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They Rarely Did It Alone
by Robert Oppenheimer
From the Spring, 2015 issue of Jewish Currents
MY FATHER ALFRED, my Aunt Ruth, and their parents Ella and Willie lived in Cologne, Germany in the 1920s and ’30s. As a young boy, my father more than once saw from his bedroom window violent incidents in which Nazi storm troopers were attacking trade unionists and socialists in the street below.
After Hitler came to power in 1933, all Jewish students were thrown out of the public schools and my grandmother lost her job as a teacher. Initially, the Jewish children were exiled to the back of the classroom, against which 10-year-old Alfred protested, resulting in his being one of the first expelled.
He then attended the Yavne Jewish day school, also in Cologne. The headmaster, Erich Klibansky, would eventually save a hundred and thirty of his students by taking whole classes to study in London. Fortunately, the United Kingdom had by then agreed to accept some children if they were given financial guarantees for their eventual repatriation. This allowed the kindertransports to London, which saved a total of ten thousand Jewish children, including the Yavne students. Sadly, Dr. Klibansky and his own family did not get out in time. They and almost all the parents and siblings of the children saved in the kindertransports were later deported and murdered by the Nazis.
MY DAD ALWAYS DESCRIBED my grandmother Ella as having good peripheral vision, which she used to take in the big picture. She had read Hitler’s words before he came to power, and took them as a serious threat to her family’s survival. We had her copy of Mein Kampf on a bookshelf in our home when I was a teenager. I was fortunate to be able to get to know her well before she passed away when I was 17. One thing she taught me was to always have a current passport, as you never know when you might need it.
My grandparents started planning to leave Germany in 1933. Grandfather Willie was already a U.S. citizen, having lived in Chicago as a young man, but was unable to get his family admitted in the 1930s, despite several attempts. Ella went door-to-door to relatives and Jewish friends and neighbors encouraging others to make similar plans. My grandparents were eventually able to arrange visas for their family to go to London. They waited until after my father’s bar mitsve in October, 1935 — which, incidentally, was followed shortly afterwards by his decision to become an atheist. A month earlier, the Nuremberg Laws had enshrined racial discrimination and made my father stateless for the next fourteen years. The synagogue of his bar mitsve was destroyed on Kristallnacht, Nazi Germany’s infamous night of pogroms in 1938, and was rebuilt only many years later.
A few days before their planned departure, my grandfather’s bank manager risked his own life to call and warn him that the Gestapo had been at the bank that day asking questions about him and would probably come to arrest him later that night. Fortunately, all the papers were already in order for their departure, and they were able to cross the Belgian border by train that same night and travel on to London, each carrying only a small knapsack.
Not everyone was able to follow my grandmother’s advice to escape from Germany. They were trapped by the great difficulties involved in getting visas and, for some, an inability to recognize the danger until it was too late. Others, like Anne Frank’s family, moved elsewhere in Europe only to be caught again when Hitler invaded their new home.
IN JULY 1938, at the Evian Conference, thirty-two nations failed to offer any refuge for the stateless German Jews. Similar attempts in the United States resulted in about one thousand children being admitted despite resistance from the State Department. An attempt to bring in twenty thousand other children failed to get Congressional approval in 1939.
In 1940, my grandfather and my father (who had just finished high school) were interned as enemy aliens by the UK government on the Isle of Man — this despite their having been recognized by the British government as anti-Nazis due to their persecution as Jews in Germany. After eighteen months, they were released. Realizing that the Fabian Group of British socialists was the only group in the UK to protest their ongoing incarceration, Alfred became a lifelong socialist.
Other young German Jews who were shipped to Canada and Australia from the UK were often imprisoned for the remainder of the war. Many also lost their lives to U-boat attacks in the Atlantic. Fortunately, when my father was also offered the option of transport to Canada, my grandfather decided he wanted Alfred to stay with him in the Isle of Man internment camp — which may well have saved my father’s life.
This xenophobic imprisonment of German Jews in the UK had parallels with how U.S. and Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry were sent to internment camps during the war. Losing most of their possessions and property due to the sudden nature of their imprisonment, they were for the most part not even allowed to reclaim their property rights after the war.
After his release from the Isle of Man, my father trained as an engineer, worked in a bomber plant, and helped man an anti-aircraft gun at night for the rest of the war. Post-war, he hid his German background for many years to avoid discrimination.
Alfred shared his mother Ella’s ability to look at the big picture, and was very focused on countering threats to human survival. He was actively involved in nuclear winter and global warming issues for many years. He and I attended a European Peace conference in Perugia, Italy in 1984. He supported Amnesty International’s work on civil rights and participated in anti-racism marches with his trade union in the UK in the 1980s, when neo-Nazis were targeting immigrants.
In 1979 I visited Regensburg with my father to see Willie’s birthplace. Our car was unfortunately towed, and we ended up waiting in line in the police station. While waiting, he and I talked about how the Jewish families in Regensburg may have been taken to that station after being arrested and before deportation. Then my dad noticed the wanted posters on the wall for the Baader-Meinhof group, some of whom I vaguely resembled because of my beard and long hair. He immediately told me to leave the building. There was a shadow hanging over such places that he could not escape.
My father was also very interested in how the local officials in the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey behaved under German occupation during the war. They had been told by London to accommodate the Nazi directives, and did so throughout. This collaboration went on in spite of the presence on the island of Jewish and Soviet slave laborers. Alfred had no doubt that the UK authorities would have collaborated in shipping Jews off to Auschwitz if Hitler had successfully invaded Great Britain. This was the case, after all, in nearly every occupied country in Europe, with the outstanding exception of Denmark.
YET THE HELP to survive that my father’s family received was also reproduced throughout Europe during the Holocaust. Many Jews who endured owed their lives to righteous gentiles who offered such help. They came from all backgrounds and nationalities: Polish, German, French, Spanish, Swedish, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Chinese, Bulgarian, Irish, British, Norwegian, Czech, Russian, Rumanian, Belgian, and the list goes on.
In his 1958 biography of Anne Frank, Ernst Schnabel pointed out that the real dividing line in those terrible times was not between nations or ideologies, but between those people who acted out of hatred and bigotry and those who acted out of a deep sense of humanity and compassion. In Anne Frank’s case, for example, there were both Dutch and Austrian men and women involved in keeping her family alive in hiding, and those who collaborated in her capture and death. A large number of Dutch resistance members who supported Jews in hiding were sent to concentration camps; many paid with their lives for their acts of conscience.
The role played by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in saving Hungarian Jews is well known, but there were others who used their positions in consulates and governments to help in rescue. Often against the directives of their own governments, they were able to save large numbers of Jews by bending the rules to issue visas and other papers that offered a chance to escape, and by intentionally undermining the Nazis anti-Jewish pogroms, at risk to their own lives. Among them were U.S. diplomat Hiram Bingham and journalist-activist Varian Fry, who together helped several thousand people in Vichy France escape to the U.S., in spite of active State Department opposition. Another was Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese consular official in France who saved thirty thousand Jews and other refugees. He was reduced to destitution as a result, and had to feed his own children in refugee soup kitchens in Lisbon for the rest of the war.
Frank Foley, the top British MI6 agent in Berlin, saved at least 10,000 Jews while working undercover as a British passport agent. Foley frequently risked his own life to rescue Jews from concentration camps and hide Jews in his home in Berlin. He actively collaborated with Wilfred Israel, a young German Jewish philanthropist, who was a key figure in organizing the Kindertransports and helped some 20,000 Jews escape to both Palestine and the United Kingdom. Israel was a close friend to Martin Buber, Chaim Weizmann, and Albert Einstein, who personally wrote to Israel’s mother with condolences after his plane was shot down in 1943.
German diplomat Georg Duckwitz in Denmark was a key figure in the rescue of 8,000 Danish Jews, and Werner Dankwort, who headed the German legation in Sweden, had a key role, with his wife Irma, in keeping Sweden and Swedish Jews safe from Nazi occupation while also smuggling Jewish children into Sweden. Chinese, Japanese and Bulgarian officials also saved tens of thousands, often destroying their own careers in the process.
[caption id=“attachment_36286” align=“aligncenter” width=“371”] Irena Sendler (1910-2008), during the war and in 2005. She worked with Zegota, the Polish Council to Aid Jews, and is thought to have helped rescue nearly 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. “I could have done more,” she later insisted. “This regret will follow me to my death.”[/caption]
Irena Sendler and other Polish Catholics took great risks to save several thousand children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Irena was tortured by the SS and then rescued by the Polish underground. She survived the war. Suzanne Spaak was not so fortunate. A wealthy young Parisian mother, she became part of a group that rescued 163 Jewish children from certain death in occupied Paris. Like Irena, she was able to successfully protect the names and hiding places of the children she had helped save, and they survived. But she paid with her life for her courageous actions after her group was denounced by a collaborator. Her execution came just thirteen days before the liberation of Paris.
Janusz Korczak, a Polish Jewish pediatrician, took care of 200 children in his orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto and perished at Treblinka alongside them. Refusing to take up offers to save his own life, yet knowing full well what would be their fate, Korczak could not imagine abandoning the children, and marched with them to the cattle trains, a sight that witnesses described as heart-wrenching. They carried the green flag of the orphanage, and adults and older kids held hands with the younger children and sang together as they marched.
Whatever myths are told to the contrary, Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter; many resisted both culturally and with arms, once they understood the reality of the situation they faced. Examples of armed resisters include the Bielski brothers, partisans in the forests of Belarus, who saved over 1,200 Jews while sabotaging Nazi operations; the young fighters of the Warsaw, Lodz, Vilna, and Bialystok ghettos; and scores of others in labor camps and even death camps who sabotaged or attacked their oppressors, usually when their own deaths seemed imminent and inescapable.
Roza Robota, Ella Gärtner, Estusia Wajcblum, Regina Safirsztajn, Marta Bindiger, Inge Frank, Genia Fischer, Ruzia Grunapfel, Hadassa Zlotnicka, and Asir-Godel Zilber all participated in organizing the explosive materials needed for making the homemade grenades that destroyed Crematorium 4 in Auschwitz on October 7, 1944. A simultaneous attempted escape was unsuccessful, and Roza, Ella, Estusia and Regina were all hanged. Roza was 23. According to eyewitness accounts, she and her comrades shouted in defiance before they died, “Hazak V’amatz” — “Be strong and have courage,” a slogan of Hashomer Hatzair.
Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, Arnost Rosin and Czesław Mordowicz were pairs of Jewish escapees from Auschwitz in 1944 who documented the extermination system in hope of halting the massacre of Hungarian Jews. As a direct result, international pressure upon the Hungarian government saved about 100,000 Jews from deportation, the single largest such event of the Holocaust.
Their courage humbles and amazes me, and compels me to send a message out to future generations: that every person has a name that deserves to be known, a face that deserves to be seen, a soul that deserves to be cherished, and a history that deserves to be remembered. None of us qualifies as “the other.” None of us deserves mistreatment or exploitation.
ON MY MOTHER RHODA’S SIDE of the family, there was no rescue for Zalman, a first cousin about her age, who was murdered at 12 in the Vilna Ghetto, along with his parents and grandmother, in 1941. However, there is a family connection to Jewish resistance in Vilna: The typesetting lead from our family’s Romm Printing Works, formerly used to print the Talmud, was melted down to make bullets for the Ghetto uprising. (Partisan poet Avrom Sutzkever turned this fact into a wonderful, stirring poem.) We do not know exactly what happened to my grandmother Fanny’s extended family in Belaya Tserkov in the Ukraine, only that the entire Jewish population there was taken into the woods and shot in late August, 1941. Fortunately, my grandmother and her sisters had left for London as teenagers years before.
When my parents visited the Soviet Union in 1981 as part of Alfred’s involvement in “Scientists against Nuclear Arms,” my mother met a distant cousin who had somehow survived the war in Vilna. During that trip, my mother spoke out strongly against the persecution of Natan Sharansky and other refuseniks, as well as the hostile treatment of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
I RECENTLY HELPED START a local Victoria, BC “post-Holocaust” group for people who are descendants of survivors and escapees. We value their determination to start a new life, which allowed us of the next generations to come together today. As our parents’ generation gets older and passes away, we hope to carry on the legacy of educating future generations by speaking on behalf of those who survived the Shoah and remembering the millions who did not.
It is our responsibility, too, to see that “never again” encompasses all of humanity, all working together to prevent further calamities by creating an awareness of the danger that arises when another person is seen as “the other.” Like many of those with parents who survived the Holocaust, I feel a burden of responsibility to do something of value with my own life. I wonder what I would have done had I been a young man in a ghetto. How should I behave today if I witness a community under racist attack? What would Korczak do?
I often find myself looking at the young children around me at Jewish gatherings and wondering how anyone could want to harm them. Any time children are endangered by war and violence or suffer discrimination and racism, be they Jewish, Muslim, First Nations, African-American, or Palestinian, I feel driven to protest.
Alfred and his sister Ruth both passed away in recent years. Between them, they now have over eighty descendants. I often think about how fortunate we were that my grandparents had the vision, determination and tenacity to escape from Germany, that the bank manager in Cologne made that phone call, and that Churchill and the RAF won the battle of Britain in 1940. Otherwise, it is very likely none of us would have been born.
Robert Oppenheimer is a psychologist now based in Victoria, Canada. He has lived in the UK, Israel, and the US, and has worked as a therapist, community organizer, peace activist, and on violence prevention in public schools, over a forty-year career. He is also a co-founder of a Canadian Jewish group — If Not Now, When? — that focuses on human rights and mutual coexistence issues in Israel and Palestine.