On January 27 we observe Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Laura’s cousin Karen is providing postcards from her print shop for friends and family to send messages of resistance to Congress.  Her postcards remind me of a true story of resistance in 1940s Berlin, which Hans Fallada turned into the novel Every Man Dies Alone.   As inappropriate as it may seem, in Laura’s final weeks I read Fallada’s novel as she slept. I was looking for a thriller that would distract me from what was going on, but Fallada’s story turned out to be much more real than a thriller. By “real” I mean humanly messy.

In an afterward Geof Wilkes addresses the futility and failure of so many lives in the book. Many characters recognize the futility of their efforts, but go on anyway. Otto Quangel, the husband in the central husband-wife team who leave anti-Nazi postcards around the city of Berlin, carries on so that they can “die properly, without moaning and whimpering.” Another character does so to “keep her self-respect.” A third aims “to feel that we have behaved decently till the end.” Wilkes explains

… in the German text of the novel, Otto’s ‘properly’. Eva’s ‘self-respect’ and Reichhardt’s ‘decently’ are all expressed by the adjective-cum-adverb ‘anständig,’ which refers primarily to what is ‘decent’ or done ‘decently’ in a moral sense ….

As I read those words during Laura’s last week, it seemed to me that anständig described how Laura lived, how she handled herself during her last illness, and how she died.

Fallada’s novel has been made into a movie “Alone in Berlin” recently released with Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson playing the Quangels..  The New York Times review tells us that the movie is “dour and flavorless,” delivering its story with “bland efficiency.”  That tells me that the movie is faithful to the novel and that the reviewer may also have been looking for a thriller.

During this week leading up to Yom HaShoah, I have been reading David Cesarani”s Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949.  Like Tim Snyder’s Bloodlands and Black Earth, Cesarni’s Final Solution uses Eastern European records that became available after the fall of the Soviet Union to tell a much more nuanced story than the popular version epitomized in the 1978 TV miniseries “Holocaust.”  Whereas Snyder looks at the wider ethno-political dynamics in the region where 14 million people were “killed by purposeful policies of mass murder implemented by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union” between 1933 and 1945 (Bloodlands 409), Cesarani drills down into what happened to the Jews.  Perhaps in even more detail, Cesarani provides evidence for Snyder’s conclusion:

The dominant stereotype of Nazi Germany is of an all-powerful state that catalogued, repressed, and then exterminated an entire class of its own citizens.  This was not how the Nazis achieved the Holocaust, nor how they even thought about it.  (Black Earth 337)

Over and over again Cesarani documents how incompetent and ineffective the Nazis were in carrying out their plans, even as they murdered millions of Jews.

One of Snyder’s main themes is that “Not only the Holocaust, but all major German crimes took places in areas where state institutions had been destroyed, dismantled, or seriously compromised.”  (Black Earth 337)  In this context, he specifically cautions against the “common American error … to believe that freedom is the absence of state authority.”  Cesarani does not pursue this theme, but he does explain what happened during Kristallnacht as a breakdown in discipline and the chain of command.  (187)

There are many ways that Cesarani’s fine-grained analysis of what happened during the Holocaust challenges the dominant stereotypes that depend on a high altitude look at the events.  Over and over Cesarani tells us about the sexual violence against Jewish women that is usually glossed over.  Frequently he describes excremental anguish that is not metaphorical.  He doesn’t use euphemisms.  He calls murder “murder.”

I think the strongest stereotype that Cesarani destroys is that the Jews just went to their deaths without resisting.  Cesarani does not make a big general argument to prove a thesis that the Jews resisted.  Rather time and again he matter-of-factly mentions the many ways that the Jews fought for their lives, individually and collectively.  When told to assemble for transportation, they didn’t show up, they ran away, they hid.  They escaped from the ghettos, the trains, the camps. They hacked their way through the floors of the train cars.  After a deportee from the Warsaw Ghetto fatally knifed an SS guard on the way to the undressing rooms, the Nazis made people walk with their hands up.

Yes, we know about the rebellions in the Warsaw Ghetto, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau that Cesarani analyzes in detail, but I had not heard that in Treblinka

… melees [broke] out on the platform.  Before the year [1942] was out, Jews from Siedlice had to be subdued by gunfire.  In October, ten Jews from Ostrowiec Swietokryski in Kielce district started resisting in the gas chamber building forcing guards to open fire.  … Two months later hundreds of young men from Grodno, transported from the Kelbasin labour camp, rioted on the thresholds of the chambers.  Again the guards and SS men resorted to their rifles and submachine guns, turning the building into a bullet-spattered bloodbath, requiring extensive repairs and renovations.  The permanent labour force made such renovations and redecorations possible in a very short time, but it also meant that prisoners were able to observe what was going on and to form a cohesive community capable of resistance.  (511)

I didn’t know that a quarter million Polish Jews hid out or fled to the woods “to elude the round-ups in mid to late 1942” (646).  That only 50,000 were still alive at the end of the war sounds discouraging, but that they survived such a hostile natural and human environment testifies to the strength of their will to live and to resist.

 

 

 

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