A ruthless dictator unleashes terror on his own citizens. Those fleeing elicit sympathy — but encounter obstacles to entering the United States. Americans learn of mass killings, but their moral revulsion doesn’t easily turn into policy or military intervention. One thing remains consistent: America doesn’t want refugees, at least not of this ilk; those people aren’t welcome here.
Historians like me are wary of the adage that “history repeats itself.” But comparisons and analogies help us learn from the past, showing us how context matters and conventional wisdom deceives. To most Americans in 1945, “those people” meant “European Jews.” Today, they are Syrians, Congolese, Hondurans.
No visitor to the new exhibition “Americans and the Holocaust” at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., will walk away with conventional wisdom about World War II intact. In the 1930s, anti-Semitism rested comfortably within American ideologies of race, but this context, not widely acknowledged at the time, has now virtually disappeared from mainstream collective memory. Instead, America’s pre-Pearl Harbor isolationism is viewed as a mistaken but understandable disinclination to intervene in another European war, further tempered by the suggestion that Americans had only slight knowledge of Nazi depravity.
Museum visitors enter the new exhibit’s galleries in 1933 and walk through 12 years without the benefit of 80 years of hindsight. They see what Americans knew about events in Nazi Germany as they learned it . Public opinion (as documented by polls) and U.S. policy are revealed within that context.
It is a sobering journey. Americans knew that something was dreadfully wrong in Germany. As early as 1932, and even more in 1933, popular magazines including Cosmopolitan, Time and Newsweek included major stories on the persecution of Jews in Germany and on Nazi governance. Hitler and Goebbels appeared on covers of Time in 1933, with Goebbels accompanied by a clear message: “Say it in your dreams — THE JEWS ARE TO BLAME.”
An imaginative crowdsourcing effort carried out by the museum uncovered no fewer than 15,000 U.S. newspaper articles documenting persecution published between 1933 and 1945. Newsreels told the same story.
Commentators who have the benefit of hindsight have criticized President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his refusal to intervene. In 1933, the U.S. ambassador to Germany recorded in his diary Roosevelt’s instructions: “The German authorities are treating the Jews shamefully and the Jews in this country are greatly excited. But this is also not a governmental affair.”
It comes across as cold-hearted in retrospect, but Roosevelt understood his fellow Americans; they would not march to war — or even expend substantial public resources — to save Jews.
If this feels in any way familiar, consider what comes next. Even when 94% of polled Americans claimed to “disapprove of the Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany,” 71% of them opposed permitting any more than a trickle of German Jews to enter the United States — two weeks after Kristallnacht. Two-thirds of Americans opposed admitting refugee children in 1939.
America kept its doors closed to the people for whom they professed sympathy. This sentiment, shaped by racism, was nothing new, nor was it confined to immigrants. One need only cross the National Mall to the National Museum of African American History and Culture to be reminded that in the 1850s white Northerners were as repulsed by the suggestion that emancipation would result in black migration northward as they were by the cruelty of slavery.
Anti-Semitism would remain central to American foreign policy even as the nation stared down Nazi Germany. The United States entered the war in Europe, of course, but Roosevelt was shrewd enough to cast the move as fighting fascism on behalf of democracy. The war was about preserving American values, not saving European Jews.
At war’s end, Americans encountered graphic, overwhelming evidence of what they had been hearing about regularly since the first news reports about the death camps in 1942. Films, photographs, articles and official documents laid out the horrific details of ghettos, concentration camps and gas chambers. Aside from the Jewish media, however, few of these accounts named the victims as Jews.
Terrible people those Nazis, those fascists. The survivors of their terror, however, the “displaced persons,” still could not be trusted to be our neighbors even if there was an orderly bureaucracy of refugee screening, documented here by a wall of letters and official forms.
The ring of familiarity impels us to ask chilling questions about our current moment.
James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Assn.
On July 26, 1933, a group of Nazis held their first public rally in Los Angeles. As Jewish groups in the city debated how they should respond to Adolf Hitler’s persecution of Jews in Europe, L.A.’s Nazis, many of them German emigres, gathered at a biergarten downtown, wearing brown shirts and red, white and black armbands with swastikas.
The Nazis belonged to a growing movement of white supremacists in L.A. that included many American brothers in hate: the Ku Klux Klan, a group of Hitler supporters known as the Silver Shirts, and a dozen like-minded organizations with vaguely patriotic names such as the American Nationalist Party, the Christian American Guard, and the National Protective Order of Gentiles.
Some weeks ago, white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Their predecessors were even less subtle: They called for “death to Jews.”
Unwilling to wait and see if any of them would act on their threats, Leon Lewis, a Jewish lawyer and World War I veteran who had helped found the Anti-Defamation League, decided to investigate the anti-Semitic hate groups. In August 1933, mere weeks after the rally, Lewis recruited four fellow World War I veterans, plus their wives, to go undercover and join every Nazi and fascist group in the city.
“Leon Lewis understood that hate knows no national boundaries.”
Lewis’s recruits did not know there would be another world war. And they certainly did not know a Holocaust would occur in Europe.
But once they had infiltrated the groups, they understood that they had to take the Nazi threat seriously. They repeatedly heard fellow Americans talk candidly about wanting to overthrow the government and kill every Jewish man, woman and child.
Lewis’s operatives were all Christian, save for one Jew. They regarded their mission as an American one. Their intention was to gather sufficient evidence of illegal activities by the groups, then turn it over to the appropriate government agencies, after which Lewis planned to return to practicing law. What Lewis did not anticipate is that local authorities would prove indifferent to — or supportive of — the Nazis and fascists.
Within weeks of going undercover, Lewis’s network of spies discovered a plot to wrest control of armories in San Francisco, L.A. and San Diego — part of a larger plan to take over local governments and carry out a mass execution of Jews. Lewis immediately informed L.A. Police Chief James Edgar “Two-Gun” Davis of the Nazi scheme to seize weapons and, as Lewis warned in a memo later, to “foster a fascist form of government in the United States.”
Lewis was shocked when Davis interrupted him to defend Hitler. The police chief, he noted in the memo, told him: “Germans could not compete economically with the Jews in Germany and had been forced to take the action they did.” The greatest danger the city faced, Davis insisted, was not from Nazis but from communists living in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights. As far as Davis was concerned, every communist was a Jew and every Jew a communist.
Lewis got a similar response from the Sheriff’s Department and local FBI agents, many of whom were sympathetic to the Nazis and fascists. He decided he had to continue the operation, and his spies agreed.
From the summer of 1933 until 1945, while many Americans closed their eyes to the hate growing around them, Lewis’s spies and informants, who numbered close to two dozen at the height of operations, risked their lives to stop Hitler’s minions and alert citizens to the danger these groups posed.
They uncovered a series of Nazi plots. There was a plan to murder 24 Hollywood actors and power figures, including Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Charlie Chaplin and James Cagney. There was a plan to drive through Boyle Heights and machine-gun as many Jewish residents as possible. There were plans for fumigating the homes of Jewish families with cyanide, and for blowing up military installations and seizing munitions from National Guard armories on the day Nazis intended to launch their American putsch.
These plans for murder and sabotage failed because Lewis’s operatives penetrated the inner circles of the hate groups and foiled them. Charles Slocombe, Lewis’s ace spy, thwarted two of the most deadly plots to kill Hollywood figures, one of them by turning Nazis and fascists against one another and raising fears that they might be arrested for murder due to leaks inside the German American Bund and Silver Shirts. Slocombe stopped a second mass murder plot by convincing three of the plotters that the mastermind behind the plan, the British fascist Leopold McLaglan, was about to betray them.
Knowing their inner circles had been infiltrated, but not by whom, and unwilling to risk prison, the groups postponed their plans. Permanently.
Without ever firing a gun, Lewis and his spies managed to defeat a variety of enemies. Only after Congress declared war on Germany did government authorities finally relieve Lewis — “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles,” as Nazis called him — of the burden of tracking down these dangerous elements. Nevertheless, he and his operatives continued to monitor the groups throughout the war years.
Leon Lewis understood that hate knows no national boundaries. Foreign-born Nazis and American-born Silver Shirts and Klansmen gladly joined together in targeting Jews and communists. And few Americans, either inside or outside the government, tried to stop them in those early years.
He and his network of spies understood the importance of vigilance. They refused to allow their city and country to be threatened by hate. With their actions they show us that when a democratic government fails to stop extremists bent on violence, citizens must protect one another, no matter their race or religion.
Steven J. Ross is a professor of history at USC and the author of “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America.”
Santa Monica’s City Garage and the L.A. Polish Consulate differ over new work.
By David Ng / LATimes.com
A new Holocaust-themed play by a Polish dramatist has become a source of friction between the Polish consulate in Los Angeles and the experimental Santa Monica theater company that is producing the unconventional stage piece.
City Garage in Santa Monica said the consulate withdrew support for the production because of the drama’s controversial content and fears about how officials in Poland’s new right-wing government might react.
The consulate has denied the accusations, saying that it never promised to support the production financially and that its lack of funding is caused by budgetary limitations, not the political situation in Poland.
“Right Left With Heels,” by Sebastian Majewski, is a surrealistic play that follows a pair of high-heel shoes that once belonged to Magda Goebbels, the wife of Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels.
In the play, the shoes, made from the skin of Jewish victims at Auschwitz, are put on trial at Nuremberg. They later bear witness to major events of postwar Polish history.
City Garage is scheduled to open the play July 8 at its venue at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. In recent weeks, the company corresponded by email with Ignacy Zarski, the Polish consulate’s cultural attaché, to discuss the possibility of supporting various aspects of the production.
“They promised their support,” said Charles Duncombe, producing director of City Garage. He said the pledge included supporting an opening-night reception as well as outreach and promotional activities.
Duncombe said that Zarski later met in person with him and his wife, company artistic director Frédérique Michel, following a performance earlier this year of City Garage’s “Othello/Desdemona.” He said Zarski explained that the consulate was backing out because of concerns about how the new government in Warsaw would react and because of the content of the play.
Zarski said in an email to The Times: “We are not withdrawing our financial support, [because] of never initially promising to support this particular production.” He added that the decision “has nothing to do with [the] political situation in Poland. It is merely the result of a limited budget,” and that the consulate is still considering using its email list and social media contacts to promote the event.
In October, Poland’s right-leaning Law and Justice party won the country’s parliamentary elections with a majority victory. The party is known for its conservative views on cultural and social issues, as well as its skeptical view of the European Union.
Majewski, the playwright, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
City Garage said that funding for “Right Left With Heels” is coming in part from a Polish couple in Southern California. “They responded when one of our contacts in Poland told them about the consulate pulling out,” Duncombe said.
The company also has launched a Kickstarter campaign. City Garage said it had applied some months ago to the city of Santa Monica for a grant but hasn’t heard the results of its application.
City Garage was founded in 1987 by Duncombe and Michel. It has won local awards for its productions, which often are avant-garde.
“In my job, I’m asking people for money all the time,” Duncombe said. “I’m used to being turned down. I would never have disrupted a relationship with a valued funding partner had it been simply that they just didn’t have enough available to help. Frédérique [and] I both saw this as an issue of artistic free expression.”
Western media missed a giant step forward in the Middle East: The Kurds held the first Holocaust Remembrance Day (May 5, 2016) in the history of Iraq and Kurdistan. It is a remarkable act when you consider the huge degree of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism in the region — and the Kurds did it without getting anything in return.
The Kurdish Ministry of Religion has a Jewish representative who led the event in Erbil, the capitol of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq. A garden was used to display photos of the persecution that Jews faced. It included the showing of a short film, the lowering of the Kurdish flag to half-staff, the lighting of six candles to represent each million of Jewish victims, and prayers.
The leader of the Department for Religious Coexistence, Mariwan Naqshbandi, said the Kurds feel they have a “duty to support the Jewish religion. When you look at the towns as well as the villages in Kurdistan, you see many Jewish families have survived.”
The official set the reopening of a temple in Iraqi Kurdistan as an eventual objective. The Jewish representative from the Ministry of Religion said they’d start with a Jewish cultural center to educate the population about the religion and that a temple would come at a time when it is safe to do so.
“The first-ever Holocaust Remembrance Day observance in Kurdistan is a natural sequel to the first-ever remembrance of the Jews expelled from Iraq, which occurred on November 30 (2015) and garnered an overwhelming and unanimous amount of support from community, party, and religious leaders in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG),” said Zach Huff, an advisor to the KRG’s Ministry of Religion’s Jewish Affairs Directorate.
The Kurds are inviting to come to northern Iraq the 300,000 Kurdish Jews in the world, the majority of whom currently live in Israel.
To fully appreciate the significance of this step, it must be understood how Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism are breathtakingly high in the world, especially the Muslim world.
A 2014 survey found that 63% of people the Middle East and North Africa either believe the Holocaust is a myth or is greatly exaggerated. Only 8% have heard of the Holocaust and believe in its historicity. And it’s getting worse: It found that young people are less aware of the Holocaust.
It’s depressing to think about: In today’s globalized age, access to the undeniable historical record of the Holocaust is only a click away. The truth is more accessible than ever, but we see the young becoming more ignorant about the dangerous lies pushed by Islamists and other anti-Semites.
By plowing against this negative trend, the Kurds are gardeners of peace. They are planting seeds that will grow truth and tolerance in a region desperately in need of it.
By Andrew Silow-Carroll / JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency)
NEW YORK (JTA) — In The Last Laugh, a new documentary about humor and the Holocaust (you read that right), the comedian Judy Gold tells this joke: If the Nazis forced her to stand naked on a line with other women, would she hold her stomach in?
How you, or anybody, feels about a joke like that is the point of the documentary, which includes interviews with a slew of mostly Jewish comedians and a cinema verite portrait of an elderly Los Angeles-area survivor, Renee Firestone, who seems to have lived through the Holocaust with her sense of humor largely intact.
The Last Laugh, which was a feature documentary at this month’s Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan, is a hybrid in other ways as well. Director Ferne Pearlstein wanted to explore not only the limits of humor and free speech today, but how Shoah victims and survivors used humor as a salve, defense mechanism, and weapon despite their powerlessness.
At a Nevada survivors’ convention filmed in the incongruous setting of The Venetian resort in Las Vegas, one survivor recalls how his fellow concentration camp inmates would mock the SS guards’ latest orders. Contemporary footage shot at the Theresienstadt concentration camp shows inmates performing comic skits and a children’s opera with apparent gusto. We now know that the Nazis allowed these theatricals for their own propaganda purposes, and that many of the performers were subsequently murdered at Auschwitz. But survivors tell of the relief, however temporary, provided by the performances.
“You have to remember, these were people who were living their lives,” Pearlstein, who co-wrote the film with her husband, Robert Edwards, said in an interview last week. “They didn’t think, ‘I am going to die.’ They still might have made a joke because they were living their lives.”
In some ways, the uses to which survivors put humor gave permission to the comedians, most of them Jews, who spun Holocaust-related jokes even in its immediate aftermath. Mel Brooks, a frequent talking head in the film, reminisces about his days at the Borscht Belt hotels in New York’s Catskill Mountains soon after the war had ended.
“I got a lot of laughs with Hitler,” he says, calling it his revenge on the Nazis. He’d go on to make the 1968 movie The Producers, which stunned audiences with its chorus-line Nazis and prancing Hitler. The shock had largely warn off by the time The Producers had become a hit Broadway musical in 2001, perhaps proving Steve Allen’s famed formula, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”
Yet The Producers also illustrates a key point in the film: Making fun of the Nazis is OK, making fun of the Holocaust not so much. Actor Robert Clary, the French-born Buchenwald survivor who played Corporal LeBeau in the 1960s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, is asked how he could have appeared in a comedy set in the kind of camp where 12 of his immediate family members were murdered. He points out that the show was set in a POW camp, not a concentration camp.
But though Brooks insists “I don’t give a s–t what’s in good taste,” even he has his limits. The film delves into the controversy that brewed after the late Joan Rivers said of the supermodel Heidi Klum, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” Abe Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League and himself a child survivor, complains in an interview that Rivers’s joke trivializes the Holocaust. Even Brooks says of the joke, “I can’t go there.”
But as tasteless as it may be, the Rivers joke ridiculed Germans, not their Jewish victims – all but saying that 70 years after the Holocaust, the German people can’t escape their guilt or culpability.
In fact, few of the jokes in The Last Laugh are as tasteless or transgressive as some commentators in the film suggest. The commentators include director Rob Reiner, comic Gilbert Gottfreid, comedienne Lisa Lampanelli, and sitcom director Larry Charles. Larry David’s “Survivor” episode from Curb Your Enthusiasm, the “Soup Nazi” gag from Seinfeld, a Louis C.K. bit about auditions for Schindler’s List, or Ricky Gervais’s Anne Frank jokes — none carries the shock of a single utterance of, say, the “N-word.”
Even Gold’s joke, which she tells almost apologetically, is not a joke about Holocaust victims but her own vanity.
Of all the comics heard in The Last Laugh, only Sarah Silverman seems to come close to violating taboos. In a bit from her 2005 concert film Jesus is Magic, Silverman recounts how her “Jewy” niece referred to the “60 million” who died in the Holocaust. When Silverman says the correct number is 6 million, the niece asks what the difference is.
“Because 60 million would be unforgivable, young lady,” Silverman replies.
To appreciate Silverman’s joke, you have to be familiar with her faux naive persona – the bigot too self-involved to realize she is a bigot. Renee Firestone, the survivor, is clearly not on her wavelength. In one scene she is shown watching Silverman on YouTube.
“I don’t think this is funny,” she says.
Pearlstein recalls the moment as one of the most uncomfortable during their weeks of filming.
“Renee is so resilient,” the director says. “She uses her sense of humor to get through things, but she doesn’t think everything is funny. That makes her a perfect guide for that reason.”
Including Firestone’s story, Pearlstein says, “Let us remember what we’re laughing at.”
But The Last Laugh doesn’t bestow or withhold permission as to what an audience should and shouldn’t find funny. If Foxman, the arbiter of anti-Semitism, comes across as a bit of a killjoy in the documentary, that’s because it is at heart a comedian’s movie, and Holocaust humor is understood on their terms. Comedians have one obligation and one obligation only, they insist: to make people laugh.
The last word, spoken early in the film, belongs to Gold, who declares, “It’s all about the funny.”
(The death of David Stoliar, in 2014, received little attention outside Oregon, where he lived. The New York Times, which had prepared an obituary, only learned of his death earlier this year.)
For more than a half-century, David Stoliar remained a silent witness to the worst civilian maritime disaster of World War II, the only survivor among nearly 800 Jews fleeing the Holocaust in Romania aboard a refugee ship that was barred from Palestine, interned by Turkey for months, set adrift without power and torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in the Black Sea in 1942.
The sinking of the overloaded ship, a 150-foot steamer called the Struma, was a calamity compounded by Britain’s refusal to admit the refugees into Palestine and by Turkey’s 71-day quarantine, ending with the vessel being towed out to sea. The coup de grâce was fired by the submarine as the ship lay dead in the water seven miles offshore.
The doomed voyage of the Struma might have been a forgotten footnote to Holocaust history had it not been for Mr. Stoliar’s survival and his willingness years later to attest to the indifference and brutal decisions that put Palestine out of reach and led to the deaths of hundreds at the hands of nominal allies against Hitler.
Mr. Stoliar died on May 1, 2014, at his home in Bend, Ore., at the age of 91, his wife, Marda, said. News of his death was not widely reported, although a short item appeared in The Oregonian. The loss of the Struma, and Mr. Stoliar’s survival, were largely unknown until the turn of the century, when he spoke to a New York Times reporter.
The war in Europe had been underway for two years and Jews in Romania, their numbers swollen by refugees from Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary, were perishing under the nation’s fascist Iron Guard. Thousands hoped for passage out of Constanza, Romania’s port on the Black Sea, and through the Bosporus to Palestine. Their desperation was ripe for exploitation.
On Dec. 11, 1941, the Struma left Constanza with more than 790 Romanian, Bulgarian and Russian Jews — the number is still disputed — crammed into a squalid, leaky former cattle boat with bunks stacked 10 high, little food or fresh water, no kitchen and only eight toilets. There were no life preservers and just two small lifeboats. The crew of 10 were mostly Bulgarians.
Passengers paid up to $1,000 each, gouged by a charlatan who lied about the ship’s seaworthiness and visas, which were never provided. Mr. Stoliar’s father, a textile manufacturer, paid his passage. When the engine failed a few miles out, the captain of a passing tug repaired it in exchange for the passengers’ wedding rings, their last valuables.
Three days later, as the Struma limped toward Turkey, the engines failed again. Turkish tugs towed it into the Bosporus, the divide of Europe and Asia. Neutral Turkey, whose leaders feared angering either Britain or Germany, interned the Struma offshore while its fate was considered. Istanbul’s Jews donated food, but conditions onboard deteriorated as talks dragged on.
Britain, which had control of Palestine, limited Jewish immigration to avoid antagonizing the Arabs, and refused to let the passengers continue without visas. Ten were allowed to disembark in Istanbul: a woman who suffered a miscarriage, and nine others helped by an American oil executive, the Jewish Agency in Palestine and a Turkish Jew who aided refugees.
Finally, the Turks cut the Struma’s anchor, towed the ship back into the Black Sea and set it adrift. It was spotted the next day by a Soviet sub, identified years later as SC-213. Its commander had standing orders from Stalin to sink all neutral ships in the Black Sea to prevent supplies from reaching Germany.
Despite the target’s benign profile, a torpedo was fired at it dawn on Feb. 24, 1942. In a gray overcast, it struck amidships with an explosion that tore the Struma apart.
Most of the passengers and crew went down with the groaning ship in 250 feet of water. But scores more, including Mr. Stoliar, 19, who had been asleep in a deckhouse, were hurled into the sea with a rain of debris, mostly planking from the shattered deck.
After years of silence, Mr. Stoliar told the story in 2000 in an interview with Douglas Frantz, then a reporter for The Times.
“I was one of the lucky ones who was blown up into the air, and I fell into the sea,” Mr. Stoliar said. “When I came to the surface, there was nothing except a tremendous amount of debris and many, many people swimming in the water. It was very, very cold, and we had a hard time moving our feet and our hands.”
Mr. Frantz and Catherine Collins later recounted the sinking in a 2003 book, Death on the Black Sea. Mr. Stoliar told them he saw people screaming and thrashing in waves strewn with kindling. Many were clinging to a partly submerged section of the wooden deck, with cables and twisted metal from the ship’s railing attached to it.
He swam to the group, still clad in his heavy leather jacket, grabbed the railing and looked about at the terrified faces, shivering and sobbing in the cold. There was nothing to do but hang on. Hours passed and the cries gradually faded as people succumbed to hypothermia and exhaustion. Some floated off, others slipped into the deep.
One man lost his grip, grabbed Mr. Stoliar by the collar and dragged him under. But Mr. Stoliar broke free and regained his hold as the man sank out of sight. Soon birds appeared, flying over the corpses. As the dead drifted away, the decking grew lighter and rose in the water. Mr. Stoliar, a strong youth, dragged himself on top.
In the afternoon, the Struma’s first mate, Lazar Ivanof Dikof, floated by on a door. Mr. Stoliar pulled him onto his raft of wreckage. He told Mr. Stoliar of seeing the torpedo’s approach. In the numbing cold, they were surrounded by floating bodies. No one else appeared to be alive as night fell, and in the morning Mr. Dikof, too, was dead.
Alone now, Mr. Stoliar thought of giving up. He took out a jackknife to slit his wrists, but his fingers were too numb to open the blade. A short while later, about 24 hours after the Struma had sunk, a large ship appeared in the distance. He waved frantically, and saw figures on deck waving back.
Soon a rowboat approached. He was pulled aboard, wrapped in blankets and taken to a Turkish fishing village. His hands and feet were frostbitten. He was hospitalized in Istanbul, then jailed for six weeks, apparently to keep him from the news media. Referring to the Turks, he recalled, “I was the only witness to their inhumanity, really, from the beginning to the end.”
David Stoliar was born in Kishinev, Romania, on Oct. 31, 1922, the son of Jacob Stoliar, a Jewish textile manufacturer in Bucharest. His parents were divorced when he was 10, and he lived with his mother in Paris for several years.
In 1936, he returned to Bucharest and finished high school. He wanted to become an engineer, but the war intervened. He was taken for forced labor, digging trenches. As brutality against Jews spread, his father tried to save him by arranging his passage aboard the Struma.
For months, the ship’s sinking became a rallying cry for Jews around the world. It generated protests, a general strike in Palestine, death threats against British officials, and responses by Turkey and Britain that voiced regrets but denied responsibility.
Mr. Stoliar reached Palestine eventually and joined the British Army’s Jewish Brigade in 1943, serving in Egypt and Libya. He also fought with the Israeli Army in the 1948 war of independence. He became an oil executive in the early 1950s and lived in Japan for 18 years.
In 1945 he married Adria Nacmias. They had one son, Ronnie. His wife died in 1961. In 1968, he married Marda Emslie. Besides his wife, he was survived by his son and a granddaughter.
Mr. Stoliar moved to Oregon in 1971 and later retired. For decades he said nothing about the Struma, whose sinking was largely forgotten, noted mainly in scholarly books. But interest was revived in 2000, when Greg Buxton, a Briton whose grandparents had died onboard, organized a successful search for the vessel, which they photographed.
Mr. Stoliar spoke to newspapers and magazines and appeared in a 2001 documentary, The Struma, by the Canadian director Simcha Jacobovici. “For 58 years, no one asked me about the Struma,” he said, “and I felt that no one cared. I carried the memories in my head as if it happened yesterday.”
A documentary film (with English subtitles) of the Struma‘s last voyage can been viewed here.
Directed by Lyudmil Kolev (with English subtitles)
In December 1941, Struma, a Bulgarian ship, tried to evacuate Jewish refugees to Palestine, at that time under British control. On February 24, 1942, the ship was sunk in the Black Sea by a torpedo from Soviet submarine Shch-213. All 790 (the number varies) passengers (103 of them children) were killed — except for one. David Stoliar’s story can be read here.
On this night 77 years ago, Germans stood by as Jewish businesses and synagogues were burned, tens of thousands of Jews were arrested, and nearly a hundred were killed. Shouldn’t doing nothing about it be criminal?
By Amos N. Guiora /TabletMag.com
I am child of the Holocaust. Both of my parents are Holocaust survivors. This essay seeks to answer three questions essential to my understanding of the Holocaust, the bystander, and my understanding of duty owed to another individual.
Those questions are: What do we learn from the Holocaust in general, in particular from Kristallnacht, regarding the bystander? What is the responsibility of the individual in the face of unmitigated racism and hatred? What is the most appropriate application of the painful lessons that can be learned from the tragic events of November 9-10, 1938?
On November 7, 1938, a Jewish youth named Herschel Grynszpan shot the German diplomat Ernst Vom Rath in Paris. Grynszpan’s family, Polish Jews living in Germany, were ordered to be expelled by the Nazi regime and transferred to refugee camps whose conditions were dire. Vom Rath died of his wounds on Nov. 9; word reached Hitler shortly thereafter while he attended a dinner commemorating the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. Upon hearing the news, Hitler left the dinner; speaking on his behalf Goebbels, in essence, called for a pogrom directed against Jews. The expression “spontaneously planned” has been used by historians to describe the unfolding of the events of the next two days.
Within hours of Goebbels’s words, more than 1,000 synagogues were set on fire or destroyed; in 24 hours, 91 Jews were killed, and over 30,000 Jewish men aged 16 to 60 were sent to concentration camps where they were tormented and tortured for a number of months. More than 1,000 of those arrested met their deaths in the camps. Rampant looting and extreme violence in a hateful atmosphere marked Kristallnacht, along with arrests, destruction of physical property, physical abuse, and humiliation in more than 1,000 cities, towns, and villages in Germany and Austria.
According to the London Times, “No Foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings … assaults on defenceless and innocent people which disgraced that country yesterday.” As “hundreds of thousands danced in wild frenzy while millions watched approvingly,” Church leaders remained similarly silent.
According to Professor Frank Bajohr:
the significance of the November Pogrom as a radicalising factor cannot be doubted. The pogroms that were stage-managed after the murder of Ernst vom Rath … marked both the highpoint and the end of mob anti-Semitism. … They destroyed the basis of the economic livelihood of the Jews within a few months.
Over the past few years, my scholarship has focused on extremism and intolerance, particularly the limits of tolerating intolerance. I have become increasingly focused on the bystander because of a conviction that standing by, passively, facilitates extremism.
Over the past few years my scholarship has focused on extremism and intolerance, particularly the limits of tolerating intolerance. I have become increasingly focused on the bystander because of a conviction that standing by, passively, facilitates extremism.
The bystander is an individual who observes another in clear distress but is not the direct cause of the harm. A culpable bystander is one who has the ability to mitigate the harm but chooses not to. Needless to say, the age and ability of the actor must be taken into consideration.
In the course of my lifetime, I have—like many others—been faced with the dilemma of whether to involve myself when others are in need of assistance. Similar to others, I have made right and wrong decisions; the former are not worthy of discussion, the latter weigh on my conscience.
Once, I chose not to assist a homeless adult who was the subject of ugly bullying by a college student; my inaction was inexcusable for I stood but two feet from the incident and could have either prevented it, or at least mitigated its consequences. On a second occasion, I was present at a restaurant when an individual, at the next table, was engaged in an ugly anti-Semitic diatribe. I chose to ignore it.
Regardless of the causes of the bystander’s failure to act, the consequences of inaction can be tragic. The pages of history are filled with painful examples. Extremism benefits from the decision by many to look the other way. Passivity is a human reaction I find unfathomable and unacceptable. I ask three questions: What duty is owed? To whom is a duty owed? And, is a duty owed to one identified as the “enemy”?
Yet the crux of the dilemma I seek to address, and hopefully resolve, is not a personal or moral question but rather the nature of an individual’s legal obligation when another individual is in distress, vulnerable, and in harm’s way. The Holocaust in general and events in particular — including Kristallnacht, the Death Marches [the forcible movements of prisoners in Nazi Germany], deportations, and thousands of concentration camps, many located in the midst of civilian populations — significantly shape my conviction that creation of a legal standard regarding the bystander is essential.
History shows that relying on both a moral compass and impetus with respect to the “right thing to do” is insufficient. The Righteous Among the Nations movingly honored at Yad Vashem offer proof of the willingness of individuals to act bravely in risking life and limb. However, the thousands who sought to aid their fellow man pale in comparison to the millions who turned their backs in the face of both potential and clear harm to others. It is for that reason that I propose imposind a legal duty to act; relying on moral imperative is simply insufficient.
From the two incidents above, I have learned to be understanding of non-action: After all, if I, who fully understand the consequences of non-involvement, can choose not to act then I must, at least, be sympathetic to others who similarly decide on a “safe course.” However, choosing a “safe course” cannot justify failure to act; history has, unequivocally, repeatedly shown this.
In other words, in accordance with the legal standard I am proposing, the failure to intervene to protect an innocent homeless individual would be deemed a crime, subject to police investigation and prosecutorial discretion. Regarding the anti-Semitism at the restaurant? Ugly, yes, but as it did not morph into incitement, or violence, the speech was protected. In the context of the legal architecture I propose, my silence was not a crime. Should I have said something? As the “should” question suggests the “right thing to do” discussion, each individual can ascertain what is the ethical course of action.
These incidents reflect the spectrum of human interaction and conduct. They pose significant dilemmas for the bystander; proposing culpability predicated on a legal obligation seeks to minimize the gray zone regarding when law mandates action. In other words, duty to care needs to be a legal obligation.
It is imperative to establish legal standards because relying on human nature has proven insufficient. Kristallnacht highlights that human nature is not to save the vulnerable but rather to look the other way or join the mob.
I am convinced that the articulation and implementation of a legal duty to act are essential, particularly in this contemporary age marked by extremism, violence, and hatred. To ignore that reality is to, conceivably, set the stage for, yet again, unimaginable violence against those who are helpless.
In focusing on Kristallnacht, I hope to convince of the need to create legal architecture whereby the duty to care is a legal obligation.
Kristallnacht must be viewed as the bitter prelude to the Holocaust. In the words of Herman Goering, “I would not want to be a Jew in Germany.”
According to the historian Martin Gilbert, “Kristallnacht was the culmination of more than five years and nine months of systematic discrimination and persecution.” Jews who made up less than 1 percent of Germany’s pre-WWII population were singled out by the Nazi regime as the “enemy.”
The exclusion of Jews was largely met by passivity from the population at large whereas former colleagues and neighbors took advantage of the situation to their benefit. Professor Raul Hilberg refers to such individuals as beneficiaries, distinct from bystanders.
It is a matter of debate among historians whether the Jewish population fully appreciated the significance regarding the change in their circumstances; it is clear that the overwhelming majority did not recognize the horrific fate that awaited them. That, however, does not excuse the complicity of the bystander.
Gilbert tells us that during those two days—November 9 and 10, 1938—“hundreds of thousands danced in wild frenzy while millions watched approvingly.” In other words, there were “eyewitnesses in every corner of the Reich” as ordinary German citizens either directly participated in or passively condoned a horrific orgy of violence against Jews, their property, and their synagogues. The condoning, much less participating in unrestrained violence against German Jews by non-Jewish Germans is the essence of tolerating intolerance; it is an absolute violation of the social compact and vividly highlights the extraordinary danger to the vulnerable in the face of bystander passivity.
Kristallnacht did not occur in a vacuum. The Nazi regime’s relentless emphasis on racial policy focusing on the improvement of race and racial hygiene targeting habitual criminals, the handicapped, homosexuals, and gypsies—much less Jews—was implemented through a variety of means including sterilization and eugenics. Hitler’s demonization of the Jews resulted in their delegitimization, if not dehumanization, as they were clearly, consistently, and loudly defined as “enemies of the German state.”
The Nazification of society required systematic synchronization of all institutions in accordance with Nazi ideology demanding absolute loyalty to the regime and the Fuhrer. The norm, as articulated—primarily by Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Goebbels, and Heydrich—was that Jews endangered “the very survival of Germany and of the Aryan world.” Erasing the shame of the Treaty of Versailles was of paramount importance if not unadulterated obsession.
Hitler’s anti-Semitism was intoxicating, hysterical, and remarkably effective; his speeches were electric, charismatic, and unsophisticated. The themes were consistent: Jews were to be blamed for Germany’s defeat in WWI, for Germany’s failed experiment with democracy in the aftermath of WWI, and for Germany’s failed economy. The concepts reflected basic principles of fascism, nationalism, and racism; Hitler would return Germany to its glorious roots.
The regime benefited from the passivity of the Church. As Professor Saul Friedlander [quoting German historian Klaus Scholder] writes: “During the decisive days … no bishop, no church dignitary, no synod made any open declaration against the persecution of the Jews in Germany.” In the words of Berlin Protestant Bishop Otto Dibelius in a confidential Easter missive to provincial pastors: “One cannot ignore that Jewry has played a leading role in all the destructive manifestations of modern civilization.”
Jews were, literally and figuratively, systematically squeezed out of the social contract. Their unmitigated vulnerability manifests the consequences of society identifying a particular group as the “other” with no duty owed to mitigate the inevitable disaster that awaited members of the group who were, it must be recalled, German citizens.
The measures directly contributed to the aforementioned effort to exclude Jews from the social fabric and reflected the regime’s brutality and harshness. The population’s general passivity directly contributed to the successful implementation of the measures below. Re-articulated: The majority of Germans “acquiesced”; the Churches “kept their distance”; and the laws suggest that arbitrary terror was replaced by a “permanent framework of discrimination.”
On March 5, 1933, the Nazis obtained a majority in the Reichstag resulting from a coalition formed with the German National People’s Party. Shortly thereafter, the first concentration camp was established when Himmler officially inaugurated Dachau on March 20, 1938.
On April 1, 1933, a boycott of Jewish shops was ordered by the regime; the boycott largely failed because of the population’s passivity that, according to Friedlander, did not “show hostility to the ‘enemies of the people’ party agitators had expected.” The boycott was proceeded by enactment of the Enabling Act, which granted full legislative and executive powers to the chancellor; in its immediate wake the SA [Sturm Abteilung, ‘stormtroopers’] forcibly closed shops and attacked and killed Jews.
On April 7, 1933, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service 2 was passed; according to Paragraph 3:
Civilian servants of non-Aryan origin are to retire … anyone descended from non-Aryan, particularly Jewish, parents or grandparents. It suffices if one parent or grandparents is non-Aryan.
On April 11, 1933, Jewish attorneys were excluded from the Bar; on April 25, 1933, the Law Against the Overcrowding of German Schools and Universities was passed, which limited enrollment of new Jewish students to 1.5 percent of new applicants with the overall number of Jewish students not to exceed 5 percent. In September 1933 Jews were forbidden to own farms and to engage in agriculture, and in October 1933 Jews were barred from belonging to journalist associations and from positions of newspaper editor.
In September 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were announced at the annual party rally in Nuremberg. The “laws excluded German Jews from Reich citizenship and prohibited them from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of ‘German or related blood.’ Ancillary ordinances to the laws disenfranchised Jews and deprived them of most political rights.” The Nuremberg Laws established fundamental distinctions between citizens of the Third Reich who were entitled to full political and civil rights and subjects who were deprived of those rights.
In the aftermath of Kristallnacht legislation, the “First Decree on the Exclusion of Jews from German Economic Life” was enacted that banned Jews from all remaining occupations and called for dismissing those still employed without any compensation. This measure was intended to complete the process of Aryanization.
By 1939, “remaining Jews in Germany had been completely marginalized, isolated and deprived of their main means of earning a living”. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, Hitler began discussing the physical annihilation of Jews; it is for that reason that Kristallnacht is appropriately termed the bitter prelude to the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism, as traditionally understood, was about to be replaced by the ideology of the pogrom as manifested on November 9-10, 1938.
The Holocaust magnifies and painfully illustrates the price of passivity. Bystanders suggest a stepping back from making a constructive contribution to mainstream society and facilitating, to varying degrees, harm to otherwise innocent individuals. In other words, a bystander sees yet chooses to ignore. That is the essence of the bystander.
I propose creating three distinct bystander-victim paradigms: 1) Anonymous Bystander, Faceless Victim; 2) Neighbors; 3) Desensitized Bystander, Disenfranchised Victim. In my book, the first theme will be examined through the lens of Death Marches (November 1944-May 1945); the second theme will be examined through the lens of the deportation of Dutch Jewry, and the third theme will be examined through the lens of the deportation of Hungarian Jewry.
It has been suggested that the primacy of the bystander’s obligation to self and family outweighs duty and responsibility to the other. In addition, the decision—oftentimes quickly made—to scurry on, thereby deliberately ignoring the needs of others, has been repeatedly offered as reflecting the reality of human interaction, or more correctly of human “non” interaction.
What is particularly problematic in the effort to create a legal standard addressing this issue is determining the degree to which the state can impose a “positive” duty on members of society. Nuance is essential to a full discussion regarding the bystander; different circumstances and conditions must be taken into consideration when articulating and implementing a duty-to-act paradigm. Creating, or allowing, a wide range of exceptions to an agreed upon rule facilitates unwarranted “wiggle room” that, ultimately, provides justification for a lack of intervention and involvement.
The perpetrator bears the greatest degree of culpability for the harm that befalls the victim; however, as the Holocaust clearly demonstrated, the complicity of the bystander greatly facilitated the perpetrator’s actions and its consequences. It is that complicity that is at the core of our undertaking; in proposing a legal standard that enables prosecution of the bystander, the assumption is that there is a need to clearly articulate an enforceable duty to care. That is the essence of the social contract. To not protect the vulnerable and at-risk members of society—regardless of their status, position, and class—is a resounding rejection of the social contract. That, for me, is the critical lesson I propose we take away from Kristallnacht.
*************** Amos N. Guiora is a professor of Law at SJ Quinney College of Law, University of Utah.
As the final minutes of Rosh Hashanah ticked away, 13-year-old Leo Goldberger was hiding, along with his parents and three brothers, in the thick brush along the shore of Dragor, a small fishing village south of Copenhagen. The year was 1943, and the Goldbergers, like thousands of other Danish Jews, were desperately trying to escape an imminent Nazi roundup.
“Finally, after what seemed like an excruciatingly long wait, we saw our signal offshore,” Goldberger later recalled. His family “strode straight into the ocean and waded through three or four feet of icy water until we were hauled aboard a fishing boat” and covered themselves “with smelly canvases.” Shivering and frightened, but grateful, the Goldberger family soon found itself in the safety and freedom of neighboring Sweden.
For years, the Allied leaders had insisted that nothing could be done to rescue Jews from the Nazis except to win the war. But in one extraordinary night, 72 years ago this month, the Danish people exploded that myth and changed history.
When the Nazis occupied Denmark during the Holocaust in 1940, the Danes put up little resistance. As a result, the German authorities agreed to let the Danish government continue functioning with greater autonomy than other occupied countries. They also postponed taking steps against Denmark’s 8,000 Jewish citizens.
In the late summer of 1943, amid rising tensions between the occupation regime and the Danish government, the Nazis declared martial law and decided the time had come to deport Danish Jews to the death camps. But Georg Duckwitz, a German diplomat in Denmark, leaked the information to Danish friends. Duckwitz was later honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. As word of the Germans’ plans spread, the Danish public responded with a spontaneous nationwide grassroots effort to help the Jews.
The Danes’ remarkable response gave rise to the legend that King Christian X himself rode through the streets of Copenhagen on horseback, wearing a yellow Star of David, and that the citizens of the city likewise donned the star in solidarity with the Jews.
The story may have had its origins in a political cartoon that appeared in a Swedish newspaper in 1942. It showed King Christian pointing to a Star of David and declaring that if the Nazis imposed it upon the Jews of Demark, “then we must all wear the star.” Leon Uris’s novel Exodus, and the movie based on that book, helped spread the legend. But subsequent investigations by historians have concluded that the story is a myth.
A midnight escape
On Rosh Hashanah—which fell on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 in 1943—and the days that followed, numerous Danish Christian families hid Jews from Holocaust persecution in their homes or farms, and then smuggled them to the seashore late at night. From there, fishermen took them across the Kattegat Straits to neighboring Sweden. This three-week operation had the strong support of Danish church leaders, who used their pulpits to urge aid to the Jews, as well as Danish universities, which shut down so that students could assist the smugglers. More than 7,000 Danish Jews reached Sweden and were sheltered there until the end of the war.
Esther Finkler, a young newlywed, was hidden, together with her husband and their mothers, in a greenhouse. “At night, we saw the [German] searchlights sweeping back and forth throughout the neighborhood,” as the Nazis hunted for Jews, Esther later recalled. One evening, a member of the Danish Underground arrived and drove the four “through streets saturated with Nazi stormtroopers,” to a point near the shore.
There they hid in an underground shelter, and then in the attic of a bakery, until finally they were brought to a beach, where they boarded a small fishing vessel together with other Jewish refugees. “There were nine of us, lying down on the deck or the floor,” Esther said. “The captain covered us with fishing nets. When everyone had been properly concealed, the fishermen started the boat, and as the motor started to run, so did my pent-up tears.”
Then, suddenly, trouble. “The captain began to sing and whistle nonchalantly, which puzzled us. Soon we heard him shouting in German toward a passing Nazi patrol boat: ‘Wollen sie einen beer haben?’ (Would you like a beer?)—a clever gimmick designed to avoid the Germans’ suspicions. After three tense hours at sea, we heard shouting: ‘Get up! Get up! And welcome to Sweden!’ It was hard to believe, but we were now safe. We cried and the Swedes cried with us as they escorted as ashore. The nightmare was over,” Esther recalled.
‘It can be done’
The implications of the Danish rescue operation resonated strongly in the United States. The Roosevelt administration had long insisted that rescue of Jews from the Nazis was not possible. The refugee advocates known as the Bergson Group began citing the escape of Denmark’s Jews as evidence that if the Allies were sufficiently interested, ways could be found to save many European Jews.
The Bergson Group sponsored a series of full-page newspaper advertisements about the Danish-Swedish effort, headlined “It Can Be Done!” On Oct. 31, thousands of New Yorkers jammed Carnegie Hall for the Bergson Group’s “Salute to Sweden and Denmark” rally.
Keynote speakers included members of Congress, Danish and Swedish diplomats, and one of the biggest names in Hollywood—Orson Welles, director of “Citizen Kane” and “The War of the Worlds.” In another coup for the Bergson Group, one of the speakers was Leon Henderson, one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s own former economic advisers (Henderson had headed the White House’s Office of Price Administration).
In blunt language that summed up the tragedy—and the hope—Henderson declared: “The Allied Governments have been guilty of moral cowardice. The issue of saving the Jewish people of Europe has been avoided, submerged, played down, hushed up, resisted with all the forms of political force that are available… Sweden and Denmark have proved the tragedy of Allied indecision… The Danes and Swedes have shown us the way… If this be a war for civilization, then most surely this is the time to be civilized!”
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C. His latest book is “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.”
Monaco committed the “irreparable” injustice of deporting Jews to Nazi camps during World War II, Prince Albert II said Thursday, August 27, 2105, in belated apology for the action 73 years ago that sent scores of residents and refugees to their deaths.
Many of the 66 people handed over to Nazi occupiers in neighboring France had sought refuge in the principality that was neutral in the first years of the war.
But on the night of Aug. 27, 1942, Monaco authorities rounded up Jewish residents and delivered them to the Nazis. At least 24 other Monegasques living in the Riviera principality or in the surrounding French countryside were deported during the war, according to a government report released this year. Only nine of the 90 who were deported survived their Nazi detention.
“We committed the irreparable in handing over to the neighboring authorities women, men, and a child who had taken refuge with us to escape the persecutions they had suffered in France,” Albert said at a ceremony in which a monument to the victims was unveiled. “In distress, they came specifically to take shelter with us, thinking they would find neutrality.”
Albert said the acknowledgment of wrongdoing by the wartime authorities “is to ask forgiveness,” addressing his apology to Jewish community leaders in attendance, including the principality’s chief rabbi and renowned Holocaust researchers Serge and Beate Klarsfeld.
The government review of Monaco’s World War II relationship with the Axis powers was ordered by Albert and concluded this year with recommendations for establishing a restitution program to return the property seized from the deported Jews to their heirs. Nine compensation claims have already been approved, the government reported.
“We welcome the desire of the principality to properly examine its role during these dark days of the Nazi occupation,” European Jewish Congress leader Moshe Kantor said in a statement.
The Klarsfelds had encouraged Albert’s late father, Prince Rainier, to examine the wartime leadership’s actions. Albert took up the mission after succeeding Rainier, who died in 2005 after 56 years as head of the House of Grimaldi.
It was Rainier’s grandfather and predecessor, Prince Louis II, who reigned during World War II, though under successive Italian and German occupations in the war’s latter years.