Tisha be-Av post: Raul Hilberg’s studies on the role of German railways in the Shoah

Today is Tisha be’Av (9th of Av), the day when practicing Jews commemorate a long litany of calamities, of which the Destruction of the First and Second Temples and the 1492 Gerush Sefarad (Spanish Expulsion) are but the best-known ones. (In general history, August 1-2, 1914, or 9-10 Av, 5764 also happens to be the date on which Germany entered World War One.)

The date has at least two links to the Shoah (Holocaust) that I can think of:

(a) August 2, 1941 (9 Av, 5701): two days earlier, Göring’s infamous letter charging Heydrich to “submit to me soonest, a comprehensive plan for the organizational, practical, and material preparations for the sought-after Final Solution of the Jewish Question“. [To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time the phrase Endlösung der Judenfrage]

(b) July 23, 1942 (9 Av 5702):  the first deportation trains leavethe Warsaw Ghetto for the extermination camp Treblinka.

In fact, some religious Jews (and Menachem Begin z”l, who had lost his parents and brother in the Shoah and had himself escaped by the skin of his teeth) objected to the creation of a separate Yom HaShoah, and instead wanted to commemorate it on Tisha Be’Av. 

While I did not observe a full fast this year due to COVID19,  I took a “yom bechira” (optional day off) as is my wont, and spent it reading material appropriate to the sadness of the day. I just finished this book:

The centerpiece of the collection are two essays by Raul Hilberg, written in his vintage style: a dry, pitiless barrage of facts that eschews philosophical reflection on the “why” in favor of painstaking document research into the “how”. But the pieces by Christopher Browning and Peter Hayes add a lot. Some things I learned from this collection:

(a) it is received wisdom that the Nazis (y”sh) shortchanged their own troops in their obsession to free up trains for transporting Jews to their death. In fact, as the authors lay out in great detail, the death camp trains accounted for about 0.7% of all the capacity in the network, and the rolling stock used were often ramshackle, decommissioned railway cars (usually boxcars) that had been kept at marshaling yards for emergencies rather than sent to the scrap heap. 

There were indeed pauses in the deportations when every bit of network capacity in Poland was needed, such as in the autumn of 1941 during Operation Typhoon (the Wehrmacht’s push for Moscow).  

(b) The degree of cooperation on the part of the Reichsbahn was absolutely astonishing. Anybody who was paying attention would have understood that these people were not merely being “resettled”. But most chose to look away and to focus instead on the logistics of most efficiently slotting these “DA” trains (as they appeared in logistics documents: DA=Deutsche Aussiedler, German emigrants).

Indeed, creative logistics were applied throughout: for example, goods trains that had delivered military supplies to the garrison in Greek Macedonia, and otherwise would have returned empty, made the return trip with Jews from Thessaloniki who were brought to Auschwitz.

The Reichsbahn indeed charged the RSHA for these trains, at the 3rd class passenger rate, with 50% discount under age 10, and free under age 4. (Never mind they were not even providing 4th-class carriages but box cars.) For special trains, a group discount was applied for 400 passengers and up. The RSHA, with typical cynicism, extorted the transport costs from the Jewish community or squeezed the hapless “passengers” themselves.

If the Reichsbahn bothered to provide any comfort at all, it was to the guards (who typically got a 2nd class car for their usage when not on watch).

(c) For a variety of reasons, nearly nobody in the Reichsbahn was ever punished. The CEO, who wore a second hat as Transport Minister, died from cancer just after the war. His deputy, Albert Ganzenmüller, fled to Argentina but returned ten years later, and a later prosecution against him was eventually suspended due to (real or feigned) mental deterioration of the defendant.

Lower-level officials and technical personnel found themselves desperately needed by the Allies to get the railway network back to working condition again — which they did with the same efficiency with which they had earlier acquitted themselves of their most grisly work.

That old saw “to understand all is to forgive all” is a load of tripe. Some things, the more you understand, the more you loathe them.

(Robert A. Heinlein, “Starship Troopers”)

Repost: Tisha be-Av

[Reposted from last year.] Today marks the fast of the Ninth of Av (Hebrew: Tisha be-Av), the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. On this day, we observe a full 25-hour fast (sundown to sundown) and observe some mourning customs. In the synagogue, the Book of Lamentations is read. Work is not forbidden (I am in fact working today), but in Israel, Tisha be-Av is an optional day off, as many find working (efficiently) difficult owing to light-headedness or dehydration (don’t forget this is high summer here).

Originally, Tisha be-Av marked the destruction of the First and Second Temples, coincidentally on the same day of the Hebrew calendar in 587 BE and 70 CE. Over the years, however, further calamities befell the Jewish people on or near that day. Below follow some of the major ones.

  • August 4, 135 OS (9 Av, 3895): the crushing of the Bar-Kochba rebellion by the Roman occupiers. The last Jewish stronghold at Betar was crushed, the site of the former Temple plowed over by order of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and the land that was hitherto known as Provincia Judea punitively renamed Palestina. [This is, BTW, the first recorded usage of that term, taken from the seafaring people known as the Pelishtim or Philistines who used to dwell in the Ashdod/Ashkelon/Gaza region of the coastal plain.]
  • July 18, 1290 OS (9 Av, 5050): expulsion of the Jews from England
  • July 22, 1306 OS (9 Av, 5066): ditto from France
  • July 31, 1492 OS (7 Av, 5252): Gerush Sefarad: a royal decree gave the many Jews of Spain the choice between expulsion and conversion to Catholicism. Many of those who did convert (Conversos or Nuevos Cristianos) secretly continued to adhere to Jewish customs: these so-called Marranos faced torture or death when caught.  Many others found temporary refuge in Portugal, only to be faced with the same choice five years later. Sephardic Jewish communities around the Mediterranean basin, as well as in some northern European port and trading cities, were founded by refugees who left wherever ships would take them. The oldest synagogue on US soil was, in fact, established in 1654 by Marranos “come out of the closet”.

The Holocaust (Hebrew: Shoah = catastrophe) is itself linked multiple times to this date:

  • August 1-2, 1914 (9-10 Av, 5764): Germany entered World War One. While this did not directly involve or affect the Jewish people as such, the aftermath of WW I created the conditions for the rise of National Socialism, and hence indirectly led to WW II and the Shoah.
  • July 31, 1941 (7 Av, 5701): Reich Marshal (and de facto deputy Führer) Hermann Göring (y”sh) issues a written order to SD-chief Heydrich (y”sh) to “Expanding on your earlier orders […] I order you to submit to me soonest, a comprehensive plan for the organizational, practical, and material preparations for the sought-after Final Solution of the Jewish Question“. [To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time this phrase appears in an official document.]
  • July 23, 1942 (9 Av 5702):  the first deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the extermination camp at Treblinka took place.

Indeed, some religious Jews favor commemorating the Shoah on Tisha be-Av rather than create a separate memorial day. They had the support of Menachem Begin (prime minister 1977-1983), whose parents and brother had been murdered by the Nazis (y”sh) and who himself had narrowly escaped their clutches. However, this proposal did not gain adequate support, and thus Yom HaShoah, with its more secular complexion, continues to exist side by side with Tisha be-Av.

Finally, it is written in the Talmud (Yoma 9b) that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sin’at chinam — baseless hatred that had Jews too obsessed with factional infighting to be able to form a united front against the common enemy. I have a feeling that if the sages of the Talmud could have been put in a time machine and see the situation in the West today, that they would sadly have nodded in recognition. “Verily, there is nothing new under the sun.”

 

Tisha be-Av

Today marks the fast of the Ninth of Av (Hebrew: Tisha be-Av), the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. On this day, we observe a full 25-hour fast (sundown to sundown) and observe some mourning customs. In the synagogue, the Book of Lamentations is read. Work is not forbidden (I am in fact working today), but in Israel, Tisha be-Av is an optional day off, as many find working (efficiently) difficult owing to light-headedness or dehydration (don’t forget this is high summer here).

Originally, Tisha be-Av marked the destruction of the First and Second Temples, coincidentally on the same day of the Hebrew calendar in 587 BE and 70 CE. Over the years, however, further calamities befell the Jewish people on or near that day. Below follow some of the major ones.

  • August 4, 135 OS (9 Av, 3895): the crushing of the Bar-Kochba rebellion by the Roman occupiers. The last Jewish stronghold at Betar was crushed, the site of the former Temple plowed over by order of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and the land that was hitherto known as Provincia Judea punitively renamed Palestina. [This is, BTW, the first recorded usage of that term, taken from the seafaring people known as the Pelishtim or Philistines who used to dwell in the Ashdod/Ashkelon/Gaza region of the coastal plain.]
  • July 18, 1290 OS (9 Av, 5050): expulsion of the Jews from England
  • July 22, 1306 OS (9 Av, 5066): ditto from France
  • July 31, 1492 OS (7 Av, 5252): Gerush Sefarad: a royal decree gave the many Jews of Spain the choice between expulsion and conversion to Catholicism. Many of those who did convert (Conversos or Nuevos Cristianos) secretly continued to adhere to Jewish customs: these so-called Marranos faced torture or death when caught.  Many others found temporary refuge in Portugal, only to be faced with the same choice five years later. Sephardic Jewish communities around the Mediterranean basin, as well as in some northern European port and trading cities, were founded by refugees who left wherever ships would take them. The oldest synagogue on US soil was, in fact, established in 1654 by Marranos “come out of the closet”.

The Holocaust (Hebrew: Shoah = catastrophe) is itself linked multiple times to this date:

  • August 1-2, 1914 (9-10 Av, 5764): Germany entered World War One. While this did not directly involve or affect the Jewish people as such, the aftermath of WW I created the conditions for the rise of National Socialism, and hence indirectly led to WW II and the Shoah.
  • July 31, 1941 (7 Av, 5701): Reich Marshal (and de facto deputy Führer) Hermann Göring (y”sh) issues a written order to SD-chief Heydrich (y”sh) to “Expanding on your earlier orders […] I order you to submit to me soonest, a comprehensive plan for the organizational, practical, and material preparations for the sought-after Final Solution of the Jewish Question“. [To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time this phrase appears in an official document.]
  • July 23, 1942 (9 Av 5702):  the first deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the extermination camp at Treblinka took place.

Indeed, some religious Jews favor commemorating the Shoah on Tisha be-Av rather than create a separate memorial day. They had the support of Menachem Begin (prime minister 1977-1983), whose parents and brother had been murdered by the Nazis (y”sh) and who himself had narrowly escaped their clutches. However, this proposal did not gain adequate support, and thus Yom HaShoah, with its more secular complexion, continues to exist side by side with Tisha be-Av.

Finally, it is written in the Talmud (Yoma 9b) that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sin’at chinam — baseless hatred that had Jews too obsessed with factional infighting to be able to form a united front against the common enemy. I have a feeling that if the sages of the Talmud could have been put in a time machine and see the situation in the West today, that they would sadly have nodded in recognition. “Verily, there is nothing new under the sun.”

 

Today in History: Operation Valkyrie (July 20, 1944)

66 years ago to the day, a group of German military officers and civilians lead by Col. Klaus Schenk, Count Stauffenberg tried to put an end to the Hitler (y”sh) regime. In a unique example in modern history, the leader of the coup attempted the assassination with his own hand. Due to a quirk of fate, their target survived the bomb meant for him. Stauffenberg soldiered on regardless, to no avail: eventually, many conspirators paid the ultimate price, Stauffenberg among the first.

Here is the closing scene of the movie “Valkyrie”. Despite my apprehension about anything coming out of Hollywood, and about Tom Cruise (who does have a vague physical resemblance to the historic Stauffenberg), I can only say that the movie displays an almost astonishing level of historical accuracy (at least by Hollywood standards).

By a quirk of the calendar, July 20 this year falls on Tisha Be-Av, the day Jews commemorate a long litany of calamities that befell the Jewish people on or around that day. Had the assassination succeeded, it is quite likely that the “Final Solution” machinery would have ground to a halt and that a large part of the Jews of Hungary would have escaped its mauls.

Some historians have tried to make Stauffenberg into something he wasn’t. He was an unapologetic German imperialist and militarist, an elitist with little use for democracy as we understand it, and approved to some degree of Nazi racial doctrines even though he considered their implementation “exaggerated” and “excessive”.  In short, he was not a saint. But let us honor his memory for what he really was: somebody who, in a place where there were no men, strove to be one (במקום שאין בו אנשים השטדל להיות איש). And let us likewise honor those who stood and fell with him.