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Monday, October 31, 2016

The Resistance of Herschel Grynszpan

In all of Holocaust history, Herschel Grynszpan is considered to be one of its more controversial – and curious – figures. But regardless of the moral ambiguity of the choices he made, his actions had a major influence on the course of events. He also goes down in the books as one of the first Jews to defy Nazi Germany.
The child of Polish immigrants, Grynszpan was born in March of 1921 in Hanover, Germany. As a teen, he studied at at Yeshiva in Frankfurt before returning to Hanover, where he applied to move to Palestine. However his young age and small size worked against him, and his request was denied.
Upon being denied entry into Palestine, Herschel illegally snuck into Paris in 1936 to live with his aunt and uncle. Throughout the following two years he tried to gain legal residency in France, but was consistently denied (possibly due to the political climate at the time). His re-entry papers into Germany were expired, and Poland had just passed a law that stripped anyone living abroad for over five years of Polish citizenship – in effect, Herschel became a person belonging to no state, and simply continued to reside illegally among the Orthodox community in Paris.
In 1938, approximately 12,000 Polish Jews were rounded up and forced onto boxcar trains destined to Poland – which had no desire to admit them, and they were left stranded at the border. Among these Jews were Grynszpan's family: his mother, father, and siblings. One of his family members managed to send Herschel a postcard from the border town they were staying at detailing their mistreatment at the hands of the Germans.
Alarmed by the news, Herschel implored his uncle to send them financial help, which his uncle refused to do: his finances were already stretched thin by the illegal immigrant living in his home. The 17-year old youth walked out on his uncle that day, and with the little money he had in his pocket, he purchased a gun and then proceeded to the German embassy in Paris. Herschel requested to talk to an embassy official, and the clerk on duty at the time, Ernst vom Rath, was sent to inquire about Herschel's intentions. Claiming vengeance for the 12,000 deported Jews, Herschel then shot vom Rath, who died two days later in the hospital.

Ernst vom Rath
The timing for this event turned out to be disastrous for German Jews. This was the perfect excuse the Nazis needed to continue with their antisemitic plans: Goebbles gave an impassioned speech that day, which fueled the flames of a nationwide pogrom that subsequently became known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass.
But the case was not as clear-cut as the Nazis had hoped.
Urged by his legal defense team to “de-politicize” the assassination, Grynszpan claimed that he wanted to assassinate the German ambassador not for political reasons, but because vom Rath had seduced Grynszpan after promising him help with his immigration status – and then turned his back on the promise. French law was much more tolerant of crimes of passion than of politically-motivated assassinations, so Grynszpan would likely avoid the guillotine with such defense.
As time went on, it became clear that neither the defense nor the persecution – led by a German lawyer sent by Goebbles tasked with finding evidence of a Jewish conspiracy – were in any hurry to proceed with the trial. The proceedings were further complicated by the outbreak of the war, and Grynszpan subsequently spent the next two years languishing in French prisons. Once Germany invaded France, he was bounced from prison to prison, until German agents found him in Toulouse. He was taken into German custody in 1940 – Goebbles and the Nazis hoped to use him for a show trial to prove the complicity of “international Jewry” in the assassination. Because the Nazis needed to keep Grynszpan in good shape for the political theater he would be forced to take part in, he was sent to Sachsenhausen, where he was housed in a “bunker” reserved for “special prisoners”, including the last chancellor of Austria.
What happened to him during and after the war is a mystery. The show trial Goebbles had wanted never materialized – the initial procedural delays took two years, by which time Goebbles and others became aware of the “homosexual defense” Grynszpan was planning to use. Though the relationship may have been fabricated, vom Rath's homosexuality was quite real, and would have caused the Reich great embarrassment. By the time Hitler found out the whole truth about the case (presumably through Bormann, as Goebbles was not wholly forthcoming about the details), the regime was in no mood for more show trials. The failure of the Riom trials in France showed just how dangerous such theater can be to the persecuting regime, and the Reich had more pressing matters to deal with, such as their military setbacks in the Soviet Union and American involvement in the war. Grynszpan's fate was placed on indefinite hold and, after being moved to Magdeburg prison, he disappeared from official records.
Some claim that he must have been executed by the Germans at one point or another; others claim he made it out of prison and lived out the rest of his life in Paris under an assumed name. The West German government declared him legally dead in 1960. His parents managed to survive the war – fleeing to the Soviet Union after their deportation to Poland in 1939, and then eventually immigrating to Israel.
Though the assassination of vom Rath was ultimately a tragedy – vom Rath himself was under investigation by the Reich for purported pro-Jewish activities – the reasons behind Grynszpan's youthful act of passion against the regime struck a sympathetic chord with many people, and helped focus the world's attention on what was going on in Germany at the time. The subsequent events of Kristallnacht and the horrified reaction by the rest of the world put an end to a decade of appeasement of the Nazi regime. In the end, the spirit behind Grynszpan's resistance is universally resonant, even though the act itself is indicative of just how complicated and morally ambiguous the use of violence can be in such situations. He is quoted as saying, “Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on this earth.”

Monday, October 10, 2016

Spiritual Resistance on Yom Kippur - Ruth Szabo Brand (1928 - 2011)

Ruth Szabo Brand was born in 1928 near Sighet in Northern Transylvania (Hungary). Though she lost her father at the age of three, her maternal grandfather, Yisrael Szabo, raised her with strong religious convictions – ones that she held onto even in the darkest times of her life, at Auschwitz.

In 1944, 16-year-old Ruth arrived at Auschwitz with her mother, two younger siblings, and grandmother. Her relatives were immediately sent to the gas chambers, leaving Ruth the family’s sole survivor. She was assigned to a work detail with several other young women, and they bonded instantly. When Yom Kippur arrived, they were assigned to shovel ashes from the crematoria.

Despite their horrific assignment, the girls vowed to support each other and fast for the holiday. They refused the watery, barley-based coffee they were given for breakfast. The Nazis noticed and taunted them for their piety: “So you’re not hungry today? We’ll make sure you get an appetite!” Ruth and the rest of the girls worked tirelessly in the sweltering heat, and while most broke down and ate the watery soup served for lunch, Ruth continued to fast alongside her cousin. The two saved their soup for dinner, but by then it had spoiled, and they broke their fast with nothing more than two thin pieces of black bread.

The next day, Ruth was unexpectedly given a supervising role digging ditches with the rest of her detail, while her cousin was asked to cook a cabbage soup for the kapo. Seeing the exhausted faces of the 200 or so girls working in the heat, she told them to stop working. Only when a kapo came by did Ruth shout at the girls, as though they had been laboring the entire time. Witnessing her actions, and believing them to be authentic, the kapo rewarded Ruth and her cousin for their extra duties by giving them double servings of lunch. The two were convinced it was a reward from G-d for fasting throughout Yom Kippur.

Ruth Szabo Brand and her cousin chose to resist by continuing to fast on Yom Kippur, 1944. Their adherence to their faith, and belief in the importance of religious ritual, gave them something to hold onto, even in the darkest of times. This act of spiritual and religious resistance, carried out silently, was powerful. The courage of Jews to affirm their faith even during the most horrific circumstances, is a testament to the enormous willpower, strength, and perseverance of the defiant Jewish spirit.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Revolt of the 12th Sonderkommando in Auschwitz - October 7, 1944

On October 7th,1944, at a line-up around three in the afternoon, a revolt in the Auschwitz concentration camp began with the swing of a hammer and a shout of “Hurrah!” from Chaim Neuhof, who had been a Sonderkommando – one of the prisoners selected to work in the gas chambers and crematoria – since 1942. The remaining Sonderkommando followed and assisted Neuhof in attacking the SS guards with hammers and axes that were smuggled in with the help of local partisans. An especially sadistic SS guard was thrown into the ovens after being stabbed - but still alive.

SS guards were quickly alerted about the revolt and, easily outnumbering the prisoners, opened fire on the insufficiently armed Sonderkommando. But the prisoners, who had also smuggled small guns into camp through connections with local partisan groups, were not easily defeated. After strapping explosives to captured guards, a group of prisoners blew up Crematorium IV, killing themselves and their captors. Some of the prisoners cut through the barbed-wire fence, creating a crucial escape route out of the camp.


The ruins of the destroyed crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The revolt was work of the prisoners in the 12th Sonderkommando – young, able-bodied men who were given the grisly task of working in and around the gas chambers. They escorted newly arrived prisoners to their deaths, searched the bodies for valuables, and disposed of them in the crematoria. For performing these duties, they were reviled by the rest of the camp’s prisoners. Furthermore, their knowledge of the inner workings of the camp marked them for certain death. Every few months, SS guards killed the old Sonderkommando and replaced them with new prisoners. Though the 12th Sonderkommando learned of their pending liquidation from the camp's underground military leaders only earlier that day, the revolt had been planned months earlier.


Rosa Robota

Four women working inside the camp, Ester Wajcblum, Regina Safirsztain, Ala Gertner and Roza Robota, played a crucial role in this revolt. These four female prisoners provided ammunition for blowing up Crematorium IV – Wajcblum smuggled out the gunpowder from the munitions factory, where she worked along with Safirsztain and Gertner. Robota, who worked in a clothes depot adjacent to one of the crematoria, helped smuggle out the powder. The men in the camp's resistance underground recruited Robota because they were acquainted with her from their hometown, where she was a member of the HaShomer HaTzair Zionist youth movement. Through a complex communication network, she and the other women were able to slowly pass on the ammunition to the Sonderkommando leaders by hiding it in the false bottom of a food tray. This powder was used to manufacture crude explosives and primitive grenades for the attack.

Despite the extensive preparation of the prisoners, the revolt was quickly subdued by the SS guards, whose superior automatic weapons were no match for the prisoners’ arsenal. The Nazis rounded up all the escapees. Another two hundred prisoners were lined up and executed as punishment for the revolt. One of the Sonderkommando revealed the names of the four women responsible for smuggling in the gunpowder - but despite months of torture, the women refused to reveal any other accomplices. On January 5, 1945, they were all hanged in front of the entire female camp population. “Be strong and be brave,” Robota shouted defiantly to her comrades as the trapdoor dropped.

This was the last public execution in Auschwitz – twelve days later, the camp was deserted as 56,000 prisoners were forced on a death march by the Nazis in a last attempt to destroy any evidence of their mass killings. On January 27th, the 7,500 remaining prisoners were liberated by the Soviet army.

Click here to learn more about women who participated in resistance against the Nazis.