Jun 25, 2020 in Society

Aspects of the Holocaust

Germany has inadvertently become the center of anti-Semitism in Europe. The apogees of the inhumane anti-Semitic geopolitics are concentration camps, the main and severest of which were located in Germany. Thus, paradoxically, although Germany was trying to get rid of the Jews, it soon became the center to which all European and Russian Jews were carried to be terminated. This paper attempts to trace how anti-Semitism evolved in three European countries, namely Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Germany, through the testimonies of the three Holocaust victims, Paul Molnar, Michael Weiss, and Leo Liffman. In addition, it outlines how Buchenwald – the concentration camp to which all three victims were sent at various periods of their lives and history – evolved changing its nature along with the changing politics. Last but not the least, this overview suggests reasons to label oral testimonies of the witnesses and survivors of the Holocaust a crucial source of the historical data, subjective as it is, in one line with objective though ‘dry’ historical records, such as books and documentary footages. Arguably, the interviewed survivors are the best carriers of knowledge about geopolitical and social realities regarding Holocaust in different countries, as well as the evolution of the concentration camps, such as Buchenwald, from places of Jews localization into places of their extermination. 

Leo Liffman was born in Germany, in Wiesbaden. Along with millions of Jews all over Europe, he was subject to anti-Semitism in various forms. In fact, he was in its heart. Liffman experienced anti-Semitic moods when yet being a young school boy, long before the Hitlerism. Institutionalized and/or political repressions against the Jews came later, in around 1922, Leo recollects. When Hitler came to power, Leo Liffman, as well as other Jews in his city and alongside Germany, lost his job. During Kristallnacht of 1938, he was arrested. It happened days before he managed to escape to the United States where his cousin waited to give him shelter. The man was imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp where he stayed for three weeks. Evidently, he was granted freedom for two reasons. First, the anti-Semitism of those years was not yet as radical and harsh as in the early 1940s, which meant Jews were discriminated and localized but not yet institutionally exterminated. Second, when asked if he was able to leave the country, Liffman said yes. Translated to the language of the anti-Semitic Germans and their government, it meant ‘relieving’ the country and the nation from the ‘inferiors’. Liffman left Germany for the USA in 1939, leaving his parents behind and losing contact with them. Leo Liffman is the only survivor in his family. 

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Michael Weiss was born in Kascony, Czechoslovakia. Out of 254,000 Jews who lived in Czechoslovakia as of 1930, only 44,000 reappeared after WWII, most of whom were Holocaust survivors by hiding, emigration, or those who survived the camps. Michael Weiss was among the latter. According to Weiss, there was no anti-Semitism from the Czech government. However, it does not mean there was no anti-Semitism, at all. Michael Weiss recalls that society – neighbors, schoolchildren, etc. – demonstrated evident traits of hatred towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was taught in churches. Friends turned into enemies because of such propaganda, Mr. Weiss recollects. The man states that on the institutional level, everything started in 1938 when, among other things, the Hungarian government took licenses from small businesses run by the Jewish representatives of the community. “They took away the livelihoods,” Weiss comments. In 1939, Michael Weiss’s father was called to force labor. The interviewee emphasizes that everything was done by the Hungarians and not the Germans. Later, in 1944, Weiss and his family were shipped to the Hungarian ghetto of Beregszasz and then to Auschwitz. In Auschwitz, Weiss’s mother died in a gas chamber. From Auschwitz, Weiss and his father were deported to Buchenwald, then to Zeitz in Central Germany, then back to Buchenwald from where he was liberated by the Americans. By the time, Michael Weiss lost contact with his father and was hoping to see him at home, which is why he declined the offer from the Americans to go to the USA. He returned home only to know the sad truths about his mother and father from the friends and former inmates. Thus, although Mr. Weiss came back to his hometown, his home was empty. It was no longer a home, the man recalls. Michael Weiss says he now returns to his real home – the happy, pre-Holocaust place – only in his dreams. Moreover, he found the anti-Semitism still present among the general population. Thus, liberation from Buchenwald did not mean liberation from racism.

Paul Molnar (born Müller) was born in 1929 in Hungary, in Újpest, and raised in Rákospalota, Budapest suburbs. In 1944, Hungary became both the foothold and the tool in the German solution to the “Jewish question”. Germany occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. This date became pivotal in Mr. Molnar’s story. His family was rich, which granted the boy a happy childhood. Obviously, no family wealth could protect him from anti-Semitism, yet it did ‘buy’ the boy a place in a gymnasium where the Jewish kids were not allowed. Interestingly, unlike Weiss and Liffman who mention bullying and discrimination in school and from neighbors, Paul Molnar does not remember any of such instances. He felt the first effects of anti-Semitic moods only at the dawn of the war. In the socio-economic sphere, the discrimination was manifested in the anti-Jewish laws. Like Mr. Weiss from the previous interview, Mr. Molnar was also subject to inhumane persecution by the pro-German government. Paul Molnar says he did not feel really affected by the anti-Semitic politics until March 19, 1944. That day, the German troops invaded Hungary and his town and made the Jewish community live in ‘designated’ houses. The houses had yellow stars on them, and all the Jews had to wear yellow stars on their clothes as well, as a marker. But it was not a ghetto, Mr. Molnar notices. In 1944, Molnar’s father was sent to a labor camp. In July 1944, Paul, his mother, grandmother and brother were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. After arrival, all other members of Paul’s family, except himself, were gassed. After a brief time in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Paul was sent to Buchenwald. In Buchenwald, he lived in the so-called ‘little camp’ that consisted of tents and latrines. After that, Molnar went to Magdeburg and worked there at a factory. Then was a return to Buchenwald. After that, there was Berga. In April 1945, during evacuation from Berga and while going to an unknown destination, Paul Molnar managed to escape and was liberated. Like Leo Liffman, Paul immigrated to the United States.

Based on the information retrieved from the interviews, the differences in when the Jewish people started to feel anti-Semitism and its side effects depended on the two major factors. First, the orientation of the national governments of the European countries (pro-Nazi and, thus, anti-Semitic moods resulted in harsher politics on the local levels). Second, the wealth and status of the local Jews. For example, Mr. Molnar belonged to the wealthy family with connections. He says he was not even bullied at school. In fact, he went not to school but to a gymnasium which was forbidden for the Jewish children at that time. In other words, to some extent, his family managed to protect him from the anti-Semitic moods and attitudes, up until 1944. In contrast, Leo Liffman experiences his first discrimination acts as early as in 1922. He recalls how during one of the school trips on the train, six other students came to him and poured water over his head. This way, they ‘baptized’ Leo. To Leo Liffman, this act was a moral blow on his faith, a religious humiliation. It was a part of what is now called “Christian-influenced anti-Judaism”. During religion classes, when asked “Whom must we hate”, the children answered in chorus, “The Jews”. In addition to social discrimination that started in the early 20s, there was also background propaganda. The German Jews were blamed for the lost war, although more than 100,000 of Jews served in the army of whom 12,000 died. “Jews are our misfortune,” officials said. When Hitler came to political spotlight in 1933, anti-Semitism worsened and accelerated turning into institutionalized persecution. Michael Weiss, who was born and lived in Czechoslovakia, mentions that anti-Semitism existed on the social level (in the form of school beatings), but not governmental. Weiss says, “Hitler didn’t do it himself. People did, the churches…”. Importantly, he emphasizes, it was the Hungarians who perpetrated first deportations to the camps. 

The camp system in Germany started as a set of temporary facilities with unclear aims and functions. Leo Liffman mentions the concept “preventive custody” that is now actively used in secondary historical sources and denotes the fact of gathering and sending Jews to camps under the pretence of attempts to maintain public safety and order. Under these conditions, Mr. Liffman was sent to Buchenwald in 1938, with a sausage in his pocket and some money in his sock. By that time, smaller camps were demolished and bigger ones were constructed, Buchenwald (built in 1937) being one of them. Leo Liffman was carried to the camp in a small car. Interestingly, the prisoners were allowed to send postcards home where they wrote, “We are in Buchenwald, in protective custody”. During his three weeks’ stay, Mr. Liffman, along with other people, remained in the same clothes without a possibility to wash and no water whatsoever. They were shaved bold, the practice that would persist through later years for future prisoners of the camps. What Liffman witnessed and went trough was only the beginning of the “solution to the Jewish problem”, yet some of the atrocities already started. Mr. Liffman mentions sleeping on the hardwood floors, having only a piece of bread and pea soup to eat, causing severe diarrhea an a necessity to use latrines in which people drowned if they fell in, the man recalls. After Buchenwald, Leo Liffman had to leave Germany for the USA earlier because of some man’s wrongfully accusing him of an intercourse with an Aryan girl. It was a testimony of the growing social hatred towards Jews to which many Germans succumbed, and this hatred only progressed. 

By early 1945, Buchenwald was already the largest of existing camps that serves all purposes of the Hitlerian regime, ranging from providing labor force to liquidating social elements that ‘threatened’ the Aryan society. It is around this period when two other interviewees got to Buchenwald. Michael Weiss got to the camp in 1944 after Beregszasz and Auschwitz. He spent three days in cattle cart with closed doors and no water. He lost track of his mother in Auschwitz, and remained in touch with the father for quite some time. After arrival, the first stark memory is the “weird smell”. Mr. Weiss refers to the smell of bodies burnt in Buchenwald’s ovens. Michael Weiss was given the number he says to have remembered for his entire life - number 57400. This number gives an account of how many people were already imprisoned. The count was for dozens of thousands, in Buchenwald alone. In total, Buchenwald ‘welcomed’ 280,000 prisoners of whom more than 56,000 died (“Buchenwald”). Weiss mentions many nationalities in Buchenwald, including Poles, Russians and Germans. After Buchenwald, Weiss was sent to Seizt and then back to Buchenwald in a two-day-long trip in a cattle cart with around eighty other people. He remained in Buchenwald until liberation by Patton’s army. 

Paul Molnar, who was sent to Buchenwald in 1944 at the age of 14, adds a few more nationalities to Weiss’s list, naming French, Norwegians, Danes and Dutch. The man also mentions where were many talented and educated people of all nationalities in Buchenwald who secretly ran a school in barracks teaching young ones like Paul. Mr. Molnar says it was “a marvelous thing” that helped him survive the horrors of the camp and maintained hope in him. “Once you gave up you died”. Like Weiss, Molnar, too, remembers his number, sewn into his jacket. He says, “And my number was 55667. And from that point, I never had a name again”. Aside from Buchenwald, where he was two times, Paul was also in Auschwitz, Birkenau, Magdeburg, and Berga. Perhaps the most dramatic was Molnar’s return to Buchenwald (i.e. his second and last time there). After getting a trauma in Magdeburg, Paul managed to get into the “Krankenstube”, a separate area in the camp from where trains were said to sent people to Buchenwald. It was a potential salvation for Paul who got a ‘bad leg’ and needed treatment. Paradoxical as it may sound, Molnar’s bad leg served him good, twice – not only in getting out of Magdeburg, but also in getting to Buchenwald. Because of the leg, he was in the end of the line of eight hundred and twelve people of whom the Germans decided to send eight hundred to the unknown location and leave the remaining dozen in Buchenwald. As Molnar would later find out, the eight hundred were carried to Auschwitz and gassed. 

No doubt, it is crucial to learn history’s lessons. Leo Liffman recalls that there were two signatures in Buchenwald. One is the well-known and notorious “Arbeit macht frei” [“Work sets you free”], the other one being the little known although even more eloquent and tragically ironic phrase, “Recht oder unrecht – mein Vaterland” [“Right or wrong, my country”]. While the former one denotes the part of the camp/Nazi politics under which people were exploited physically for the forced labor, the latter denotes something much wider and deeper. “Right or wrong, my country” can be now used as a twisted reminder that in the name of country, many Germans – the ones who shared anti-Semitic ideology - did horrible things to other people, regardless of whether the country, with its government and Fuhrer, was right or wrong. History proved them wrong of course, but history cannot be changed or rewritten. The only thing that can be done now is remembering the old mistakes and avoiding them in future. In fact, Michael Weiss calls humanity to remember. He says the stories like his should be told and retold for the next generations to remember the atrocities of the past. Mr. Weiss laments that nowadays, even some professors in colleges tend to deny the past by not believing in it. This is why interviews with the victims are so important, according to Weiss. Paul Molnar tends to agree with Weiss’s words (although without knowing it) by saying:

…it’s very important for the world because uh, we’re the last survivors. After us, there’s nothing but videos or audios. […] you have to talk to young people because they’re our future. And I want ‘em to know that these Holocaust deniers, who are going to be even more and more after we’re gone, they’re not going to get away with it because I hope that enough kids will know that it happened.

These quotes answer the question of whether oral history sources are valuable to the contemporary study of the Holocaust. In fact, even though such memory-based stories can be highly subjective and not as perfect as photographs or documentary footages, the survivors’ stories are essential first and foremost because they involve personal experiences. No documentary footage, program, or fictional reconstruction in movies can substitute it. “I don’t go see any movies or TV shows. I never saw those. […] I lived it”.  

To sum up, out of the three chosen interviewees, one – Leo Liffman - was born and raised in Germany and provided an elaborate account of how anti-Semitism developed and spread. Other two were born in Hungary and Czechoslovakia to which German anti-Semitism came later, contributing to the local anti-Jewry moods. Nevertheless, they all ended up in Buchenwald, Germany. Although, more precisely, for some, it was the only camp they were sent to, for others it was only one of the stops in the ‘death tour’ around the camps, while others happened to be here more than once. By comparing and contrasting their biographies and memories, one may draw a roadmap of anti-Semitism spread and intensity, its evolution through years and countries. In addition, it is possible to trace the changing conditions in one and the same camp, Buchenwald, through years. Mr. Liffmans’ experience accounts for the early years of Buchenwald, whereas Mr. Molnar’s and Mr. Weiss’s stories cover the end years. The difference is staggering and eloquent. It clearly illustrates how Buchenwald started as a ‘localization’ camp and a foothold for the Jews’ deportation abroad into a place to which the Jews from all Europe were deported to be tortured, exploited and, ultimately, mortified. Thus, knowing history from the first hands of those who lived it is more insightful and treasured than watching documentary recordings made by cameras and filmed by people who either committed atrocities (e.g. German doctors or guards who worked in camps) or were witnesses of their aftermath (e.g. the American soldiers who liberated the camps). Survivors’ story is history from within, an insider’s look and not a detached outsider’s overview.

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