Sunday, June 25, 2017

A talk I gave at the Holocaust Centre on May 14, 2017, as part of an Adult Education series.

 The invasion of Poland and the murder of Jews

       To this day, imagining the murder of so many people, by mass shooting and gassing with carbon monoxide or rat poison gas is unbelievable. You know that it happened, but cannot imagine how it could have happened. Though the Germans did their best to conceal the evidence, they used language that obscured the true facts, 'final solution' for mass murder, 'resettlement' for concentration camps, but eye-witness accounts of the atrocities emerged. People knew what was happening, but refused to believe it. How could these things happened in enlightened Europe, in the middle of the twentieth century, perpetrated by civilised, educated Germans, and why these happen not only in Poland, Russia, Roumania, Lithuania and Latvia, but in Central or Western Europe?
       People today visit Auschwitz and see a theme park of atrocities, but they can't smell the smoke of burning bodies, can't sense the fear, hear the dogs barking. You have to put yourselves into the shoes of the victims, however hard this is, to gain some understanding.

     Hitler talks of Jewish annihilation
                January 30, 1939
    “Today I will be once more a prophet. If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then then result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of the Jews, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe”
Sources:N.H. Baynes, ed., The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, I, London, 1942, pp. 737-741; Yad Vashem
       There was much in common between Nazi Germany and right wing nationalist Poland, anti-communism, Antisemitism. For years the Nazis tried to form an alliance with Poland but the Poles rejected these overtures. They didn't like Jews, but the Jews they didn't like were the real Jews living among them, one of the ethnic minorities that made up the Polish state that diluted the Polish national unity. It was not the mythical imaginary Jew that the Nazis wanted to get rid of. The Poles appreciated the problems of getting rid of large numbers of Jews. As to the antagonism towards the Soviet Union, they realised that any war fought between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would be fought on Polish soil.

   Jewish population of Europe 1933
        US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Almost immediately after the invasion of Poland, the Germans established the first ghetto.
To get rid of Jews, Jews had to be identified and separated from the rest of the population. Yellow stars or arm bands were introduced to mark out Jews. Then Jews were concentrated into urban ghettos. This destroyed the small shtetls, Jewish communities scattered through the countryside that had existed for many generations, in some cases, for hundreds of years. Notably, at the time, there were no ghettos in Western Europe.
Ghettos were planned to be temporary. Jews were to be exiled
1. to Madagascar, an island in the Indian Ocean, a French colony. This was contingent on an understanding with France and the defeat of Britain, who controlled the sea routes.
2. to some unspecified remote place in the east, beyond the Urals, perhaps somewhere in Siberia. This was contingent on the defeat of the Soviet Union.

         Largest ghettos in Poland
            April 1940, Lodz ghetto (pop. 164,000)

                November 1940, Warsaw ghetto (pop. 445,000)
                March 1941, Lublin and Krakow ghettos
Altogether, the Germans created at least 1,000 ghettos in occupied territories. Many ghettos were set up in cities and towns where Jews were already concentrated.

       The vast majority of Jews lived in Eastern Europe. The Jews of Western and Central Europe were largely assimilated, but the Jews of Eastern Europe had their own language, Yiddish, their own culture and distinctive customs. They were a readily identifiable ethnic minority.
Right from the beginning, from the time Hitler and the Nazis assumed power, their clearly stated aim was to get rid of all Jews, with no exceptions. 
How to do this went through four stages of planning:
1. Exile
2. Expulsion
3. Deportation
4. Extermination

      The fate of the German Jews was to be decided after the triumphant victory, but by the end of 1941 Hitler was so confident of winning the war that he authorised the deportation of the Jews of the Reich. This put great pressure on the existing ghettos in Poland, and in particular, the Lodz ghetto. To accommodate the new arrival, they had to get rid of, murder some of the Jews already there.

The Wannsee conference and the final solution

      By the end of January 1942 over a million Jew had been murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units. But these killings were not centrally coordinated. They were, to some degree, haphazard. They were not governed by a centralised clear policy. Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Security Service, (SD), and Nazi governor of Bohemia and Moravia convened a conference of high ranking Nazi Party and government officials in a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss and implement the 'Final solution', the mass murder of Jews. The fifteen officials who attended the conference did not touch on the rightness of the policy, they only discussed the means. The entire session lasted only about an hour.

Extermination of the Jews of the Reich

OCTOBER 15, 1941
After Adolf Hitler's authorisation in September 1941, German authorities began deporting German, Austrian, and Czech Jews from the Greater German Reich
From October 15, 1941, until October 29, 1942, German authorities deport approximately 183,000 German, Austrian, and Czech Jews to ghettos, transit ghettos, killing centres, and killing sites in the Baltic States, in Belarus, in the Generalgovernement, and the Lodz ghetto.
Beginning in September 1941, with the deportation of German Jews, Jews were transported country by country to the newly established killing camps. By 1944 the only significant Jewish community left in Europe was the Hungarian Jewish community. After the German occupation of Hungary, between May and July, 1944, in 56 days, 437,000 Jews were transported, mainly to Auschwitz, and about 360,000 were murdered immediately on arrival there. There were four trains, with 3000 on each, 12,000 a day leaving for Auschwitz. The concentration camp had trouble killing and cremating such a large number. People had to wait in the birch forest - waiting for their turn to be killed.
Operation Reinhard
October 15, 1941
Heinrich Himmler tasks the SS and Police Leader in Lublin District, SS General Odilo Globocnik, with implementing what later becomes known as
Operation Reinhard,” the physical annihilation of the Jews residing in the Generalgovernement. The Operation Reinhard team is ultimately responsible for the murder of approximately 1.7 million Jews, most of them Polish Jews.
Killing Jews by shooting was an inefficient means of murder. The numbers to kill were just too great. The killings took a toll on the troops who had to shoot men, women, young and old, and in particular, children. It was also impossible to keep it secret. To find a more efficient way of killing large numbers, the Germans drew on experience they gained from the by then abandoned euthanasia programme. They murdered intellectually and physically handicapped who were not deemed to be worthy of life, but this programme was terminated due to public and Church opposition and pressure. However, the techniques developed for the euthanasia programme could be used to murder large numbers of Jews. First they were killed by carbon monoxide fed into moving trucks full of prisoners,then by feeding carbon monoxide into sealed gas chambers, and finally they found that using Cyclone B, a gas used for pest eradication, the most efficient.

Killing centres
December 8
Killing operations begin at the Chelmno killing centre, located about 30 miles north-west of Lodz.
January 16
German authorities begin the deportation of Jews and Roma (Gypsies) from the Lodz ghetto to Chelmno. Between January 1942 and March 1943, the SS Special Detachment Lange kills at least 145,000 Jews and a few thousand Roma (Gypsies).
The Reinhard camps were located in isolated places near railway lines. There were no barracks to house the inmates. They were all killed on arrival. These camps later were all levelled to destroy the evidence.
March 17, 1942
First deportations of Jews, from the ghettos in Lublin and Lvov, to the Belzec killing centre. At least 434,508 Jews were killed in gas chambers with carbon monoxide gas between March 17 and December 31, 1942.
May 7, 1942
Sobibor begins gassing operations at the Sobibor killing centre. By November 1943, the special detachment killed at least 170,000 Jews and an undetermined number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet prisoners of war at Sobibor by means of carbon monoxide gas or by shooting.
July 23, 1942
SS Special Detachment Treblinka begins gassing operations at the Treblinka killing centre. Between July 1942 and November 1943, the SS special detachment at Treblinka murders an estimated 925,000 Jews and an unknown number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet prisoners of war.
Auschwitz - Birkenau
March 1,1942
Auschwitz – Birkenau camp opens. It was originally designated for the incarceration of large numbers of Soviet prisoners of war. Although it continued to serve as a concentration camp, it also functioned as a killing centre from March 1942 until November 1944.
Auschwitz was originally set up for Polish political prisoners and Soviet prisoners of war. Once it was expanded with the addition of Birkenau and a network of sub-camps it realised the main objectives of the Nazis:
  1. Expropriate, i.e. steal Jewish property
  2. Exploit Jewish manpower; work them while there is value in their labour
  3. Kill them
  4. Make use of their hair, the gold in their teeth, their spectacles, shoes whatever was left of their belongings.
After Auschwitz
After the war it was evident that not only were a large number of Jews murdered, but that an entire Jewish world, with its own traditions, culture, customs and values was destroyed. But the liberal humanist tradition going back to the 17th and 18th centuries was also called into question. The great German sociologist and philosopher, Theodor W. Adorno said 'to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric',
The great centres of European learning, arts and creativity were scattered, with its focus moving to America, but Britain, South Africa, Australia, Latin America, and to a limited extent, New Zealand also benefited from this dispersal of talent.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Jewish by choice

Amsterdam based Israeli journalist, Cnaan Liphschiz gave an interesting talk at last night's Kia Torah session at the Holocaust Centre in the Wellington Jewish Community Centre. He talked about antisemitism in Europe, but in particular, in France and Holland. He attributed this to Muslim immigration. He acknowledged that antisemitism is rife in Eastern Europe too, in Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, perhaps also in Latvia and Estonia, where there are no, or very few Muslims, but in these countries antisemitism manifests itself in nationalist rhetoric, but not in violence unlike in Western Europe. He also acknowledged that though Jews are under threat throughout Europe, there are also many hopeful positive developments, a resurgence of Jewish life in Germany, Hungary, Poland, Hungary has the largest Jewish festival in Europe, and politically, there is a close relationship between Israel and Russia, Netanyahu and Putin, a significant turnaround in light of the past history of Russia and the Soviet Union. 
The outlook is tough for Jews in Europe, but despite this, only a small proportion of them choose to leave. These, however, are the most committed, observant members of their communities, who keep the light of Judaism burning. 
Cnaan Liphshiz made an interesting observation about the New Zealand Jewish community. New Zealand is one of the very few places in the world if not the only place, where Jews are Jewish by choice. They are not singled out, they can completely assimilate and disappear as Jews, they don't face antisemitism, not compared with the rest of the world at any rate, so if they are still involved with Jewish life they do so by choice. Liphshiz made no mention of those who chose to be Jewish by conversion, and the important roles they play in their communities. Jews are completely integrated in the society they are part of, they do not live in ghettos isolated from their neighbours, a Jewish bubble, yet they maintain a semblance of Jewish life and hand on their tradition to their children.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Holocaust Centre of NZ is 10 years old

The Holocaust Centre of NZ survived ten years, and grew into a wide reaching vibrant institution. This is something to celebrate, This week I gave the monthly talk at our retirement village, Village at the Park  about the origins of the Holocaust Centre, the problems of facing the horrors of the past and previous efforts to confront the Holocaust. The audience of some 50 people listened intently, and as often happens, came up to me afterwards and told me their own personal stories.
Here is a link to my talk, The Holocaust Centre is 10 years old.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Book of Ruth - some thoughts

I have been honoured and flattered to be asked to share some Torah thoughts appropriate for Shavuot at the Shavuot dinner. I am not a Torah scholar, compared with my sons, compared with some of my friends, I am an ignoramus, am ha'aretz. In the land of the blind, however, the partially sighted is king. There is not much that I could say about the Ten Commandments that has not been said already, but I can relate to the Book of Ruth, the quintessential immigrant or refugee experience. This is what I will be talking about, shamelessly borrowing from Margo Schlanger and her article, Illegal Immigrants and the Book of Ruth, published in Tablet. My slant is different from hers, in so far as I have a message, it is different from hers, but we have in common seeing in Ruth the difficulties faced by someone fleeing her country. Here is the text of my talk, feel free to comment and disagree.

The story of Ruth – some thoughts

Wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people are my people, and your God is my God, where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.

These are the words Ruth said to her mother-in-law, Naomi. They were both widows left bereft in an inhospitable land. So starts a story about immigration, about being a refugee, that has a contemporary resonance.
Ruth was the best kind of 'receiver of the Torah': she is simultaneously brave and kind. She makes compassion her guiding value, and she boldly ventures to join a community that in turn accepts her fully. Her kindness, her chesed, awakens corresponding compassion in those around her.
Briefly, the story tells us that in a time of terrible famine and political insecurity, Elimelech left Bethlehem with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons and went to Moab, on the other side of the Dead Sea. Elimelech died, and his sons died. The Megilla doesn't tell us how or in what circumstances they died. Was it violence, disease, war, epidemic, we don't know. Moab was a violent place, the country of Balak and Bilam, a place where witchcraft was still practised, and in times of crisis human sacrifices were offered to the Moabite god Chemosh. Nor do we know why the wives of the sons of Elimelech were childless, or perhaps they had children who had also died. In a place like that a religion with humane laws, that extend protection and Sabbath, the day of rest not only to the immediate members of the clan, but also to 'your slave, your maid, your animal, and the foreigner in your gates' would have had a powerful appeal. We are only told what we need to know about Ruth, her acceptance in the Jewish community, her conversion, and her role in the Jewish chain of history.
Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law were left alone—without children, without male heads of household, without economic or social standing. Naomi decided to leave Moab and travel home to Judah. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, returned to her own mother. Ruth, by contrast, stayed with Naomi. The key word in the Book of Ruth is chesed, kindness or compassion. Naomi says to Ruth: 'May God kindly deal with you as you have dealt kindly with the dead and with me.' Ruth’s kindness is vital to Naomi’s survival. Without Ruth, Naomi would have been friendless and helpless on the journey, and perhaps even at its end. Even with Ruth’s help, the two arrived in Bethlehem poor and hungry, dependent on others for food. For others, however, it was a time of plenty. The barley harvest was underway. Ruth went to the field of Boaz, close kin to Elimelech, and gleaned the barley left behind by the reapers who were harvesting the bulk of the yield. Boaz was so taken by Ruth’s kindness and care for Naomi that he made sure she was able to gather more than enough.
Boaz also protected the vulnerable Ruth from the threat of sexual violence and offered her the safety of other women. But she wanted to be a full member of her adoptive family, the family of her dead husband. She tempted Boaz, a relative, a much older man to marry her and give her children. For Boaz this is an act of kindness, chesed: 'Be blessed of God, my daughter,' he said, 'you have made your latest act of kindness, greater than the first, in that you have not gone after the younger men, be they poor or rich.'
And so Ruth the Moabite went first from gentile to Jew, and then from widow to wife, stranger to citizen, gleaner to matriarch. It’s the ultimate immigration story. But the greatest reward granted to Ruth for her kindness and unfailing devotion was the most precious blessing any woman can hope for, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a great-great grandson who became the King of Israel and the model for all future kings.
1Some of these words and ideas were borrowed from ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION AND THE BOOK OF RUTH

Shavuot offers an important lesson for politics today.

Tablet, May 26, 2017

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


It is hard to get my head around the terror attack in Manchester. At this stage the attacker is unknown, and so are his motives, but what we do know is that his home made powerful explosive device killed at least 22 people and injured many others, They were young people attending a rock concert. It is unlikely that any of them knew much about ISIS or the cause it was fighting for. We don't know what motivated the killer, or what he had hoped to achieve. The explosion and the murder of these people would not hasten the fall of Assad and the Syrian government, the enemies of ISIS. What was in the mind of the killer? Was he gullible, easily persuaded by some fire breathing Iman to sacrifice his life? Was he unhinged, suffering from mental disorder? There is no simple explanation for such an act of random murder. But looking back on history, there were the Nizaris, the second largest largest sect of Shiite Muslims in the eleventh century. They posed a threat to the Sunni Seljuk Empire. With the unrest in the Holy Land caused by the First Crusade the Nizaris found themselves fighting not only other Muslims, but also the invading Christian Crusaders. Not having the military forces to wage such a double war, they turned to the assassination of prominent enemies or prominent leaders perceived as enemies. These random killings went on for some 300 years, until the Nizari declined internally and eventually succumbed to Mongol conquest. Can we perceive parallels between infighting among Shiites and Sunnis, invading Christian Crusaders and aimless random murder? Does history provide answers, or do we just have to sit back and accept that this is a cruel, senseless world and terrible unjust things happen?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Poor newspaper proprietors, poor journalists

The Commerce Commission refused to allow the merger of NZME, owners of the NZ Herald, and Fairfax media, owners of the DominionPost. They, very reasonably, argued that the merger of the country's two major newspapers would create a monopoly that is bad for the country. The proprietors of the two media empires cried foul. They invested their money in these businesses, reaped large profits, now that the profits are drying up they want to squeeze a few more drops of juice from their investments. They lost sight of the purpose of newspapers, to disseminate news, not to create a vehicle for advertisers. There will be always news, and there will always be an appetite for well informed reporting and analysis. If the Herald and the DominionPost have to change the way they operate and work out a new, more appropriate business plan so be it. Now the vultures, investors out for a quick buck are circling these two wounded behemoths. It is likely that they would strip the assets of these businesses, cut their staff, but it is very unlikely that they would do much to improve the standards of journalism.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Down by the river side

I had such a good time last night. Our neighbours, Val and Bob, jazz enthusiasts, organised a jazz concert in our Village. They invited the New City Stompers to play for us as a fundraiser for the Wellington Free Ambulance. Jazz can cover a multitude of genres, Swing, Dixie, Big Band, Individual Virtuosos like Theolonius Monk, Stephane Grappelli, Dave Brubeck. I didn't know what to expect,
The Stompers were seven elderly men who would easily qualify as residents in our retirement village, and a slightly younger woman vocalist, but they are all very skilled musicians,
There was a trumpet, a trombone who drew a wonderful rich sound from his instrument, a nimble fingered pianist, who to show off  played a Winifred Atwell number for an audience that still remembered Winfred Atwell. There was a guitar, a drum who also played a washboard to the amusement of all, and a sousaphone, an instrument that could have been designed by the cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung. I went partly to support Val and Bob and make sure that there were at least some in the audience for the concert. I needn't have worried, the room was so full that we had to bring in more chairs from the dining room. There must have been some 80 people there and when I arrived almost all the seats were taken. After a while some of the women and then a few couples got up to dance. Some were dressed casually, some of the women were dressed up for an evening out in long evening dresses. The woman in casual trousers who got the others to get up and dance shimmied over to me and got me to join in and dance. (A round of applause) I was never much of a dancers and my dancing days were over at least fifty years ago, but I didn't want to seem stand offish, too proud, or too high and mighty so I got up and did my best to dance. It took me back to when we were newly married and I attempted to shuffle around on the dance floor. The music, some of the numbers they played, took me back sixty years or more. The song 'I left my little bright eyed doll down by the river side' was the hit of the day in 1948 when we arrived in New Zealand. I knew the tune, I hummed and whistled it at the time, but could never get the words. Last night we were given song sheets and we all joined in in the singing. I suppose when friends said that Judy and I would be happy in our retirement home this is the sort of happiness they had in mind.  I thought that seeing people, my contemporaries, enjoying themselves, despite all having their personal baggage was wonderful. Most of the women are widows, some perhaps retired and successful professionals. They all have had lives full of sorrows, tragedies, yet here they were making most of the moment. I thought that there is a story in last night's concert, In fact there are many stories, a film like The Quartet about the retirement home for old musicians could be made from the stories in this Village. 
Looking back sixty years when I last  joined in in the singing and dancing, trying to be one of the guys, trying to belong, I thought of the promise of happiness and success that lay ahead, and the disappointments and hardships that we encountered later. I thought of the music and the good times. I am not sure whether my children and their generation still play music and sing when they get together. When Bartok collected folk songs from all parts of the Balkans, he was aware that these songs were about to disappear as the feudal societies with their peasant culture were disappearing. The coffee house gypsy music that he so despised has also disappeared except as a tourist attraction.
As the whole world becomes one global village, dominated by Hollywood and mass produced culture, old men playing music of the 1920s and 1930s is precious, and we, the audience, with all our aches and pains, mobility trundlers and complaints can celebrate that we have attained a stage in our lives when we have no longer responsibilities, duties, cares, and if we  no longer look forward to a bright future, at least we can enjoy the present.