Who knew what when?

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The question about who knew what, and when, about the Shoah is one of those questions without any one answer. Just like the question of why people in some countries, or areas within certain countries, were more or less likely than others to protest and engage in rescue operations, it all depends upon so many factors.

There’s no question that people living near ghettoes and camps had at least some inkling of what was going on. They saw those walls and barbed wire fences, saw people being marched to and fro on work details. Near camps with Kremchies, it was impossible to miss that horrific smell. They might not’ve known exactly what was happening, but they had some idea.

By the end of the war, many people in Poland and Germany, and some regions of Austria and the former Czechoslovakia, had seen death marches in action. They also knew something was going on.

In occupied Western and Northern Europe, where there were only some transit camps (like Drancy and Westerbork), people wouldn’t have been directly exposed to the things going on in Central and Eastern Europe. However, they did know people were being taken away and persecuted. The brave people of Amsterdam staked a strike in February 1941 (as commemorated in the above plaque), in protest of what was happening to Dutch Jewry.

The people of Denmark also had some sense of what was going on, as word from other countries trickled in. They knew enough to smuggle almost all of their country’s Jewish community into Sweden (among them famous scientist Niels Bohr, whose mother was Jewish). It’s just an urban legend that King Christian X wore a yellow star, but the vast majority of Danes still stood up to fascism and did the right thing. They were like the Italians, unwilling to obey Nazi orders.

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Many people saw the death trains, and caught glimpses of the people trapped inside. There were also some escapes from the trains (some successful, some not), and the civilian population would’ve seen that too. It still rankles when I think about those know-it-all agents who dogpiled me in a pitchfest some years back. Among other things, they claimed no one ever escaped from a death train, though there were actually a number of successful escapes. Guess I know my history a lot better than they do!

The most popular melody of “Ani Ma’amin” was created by a Modzitzer Chasid on his way to Treblinka. He promised to give half of his share of the World to Come to whomever could bring the melody to the Modzitzer Rebbe, who’d escaped in 1940. Two men jumped out of the train, and the one survivor indeed brought that melody to the rebbe’s son in Israel, who in turn sent it to his father.

A lot of Polish historical revisionists like to claim Claude Lanzmann’s 9.5-hour documentary Shoah is full of Polonophobic lies for interviewing a lot of peasants with less than enlightened interfaith attitudes, and because some of his Jewish interviewees reported Poles shouting anti-Semitic epithets and pretending to slit their throats. Polish historical revisionists might not be as vile as Shoah deniers, but they’re still freaking ridiculous. How do you just ignore obvious evidence from multiple sources? History, like science, only cares about truth, not preserving and validating your delicate feelings.

If you truly love your country and people, you shouldn’t be afraid to admit and address black marks in its history. I’m a passionate Russophile and Slavophile, but that doesn’t mean pretending there’s no long history of anti-Semitism (often bloody) in countries like Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Slovakia. I’m a quarter Slovak myself, and have no choice but to deal with my discomfort at Slovakia’s ugly role in WWII.

Part of the French section of Yad Vashem’s Valley of the Communities, one of the many sections I wasn’t able to see due to not being on my own schedule, Copyright Utilisateur:DjampaUser:Djampa. I’d never complain about any of my so far three trips to Israel, but it’s such torture to be yanked along on someone else’s schedule when you want to go through an entire museum, not just parts, and spend the entire day there.

It’s fair to say ordinary people in all countries, even active collaborators, typically didn’t know what was really going on. But it’s also fair to say many people near the camps, ghettoes, and death marches certainly had some idea of what was going on, particularly during the closing months of the war.

Why I only create (various levels of) observant Jewish characters

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Paradesi Synagogue, Cochin, India (Copyright Jean-Pierre Dalbéra)

It’s so, so important to me to create religious Jewish characters, no matter which denomination they’re from. I have Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Traditional, Reconstructionist, New Age, Renewal, and a few other movements represented among my many characters. In short, I’m writing what I know, what I can relate to. While I know many good people who are more into the thrice a year Judaism common in North America, that’s just not something I personally can understand. I’ve been living a Jewish life for half of my life now, and I’ve always gone to shul every week, kept kosher, dressed modestly, kept the Sabbath, studied Torah, and been actively involved in my various communities.

It’s important to me to counteract the ridiculous images in so many movies and TV shows, with a 99% intermarriage and interdating rate, Ashkenazocentrism (i.e., acting like only people of Central and Eastern European descent exist or count), no kosher, unfunny “jokes,” and basically no iota of actual Judaism. My characters all have observant homes with weekly shul attendance, and the bar or bat mitzvah is a religious occasion, not all about some vulgar, overblown party afterwards.

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Towers of the Great Synagogue of Dohány Utca (Street), Budapest, Copyright Maciej Podstolski

My ex grew up in a home without any Judaism, with parents and grandparents who are still mentally in the USSR. He tried to get them to do Shabbos and holidays a few times when he was younger, but they screamed at him and told him they don’t do Judaism. Their mezuzah is hung on the wrong side of the door, inside the house, and at the wrong place and angle. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s no scroll in there! They eat treyf all the time, and never go to shul or observe holidays. The few times I was able to drag my ex to one of the three shuls within 5 minutes of his parents’ house, he refused to go there at the normal starting time, always left early, and couldn’t wait to get out of there the entire time, even on Simchat Torah of all holidays.

Seriously, the relationship my ex has with his overbearing, Harpy mommy makes the mother-son relationship in White Heat look normal. That family has issues way beyond their abandonment of their so-called religion.

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Tempio Maggiore Israelitico of Firenze (Florence), Copyright Deror avi

My characters have a religious, not a secular or cultural, connection to Judaism. It’s not about matzah ball soup, the Catskills, gossiping with friends in shul, or grandparents with names like Rosie and Hymie. It’s kind of hard for Jewish continuity to be nurtured when one grows up in a household without Shabbos, only sporadic shul attendance, no kosher, and some feel-good cultural connection. Odd how so many of these parents, after doing jack to create a proper Jewish home, get really upset when their kids want to marry a non-Jew. Look at the example you set!

I do have a couple of intermarriages among my characters, but they’re in a very small minority, and most of them culminated in a sincere conversion, either before or after marriage. Many of these couples also began dating in secret, and even married in secret, since they knew it’s kind of a really big deal. I don’t want anything to do with perpetuating the media’s depiction of an off the charts intermarriage rate. A huge reason the world Jewish community still hasn’t demographically recovered from the Shoah is because of a very low birthrate and high intermarriage rate.

There’s also no half and half crap, which studies show tends to confuse and alienate kids once they’re past the “Twice the presents!” phase. My intermarried characters’ children are raised Jewish only, and my characters Livia and Liam will raise their kids Jewitch.

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New Harbin Synagogue, China (opened 1909, recently restored and reopened)

Re: Ashkenazocentrism, I like to give my characters all sorts of backgrounds. Yes, most of them are of various types of European descent, but they’re from all over Europe, not just Poland and the former Russian Empire. My Ashkenazic characters aren’t ruled by superstitions either, like only and always naming kids after dead relatives, or claiming a single initial counts as a namesake. As a name nerd, I’d feel so unhappy and limited if I were compelled to only name my potential kids after dead relatives instead of using original names I loved.

Most of all, I want readers to know Judaism is a year-round, daily affair, not just something one does thrice a year. I love writing holiday scenes (both for food and celebrations), describing synagogue architecture, discussing laws and customs, depicting women going to the mikvah (ritual bath), having characters walking to shul on Shabbos and holidays, writing Jewish weddings, you name it.

I’ve reached an age where I have to be realistic about my chances of ever having children (either in a marriage or as a single mom by choice), but if I’m fated to be forever childfree, I know I’ve been fruitful and multiplied in other ways. A big part of that is creating characters who serve as positive ambassadors of observant Judaism.

WeWriWa—No secrets revealed

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a few lines after last week’s, after Igor told Violetta he was really sorry about the loss of her oldest siblings. Violetta thanked him, but said she wasn’t the one to offer sympathies to, since she never knew them and they were all dead before she was born. Her oldest two siblings died of diphtheria on the same day, and then she had a miscarried sibling and a brother who was stillborn at seven months.

Violetta is rather worried to learn Igor is the younger brother of her former neighbor Fedya, who also worked as a counselor at the church camp her mother and grandfather run. Right now, her biggest concern is being assured Fedya didn’t spill the beans about her being a polio survivor. Since starting NYU, she’s done her best to hide her past from her new friends.

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Violetta takes her powder blue pastel back out of its wooden case. “Promise Fedya really didn’t tell you any secrets about me?  He said he wouldn’t tell you and Ilya anything personal, but I just want to make absolutely sure.  Even a swell, trustworthy guy like Fedya could accidentally reveal the wrong thing.”

“Fedya never talked about his neighbors with us.  Don’t worry he squealled something silly like coming home late with a boyfriend or opening the door in pajamas.”

Violetta picks up her blender and begins working on a patch of sky in the upper right-hand corner. “Thank God.  I didn’t think he’d tell you my life story, but you can never be too sure of anything in this life.”

Homefront hardships vs. surviving genocide

Yet another issue I hadn’t realized Gentile readers may not understand is the issue of how much people on the occupied homefront suffered in comparison to people who were actually in ghettoes and camps. I hadn’t thought that would even be an issue, but apparently it can be.

In Aranka Siegal’s Grace in the Wilderness, the memoir about her life in the early postwar years, there’s a letter from her oldest surviving sister Etu. Etu was in Budapest during the war, and thus avoided the horrors the rest of the family went through. After liberation, she went to Beregszász (now Berehovo, Ukraine) to search for any survivors and reclaim any personal property.

All these people had been so friendly with her mother, yet they gave her the cold shoulder and claimed not to recognize her. The only friendly face was neighbor girl Ica Molnár (Aranka’s friend), who provided a lot of help and information. Etu and her new husband were able to spend a few months in her old family home, though another family had since moved in, and the situation was very tense. All the inside doors had also been ripped out.

Mrs. Molnár complained about how the Gentiles had suffered too, and were still suffering under Soviet occupation. Etu rightly pointed out that these people went through those hardships in their own homes, with their families intact. She was the one who was all alone and had lost almost everything.

People who spent the entire war on the homefront faced rationing, food shortages, waiting in long lines for food, foreign occupation, loved ones being away in the military, bombing raids, sometimes suppression of their national languages and culture. Some people were also taken for foreign labor service, either mandatory or after being caught in a łapanka (roundup) in Poland. Of all the nations under occupation, I do agree Poland probably suffered the most.

They weren’t the ones who had to eat sawdust bread and watery soup full of garbage. They weren’t the ones who never knew if they’d end the day alive. They weren’t the ones who risked being killed for looking at someone the wrong way, doing the wrong thing, or getting any kind of blemish on the body. They weren’t the ones who lost their entire families and had their personal possessions taken away. They never lived a day of their lives in the shadow of the gas chamber.

My next trip to Israel will either be on my own, or with a much more flexible schedule and longer timetable! It’s not fair I was unable to go through the entirety of any of the Yad Vashem exhibits and photograph them when the Shoah/WWII era is one of my areas of historical expertise and a frequent subject of my writing. I really wanted to see the pillars engraved with city names from Germany, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, France, and all the other countries, not just Poland and the former USSR.

It doesn’t make a lick of sense for a normal survivor to listen to an old neighbor’s litany of complaints about homefront suffering, nod, smile, and agree their kinds of suffering were exactly the same. It’s apples to oranges. It’s like saying someone on the Japanese homefront suffered just as much as a Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor). That’s pretty insulting to the person with the far more horrific experience.

Bottom line: It’s unrealistic to expect a survivor to sympathize with the homefront suffering of people who in many cases (particularly in Eastern Europe) didn’t do a damn thing to help them when they had the chance, and even actively took part in their persecution. There’s a reason most survivors either refused to be repatriated or didn’t spend the rest of their lives in their old homelands. Most survivors wanted to go to Israel precisely because they’d be surrounded by their own, people who understood exactly what they’d lived through.

The lingering Germanophobia, Polonophobia, and Magyarphobia among many Shoah survivors

Another of the issues which I’ve come to realize Gentile readers may see much differently than Jewish readers, thanks to certain well-meaning comments from critique partners, is the whole issue of many Shoah survivors’ fear, paranoia, avoidance, hatred, etc., towards the German people, and, to at least an equal degree, the Polish and Hungarian collaborators and bystanders.

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First off, a recurring theme in many survivors’ memoirs, interviews, and testimonies is a fear, hatred, paranoia, etc., of Germany and all things German. We’re not talking about people who lived among ordinary Germans and therefore understood not everyone was a Nazi or silent collaborator. We’re talking about people whose first and only experience with the German language and German people was in ghettoes and camps. They associated that with terror, fear, and Death.

Perhaps decades later, some of them might’ve developed a more nuanced, complex understanding, but in the immediate aftermath of the war, it doesn’t make a lick of sense for the typical non-German survivor to have any positive things to say about the German people. At most, they might wish more Germans had been like the precious few righteous souls they encountered, like a political prisoner who befriended them, or someone who provided shelter after an escape.

Many survivors have also said they hold no ill will towards the younger generations. They’re innocents. It’s the older Germans they remain fearful and suspicious of. Many refused to return to Germany, buy German products, or live near German immigrants.

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Many Polish survivors have mentioned never really considering Poland their homeland. According to the 1931 census, 79% of Polish Jews reported Yiddish was their first language. Only 12% spoke Polish as their first language, and the remaining 8% spoke Hebrew. While a growing number of young, modern, upwardly-mobile people (esp. in the big cities) had begun using Polish names and speaking the native language, a vast majority still spoke only Yiddish, had shtetl names (like Feige, Moishe, Avrumie, Gitl, and Shternie), wore pre-modern clothes, and essentially didn’t do anything to blend into the wider society.

I’m truly sorry Yiddish has become a dying language, but it really didn’t do people any favors to keep using Yiddish exclusively and ignoring the language of their host countries. However, I understand why so many people shunned learning Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian. Interfaith relations weren’t exactly good, and there were so many barriers standing in the way of higher education, jobs, housing, etc.

More than a few people returned to Poland after the liberation, and remained there for the rest of their lives, but many more got the hell out of there. They were greeted with suspicion, annoyance, and hostility, like how dare they survive or return. The most famous example of continuing postwar anti-Semitism was a pogrom in Kielce in 1946. More information on this topic can be found in Jan T. Gross’s excellent book Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. Typically, far-right Polish historical revisionists attack all his books as Polonophobic lies, when all he’s doing is reporting established facts. History, like science, only cares about the truth, not your delicate feelings and nationalist pride.

Keep in mind, I like Polish literature, culture, history, cuisine, and language! There’s nothing Polonophobic about owning up to the less than positive aspects of Polish history. It doesn’t negate how many Poles have been honored as Righteous Among the Nations, nor does it assume every single Pole throughout history was an anti-Semite.

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The situation was similar yet different in Hungary. Due to the 19th century policy of Magyarization, very few Hungarian Jews spoke Yiddish by the time of WWII, and there were only a small number of officially-approved Magyarized versions of Hebrew names. Hungarian Jews spoke Hungarian, had Hungarian names, went to public schools, dressed in Hungarian clothes, had good relationships with their Gentile neighbors, you name it. They considered themselves fully-integrated parts of society. It was therefore a huge shock when these lifelong friends and neighbors turned on them so swiftly after the Nazi invasion in March 1944.

Ghettoization took place in April and May, and from mid-May to early July, 437,402 people were deported from the countryside. Budapest was relatively safer, though many Budapestis died in the ghetto or were murdered by the Arrow Cross. The Hungarian gendarmes, NOT the Nazis, were the ones who enacted anti-Semitic laws, forced people into ghettoes, and carried out deportation. The Nazis only took control when the trains reached Košice, Slovakia.

Many people came home to hostility, avoidance, denial, and dismissal. Strangers were living in their houses, and many people refused to give back their belongings. Some people were lucky enough to regain possessions, and even to find their old homes abandoned, but that wasn’t most people’s experience. Many survivors also reported their former friends and neighbors lining the streets and cheering as they were marched to the train stations.

This wasn’t a world of “Kumbaya.” This bitterness, anger, fear, hostility, and suspicion were more than justified. There’s a reason many people could never forgive and forget. It wasn’t so simple as telling a survivor, “Well, many Germans were anti-Nazi” or “Not all Poles and Hungarians were anti-Semites.”