Saturday, December 12, 2015

No. 4 The Jews in Hitler's Military

A young American is documenting the stories of hundreds
of German veterans of Jewish descent.
Many lost family to the Holocaust
 while serving the Nazi regime.

LONDON — Sustained by scholarship, peanut butter and a sense of mission, American Bryan Rigg is exploring an eerie and uncharted no man's land of Holocaust history. Rigg interviews former German soldiers of Jewish heritage, some of them high-ranking officers, who fought for Adolf Hitler's Third Reich in World War II--
during the Holocaust, when the Nazis slaughtered 6 million Jews.

"Thousands of men of Jewish descent and hundreds of what the Nazis called 'full Jews' served in the military with Hitler's knowledge. The Nazis allowed these men 
to serve but at the same time exterminated their families," Rigg said. 
(according to different sources 150 thousands – add. Zk)
On a heady journey of personal and professional discovery, the 25-year-old Texan has talked with more than 300 of these veterans, including a handful in California. Passed along from one old soldier to another, he has crisscrossed Germany over four years, often by bicycle, sometimes sleeping in railroad stations to stretch his budget.
Rigg said he has documented the Jewish ancestry of more than 1,200 of Hitler's soldiers, including two field marshals and 10 generals, "men commanding up to 100,000 troops." In about 20 cases, soldiers of Jewish heritage were awarded the Knight's Cross, Germany's highest military honor, he said.

Along the way, Rigg, who is of German extraction and was raised as a Protestant, has discovered that he too has Jewish ancestry. Like many of the families he has visited, Rigg had distant relatives who were killed for being Jewish--and others who died fighting in battle for Nazi Germany.

The old soldiers give Rigg both documents and their stories of war, peace and suffering. He says many stillstruggle with a question that is a challenge to history: 
If I fought in the German army while my mother died in a Nazi concentration camp, am I a villain or a victim? Many of the men Rigg meets cling to Nazi terminology, describing themselves as half-Jewish, half-German. Sometimes they weep as they reminisce, these Germans now in their 70s and 80s, many of whom killed on 
the battlefield for a monstrous regime while their families were being killed by it.

"In many cases, these men have not talked about it for 50 years. When I come, it is as if they have opened up a coffin they thought they buried so long ago. 
It all comes out," Rigg said.
One of his discoveries was a 1944 German army personnel document listing 77 high-ranking officers "of mixed Jewish race or married to a Jew." Two generals, eight lieutenant generals, five major generals and 23 colonels are on the list. Hitler personally signed declarations for all 77 on the 1944 list asserting that they were of German blood, thereby exercising his right of exception under 1935 Nazi legislation that barred anyone with a Jewish grandparent from becoming an officer.

Deciding exactly who was to be classified a Jew stirred great internal debate among Nazi leaders. Hitler loathed Jews, but he also needed experienced commanders and fighters."What's fascinating is how involved Hitler was in the screening process," Rigg said. "At the height of the war, he was personally deciding whether this private or that should be of German blood. A private!" He said there were at least a dozen exception lists approved by Hitler--naming ranking officials not only in the armed forces but in the civilian administration that worked with the military.  In interviews and research in Germany this month, Rigg found still more Wehrmacht officers of Jewish descent and more than 1,500 pages of documents, both from veterans and their families and from the wartime German archives 
that Rigg explores with these people's consent.

"Thousands of men of Jewish ancestry fought in the Nazi military because they were drafted. But many were career soldiers, and that forced them to apply for the German blood declaration," Rigg said. "What's sick here is that, even though Hitler gave the approvals, the officers' relatives were being exterminated 
behind their backs. . . .

Were most of these people so egotistical they didn't care who died just so they could live?" Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, says that the soldiers' individual stories are well known but that there does not seem to have been a serious scholarly attempt to piece them together 
into a larger picture.

The new research also poses vexing questions. "If there were Jews who served in the armed forces to save their own lives, that is one thing. If there were others who served knowing what was going on and made no attempt to save [lives], well then that is unacceptable and dishonorable," Hier said. In the homes he visits, Rigg often sees menorahs and books about Judaism. Many of the veterans "have learned Hebrew," he said, "and a few have converted to Judaism and gotten circumcised in their 40s and 50s."

The Nazi regime reeked of hypocrisy, Rigg's new research makes plain. He documents the case of Field Marshal Erhard Milch, deputy to Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering. Long rumored to have been Jewish, Milch in fact had a Jewish father, which, according to Nazi code, made him unacceptable to serve in the armed forces. But in 1935, Rigg's research shows, Goering, Hitler's chosen successor, falsified documents to declare Milch of Aryan descent by asserting that his mother's brother 
was really his father.

"Many of them lost relatives in the Holocaust and knew they had been sent to Auschwitz or other camps. Yet in 1944, when these men themselves got postcards ordering them to report to a certain train station for deportation, most of them went," Rigg said. "If they really knew what happened to their parents 
and grandparents, why did they go?"

At Cambridge, Steinberg--a New Yorker who has taught in England for three decades—said Rigg's findings will deepen history's view of the Holocaust. While Rigg's quest has at times proved  unsettling for him, for many of the old soldiers that he interviews, a visit from the young, earnest American scholar is cathartic--
even liberating.

"I've gotten letters and phone calls from kids and grandkids of these people, saying: 'Thank God you've come. Now our daddy or grandfather will talk to us
 about all of this,' " he said.

The Jews in Hitler's Military - 2015 Los Angeles Times – article collections

synopsis by Zbyszek Koralewski

Saturday, December 5, 2015

No. 3 Killers of Jews or Saviors of Jews?
synopsis of the article: Zbyszek Koralewski

New study by YU history professor sheds fresh light on Poland’s wartime anti-Nazi Resistance movement.

YU professor Joshua Zimmerman’s book on Poland’s underground fighters during World War II.
A third-generation American Jew who grew up in California, Joshua Zimmerman was raised with an atypical perspective about Poland.  Most heard mostly horror stories  about anti-Semitic Poles. Zimmerman didn’t.

His great-grandparents came from the area of Poland-Russia where most of the world’s Jews had lived for centuries, in the decades before the Shoah. And when they spoke about World War II and the Holocaust, they would concentrate instead on the German role in atrocities. “Ethnic Poles did not appear in the narrative,” said Zimmerman, 48, a professor of Eastern European Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Yeshiva University.

Then, during a college course on the Shoah, a Jewish student whose grandparents were from Poland declared that the Poles were as bad “as the Germans.”

 During a later trip to Poland, Zimmerman met citizens who had lived through the war and told him about the heroic Resistance movement there and its Armia Krajowa (Home Army). And then he read a New York Times obituary of the wife of Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, which described how she survived in Nazi-occupied Poland “with the help of the Polish underground.”

“A book was born that day,” said Zimmerman, sitting in his Yeshiva University office, surrounded by books about the Jewish experience in Poland. He would, he says, investigate the truth about the relationship between the country’s Resistance movement and the country’s Jews during World War II. Were the members of Armia Krajowa — AK, as it is popularly known in Poland — saints or sinners?

The result is the recently published “The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945” (Cambridge University Press), a study that raises fresh questions on the eve of the commemoration
of Kristallnacht. “ I have to see it from both sides,” Zimmerman said.

For most Jews, this is not an arcane historical question. Poland was the pre-war home of 3.5 million Jews and the site of the greatest number of Nazi death camps. The behavior of the underground and the AK epitomizes what happened to Polish Jews under German occupation, and it has become an article of faith of most Jews outside of Poland that the Poles abetted or supported the Nazi effort to annihilate the Jewish population.

Zimmerman spent nine years researching the book, which clocks in at nearly 500 pages. Joshua Zimmerman will discuss his book on Monday, Dec. 21, 3 p.m.  at YIVO, 15 W. 16th St., Manhattan
He lived in Poland for a year, studied its language and culture, interviewed aging AK members and Jews who owe their lives to the underground, combing through archives that had become open to historians after Communism fell a quarter-century ago. He also did research in Israel and England.
Zimmerman’s book on some pages challenges and contradicts, and on other pages reinforces, the often prevailing belief about the Polish Resistance’s relationship with Polish Jewry during the war.

“Such a book plays a major role” in understanding Poles’ attitudes towards Jews under Nazi occupation,  said Holocaust expert and author Michael Berenbaum. “The more information we get,
the more we can get to a [balanced] judgment.”

Most Poles, in the view of most Jews, behaved in ways that largely ranged between cold indifference and fiery hatred. Saul Friedlander’s 2007 epic study of the Holocaust, “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945” (Harper Perennial),” typified this Jewish perspective, that Poles were antagonistic towards Jews, that Polish patriotism and nationalism were equal to anti-Semitism.
Armia Krajowa was at first reluctant to aid Jewish partisans because holding a view that tended to dominate Polish thought, it was “suspicious of the leftist and pro-Soviet leanings of part of the ZOB,” a reference to the Jewish Combat Organization, the main underground Jewish partisan group.
He writes of Armia Krajowa units welcoming Jews into their ranks, supplying arms and money and training to Jewish partisan units, organizing an ultimately unsuccessful effort to breach the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto at the start of the 1943 Uprising, condemning Poles who blackmailed Jews and looted Jewish property, rescuing Jews at the risk of AK members’ lives, helping to found the Committee to Aid the Jews (Zegota), maintaining a sometimes-on/sometimes-off relationship with the ZOB, sending members clandestinely into ghettoes and concentration camps to ascertain the life-threatening situations, and publicizing the Jewish plight through its underground press of the government-in-exile.

 But he also writes of AK units that excluded Jews that killed Jews that refused to offer aid because isolated, small-scale attacks on the German military were regarded as a “futile” waste of limited arms. He writes of right-wing parties that continued to harbor anti-Semitic views and spread anti-Semitic calumnies. Zimmerman’s book offers a balanced perspective…

Popular support for Poland’s Jews decreased after liberation when the Soviet army seemed likely to occupy the country; there was widespread fear the Soviets would impose hated communist rule, which many Poles associated with Jews.

Poland and Russia were enemies during many years of their history as neighbors; Poland, a majority Catholic society, hated atheistic Communism; Poland’s Jews, who had initially welcomed the Red Army in 1939 as a release from anti-Semitic rule and as bulwark against the Third Reich, were viewed by many non-Jews as a disloyal fifth column.

“This study revisits the historical evidence and changes our understanding … by presenting a comprehensive treatment of different patterns of behavior toward the Jews at different times during the war and in various regions of occupied Poland,” Zimmerman writes. “I agree that because the Home Army was an umbrella organization of disparate Polish organizations numbering more than 300,000, from all regions ranging from socialists to nationalists, its attitude and behavior towards the Jews varied widely.”

“That the AK freed 398 Jews from German captivity is pretty much unknown.” Zimmerman says, as is the Jewish role as fighters in the ill-fated 1944 Warsaw Uprising — the nearby Red Army remained uninvolved while the outnumbered Poles were decimated by the Germans and the capital was flattened.

Zimmerman says his book, by presenting both sides of the wartime picture, “has the potential of contributing to the Polish-Jewish reconciliation.” He says his own young children, when they come of age, will also hear both sides. He will tell them of “the legacy of anti-Semitism” in Poland. [Will he tell them why –add. by zk] And they will learn “that there were very good people in Poland…
extraordinary Poles who risked their lives to save Jews.”

review of Zimmerman’s book by Jan Peczkis: