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Friday, May 31, 2013

Oakland School for the Arts Students Respond to Talk Given by Jewish Partisan Murray Gordon

Across the nation, every year, students in high schools read Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” However, few students are introduced to the history of the Jewish partisans alongside such popular pieces of Holocaust literature. A great way to introduce students to this parallel history is through a letter-writing project. Using JPEF’s biographies and first-person video testimonials by Jewish partisans, students can respond to these materials with a letter to a partisan expressing their general reflections and feelings; or they can respond to a specific teacher-generated prompt – for example, “if you could interview your partisan, what questions would you ask them?”

One class at the Oakland School for the Arts last May had the opportunity to ask Jewish partisan Murray Gordon their questions face-to-face. They heard the first-hand account of his experience as a partisan during the war: about his escape from the ghetto, joining a Lithuanian partisan group, sabotaging German supply trains and a narrow miss with a Nazi bayonet. Afterwards, a few students got a chance to ask him questions directly.

Hearing Gordon’s story helped students make the connection between present and past. Students were deeply engaged and their letters expressed thanks for his talk, sharing that Gordon was their “new hero,” and that they would like to continue his “fight for equality.” One student letter included the following sentiment, “I admire your selflessness and the fight for the freedom of your people.”

Encourage your students to make a personal connection to a Jewish partisan by assigning them to read a JPEF biography and watch the accompanying video testimonial clips. Ask students to write letters to Jewish partisans describing their reaction to these stories of resistance. Even if a student’s chosen partisan might no longer be alive, it's still a great theoretical exercise, and if students choose a living partisan they can send the letters directly to their partisans through JPEF. Submit your stories to us and we may post them on our blog!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Forced Remorse and the de-Nazification of German Society

May 8th marked the 68th anniversary of the Allied victory against Nazi Germany. Though the theater of war had closed, the liberating armies – and the rest of the world – experienced a new kind of shock and horror as evidence of a carefully planned, technologically sophisticated genocide against European Jews and other groups began to emerge.

“The things I saw beggar description,” wrote Eisenhower in a cable to Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, describing his reaction to his visit to the Ohrdruf concentration camp:

The visual evidence and verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, [US General] George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to 'propaganda.’

Eisenhower was deeply shaken by this experience, and soon after, requested that a delegation comprised of congress members and journalists see for themselves what he saw. Not long after the world learned the terrible truth, the inevitable question was asked: what did the German people know of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews and when?


A German girl walks by the exhumed bodies of prisoners from the Flossenberg concentration camp

“How many people heard or read the reports (about the murder of European Jews) and to what extent the reports were believed and their meaning grasped…is impossible to ascertain.”1 The Allies, conscious of the role Goebbles and his powerful propaganda machine had in keeping the public supportive of the regime, decided to confront the German people with visual evidence of Nazi crimes – the program included compulsory visits to nearby concentration camps, posters displaying dead bodies of prisoners hung in public places, and forcing German POWs to view films documenting the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. It also included the removal of all remnants of Nazism from public life - including the removal of anyone affiliated with the Nazi party from public offices, teaching posts, and any other positions of influence over society. This was also the first time in history that propaganda was treated as an instrument of war crimes, with prominent Nazi propagandists put on trial and convicted alongside other senior party officials at the Nuremberg tribunals2.

This is not to say that there was no debate over these forced viewings. The displayed footage did provoke discussion among the POWs and the German population, albeit with unintended consequences: wary of being manipulated by images and media again, many Germans argued that it was the Allies who were now tricking them with their propaganda. “They showed us ghastly photos of corpses piled up in the concentration camps,” writes diarist Ursula Von Kardoff, a native of southern Germany, “But the people here who saw them said that they were really pictures of the bombing of Dresden. This is the result of Goebbles’s propaganda. These people no longer believe anything and mistrust everything and everybody.”

James Agee, American author, screenwriter and film critic, made the point in his May 19, 1945 article for the Nation that the forced viewing of these films and sites of atrocities was a method to pin the guilt on the whole of the German people, justifying what he called a “hard peace” against them. Ultimately, he argues against a passion for vengeance because it is:

…a terrifyingly strong one, very easily and probably inevitably wrought up by such evidence, even at our distance. But however well aware I am of its strength, and that in its full immediate force and expression it is in some respects irrelevant to moral inquiry, I doubt that it is ever to be honored, or regarded as other than evil - and in every direction fatally degrading and destructive; even when it is obeyed in hot blood or in a crisis of prevention; far worse when it is obeyed in cold blood and in the illusion of carrying out justice.

The photos below give two perspectives on one such viewing in which German POWs on American soil are forced to watch scenes from concentration camps. The photographs are taken at different angles: one depicts the back of the POWs’ heads, so that they are faceless, leaving only the projected image on the screen to provide context; the other depicts only the faces of the POWs as they react to the footage.



The two photographs and this old newsreel video are an excellent springboard for discussion regarding the role of propaganda in shaping war memory, and the role and responsibility of victors in the stabilization and reconstruction of societies ravaged by war and conflict. In the larger context of the Allied efforts to rebuild Germany, these programs of "forced remorse" point to the social complexities of post-war reconstruction: the balance between the need to teach the truth about the horrors of genocide in hopes of creating a stable society and an immediate imperative to satisfy the need for justice or even vengeance.


1. P. 142, State of Deception: the Power of Nazi Propaganda, Steven Luckert and Susan Bachrach; published by USHMM in conjunction with an exhibit by the same name, 2009-2011.
2. The most prominent among them - Julius Streicher, editor of the rabidly anti-Semitic Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer, which routinely printed explicit calls for the death of Jews - was sentenced to hang.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Ask A Partisan Q&A - Frank Blaichman

JPEF executive director Mitch Braff had a chance to record a short Q&A session with former Jewish partisan platoon commander Frank Blaichman while visiting at his home in New York City. The questions all came from the Ask A Partisan section of our website, where students submit questions to be answered later by a panel of Jewish partisans – including Blaichman. Here are some of his responses:
Q1. So was it difficult to go back to normal life after the war?

Q2. What did you learn in the resistance about dealing with other people?

Q3. Were there kids born and raised in the resistance environment? Was this allowed?


To learn more about Frank Blaichman, you can download the JPEF study guide on the Curriculum Page of the site, or read his memoir, "Rather Die Fighting"