or Jewish? shape of nose: straight Nordic or “crooked” Jewish? Skin color: white or colored? Etc. etc. Nazi pseudo science even insisted that the ratio between cranial longitudinal and lateral measurements of Jews showed a specificity connected to their “race” when, in fact, Jews are a religious-ethnic group and can not be identified by any racial specificity at all.

But this is what profiling is all about.

And this is also what refugees or first generation immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa are exposed to now. Mr. Trump’s refugee and immigrant phobia and love for walls has brought this about. Our judiciary, by definition an independent governmental organ of our United States tri-literal governmental structure of executive, legislative and judiciary has surrendered its independence and has fallen prey to the president’s pseudo-scientific orientation and consequences.

Thus I.C.E. ( Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is doing just that: stopping people in the street or invading peoples’ home privacy, looking for illegal immigrants, and when found, taking them into custody and deporting them.

Because I remember my uncle and his family’s death, I cannot help but remember.

And when I remember, it makes me feel very uncomfortable because the methods now employed resemble those of Nazism/fascism.

I don’t like police – our American police – to profile innocent folks in the street or to search for innocent illegal immigrants in private homes. These kind of actions are methods of a police state. This is not the kind of country the Statue of Liberty and the inscription underneath it represents.

A 10th grader responds.

After one of my recent Holocaust-related talks at UNC-A for a large group of Middle School through College students, I received from a 10th grader the following essay which I thought was worth sharing with you.

“My heart is pounding, and I am on the edge on my seat. I can feel the energy around me as I graciously listen to his words. Seventy-eight years have passed, yet he is telling his story as if he is the same thirteen-year-old boy living in treacherous misery. His name is Dr. Walter Ziffer, and he is a Holocaust survivor. Dr. Ziffer speaks of many hardships that morning, and I am clinging on to every word. The pain, the fear, the agony, that he must have gone through, alone. He was just barely a teenager when the Nazi soldiers brought down their wrath, murdering six million of his brothers and sisters.

I had heard of the Holocaust, but I did not know what it was until I was about 12 years old. I remember sitting there in that history class thinking, “A person really did that? A person really tried to eliminate an entire race? Why would he do that?” Here I am, years later, thinking the same thing. Before now, I had read stories and memoirs, and I have even watched a couple of interviews. But there is something so incredibly breathtaking about being in that auditorium, hearing that sorrow in his voice, feeling the passion in his soul growing louder and louder. Dr. Ziffer explains that it hurts him, even now, to recall his past and speak about it. But, he says, he must. He must let young people like me know what really happened, and he must bring awareness to the topic. In that auditorium, there are kids as young as 11 and 12. And Dr. Ziffer doesn’t sugar coat anything either. He speaks of being ripped away from his family, of men and women being raped and killed, of being worked nearly to death at the camps, of all the murder that surrounded him. Everyone is touched by his words. As nothing but humans, our differences seem irrelevant now as we listen to him speak.

Here’s what I think. Without a doubt, I am more than in awe of people like Dr. Ziffer. I am beyond thankful for Elie Wiesel, Samuel Bak, Primo Levi. In Elie Wiesel’s “The Perils of Indifference” speech, he inspires members of the twenty-first century to never show indifference to others, and to always possess compassion. This is key. These survivors have witnessed and experienced things that most people only have nightmares about. They use that to inform young people about this monstrosity. Adolf Hitler, former chancellor of Germany, responsible for the death of over 6 million people. But here we are today, united as a people at least on the opinion that the Holocaust was simply evil. It was inhumane and wrong. We have to learn to effectively communicate, especially when we disagree. The is precisely why Dr. Ziffer’s story needs to be told.  In America, we are fighting about politics, religion, civil rights … everything. But we can all join together on this, and never let it happen again.”

I Remember the Rose and the Coincidences…

Scene 1.

Surfing the net the other day I ran into an obituary-type article about David Wyman’s death on March 14, 2018. Professor Wyman is the author of The Abandonment of the Jews, Pantheon Books, 1984, a Holocaust-related remarkable work dealing with the USA’s reluctance to assist the death-endangered Jews in Europe during the German Nazi regime.

The excellent article was written by Pierre Sauvage, film maker who, among others, produced the movie Weapons of the Spirit, dealing with the good people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small town in south central France. These fine women and men, endangering their own lives, hid Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and thus saved the lives of approximately 3,500 women, men and children. Pierre Sauvage, the film maker himself, was one of these saved young people.

Having lived with my family in Le Chambon from 1964 to 1969, I was privileged to have personally known most of the folk filmed by Sauvage, including the hero of the saving action, pastor Andre Trocme of the local congregation of the Eglise Reformee de France, honored at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

I had the joy and privilege to personally know Professor David Wyman, having been invited by him to give a lecture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where he taught. I recounted on that occasion some of my personal experiences as Jewish prisoner in seven slave labor and concentration camps during my teen years.

It is this incident and the related coincidences I want to share with you in this blog. The exact date of my visit to the University of Massachusetts unfortunately escapes me but it must have fallen somewhere into the later 1980s.

So here we were, my former wife Carolyn and I, sitting in a small amphitheater. A good many students filled the venue and I was just about ready to step to the lectern after David Wyman’s introduction when he signaled me to wait. A few minutes later, a young female student entered the hall carrying a bud vase containing a single beautiful red rose. She placed the vase on the lectern at which point Wyman invited me to start. A beautiful gesture.

Scene 2.

On June 1942 the whole Jewish population, just short of 1,000 women, men and children, of my town of Teschen, (Cieszyn, prior to the Nazi occupation), in Polish Upper Silesia, was deported to Auschwitz where they were murdered. The Jewish young people, including myself, were sent to slave labor camps. My parents and my older sister miraculously survived and thus our nuclear family was reunited after the war’s end. There followed an exchange of our camp experiences and we learned from my father who had been in a sub-camp of Auschwitz by name of Blechhammer the following story.

In Blechhhammer in Upper Silesia, Nazi Germany had built a major synthetic-oil industry based on the vast Silesian coal resources. My father was part of the Jewish and other prisoner work force involved in the building of this huge industrial complex. Without being able to report specific dates – the prisoners had no calendars or time pieces! – he told us how on two occasions, when the refinery power house was ready to start operations, allied bombers at great altitudes appeared in the skies and precision bombed the power plant to smithereens.

Scene 3.

I left Europe because of the threat of a communism take-over of Czechoslovakia in February 1947. I Arrived in the US after a two years stay stay in Paris, France, while waiting for a US visa. Sometimes in the 1980s, while already in academia, I purchased David Wyman’s book, The Abandonment of the Jews where, on pages 288 to 307, I found the following material, presented here in abbreviated form.

Scene 4.

Two Jewish men escaped from Auschwitz on April 10, 1944. Their names were Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler. They reported to the free world what was going on at Auschwitz in terms of daily mass murders. The report spread to the Allied Governments and began to appear in the Swiss, British and American press. The message they brought to the West included an appeal for the immediate bombing of the rail deportation routes to Auschwitz, as well as of “the death halls of Auschwitz.” This would have temporarily slowed, if not completely halted, the assembly line murders that were taking place there.

The US War Department, however, was of the “opinion that the suggested air-operation was impracticable for the reason that it could be executed only by diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.” (Wyman, p.292) In late June 1944 the German “oil war” had moved to Upper Silesia, in a 35 miles radius around Auschwitz. Blechhammer was in the north-west sector of this area. Between July 7 and November 20, “fleets of from 102 to 357 heavy bombers hit it [Blechhammer] on ten occasions. On Sunday, August 20, late in the morning, 127 Flying Fortresses escorted by 100 Mustang fighters, dropped 1,336 500-pound high-explosive bombs on the factory areas of Auschwitz, less than five miles to the east of the gas chambers.” Only one American bomber went down; no Mustangs were hit. There were other air attacks on this industrial area. But no attempts were made to strike the killing operations of the extermination camp.

Despite the fact that these strikes on the oil important German centers took place only 5 miles away from the Auschwitz gassing and cremation installations of Auschwitz/Birkenau, the US War Department could write “that bombing Auschwitz would be possible only by diversion of air power from ‘decisive operations elsewhere.’ “ On a number of other occasions from July through October, a total of 2,700 bombers traveled along or within easy reach of both rail lines on the way to targets in the Blechhammer-Auschwitz region.” In none of these cases the killing centers of Auschwitz were bombed. There is no doubt that destruction of the gas chambers and crematoria would have saved many lives.

“Mass murder continued at Auschwitz until the gas chambers closed down in November.”

The US government’s refusal to bomb the killing installations in Auschwitz remains one of the unexplained and unresolved scandals of the Holocaust.

In any case, my father’s report about the destruction of the industrial complex of Blechhammer was corroborated and I am grateful to David Wyman to have thrown much needed light on this tragic scandal.

Scene 5

In 1993, Gail and I left beautiful but cold Maine and moved south. After residing in an area called High Country in Weaverville, North Carolina, we moved to our present address at 6 Westview Circle. Shortly afterwards, I met my new neighbor across the driveway. We got to know each other and after he told me about his GI activities during WW II, we immediately bonded. Julian, it so happened, was the bombardier on one of the Flying Fortresses that bombed the Blechhammer industrial complex, where nearby in the concentration camp, my father was imprisoned and coerced to work for two years building the oil refinery complex destroyed by the Allies.

My father’s story, David Wyman’s WW II research and important book, as well as his death, eulogized by Pierre Sauvage native of Le Chambon where we had lived, and Julian P. the bombardier, across my driveway, all this came together in a complex and wondrous story that is dear to me and seemed worth sharing with others.