June 28, 2006

Storms Of Brutality

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The organized riot known as Kristallnacht, which on November 10, 1938, destroyed most of the synagogues and Jewish-owned stores in Germany, can be considered the first act of the Holocaust. Observers at the time, both Jewish and foreign, were fully aware that it marked a significant transition in the Nazi persecution of the Jews, the moment when legal discrimination, economic extortion, and selective imprisonment turned into wholesale destruction.The quandaries it raises, then, are the quandaries we associate with the Holocaust itself: How could so many ordinary Germans participate in, or mutely approve of, violence against their own neighbors? How is an entire population seduced to hatred?

Martin Gilbert, the eminent biographer of Churchill and historian of World War II, is the author of one of the standard English-language works on this subject, ”The Holocaust.” In ”Kristallnacht” (HarperCollins, 314 pages, $21.95), however, he is less interested in probing the roots of Nazi terror than in documenting its crime. The book’s contribution is not to explain how and why Kristallnacht happened, but to preserve the memory of what it felt like to those caught up in its fury.

To this end, Mr. Gilbert has solicited recollections from dozens of surviving witnesses.The list of acknowledgments found at the beginning of the book reads like an atlas of the vanished nation of German Jewry: Here are Jews who experienced Kristallnacht in Berlin and Vienna, Danzig and Hamburg, Fulda and Elbing. Because the only eyewitnesses left in 2006 were children and teenagers in 1938, their recollections are naturally limited. Much of ”Kristallnacht” is made up of disconnected vignettes of uncomprehending terror, which leave the book feeling analytically impoverished. Yet they succeed, because of their very naivete, in communicating just how shocking the events of November 10 really were.

By November 1938, of course, it was already abundantly clear that the Jews had no future in Germany. Out of a Jewish population of 500,000 in 1933, 150,000 had already emigrated. But the shock of Kristallnacht, in Mr. Gilbert’s words, ”taught those German Jews who still retained hope … that the time had come to leave.” In the 10 months remaining before the start of World War II, a further 120,000 Jews fled Germany, almost as many as in the previous 5 1/2 years. More could have escaped, were it not for the world’s coldly bureaucratic indifference to the plight of German Jewish refugees, carefully detailed by Mr. Gilbert in the book’s second half.

The origins of Kristallnacht might be said to lie in January 1933, since once the Nazis had taken power, anti-Semitic atrocities were inevitable. But the immediate trigger for the pogrom came on November 7 in Paris, when a Jewish refugee named Herschel Grynszpan, infuriated by his parents’ expulsion from Germany, walked into the German embassy and shot a diplomat named Ernst vom Rath. This act allowed the Nazis, with characteristic shamelessness, to cast the events of Kristallnacht as vengeance, or even self-defense: ”Our darling Jews will think twice in future before simply gunning down German diplomats,” Goebbels wrote in his diary.

Accordingly, the word went out to the SA, the infamous brownshirts, that it was open season on Jewish synagogues, businesses, and homes. The police did nothing to interfere, and in many cases actively helped the rioters. By the time the radio broadcast an order to cease rampaging, that evening, more than 1,000 synagogues had been destroyed, and at least 90 Jews had been murdered. The broken glass from so many shop and synagogue windows gave November 10 its name, but Mr.Gilbert reminds us that the ”Night of Broken Glass” involved much more than mere vandalism. As he writes, ”within those 24 hours, more than 30,000 Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 – a quarter of all Jewish men still in Germany – were arrested and sent to concentration camps. There they were tortured and tormented for several months. More than a thousand died in these camps.”

How did this storm of brutality feel to the children who were swept up in it? One after another, Mr. Gilbert’s eyewitnesses tell the same basic story of schools closed, doors barred, fathers kidnapped, possessions stolen and smashed. In Vienna, a 9-year-old boy named Hans Waizner remembers driving past a burning synagogue: ”My strongest, my most physical memory of Kristallnacht was of our lorry bumping and rolling across that pile of smouldering religious books. I will never forget it.” Still more wrenching, perhaps, are the children who could not grasp the danger they faced. Esther Ascher from Breslau remembers that when her mother gave each of the children 20 marks to use in case they were separated, the 14-year-old girl was excited to have so much pocket money: ”Would I be able to buy the sweater that I always wanted?”

Mr. Gilbert also quotes generously from contemporary English-language newspaper accounts, which left no doubt of what was happening in Germany. A reporter for Britain’s Telegraph wrote,”Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete control of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle-class mothers held up their babies to see the ‘fun.’” This image, as much as the broken glass and rampaging thugs, encapsulates the ominous prophecy of Kristallnacht. Ordinary Germans who could happily watch Jews being beaten would not lift a finger when Jews were being gassed. It also raises the disquieting question of whether any people, Americans included, can consider themselves immune to the virus of conformist cruelty.

That same question dominates Jan T. Gross’s ”Fear” (Random House, 303 pages, $25.95), a considerably more original and scholarly work than ”Kristallnacht.” ”Fear” is is sure to start historical debates. That was certainly the effect of Mr. Gross’s 2001 book, ”Neighbors,” which recounted the 1941 massacre of Jews in the Polish town of Jedwabne – a massacre committed, not by Germans, but by Poles themselves, against people they had known their whole lives. ”Fear,” too, centers on a single episode, historically well attested, but little known and long ignored in Poland. This was the Kielce pogrom of July 4, 1946, the worst in Europe after the end of World War II, in which more than 40 Jews were murdered. Mr. Gross, a historian at Princeton University, uses the events of the day, and the way they were interpreted afterward, to explore the complex and taboo subject of Polish anti-Semitism after the Holocaust.

The very fact that it took place after the Holocaust is what makes the Kielce pogrom so hard to comprehend. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, its Jewish population was three million, the largest in Europe; by the time the war ended, in 1945, there were 200,000 Jews left. Yet even this remnant quickly abandoned Poland in the years after the war, driven out by anti-Semitism of the kind that exploded at Kielce, and took the lives of up to 1,500 Jews across the country in 1945-46. Why, Mr. Gross asks, didn’t the shared suffering of Poles and Jews at the hands of the German occupiers, and the near annihilation of the Jewish population, serve to diminish the age-old hatred?

That the hatred hadn’t diminished, or even changed form, is obvious from Mr. Gross’s meticulous reconstruction of the events of July 4, 1946. Incredible as it may seem, the pogrom that day began with a blood libel of the kind that, Mr. Gross points out, had been condemned by the Papacy more than 700 years earlier. On July 1, an 8-year-old boy named Henryk Blaszczyk was reported missing by his father. The boy showed up two days later, explaining that he had hitchhiked to his old hometown a few miles away to see friends.

Undeterred by the facts, his father went to the police station and insisted that the boy had been held captive in the basement of Kielce’s Jewish community center (which, it transpired, didn’t even have a basement). Word quickly spread in the town that ”the Jews had killed a Christian child,” and a detachment of police, backed by a mob, broke down the door of the building. When soldiers arrived with instructions to quell the riot, they instead joined in, turning their guns on the Jews barricaded inside.

Dozens were murdered at the community center – shot, beaten, thrown out of windows. One man was stoned to death in a nearby creek. A new mother named Regina Fisz was taken from her apartment by four men, brought to a nearby forest, and shot in the back; her baby was shot in the head. Trains passing through the town were also attacked, in an especially bizarre fashion. Groups of boy scouts would board the carriages and locate Jewish passengers, then point them out to waiting mobs, who dragged them out of the train and killed them.

The Kielce pogrom was not an affair of SS troops and death camps, but a spontaneous massacre carried out in peacetime by ordinary men, women, and even children. Admittedly, the Communist government of Poland did not encourage the murders, the way the Nazi occupiers would have. There was a semblance of legality in the way the crime was subsequently investigated, and a handful (but only a handful) of perpetrators were punished. But for Mr. Gross, the real question is how it could have happened in the first place. ”Why were the people of Poland so threatened by their fellow citizens, the Jews?” he asks. ”Was it really because Jews were sucking their children’s blood?”

In his imaginative, urgent, and unorthodox analysis, Mr. Gross concludes that, in fact, the reason was the precise opposite. It was because the Poles had figuratively sucked the blood of the Jews, during the war years, that they feared and loathed the few who survived. Mr. Gross emphasizes that, in Poland more than any other country, the Holocaust was carried out in full view of the population, with the active or passive complicity of millions. More, there was a vast class of lower- and middle-class Poles who profited from the Jews’ disappearance, either by stealing their property or by taking over their economic function.

Mr. Gross cites many reports written during the war by Polish and foreign observers that emphasized how popular the genocide of the Jews was in Poland. To give just one example: During the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the poet Mieczyslaw Jastrun remembered, young girls working in office buildings went out on the terraces to watch the ghetto go up in flames,”and called out cheerfully in the spring air, shaking with detonations and reeking of smoke, ‘Come, look how cutlets from Jews are frying.’”

The ”fear” of Mr. Gross’s title, then, is not just the fear suffered by Jews in a Poland that wished they had never come back alive. It is also the fear of the Poles themselves, who saw in those survivors a reminder of their own wartime crimes. Even beyond Mr. Gross’s exemplary historical research and analysis, it is this lesson that makes ”Fear” such an important book. As Germany and Poland showed, and as Bosnia and Rwanda have confirmed, nothing makes people more willing to commit evil than consciousness of their own guilt.