2015 / 5776 חנוכה

  A Different View of the Holocaust Story

For each of the past three years, I have received several copies of these photographs in my inbox around the time of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hashoah. Usually they're repackaged in some cheesy PowerPoint with dazzling visual effects and music. This gets in the way of the message. These pictures should stand on their own. They've been around the internet so many times it's hard to tell where they started, but it seems most likely the original post was on a blog by Elad Nehorai. Formerly a secular Jew, he embraced the observant Chabad movement as an adult, and now writes about his religion and related topics. If this story interests you, you will probably find his blog worth perusing.

Mr. Nehorai feels that it has been harmful for Jews to remember the Holocaust as a time when helpless Jews were crushed without a fight. Rather than being seen as persecuted victims, he would prefer for the world's Jews to stand proud and defiant, tapping an ancient inner strength.

For the past 70 years, we have become accustomed to picture the Holocaust with images of starved prisoners and huge piles of nameless bodies. There are other stories that should be told, showing how Europe's Jews — indeed, the world's Jews — have moved beyond the horrors of the death camps, toward the future.

The divisions of the original post are preserved here, with some additional background for the photographs. Some of them were misidentified in the original post; that has been corrected here. Some of the people in the pictures have been identified, too, with notes about their lives after the war if that information is available.

The photos are placeholders. Click to see them full size.


There was never any doubt about Adolf Hitler's plans for Germany, and ultimately for Europe. He published his attitude and ambitions very clearly in Mein Kampf, the blueprint for his performance during twelve years of power.

We don't read much about American Jews during this time, but the community was definitely not silent. Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933 and implemented anti-Jewish policies immediately. Two months later, a spillover crowed packed New York's Madison Square Garden to rally for a boycott of German goods. The hall was completely filled (22,000), and a public address system was set up so 35,000 more people outside could hear the speakers. They included former governor and presidential candidate Al Smith, mayor James O'Brien, Senator Robert Wagner, as well as several prominent religious leaders. As the headline says, they roared their protest against the anti-Jewish policy of the Nazi government.

The boycott movement was not a big success: partly because the government was unwilling to cut ties with industrial Germany, and partly because of disagreement within the Jewish community. But the enthusiasm remained. At this 1937 rally, also in Madison Square Garden, New York's new mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was a featured speaker, along with John L. Lewis, president of CIO. The organizing committee at this rally adopted a resolution that "Hitlerism constitutes the gravest threat to peace, civilization and democracy."

Despite Nazi bans, Jews in Europe kept up religious observances, even if they had to do it secretly. This happy group is baking matzos in a clandestine bakery in Lodz, central Poland. This 1943 photo is from the Yad Vashem Archives.

This group is celebrating Chanukah openly in a packed room at the Dutch relocation camp at Westerbork. This camp was originally built to house Jewish refugees fleeing Germany. When the Nazis invaded, they maintained it as a transit camp, using it as a terminal to transfer Jews to the extermination camps in Poland. The SS permitted unusual liberties here, to avoid raising suspicion about what awaited those who were put onto eastbound trains every week.

From July 1942 to September 1944, the death trains left Westerbork nearly every Tuesday. This photo was taken on the eve of the seventh day of Chanukah, 1943 — a Monday evening. It happened to be a time when there were no deportations, leaving a strong impression on the people we see here.

Despite the Nazis' camouflage and propaganda, word got around that relocation was tantamount to a death sentence. In Warsaw, Jews had been herded into a large ghetto, whence they were to be systematically removed. With some aid from the Polish resistance, ghetto residents mounted an armed revolt when the SS came to take them away. The fighting went on for almost four months before Hitler's troops put a bloody and final end to it.

Less optimistic than the candle lighting at Westerbork, this photo was included in Jürgen Stroop's report to Himmler, where he detailed the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and how he quashed it. The title of the report was The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is No More!

The soldier pointing his gun at a surrendering boy is Josef Blösche, known to ghetto Jews as "Frankenstein" for the ghastly acts he committed on them. He was taken prisoner by the Red Army. While in captivity, he was disfigured by a work accident. With his changed appearance, he was able to live a relatively quiet life for twenty years after his release in 1947. He was eventually identified by a former SS comrade, tried and executed. Then he was buried in an unmarked grave.

This man, Joseph Wald, was a soldier in the Jewish Brigade. This was a group in the British Army composed of Jews from Israel, which was then part of the British Empire. They fought the Germans in Italy in 1944. The writing on the bomb says, "A Gift for Hitler."


Liberation and its Consequences

By the time American troops advanced into Germany in the spring of 1945, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and his family had already relocated to Hitler's bunker in Berlin. This service was held in Goebbels's former home, Schloss Rheydt, near Düsseldorf, on Sunday 18 March 1945. The first Jewish service held east of the Rhine River in several years, it was offered in memory of Jewish soldiers who were lost from the 29th Division, US 9th Army.

Left to Right in this AP photo: Pfc. Abraham Mirmelstein, Newport News, Va.; Capt. Manuel M. Poliakoff and Cpl. Martin Willen, Baltimore, Md.

Not long afterward, Goebbels and his wife killed their six children before taking their own lives. The soldier in this portrait was added in the darkroom. He is Magda Goebbels's son by a previous marriage, Harald Quandt — the only one pictured who survived the war. His father's business did well after the war, and his family now owns about 46% of BMW.

Four weeks after Torah was read in Schloss Rheydt, Gen. George Patton captured the concentration camp at Buchenwald, just outside Weimar. Margaret Bourke-White was on hand to document events for Life magazine. Her dramatic, gruesome photos of half-dead prisoners and piles of naked corpses were the first news most Americans had seen of what went on behind the scenes in the Third Reich.

Those who claim the Holocaust narrative is false refer to Bourke-White's famous portrait of these prisoners awaiting release. They point out their relatively good grooming, well-nourished appearance, and adequate clothing.

These men were not Jews. Their dark berets indicate their privileged status within Buchenwald. Most likely, they were political prisoners. As explained in this account:

[This photo], taken by Margaret Bourke-White after the liberation of Buchenwald, shows a group of unsmiling male inmates, who were privileged Communist political prisoners, lined up in front of a barbed wire fence in the camp.
In the center of the photo … is a dapper-looking gentleman with a neatly trimmed moustache and short beard, wearing freshly-laundered striped prison pants, and what looks like a new wool overcoat. His expression is one of disdain, as though he can't wait for the picture taking to end, and the cigarettes and chocolate bars to be handed out. The rest of the prisoners in the picture, all of them clean shaven, including one elderly gentleman leaning on a cane, are looking at the camera as though they are puzzled by the sight of this self-assured woman, dressed in full Army regalia, who is standing behind a camera set upon a tripod, holding a flash fill-light.

But the joy of liberation is universal, as we see in another Bourke-White photo. The Americans distributed champagne, chocolate, and cigarettes no longer needed by the camp commander, and the prisoners loved it.

The Nazis used badges to identify the reason a prisoner was in the camps. Zooming in on the man in the center of the back row, we see that he — and most likely the whole group — is Polish. Jewish prisoners' badges had two triangles, like the six-pointed Star of David.

This photo made the rounds after the death of Rabbi Herschel Schacter in 2013. It shows him leading the Shavuot service (18 May 1945) shortly after the liberation of Buchenwald. There is something moving about this image that shows the prisoners — still in their garb, still in their prison, but liberated and celebrating the giving of Jewish law.

From Rabbi Schacter's obituary,

The smoke was still rising as Rabbi Herschel Schacter rode through the gates of Buchenwald.

It was April 11, 1945, and Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army had liberated the concentration camp scarcely an hour before. Rabbi Schacter, who was attached to the Third Army's VIII Corps, was the first Jewish chaplain to enter in its wake.

That morning, after learning that Patton's forward tanks had arrived at the camp, Rabbi Schacter commandeered a jeep and driver. He left headquarters and sped toward Buchenwald.

By late afternoon, when the rabbi drove through the gates, Allied tanks had breached the camp. He remembered, he later said, the sting of smoke in his eyes, the smell of burning flesh and the hundreds of bodies strewn everywhere.

Rabbi Schacter said … it seemed as though there was no one left alive. In the camp, he encountered a young American lieutenant who knew his way around.

"Are there any Jews alive here?" the rabbi asked him.

He was led to the Kleine Lager, or Little Camp, a smaller camp within the larger one. There, in filthy barracks, men lay on raw wooden planks stacked from floor to ceiling. They stared down at the rabbi, in his unfamiliar military uniform, with unmistakable fright.

Rabbi Schacter cried in Yiddish, "!שלום עליכם אידן — איר זענט פֿרײַ" — "Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free!" He ran from barracks to barracks, repeating those words. He was joined by those Jews who could walk, until a stream of people swelled behind him.

One of the people Rabbi Schacter rescued that day was a seven-year-old boy who had given up hope, and was waiting to die behind a heap of corpses. That boy was Yisroel Meir Lau, who later migrated to Israel and became the Chief Rabbi there. He is the 38th generation of a family of rabbis. He is in the front row in the photo of Rabbi Schacter's service above, third from left between two soldiers.

Rabbi Lau has been Chairman of Yad Vashem since 2008.

On 13 April 1945, Maj. Clarence Benjamin led the 743d Tank Battalion and the 30th Infantry on a scouting run by the Elbe River near Magdeburg. They found a group of starving prisoners with a train pulled onto a siding. Apparently their guards had just run off. The train had been transporting prisoners from Bergen-Belsen to the extermination camp at Theresienstadt.

This photo captures the moment when some of the people there suddenly realized they were free. As told by Sgt. George Gross in a 2002 interview,

Major Benjamin took a powerful picture just as a few of the people became aware that they had been rescued. It shows people in the background still lying about, trying to soak up a bit of energy from the sun, while in the foreground a woman has her arms flung wide and a great look of surprise and joy on her face as she rushes toward us. In a moment, that woman found a pack left by a fleeing German soldier, rummaged through it, and held up triumphantly a tin of rations. She was immediately attacked by a swarm of skeletal figures, each intent upon capturing that prize. My yelling did no good, so that I finally had to leap from my tank and wade through weak and emaciated bodies to pull the attackers off the woman, who ran quickly away with her prize. I felt like a bully, pushing around such weak and starving fellow humans, but it was necessary to save the woman from great harm. The incident drove home to me the terrible plight of the newly freed inhabitants of the train.

– Matthew A. Rozell, A Train Near Magdeburg, Woodchuck Hollow Press,
Hartford, NY, 2016, 299–300

There are conflicting accounts about the woman in the foreground. She may have moved to Brooklyn and remarried, or she may have returned to her home town in Hungary. Both could be true. Apparently she preferred her privacy, so she will remain unidentified.

Not much is known about this woman at Bergen-Belsen, who has just learned that the camp has been liberated. Her face is featured on several web sites that showcase emotions shown by human eyes: she represents Joy. "As if she were never imprisoned."

Here's the original source for this image, with a few more details.

This is a cleaned-up version of a photo posted to Reddit. The user (FTZ) identifies the man with the gun as his grandfather. The photo shows how complicated the idea of justice can be, and how quickly the tables can turn. Sometimes for the better.


Moving Forward

This photo is often mis-labelled "Buchenwald survivors entering Israel." That is wrong on both counts, and the true story is much more interesting. These women were on the train that was liberated by Major Benjamin's 743d, already noted here as the "Train Near Magdeburg." They are seen here arriving at Paris, not Israel. When the train arrived at the Gare de Lyon, there was a great celebration. These women thought there was a celebrity on board. They didn't realize that they were the celebrities. The two women in the foreground are Jetta Halpern and Magda Werber.

The photo was used on the cover of the DVD The Long Way Home, narrated by Morgan Freeman. Winner of the 1997 Academy Award™ for Best Documentary Feature, the story examines the struggle of tens of thousands of displaced Jewish refugees in the aftermath of the Nazi holocaust.

Continuity of the timeline is missing, but this surely represented a happy outcome for Jetta Halpern. Her daughter Orly Beigel is now a successful entrepreneur in Mexico City. In April 2015, Miss Beigel joined a group of survivors and their descendants honoring the surviving veterans who liberated that train. She's the blonde in the center of the modern photo, next to Frank Towers in the blue shirt. Mr. Towers was one of the soldiers who helped put Jetta Halpern on that train to Paris.

From left: Marc Boyman, 2G; Peggy Wonder, 2G; Evelyn Markus, 2G; Frank Towers, liberator; Orly Beigel, 2G; Micha Tomkiewicz, survivor; Elisabeth Seaman, survivor; Matthew Rozell, historian.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses
  yearning to breathe free,”

— but not your Jews.

Hitler did not originally set out to exterminate Jews. He would have been content if all Jews simply left Europe. For many, like Otto Frank and his family, it was enough at first to get out of Germany — in his case, to Holland. But Otto Frank saw the writing on the wall, and tried to get a visa to enter the United States in 1941. President Roosevelt didn't want the US to become a haven for Europe's Jews, so the application was denied. The fate of the Frank family is well known.

Two years earlier, MV St. Louis had sailed from Hamburg to Cuba with 937 refugees aboard. This trip was the notorious "Voyage of the Damned." While the ship was en route, Cuba withdrew almost all of the passengers' visas, and they found themselves completely outcast — the floating homeless. Captain Gustav Schröder tried to negotiate safe haven for his passengers, but was turned away from Cuba, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He refused to return to Germany until all of his passengers had been received by some other country. Eventually, 288 of them were admitted into the UK, where they were safe. The rest ended up in France, Holland, and Belgium, where many were ultimately rounded up for deportation. Scott Miller and Sarah Ogilvie have estimated that 254 of the St. Louis's passengers did not survive World War II.

After the Allies liberated Italy, Roosevelt allowed 1000 refugees to come to the United States as "visitors." They sailed aboard USNS Henry Gibbins, a troop transport, leaving Naples in July 1944. Photographer Ruth Gruber was aboard as liaison, working for the State Department. Because the Nazis were looking for this ship, she was assigned the rank of General for her protection. As Interior Secretary Harold Ickes explained, "If … the Nazis capture you as a civilian, they can kill you as a spy. But as a General, … they have to give you food and shelter and keep you alive."

This was the only significant group of Jewish refugees to be admitted into the US during World War II. When they arrived in New York, they were transferred to a train that took them to a concentration camp at Fort Ontario, N.Y. They weren't expecting this, but gradually they were allowed to mix with the local community. After the war ended, President Truman allowed them to apply for US citizenship, an opportunity that most accepted. Bits of the story of their time inside Fort Ontario came out at a 2003 reunion in Mount Kisco. There is a small museum where they were interned.

During and after the trip, Ruth Gruber documented the refugees on film and recorded their case histories. The story was later published in her book Haven. Many of them went on to do great things in the New World:

You can read more about the remarkable woman who shepherded these people and recorded their stories, here. And here. At this writing (2015), Ruth Gruber is still living, aged 104 years.

The 983 people who entered the US on the Henry Gibbins were a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of displaced persons in Europe at the end of the war. The rest were generally unwelcome in the West, and started making their way to Israel, which was then called British Mandatory Palestine. Philip Greenspun has posted an excellent essay on why the United States endorsed this relocation, and why the US so strongly supports Israel today. It's not the loving relationship you might expect.

Two orphan brothers, refugees from Transnistria, aboard the ship Mataroa on their way to Israel. This trip was the result of a joint effort for Aliya Bet by Mossad and the American Army. Mataroa was the first ship that brought Holocaust survivors to Israel after World War II, arriving 9 September 1945. Most of its passengers were children: a few hundred survivors from Buchenwald (including Yisroel Lau, already mentioned), and children who had been hidden in France and Switzerland. The survivors were brought to the Atlit camp near Haifa Bay.

Transnistria is a region along the Dniester River, between Moldova and Ukraine.

In January 1945, 1000 Jewish women prisoners were rounded up from the Schlesiersee camp in western Poland, to begin a forced march to the Southwest. As they passed through other camps, more women were added. When they asked where they were going, the guard said "We have no goal. The goal is that everyone should die along the way." Most did. The march ended at Volary, Czechoslovakia, 106 days and 500 miles later. Of about 1300 women who joined the march, 350 survived.

One of those survivors was Chana Keller, who married Zvi Kotlicki at the Passau DP camp in Bavaria, in March 1946. (Others in this photo are identified here). The couple had a son in Germany and emigrated to Israel, where they posed with him and his new sister in 1953. Because the wedding photo is in a private collection at Rishon le-Zion, Israel, many sources say it was taken there.

13-year-old Shoshana Makowiecki sings in the DP camp at Ulm, Germany, in 1946. Born in Kadzidlo, Poland, she and her family survived the war in Russia and Kazakhstan. After leaving the Ulm camp, she moved to Israel and then to the United States, where she married Karl Fisherman and had two children. She had a career as a Yiddish folk singer, using the stage name Shoshana Ron.

Aleksander Kulisiewicz was not Jewish, Roma, communist, or of any other group who were automatically put into the Nazi camps. But he got caught writing "Enough Hitler, Heil Butter!" in a student newspaper, and therefore spent the war years in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He composed 54 songs there, performing them in secret concerts to lift the spirits of fellow inmates.

After the war, he wrote his songs down, and assembled an enormous library of songs, poems, and art from other prisoners, collecting them from memory and through correspondence. In the mid-1960s he began to perform again, this time on European stages, even once in New York. While in the US, he recorded an album called Songs From the Depths of Hell. His magnum opus was a study of culture in the camps, and the role art and music played in helping prisoners survive. He couldn't finish it before he died, and it is now archived in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

A group of skinheads demonstrated in the streets of Växjö, Sweden in April 1985. This woman, Danuta Danielsson, was one of the first to rush in and attack these men. Her mother had been imprisoned by the Nazis in World War II. Moments later, thousands of angry citizens swarmed the men and chased them until they finally locked themselves in a bathroom in a train station. They had to be rescued by police.

This photo, by Hans Runesson, won awards in Sweden, and inspired sculptor Susanna Arwin to make a small bronze model based on it.

The Next Step

This image was shared on Reddit by user Bob the Guy with the title, "It's Holocaust Remembrance Day. So here's my adorable Holocaust surviving grandparents". He continues in the comments, "They actually found a Rabbi to marry them in the camp when they learned they were getting separated. The next day they were split up to different camps and didn't know if the other was alive for the remainder of the war. They found each other in 1945 and the rest is history."

This image, showing a Holocaust survivor looking into the eyes of her granddaughter, was very popular on Facebook. Here is the story of how it came to be digitized:

Unfortunately, I had to attend a funeral this past weekend. The memorial service was held at a synagogue. When I entered the building I noticed a large framed color photograph of an elderly woman holding a very young baby. The woman had a magnificent smile on her face; clearly a great-grandmother proudly holding a fourth-generation member of her family. It struck me as unusual that such a picture would be in a synagogue. A more appropriate place would have been in the family's home, but as I approached the picture its significance became apparent. On the woman's arm was tattooed a number. The family, descendants of this Holocaust survivor, refer to the picture as "עם ישראל חי" (the people of Israel live).

A young religious Jew at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. He is studying the faces in the Hall of Names — the faces of people who never came home.

These people did come home, reunited a lifetime after they were freed at Auschwitz. In January 2015, they're pointing to pictures of themselves as children. Over a million people died at Auschwitz, but about 200,000 outlived the gas chambers, systematic starvation, forced labor, disease, and ghoulish medical experiments. This photo is from an article in The Atlantic about a reunion and ceremony held there to mark the 70th anniversary of their liberation.

From left: Miriam Ziegler, 79; Paula Lebovics, 81; Gabor Hirsch, 85; and Eva Kor, 80. In addition to the regular daily brutality, Eva Kor and her twin sister Miriam were subjected to the hideous medical experiments of Josef Mengele. In this liberation picture, the ten-year-old sisters are holding hands at the front of the column.

Elad Nehorai chose this picture to conclude his post because it evokes hope and freedom. Gary Lenzner escaped from Buchenwald in 1945, surviving to raise a family in California. To celebrate his 85th birthday, his grandson gave him a tandem freefall from 13,000 feet. As Mr. Lenzner said at the time, "I'd like to prove [Hitler] didn't succeed." The story was published here.

Mr. Nehorai's words are the best way to end this article:

Nothing better depicts the unlimited future for Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Nothing better encapsulates the true freedom we can have when we use our past to grow instead of hold us back. Nothing is more beautiful than a man once in bondage in a world of total freedom.


Last modified 16 January 2020