Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27, 2015

I am finding living in Bochum to be very emotionally difficult at times. Today is one of those days. Most of the time I focus on the present day - my research, making friends, going out to dinner, reading, traveling to visit museums, but sometimes I find it impossible to avoid thinking about the Holocaust. Sometimes that occurs because of a conversation with colleagues or friends, or because of a place I visit. For example, before Christmas, I went to downtown Bochum with a friend to go to the town's Christmas market (one of the things I really enjoyed doing was visiting several Christmas markets in the area). As we were walking among the shops and waiting to buy some Glühwein (warm, spiced wine), my friend noticed two Stolpersteine ("stumbling stones") on the ground - these are small plaques set into the sidewalk that give the names and birth and death dates of Jews who used to live nearby. They can be found all over Germany, and also elsewhere in Europe. There are about 30 of them in Bochum. People in Bochum researched Jews who lived in the city and perished at the hands of the Nazis. The website of the city of Bochum has a complete list of the Stolpersteine and the presentations made by local citizens.

These are the two plaques for Hanna Wittgenstein-Meyer and Bertha Wittgenstein, who were deported to Riga and presumably murdered there. This is a link to the presentation about them (in PDF form). These two were placed in the ground in May, 2005.

Primo Levi

Seventy years ago today, the Red Army entered Auschwitz-Birkenau and freed the few thousands of starving prisoners who remained there. Primo Levi, in the last chapter of Survival in Auschwitz, describes the experiences of the prisoners in the infirmary who were left behind by the SS guards who drove the rest of the prisoners west to Germany.  For ten days the prisoners were in the camp before the Red Army arrived. He survived thanks to two friends, Arthur and Charles. This is what he wrote about January 26 and 27 (pages 170-172):
We lay in a world of death and phantoms. The last trace of civilization had vanished around and inside us. The work of bestial degradation, begun by the victorious Germans, had been carried to its conclusion by the Germans in defeat.
It is man who kills, man who creates or suffers injustice; it is no longer man who, having lost all restraint, shares his bed with a corpse. Whoever waits for his neighbour to die in order to take his piece of bread is, albeit guiltless, further from the mode of thinking man than the most primitive pigmy or the most vicious sadist. 
Part of our existence lies in the feelings of those near to us. This is why the experience of someone who has lived for days during which man was merely a thing in the eyes of man is non-human. We three were for the most part immune from it, and we owe each other mutual gratitude. That is why my friendship with Charles will prove lasting.
....The Russians arrived while Charles and I were carrying Somogyi (a fellow prisoner who had died in the night) a little distance outside. He was very light. We overturned the stretcher on the grey snow.
Charles took off his beret. I regretted not having a beret. 
On January 28, 1945, the New York Times reported on the Soviet military advance through Poland into Germany. The article has a brief notice of the taking of Auschwitz (called Oswiecim in Polish).

This same article is accompanied by a map that shows the Russian troop movements.

Auschwitz is at the lower right corner of the map, very close to Cracow.

The New York Times published a very short article on February 2, 1945, about the liberation of Auschwitz.

The current estimate of those killed at Auschwitz is 1,100,000 people, of whom a million were Jews, so the number given in this article is close. Subsequently, later in the year, there were claims that 4 million to 5 million people were murdered in Auschwitz, but later research showed that this figure was wrong.

May their memory be for a blessing.

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