Tag Archives: Nazi war crimes

From Dachau to Durham, North Carolina

Sharon Halperin and Mike Roig Sculpture Dachau Memorial

Sharon Halperin and Mike Roig Sculpture Dachau Memorial

In my home town of Durham, North Carolina, I was led to a Holocaust memorial unlike any I’ve ever seen before.  It’s the only place in the U.S. to memorialize ashes from Dachau which are proven human remains.  The ashes came into the right hands:  Sharon Halperin’s, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors who became the “guiding angel” of this memorial project.  The ashes were donated by the family of Mr. Joseph Corsbie, a GI in Germany in May 1945.

Sent on an errand to Dachau, he encountered a liberated Jewish prisoner who handed him the ashes from a crematorium, enjoining him never to forget what he had seen.  Although Mr. Corsbie did not speak of the incident for decades, he began to discuss it with his family as he neared death.  They felt that the ashes should be returned to the Jewish community to be treated with the respect the victims were denied in life.

Once the ashes were analyzed and proved to be those of human beings, Sharon and her family commissioned a sculpture and signage to mark the site. Yesterday, the generous Jane Gabin of the Beth El Synagogue took me to see the resulting memorial, where we met Sharon.  Rather than use the expected barbed wire or smokestacks or other conventional imagery of the Holocaust, sculptor Mike Roig chose to depict a moving flame of polished steel.  It stands on a low bridge which says in Hebrew and English:  “Remember.  Do not stand idly by.”

Approaching the memorial, one feels a sense of uplift, as of flames rising to the sky, still surging from the ashes below – but also a sense of something growing, emerging, and transcending.  The sculpture is taller than a person, but not so monumental that we can’t feel part of it.  The geometric shape twirls in even a slight breeze, and suddenly I began to recognize my reflection in it – first blurry and indistinct, then sharper as I moved closer.  I was literally in the picture:  both in the flames, and in the resurgence of life.  Stones at the base waited to be placed in memory.  Much like the Tomb of the Unknowns, this place is an honored grave for so many who never had one except in our memories.

Dedicating the Memorial

At the dedication in 2015, sculptor Mike Roig’s eloquent words speak of his intentions:

“The “eternal flame” in this sculpture will surely never extinguish. It moves according to the currents of air like those interred here were moved and shaped by the flow of history, and like we are by the ever-evolving now.

“In its surface you will see a reflection of us all as we stand before it. It is necessarily indistinct and impressionistic, and our reflected forms waver and distort as it moves, and that reflects a truth that in trying to see ourselves in that history most of us cannot know with clarity how that history would have drawn us in, or how we would have responded. There are those [survivors] here who can because they were there, but the rest of us we can only to strive to conceive of a vision of ourselves where we would have responded with courage and dignity, empathy and compassion, resistance and defiance.”

May it be so.  Deep thanks to Sharon and her family for creating this sacred space, to Jane for taking me there, and to the Beth El Synagogue for welcoming me.Sculpture with stones below it


A Long Labor: A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir

Rhodea Shandler’s A Long Labor:  A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir is a treasure.

A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir

A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir

When I first began to learn about the Holocaust and resistance in the Netherlands, I expected the stories to be grisly and the heroes to be larger than life.  Very few stories have a happy ending in that time, and even those that do involve loss, terror and many shades of grey.  And yet.  There’s inspiration to be gleaned by seeing that ordinary people acted with courage, and that they were human, too, sometimes failing to do what they knew they should.

Rhodea Shandler faced many of the same dilemmas as the fictional characters in my historical novel, An Address in Amsterdam, about a young Jewish woman who risks her life in the Resistance.  Rhodea gets pregnant while in hiding on a farm, and the formerly welcoming hosts freeze her out emotionally and practically (less food under worse conditions).  Only because another Jewish woman in hiding with the same family is a nurse does she successfully deliver her baby in breech position, of course with no anesthetic or proper sanitation.  Similarly, when my novel opens, my heroine Rachel is making a delivery to a wardrobe full of hidden Jewish people in a basement.  They all crush in together as the police raid the house.  Rachel feels another woman’s rounded tummy mashed against hers, and wordlessly learns that she’s pregnant, and of course it must be a secret.  The hazards of the noise of childbirth, much less a baby itself, were more than most hosts could take on – especially given that they were already risking deportation, execution, imprisonment and/or torture.

Like many Jewish people who survived the Holocaust, Rhodea did not feel compelled to record her story until very late in life, and in fact died in 2006 just before this book was published.  She takes us through the warning phase before the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, when the small NSB (Dutch Nazi Party) was still being seen as innocuous:

“Since Holland was a democracy, the NSB had the right to try to influence the people by means of rallies, hate mail, newspaper articles and so on.  Initially, most Dutch people just made jokes about them.  It was such a small party that it did not seem strong enough to make trouble.  We knew they were there, but we thought they were ineffectual. . . What could we possibly have to fear?”     Page 52

In fact, it was the NSB and their followers who beat up on the Jewish community after the Nazis invaded, far more than the German soldiers.  They were under strict orders to behave properly toward their Aryan brothers – a situation which changed radically after many Dutch made it clear that they regarded the Germans as oppressors.

Although Rhodea was never in the resistance, her perspective fascinates me as that of a young Jewish woman, and one who survived the war in hiding.  Her story is different from the Amsterdam situation with which I am more familiar, because she lived in the small northern city of Leeuwarden, where the Jewish population was virtually exterminated.  Although she moved several times from one hiding place to another, Rhodea was not betrayed by her hosts, only treated badly when she was pregnant.  She herself understands why her situation terrified them.  Again and again, she shows what a big heart and compassionate perspective she has.

However, a moment arrives when she does something that haunts her forever.  She was working with mental patients at the Jewish asylum at Apeldoorn, where the staff had advance warning to get out.  Her husband spoke to her by telephone and insisted that she leave immediately.  After helping some of the patients prepare to evacuate, Rhodea decides that it is time to save herself, even though other staff are remaining.  She takes off her Jewish star, dresses in street clothes, and leaves her identification behind.  Her colleagues are angry:

 “They looked at me as a traitor; they were so dedicated to their work. . . I probably would have stayed too if my husband hadn’t been so adamant on the phone that I come home.  I knew I had to look after myself first.  It had really come to that point.”  page 80

Her agony is compounded when she encounters some of the patients already wandering around the town as she heads for the train station.  They of course recognize her as she shoos them away, an action which haunts her for years.  “Was I a deserter?” she asks herself, even knowing that staff and patients were all seized and deported a few hours after she left.  There were no survivors.

I’d read about the horrors of persecuting and exterminating the residents of this asylum and their caregivers, although this is the first time I’ve read a first person account.  The situation appears in my novel because my heroine’s father is a physician who had recently admitted a patient there.  When he hears of the Nazi raid,

His conscience was wracked by the thought of all those unstable people being subjected to even more terror. “Just before we came here, I had a man who attempted suicide admitted there. He was a peddler who couldn’t support his family anymore because of the Nazis.” He shook his head, looking like an old man who doesn’t understand the world anymore. 

Like Rhodea, An Address’s heroine, Rachel Klein, comes to the point where she must save herself and her family – but by then she has done months of work for the underground.  She is tired and terrified, and something happens which is a last straw for her.  Even knowing that she had to do what she did, both the real Rhodea and the fictional Rachel are haunted by saving themselves, a particular kind of survivor guilt.  They also respond to their persecution and predicament as Anne Frank did, by becoming more broad-minded and humanitarian.  Rhodea puts it beautifully:

“Even now, the knowledge that all our loved ones, friends, family and everyone who suffered in concentration camps and jails did not survive their ordeal makes me jump out of bed in the middle of the night with tears running down my cheeks.  although it was 60 years ago that all this happened, even now it is unclear to me why the Jews were so hated and even nowadays continue to be persecuted in certain groups.

“It causes me to try to be benevolent and understanding, and to avoid confrontation or judgment of others who are different from me.  This is the only light that I see now.” 

For more information about the book, click here.

The Dutch thought it couldn’t happen there, too

Marcher places flowers at Amsterdam's Auschwitz memorial

Marcher places flowers at Amsterdam’s Auschwitz memorial

The New York Times reports that the Dutch are constructing a memorial wall and Holocaust museum in Amsterdam’s old Jewish Quarter because memory is fading or inaccurate – despite the worldwide readership of The Diary of Anne Frank.  There is so much more to the story than one brilliant child writer’s account, despite her humanitarianism and universal appeal.

Historians have grappled endlessly with the question of how and why one of the most tolerant nations in the world allowed almost three-quarters of its Jewish population to be murdered.  It’s especially ironic since the Netherlands was a refuge for Jewish people since the Spanish Inquisition.

While the answers to “Why?” are many and complex, a primary one is that the Dutch believed it couldn’t happen there, even after the Nazi invasion.  The Jewish people had been assimilated for centuries, in professions from symphony conductors to medicine and art, shopkeeping, peddling, diamond cutting and trading.  The head of the Dutch Supreme Court was Jewish.  It was preposterous to think that people so integral to society at every level could be isolated and shipped off somewhere.  Much less murdered.  No matter what the Germans were doing in their own country, it couldn’t happen in the Netherlands.  Dutch people wouldn’t allow that.

Hiding was the best policy

Nor was it only the Dutch Gentiles who believed this. In doing the research for my historical novel, An Address in Amsterdam, I learned that many Jewish people themselves refused to believe that persecution would turn into isolation, much less deportation and mass murder. At each step – registration, identity cards, restricted travel and business, stars, even deportation – some people continued to rationalize the Nazis’ actions.  Others, like my fictional heroine, resisted.  Only one Jew in seven hid, which turned out to be the best way to survive the war other than pre-emptive escape.  Dutch Jewish citizens felt a misplaced confidence in their country and countrymen – much like the confidence many in the U.S. are feeling now, as we complacently believe that Donald Trump can’t win.  Instead, we hear more and more hate rhetoric aimed at Muslims, refugees, and undocumented workers and their families.  What can we do to provide them with the protection which the Dutch failed to give the Jewish part of their people?

What are we refusing to believe in 2016? 

Donald Trump says we should bar members of one religion, Muslims, from entering our country, targeting them in a way that violates the core American value of religious freedom.  He wants to build a wall to keep out the citizens of a particular nation, again singling out a group of people rather than judging them as individuals.  This is directly contrary to the lessons of the Holocaust.

Fortunately, one of these is that resistance can have some effectiveness, even in the very worst situation – especially when it happens broadly and quickly as a unified action (as in Denmark).  We live in a democracy where we can work to ensure that Trump does not get into office.  Even if Hillary Clinton were a far less progressive candidate than she is, we should still work as hard as we can to elect her – persuading not only the lukewarm voters, but those who, like me, supported Bernie Sanders.  If we believe not just in him as an individual, but in what he stands for, we have no choice but to learn the lessons of history.  Let’s stand beside him and work for Hillary.

Another Side of Dam Square

Building in Dam Square with SS logo on it

Identified as in public domain: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/536491374335302561/

I’m doing this by eye, but I’m pretty sure that this building is on Dam Square on the Royal Palace side.  The SS sign you see was designed to attract Dutch recruits, particularly after the invasion of Russia, when some were motivated by the idea that they could fight the communists. Nazi imagery like this was commonplace in major public places after the invasion in 1940.

Siert Bruins could have been recruited by this office on the Dam.  He is a Dutch-born SS volunteer who was accused in 2013 of murdering Aldert Klaas Dijkema, a Dutch resistance fighter, as a reprisal.  However, the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence.  Earlier, Bruins was convicted in absentia by a Dutch court for several other murders after the war, but he had already fled to Germany and taken German citizenship.  Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal found him living under a false name in a German village, and he was convicted there of two other murders and imprisoned for 5 years.

As I researched my novel, I learned that reprisal killings were all too common.  When the Resistance took some strong action, the Nazis often killed someone, or in some cases, a whole group of randomly assorted people.  No wonder my heroine is afraid for her life.