Politics, Putin cast shadow over Auschwitz liberation anniversary

When they announced the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Polish officials insisted that at this year’s event, “the eyes of the world will be focused” on about 300 Holocaust survivors whose presence Tuesday at the former Nazi death camp near Krakow may be the last gathering of its sort.

The generation of Holocaust survivors, after all, is dying out.

Yet critics are charging that politics and tensions between Russia and its neighbors are nonetheless eclipsing the focus on the survivors and even muddling the historical record. Many believe that behind the main event, at Auschwitz, was an organized effort to discourage Russian President Vladimir Putin from attending — a reprisal of sorts for Russia’s annexation last year of Ukrainian territory.

Putin in his earlier stint as president attended the 60th anniversary ceremony in 2005. This time, a tentative invitation was extended to the Russian Embassy but not to Putin directly.

An attempt to keep out Putin was “a serious failure in commemoration because it was Russian troops who liberated the camp,” said Efraim Zuroff, the Israel director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the human rights organization. “This attempt to erase the Russian people’s contribution to defeating Nazism is casting a shadow on this commemoration and creating a vacuum in which untruths flourish.”

One such distortion: On Jan. 21, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna told a local radio station that Ukrainians, not Russians, liberated Auschwitz, citing the fact that the Red Army unit that reached Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front. And on Jan. 8, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk stated that the Soviets “invaded  Ukraine and Germany,” when, in fact, it was the Germans who invaded the Soviet Union. His spokesman later explained that Yatsenyuk had in mind the carving-up of Poland in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union.

These historical inversions “show the level of hatred that exists for Russia for the moment,” said Peter Feldmajer, a vice president of the Hungarian Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz.

In addition to the event in Auschwitz, the camp’s liberation was scheduled to be commemorated in Prague on Jan. 26 and at the United Nations General Assembly on Jan. 28.

But Putin’s presence would have been an especially sensitive matter in Poland, where anger over Russian aggression in Ukraine is mixed with bitter memories of Russian domination during and predating the Soviet era and fears of its return.

Polish officials denied that Putin was deliberately disinvited or discouraged from attending, noting that no other head of state had been officially invited, owing to the policy of focusing on survivors.

Many, however, doubted this argument, as the list of attending dignitaries at the Auschwitz event grew. Among others it included French President Francois Hollande and his German and Ukrainian counterparts, Joachim Guack and Petro Poroshenko, as well as the Dutch and Belgian premiers, Mark Rutte and Charles Michel, respectively.

Putin, however, had been invited to attend an event near Prague co-organized by the European Jewish Congress that brought hundreds of Jewish community leaders and dignitaries to commemorations of the Auschwitz liberation and to the nearby Terezin Memorial for the Theresiendstadt concentration camp.

EJC’s Russian-born president, the industrialist Moshe Kantor, set up the event near Prague with the Czech government to provide a commemoration ceremony where Putin would feel welcome, according to Peter Brod, a board member of the Jewish Community of Prague’s foundation.

“The feeling was that the Russian contribution to the liberation should be honored and commemorated in some way, and this led to the event,” said Brod, a former BBC journalist.

But Arie Zuckerman, a senior EJC official, said the event near Prague — which featured debates about anti-Semitism today and legislation to curb it — were never meant to serve as an alternative to the Auschwitz event, “which, unlike our event, is only about commemoration.”

Marek Halter, a well-known French Jewish author who survived the Holocaust in his native Warsaw before escaping to Russia, said he and his generation “have a responsibility to protect [the] historical record for as long as we can.” The record, he said, “is in danger of being lost in the politics of the new cold war we are entering between the United States and Russia.”

Putin’s attendance at Auschwitz, he added during an interview with JTA, “should have been facilitated to defend against this sort of obfuscation.”

Serge Klarsfeld, a Romania-born Jewish Nazi hunter who survived the Holocaust in hiding in France and whose father died at Auschwitz, said he “could understand the Polish state of mind regarding Putin,” but that he should have been invited.

“It’s not, as some Poles claim, that the Russians liberated Auschwitz because it was en route to Berlin,” he said. “They came to free Auschwitz, and the survivors will never forget the Red Army’s arrival there.”

Still, Halter said he could think of no place more appropriate than Prague and Terezin to commemorate the Holocaust.

“Prague was the only old Jewish city that the Nazis left intact because they wanted to turn it into a Jewish Jurassic Park, a museum to an extinct people,” he told JTA. “Convening hundreds of Jewish community leaders and dignitaries is a powerful response.”

But how the message is carried is changing as the last generation of Holocaust survivors passes on, Frans Timmermans, a vice president of the European Commission, told JTA at the Prague’s Municipal House, where Czech President Milos Zeman welcomed leaders of European Jewry and politicians with a brief address.

“We are at a critical point in European history because living memory is becoming history,” Timmermans said. “Soon there will be no more people with numbers on their arms to tell the story, and the tendency to beautify a terrible record is tempting.”

In Auschwitz, one of the survivors who is still telling his story is Ernst Verduin, 87, who lived in hiding in the Netherlands before he was deported to the death camp with his family. Verduin arrived at Auschwitz suffering from a severe lung infection and was sent immediately to the gas chambers.

“As we said goodbye, my sister wished me a quick death,” recalled Verduin, who survived because he left the gas chamber group and snuck to the group of men sent to work.

Nazis’ stooge or well-meaning Jew?

When the French director Claude Lanzmann completed the editing of his eight-hour epic documentary, “Shoah,” in 1985, he still had stashed away nearly 11 hours of interviews with one man.

That man was Benjamin Murmelstein, the last president of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) in the Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto, and the only Nazi-installed “Elder of the Jews” not killed during the Holocaust.

Lanzmann has now compressed those interviews, conducted in 1975, into the more-than-three-and-a-half hour documentary “The Last of the Unjust.” The film reveals a then-70-year-old man, who, in Lanzmann’s estimation, was highly intelligent, ironic, didn’t lie, was hard both on others and on himself, and who was blessed with total recall.

Murmelstein also displayed a sardonic wit, upending the title of Andre Schwarz-Bart’s novel “The Last of the Just,” into the self-designated “Last of the Unjust,” which Lanzmann has adopted as the title for his film.

The roles played by the Elders of the Jews in the Nazi-controlled ghettoes of Lvov, Warsaw, Vilna and Lodz are still the stuff of debates, books and plays. Were these men stooges who did the Nazis’ dirty work to save their skins and to allow them to enjoy the illusion power? Or were they brave, well-meaning men who sacrificed themselves in the hope of saving at least some of their fellow Jews?

Murmelstein, like most humans, comes across as a mixture of motives, hopes and ambitions, though apparently more intelligent and self-aware than other ghetto leaders.

A Viennese rabbi and deputy to the Jewish community president, Murmelstein first met Adolf Eichmann in 1938, after the Nazi takeover of Austria.

Eichmann ordered Murmelstein to organize the forced emigration of Austrian Jews, and even his detractors acknowledge Murmelstein’s role in helping more than 120,000 of Austria’s 200,000 Jews flee the country.

Over the next seven years, until the end of the war, the Viennese rabbi and the Nazi Holocaust organizer met and sparred again and again, and, arguably, Murmelstein got to know Eichmann better than any other Jewish leader.

As such, Murmelstein thoroughly demolishes philosopher Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann as a mere bureaucrat carrying out orders and the personification of “the banality of evil.”

In reality, Murmelstein testifies, Eichmann was a “demon,” and a thoroughly corrupt one at that, who was also a fanatical and violent anti-Semite, participating directly in the burning of Vienna’s synagogues during Kristallnacht.

Director Claude Lanzmann

Murmelstein lambasts Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem as “a poor trial run by ignorant people,” and approvingly quotes a newspaper critic on “the banality of Mrs. Arendt’s own conclusions.”

While obviously trying to cast his own role as ghetto “Elder” in as favorable a light as possible, Murmelstein, under sharp questioning, acknowledges his own shortcomings.

He owns up to enjoying a sense of power and, oddly, even of adventure, as well as to his reputation among his Jewish “subjects” as tough and mean.

But, mainly, he sees himself as a pragmatist among the self-deluded, noting that “if a surgeon starts crying during an operation, the patient dies.”

In general, he holds a high opinion of his importance, arguing that “I had to save myself to save the ghetto.”

After the war, Murmelstein, who held a diplomatic passport from the International Committee of the Red Cross, easily could have fled Europe. Instead, he chose to remain in Czechoslovakia and stand trial on allegations of collaborating with the Nazis. After 18 months in prison, he was acquitted of all charges. He died in Rome in 1989, at 84.

“The Last of the Unjust” is, above all, a fascinating examination of the human condition in extremis, especially in clinging to hope when every escape seems barred.

For example, when Eichmann and the Nazi propaganda initially painted Theresienstadt as a lovely spa that lucky Jews could enjoy if they turned over all their money to the “Eichmann fund,” 40,000 elderly Jews eagerly signed on.

In a lengthy interview with Lanzmann in the production notes for the film, the director notes that even Murmelstein, who had no illusions about Nazi cruelty and trickery, “said he didn’t know about the gas chambers, and that’s absolutely true.

“In Theresienstadt, the Jews were afraid of deportation to the East, but they couldn’t imagine the reality of death in the gas chambers,” Lanzmann noted in the interview.

Lanzmann illustrates the desperate longing for survival in the ghetto by quoting one inmate, who said that “he who wants to live is condemned to hope.”

And in words all latter-day analysts of Jewish action and inaction during the Holocaust might take to heart, the film concludes, “The Elders of the Jews can be condemned, but they cannot be judged.”

“The Last of the Unjust” opens Feb. 7 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and Town Center in Encino, as well as the Regal Westpark in Irvine.

Deceiving the audience and the self

“The Führer Gives the Jews a City” must rank as the oddest film fragment in cinematic history.

The 23 minutes of raw, unedited footage is all that has been found of a Nazi propaganda project to “prove” that the “model” Theresienstadt camp was a veritable paradise for its Jewish inmates.

Shot in early 1944, when the horrors of Hitler’s Final Solution finally trickled out to the West, the film was part of an effort to hoodwink a visiting International Red Cross delegation that Theresienstadt was all productive work and wholesome recreation, and by extension the other concentration camps, as well.

There, contented workers shod horses, made pottery and designed handbags; in the evenings well-dressed men and women attended concerts and lectures, and kids played soccer or gorged themselves on sandwiches.

All this to the incongruous background music from Offenbach’s “Gaite Parisienne” or a jazzy “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.”

The director of this curiosity was a mountainous Jewish inmate, Kurt Gerron, whose strange story of pride and self-deception is documented in a companion film, “Kurt Gerron’s Karussell [Carousel].”

A native Berliner born Kurt Gerson, Gerron was a larger-than-life figure, both in girth and as a leading impresario in the swinging Berlin cabaret scene of the 1920s.

He was also a successful actor, playing the nightclub owner in “The Blue Angel” opposite Marlene Dietrich, and was featured in the world premiere cast of “The Threepenny Opera.”

Though banned from the German stage in 1933, Gerron persisted in the self-delusion that his talent and charm would triumph in the end.

When Peter Lorre and other German expatriates in Hollywood arranged for Gerron to join them and even would have paid the travel expenses for the impresario and his family, Gerron refused on the grounds that the proffered ship accommodations weren’t first class.

He did establish a temporary second career in France and Holland, but the Nazis caught up with him and deported him to Theresienstadt.

When “The Führer Gives the Jews a City” project came along, Gerron saw a chance to resume his career and signed on as director. He also swallowed the “word of honor” of the German camp commandant that his life would be spared after he completed the film.

Instead, Gerron was sent to Auschwitz in October 1944, and he was killed one day before SS chief Heinrich Himmler gave the order to shut down the gas chambers for good.

“Karussell” director Ilona Ziok combines footage of Gerron’s halcyon days in Berlin with testimony of surviving Jewish camp prisoners to draw a picture of Gerron as a tragic, self-deluded figure, “a big, strong man with the mind of a child,” in the words of a fellow Theresienstadt prisoner.

“Kurt Gerron’s Karussell” is available as a DVD, but distribution of “The Führer Gives the Jews a City” has been sharply limited by the distributor.

A spokesman for Seventh Art Releasing said that the film fragment was available for free, but fearing misuse of the material, he stipulated that it be used only for educational and scholarly purposes by schools or religious institutions, and must be clearly labeled as Nazi propaganda.

For additional information on films, e-mail {encode=”edu@7thart.com” title=”edu@7thart.com”} or phone (323) 845-1455.

Propaganda film disguised horrors of Terezin

The film is grainy and in black-and-white. It jumps about, slowing down at odd moments and growing dim occasionally. But it’s the people that hold your attention.

They walk about, wearing fashionable clothes, nodding a stiff hello when they spot a friend. They watch a soccer match, sit briefly outside a small cafe, listen to a concert.

It’s all a sham, of course, part of a bogus documentary produced by the Nazis during World War II at Theresienstadt, the concentration camp an hour north of Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia. And it’s one of the reasons you should visit.

The Holocaust continues to sound a melancholy note in the major cities of the region. Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest and Prague are remarkable, warm and charming, filled with cobblestone streets and intimate cafes, grand boulevards and monuments, fine art and fine food.

But in each of these cities is a reminder of the Jews who were murdered during World War II, initially forced into ghettos, eventually transported to death camps across the region.

In Prague, it’s Josefov, the Jewish quarter, where the Holocaust waits. It’s remembered in one of the six synagogues there, the Pinkas shul. Its walls are inscribed with the names of the 77,297 victims of the Nazis from Bohemia and Moravia. Tourists shuffle through the structure in silence, many taken with the artistic merits of the memorial, most horrified by the sheer numbers that fill the space.

But it’s in the nearby city of Terezin that one of the most unique, if bizarre stories of the period can be found. And it’s all captured in the grainy film produced by the Nazis.

The city — created in the 18th century and named for Maria Theresa of Austria — was taken over by the Gestapo in 1940, renamed Theresienstadt, and quickly turned into a ghetto. Jews from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria and Holland were transported to the site and its population soared. The city that had been home for 7,000 residents before the war would at one point hold 60,000 inmates.

Men and women were separated, housed in barracks packed with bunks that were three-tiers high. There was little food, and even less medicine. Sanitation was poor. Rats, lice, flies and fleas were part of daily life. So, too, death.

Nearly 150,000 Jews spent time at Theresienstadt. Only 17,247 survived the war. The large number of dead became such a problem that a crematorium was built in 1942 to deal with the corpses. Yet, the Nazis portrayed the ghetto as a model Jewish settlement.

The charade was tested — and refined — in the summer of 1944 when a commission of Red Cross officials were allowed to visit the camp to make sure that inmates at Theresienstadt were living under humane conditions. The ruse became necessary after Jews from Denmark were sent to the camp the previous winter and Red Cross officials in Denmark and Sweden began making inquiries about their whereabouts and health.

Over the next several months, the camp was gussied-up in certain key areas. Some living space was enlarged and painted. Drapes were hung and furniture added. Grass and flowers were planted. A playground and sports field were built. And a month before the orchestrated visit, 7,500 inmates — mostly orphans and the sick — were sent to Auschwitz and their deaths so Theresienstadt would appear less crowded.

An elaborate script was created that would have groups of inmates strolling along a central street, window-shopping; others would be taking part in a soccer match, while yet others would be chatting and singing as they headed off to work.

On June 23, 1944, the Nazis had everything in place as the commission was escorted through the camp. The inmates played their parts to perfection, knowing they had little choice but to cooperate. Camp officials were so happy with the result, they decided to put it all down on film and use the movie for propaganda purposes.

What remains today is a series of black-and-white vignettes — inmates at a concert; inmates sitting outside a cafe; inmates cheering a soccer match. The actors smile occasionally for the camera, hiding the hideous truth of the Holocaust from view. But look closely enough and you can see the future in their faces.

And it’s bleak.

Only a few months after the commission reported that inmates at Theresienstadt were being treated fairly, transports to Auschwitz picked up speed. Over the last weeks of September and early October, the camp was nearly emptied. Only 400 inmates remained at the beginning of 1945.

By the time the International Red Cross took charge of the camp the following May, the damage had already been done. More than 30,000 inmates had died in the camp of disease, starvation and abuse. Nearly three times that number had been shipped off to the Nazi killing factories in the east.

Books: Czech teen’s words and art put a face on the Holocaust for me

I attended grades one through eight at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Los Angeles during a time of great unrest in our country — the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., police brutality against war protesters during the Chicano Moratorium. Yet one of my strongest memories is reading excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary.

I remember being moved by the words of that remarkable little Jewish girl with large eyes who hid from the Nazis for two years. I also remember the horror of learning that the Nazis eventually found Anne and her family and that she died in a typhus epidemic that ran through the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne’s diary spoke to this Los Angeles classroom across the decades, across an ocean, across cultures, across religions.

And that little Chicano boy never could have imagined that someday he would grow up and fall in love with a Jewish woman, marry in a temple, convert to Judaism and send his son to a Jewish day school for eight years.

But what did Anne Frank’s story offer me and my classmates at that time? The nuns who set the curriculum knew. While it is pretty near impossible to comprehend the annihilation of millions, Anne Frank offered us a face, one child to whom we could relate. And of course, the questions came. Who would want to kill this little girl? Will it happen again? Could it happen to us?
Atlantic Monthly Press now brings us the English translation of “The Diary of Petr Ginz: 1941-1942,” which, as with Anne Frank’s diary, puts a face on the Holocaust through the words and artwork of a precocious teenager. Simply put, this book should be read by everyone.

Ginz was a Czech Jew, born in 1928, who died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz at the age of 16. His diary had been lost for 60 years but resurfaced in 2003. Ginz’s younger sister, Chava Pressburger, edited her brother’s diary entries, which were translated from the Czech by Elena Lappin. They cover the 11 months before his deportation from Prague to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Also included are poems, an excerpt from one of Ginz’s unfinished novels, articles from Vedem (a weekly magazine Petr started in Theresienstadt), as well as linocuts, sketches and watercolor paintings. There is little doubt that if Ginz had survived, he would have developed into an accomplished writer and artist.

Ginz’s entries recount the daily routine of a teenager attending school and spending time with friends and family. But interspersed among the quotidian details are observations that illustrate the tightening Nazi noose: “In the morning I did my homework. Otherwise nothing special. Actually, a lot is happening, but it is not even visible. What is quite ordinary now would certainly cause upset in a normal time. For example, Jews don’t have fruit, geese, and any poultry, cheese, onions, garlic, and many other things. Tobacco ration cards are forbidden to prisoners, madmen, and Jews.”

And there are poems with lines such as these: “Today it’s clear to everyone / who is a Jew and who’s an Aryan, / because you’ll know Jews near and far / by their black and yellow star.”

Yet, despite all this, Ginz loved to play pranks and possessed a wicked sense of humor, as shown by this observation written on April 20, 1942: “Every building has to hang out a swastika flag, except for the Jews, of course, who are not allowed this pleasure.”

Aside from his writings, Ginz’s artwork is noteworthy for its detail and sophistication. There is an eerie 1943 watercolor titled, “Ghetto Dwellings,” that captures a foreboding atmosphere difficult to replicate in words.

Ginz had a particular love for the linocut, which requires great control over the tools needed to carve images into small pieces of linoleum, a process similar to making woodcuts. In one of his Vedem articles, Ginz describes this art form: “As the entire linocut technique shows, a linocut is the expression of a person who does not make compromises. It is either black or white. There is no grey transition.”

In another Vedem piece, Ginz explains that even in the squalor and deprivation of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, creativity can thrive: “The seed of a creative idea does not die in mud and scum. Even there it will germinate and spread its blossom like a star shining in the darkness.” Ginz proved this to be true as he founded a magazine and continued to write and create artwork while in the camp.

Also included in this book are photographs of Ginz and his family. There is one from February 1933 of Petr and Chava holding hands, walking toward the camera, both dressed in thick coats, knitted caps and scarves to protect them from the Prague winter. The 5-year-old Petr has a determined look in his eyes, lips tight with purpose, as he leads his younger sister along the city street. His face is the face of all children whose lives were cut short by the Nazis. And it is a face that implores us to remember two essential words: Never again.

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of four books of fiction including, “Devil Talk: Stories” (Bilingual Press). His book reviews have appeared in the El Paso Times, The Multicultural Review, La Bloga, The Elegant Variation and elsewhere. He makes his home in the San Fernando Valley. His Web site is