On Aug. 22, 1939, in a sombre allusion to the growing political crisis in Europe, Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organization, observed, “There is darkness all around us, and we cannot see through the clouds.”
Two weeks later, following the outbreak of World War II, the director of a Hebrew school in Warsaw, Poland, Chaim Kaplan, wrote, “This war will indeed bring destruction upon human civilization.”
He added presciently, “As for the Jews, their danger is seven times greater. Wherever Hitler’s foot treads, there is no hope for the Jewish people.”
Kaplan’s sense of dread was not misplaced. The war proved utterly catastrophic for Jews in Poland and the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe.
Saul Friedlander’s magnum opus, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945 (HarperCollins), is a survey of the fate of European Jews during this dark period. Based on documents, letters, diaries and memoirs, it is one of the finest single-volume accounts of Hitler’s genocidal campaign.
That Hitler intended to murder Jews so as to fulfil his warped racial fantasies is not in dispute. In a prewar speech, he made it abundantly clear that this was his objective. Reacting to his cue, German Labour Minister Robert Ley predicted in 1942 that the war would end with “the extermination of the Jewish race.” A year later, the SS commander, Heinrich Himmler, issued a similar comment, prompting the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, to remark, “It is certainly a logical solution, even if it is a brutal one.”
In his book, Friedlander, a professional historian and a Holocaust survivor, ranges far and wide as he discusses the persecution of Jews in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
Germany’s modus operandi in persecuting Jews was to reduce them to the level of sub-humans so that they would be socially isolated and not an object of sympathy. In this malevolent spirit, Goebbels, an arch anti-Semite who referred to Jews as “a waste product,” said, “Pity… is completely out of place in this case.”
Once the war started, the Nazi regime struggled to define its guidelines regarding half and quarter Jews, known as mischlinges, but these edicts remained confusing.
Germans of partial Jewish ancestry were allowed to serve in the army and could even be decorated for bravery, but they were not permitted to fill positions of authority, while fully Jewish members of their families were mistreated.
Eventually, families where a son was killed in battle were exempted from anti-Jewish measures. In 1940, Hitler tweaked the mischlinge policy, allowing only soldiers of one-quarter Jewish ancestry to serve. In the Afrika Korps, commanded by Gen. Erwin Rommel, this rule was entirely disregarded. In the navy, it was postponed.
The “aryanization” of Jewish-owned firms proceeded apace without any problems, says Friedlander. Yet when the world famous Rosenthal porcelain company passed into Christian hands, the new owners insisted on keeping its Jewish name. The Nazis were not pleased, but finally gave in.
Nazi accommodations to the marketplace did not slow the march of anti-Semitic restrictions. By 1942, German Jews were forbidden to buy newspapers, own telephones, cameras, household appliances and bicycles or attend even Jewish schools.
For a while, the Nazis toyed with the idea of deporting Jews to the formerly French island of Madagascar. Genocide became Germany’s policy after it conquered the Soviet Union. The atmosphere was such that, in a letter, a German soldier wrote, “The Jews are fair game.” Special killing units swept across occupied territories, murdering Jews by the thousands. In at least two cities, Brest Litovsk and Zhitomir, local residents refused to participate in pogroms.
Interestingly enough, Karaites – a Jewish sect that broke away from Judaism – were seen by the Nazis as a Turkic-Tatar group.
Friedlander is keenly attuned to nuances. Writing about the formation of the Council to Aid Jews in Poland, Friedlander observes that one of its founders, Zofia Kossak-Szezucka, perceived Polish Jews as enemies of Poland. Similarly, a representative of Poland’s underground dispatched this letter to the Polish government-in-exile in London: “The return of masses of Jews would be experienced by the population… as an invasion against which they would defend themselves, even with physical means.”
In Romania, anti-Jewish animus was also deeply entrenched. There was a widespread belief that Jews were a foreign and hostile element who had somehow been complicit in the loss of Bessarabia and Bukovina to the Soviet Union and of northern Transylvania to Hungary.
By 1941, the Jewish population in Hungary, a Nazi ally, had risen to 825,000 with the conquest of territory from Romania, Slovakia, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
The Hungarian leader, Miklos Horthy, enacted a series of anti-Semitic laws and handed over Polish Jews to the SS in western Ukraine.
He refused to deport native-born Hungarian Jews, but with Germany’s occupation of Hungary in March 1944, the rules of the game changed. Deportations to Auschwitz-Birkenau got under way in May, at a rate of 12,000 to 14,000 deportees a day.
Reacting to domestic and international pressure, Horthy ordered a halt to the deportations on July 8. But on Oct. 15, the day he pulled Hungary out of the war, German forces took control of Budapest and installed a viciously anti-Semitic Arrow Cross government, which ramped up the persecution and murder of Jews.
Friedlander is implicitly contemptuous of the leader of France’s Jewish community, Jacques Helbronner, describing him as a member of the assimilated “Jewish haute bourgeoisie” who was close to Henri Philippe Pétain, the president of Vichy France.
Helbronner petitioned Pétain to exempt native Jews, but not foreign or recently naturalized Jews, from Vichy’s anti-Semitic regulations. Pétain ignored Helbronner’s request. Nor did he act on his subsequent “futile and demeaning entreaties.”
Friedlander is critical of the Jewish leadership in the United States. He suggests that its embargo on aid to Jews in Nazi-occupied countries, taken in compliance with Washington’s economic boycott of the Axis powers, was counter-productive. Friedlander has a point, but could American Jews have realistically defied the U.S. government?
He lauds Italy, Germany’s ally, for having played a positive role in saving Jews. In Greece, for example, the Italian consul in Salonika, Guelfo Zamboni, spared no efforts to protect Jews of Italian nationality. His efforts were supported by Italy’s minister plenipotentiary in Athens and by the foreign ministry in Rome, but to no avail. The Nazis succeeded in virtually destroying Salonika’s venerable Jewish community.
Nazi relentlessness was boundless. Himmler, in the summer of 1942, visited Finland and demanded the delivery of foreign Jews living there. The Finnish secret police compiled a list of 35 Jews, but due to protests, the Nazis could deport only eight Jews, all of whom were sent to Estonia.
The church in Europe was stained by silence. As Friedlander puts it, “Although sporadic protests by some Catholic bishops and Protestant leaders did take place, the vast majority of Catholic and Protestant authorities remained publicly silent in the face of the deportations of Jews and the growing knowledge of their extermination.”
Sadly, Chaim Kaplan was right when he predicted a disaster for European Jews.