Some of the perpetrators of the Holocaust just went about their business as if it was the most natural thing in the world. In the above photograph, you see a picture of the first German commander of Camp Schoorl SS-Untersturmführer Schmidt visiting Amsterdam as if he was a tourist. He is just one of the many criminals, although a lesser-known one, responsible for the murder of millions.
Fortunately, some survived, and some bystanders bear witness to the appalling crimes committed.
Edith Reiss, from Bolton, England, describes witnessing antisemitic violence on the streets of Göttingen, Germany when she was a visitor there in 1939
“It must have been August 26, 27, something like that, of 1939. And I had taken pictures during my holiday in the Harz Mountains and left them at a photographer’s studio in the town of Göttingen.
I went to pick up the pictures. And there were several other people in the store. I had to wait. And as I was waiting, I heard a commotion outside the shop.
Then I picked up my pictures and came out of the shop. And there, I saw a man in the Brownshirt uniform kicking an old man into the pavement into the gutter. Now there was a crowd of about 12 people standing around, looking. As I came out of the shop, I was horrified to see what was happening.
The Brownshirt walked away from the man, leaving him in the gutter. I immediately rushed to pick him up. And as I picked him up, I saw he had a patch on his coat that had the Jewish symbol Juden, J-U-D-E-N, which meant Jew. I picked him up, and as I did so, a person nearby touched my elbow and said, “Don’t get involved.”
I said, why not? Why can’t you help this man? And they used two words, concentration camp. So I helped the man along the street, and then he turned to me. He said, “I will be alright.”
Kurt Klein, who emigrated from Walldorf, Germany, to the United States in 1937, recalls how Nazi policies and propaganda affected his life at school.
“Well, there was, of course, a gradual alienation with my non-Jewish friends and classmates. And whereas in the beginning, they were almost apologetic about it, saying things such as, “Well, Hitler doesn’t mean people like you really, or your parents, but you will admit there are certain Jews who really deserve to get Hitler’s wrath,” …and so on—in the beginning, they would still be half apologetic about it. This soon turned into a real taunting of Jewish boys and girls.
They might say, “You know, there are now some concentration camps. And if you don’t behave and if you don’t watch it, you’ll wind up in one of those.” and gradually they even stopped talking to us altogether.
But I had seen the gradual change of that. I also saw how they were exposed to Nazi propaganda. For instance, it became mandatory for all schools and all classes to attend such films as the Leni Riefenstahl film, Triumph of the Will. And I myself had to attend it also. And I could see how they were swallowing that up and how it affected them and how they were imbued with this idea of German glory. And anything they would tell them about the Jews, of course, they also swallowed whole.
And so I remember coming out of this film and, having seen the reaction of my classmates, walking along and thinking, how did I get into this position? I didn’t do anything. Why is all this venom directed at me and my family and all the people I know? So I could see the role that propaganda can play and how it can influence people.
What was it like for you to sit in a class and watch a film like this?
Well, it was a totally shattering experience for me to find that all these people were turning away from me, and what was even worse, that some teachers were espousing that same ideology. For instance, I remember a gym teacher of ours giving a lecture once in class to the effect of– this is as close to what he said as I can remember: There are certain elements among us here who are merely guests in this country. They will be treated OK as long as they behave themselves. Unfortunately, they have not always behaved themselves, and therefore we cannot guarantee what will happen to them. I mean, this completely undid me, and not because perhaps even of the content, but because I could see that the Nazis were reaching everybody, not only my classmates.”
From Democracy to Dictatorship
Alfred Wolf, a Holocaust survivor from Eberbach, Germany, recalls the changes he noticed in Germany after the election of Adolf Hitler.
“Do you remember Election Day?
Not per se.
Did you know about it? Were you aware of this?
Oh, yes. Oh, elections dominated the whole atmosphere very much as a presidential election does here, except that elections of various types happened a little more often in Germany.
Did your parents have a chance to vote?
Oh, yes. Well, Jews in the Weimar Republic were very much part and parcel of civic life. There was no exclusion that I was aware of. And they were very proud of the fact that they were full citizens.
Did your parents and grandparents think of moving out of there?
No. That thought did not occur to them because, in the Weimar Republic, the instability of national politics was such that we were sure, very much in the spirit of my father’s bet, that parties like the Nazis would come and go, and we just had to sit and be patient, and they would be sure to go.
So when did you finally realize that it’s not going away?
The most visible change after– I don’t remember whether it was after a week or so– that the flag of the country was changed. The black, red, and gold flag of the Weimar Republic was eliminated. And the swastika flag– black, white, and red– was hoisted in the school. The director of the school, who was a registered Democrat, walked out and said, I refuse to teach under this flag. And he was immediately arrested. He was very lucky in that they just reduced his rank from director to a teacher, but we realized that a different wind was blowing.”
Holocaust survivor Barbara Fischman Traub describes the reactions of her neighbours as she and her family were marched through their hometown of Sighet, Hungary, to the ghetto during the Holocaust.
“Early in the morning, it was the week after Passover, so it must have been the end of April, early May– end of April, I believe. I think it is a very beautiful town. And it was the time when the lilacs began to bloom.
The lilac in my mother’s garden was very special because it was double-petaled purple lilac. And you could see already the buds. And this was the morning when they rang– and again, the gendarmes– and we were packed by then, mother, and I, and the cook, and across the street, my brother’s wife, Rosie– Rose– and the two little babies, my nieces.
We had our valises. And in the street where we lived, there were a few Jews. It was a mixed neighbourhood. So there were about four Jewish families and they were all packed and the gendarmes came.
And they took us towards another street where there were some more Jews. They put us in the centre of the street where the cars and horses were driven, and they started to force us to march to the ghetto. The ghetto was in the Jewish section of the town which was on the other side of the town.
Were your neighbours aware of what was going on?
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Those very neighbours in whose courtyard I played as a child, those very neighbours who were guests at my mother’s dining room table months before, peeked through their windows and turned their faces.
And as I look back now, strange that it pains me so much. That trek through the main street, in the middle of the street, driven like cattle, with the valises, with the baggage, with my little nieces, with the little infant who was five, six weeks old, being driven to that Corso where my father, had a big business where people would come to buy, would tip their hat and say, “How do you do, Mr Fischman,” and turned to my mother and say, “How are you?” [SPEAKING HUNGARIAN], which is a very respectful way to address a lady in Hungarian. “How are you, my lady?”
These very people who used to watch my bicycle through town and say, “[INAUDIBLE], you have the first girl’s bicycle–” because they never saw a girl’s bicycle, you know, without a handlebar– these neighbours who used to pinch my cheek when I was a little girl, they stood and watched, stony-faced, as we were driven to this town with the Hungarian gendarmes using truncheons on old people who couldn’t walk fast enough. It was so shameful, so humiliating. But I know now that the shame was theirs, not ours. But I didn’t know it then.”
Marion Pritchard, a member of the Dutch resistance who hid a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation of Holland, describes what happened when a Dutch Nazi policeman investigated her house.
“Miek van der Loeff, who was the director of the Amsterdam Municipal Electrical Works by then, asked me to find a place for his friend, Freddy, and Freddy’s three children to go into hiding. And I couldn’t find any place that would take all four of them. So then Miek moved us into the servants’ quarters of his mother-in-law’s house out in the country. That’s that yellow house in the pictures.
When you agreed to do this, what was your relationship with this person who asked you up until that time?
Oh. His parents were best friends with my parents, and I had known him all my life. My parents were older than the parents of children my age. So my parents’ friends children tended to be 10 to 15 years older than I. But I knew them all.
And so Miek is the one who asked me to find a place. And he and his brother built a hiding place underneath the living room floor. At night, I’d open it up.
Because when you heard a motor vehicle come, or a truck, or whatever, you knew that it wasn’t somebody Dutch. You knew it was most likely the Nazis looking for Jews. So we practised, and I could get him and the kids in there and cover it all up in about 30 seconds.
This one particular night, a Dutch Nazi policeman brought three German Nazi officers to the house. And I thought they were in the hiding place, but I’d let them out—I let the kids out after half an hour because I hadn’t had time to give the baby her sleeping powder. And she began to cry. And Freddy decided to stay in the hiding place, because he was working on his PhD thesis, and he was in the middle of an important chapter. Some people know how to concentrate.
So then the Dutch policeman came back. Because it was customary for the person in hiding to sleep in the same bed with a member of the host family. Because if the Nazis came, and they found, say, that there were five beds slept in but only four people, they could guess that the fifth person had gone out the window or something like that. So this night, just the Dutch Nazi policeman came back. And I couldn’t think of anything else to do except to shoot him.
How did you have a gun?
Miek, the gentile who had asked me to find a place for them, had given it to me. And I had put it behind the books on the shelf above the bed, never intending to use it. I’m against capital punishment, and I’m against abortion. I can make exceptions on abortion, of course. But I am basically opposed to capital punishment and killing in general.
But your unconscious is quite powerful. And when it was a choice, most likely, between the kids and him, I chose him. And I didn’t wait to see what he was going to do or what he was going to say.
By then, obviously, if he’d gone into the other room, he would have seen the kids. He might have known the kids around anyway. But my instinct was that if I didn’t get rid of him, those kids were doomed.
So we talked briefly. We decided that Karel would go walk to the village, which of course was strictly against the rules. You’re not supposed to be out during curfew. Especially if you’re a Jew, you’re not supposed to be out during curfew. And I suggested that he stay with the kids and that I go to the village, but he wasn’t having any of that.
And he went to see the baker– and I have a picture of the baker somewhere– who in normal times brought his wares around in a wagon with a horse. And the baker agreed that as soon as curfew ended in the morning, he would come with his horse and wagon and get the body. And before Karel came back, together they went to see the local undertaker. And the local undertaker agreed to bury the body in a coffin with somebody who was having a funeral the next day.”
Barbara Turkeltaub, a Jewish girl who was hidden by Catholic nuns during the war, describes witnessing a Nazi massacre.
I usually was a very good girl and listen, very conform to what I needed to do. That one particular day that looked such a nice day early in the morning—we were very early up. We were up at six o’clock because there was like a mass in the morning. They had like a little chapel and they went to mass and they took us there too. My sister was not very often there, because she wouldn’t sit. But they took me almost every time.
Now, after the mass, we would go and have breakfast. And after breakfast, it was a quiet time. So during that quiet time, which was still very early, I venture. I didn’t remember that I wasn’t supposed to. And I ventured and the forest was, I mean, right there, very close by. So I went into the forest and I went a little bit farther and was very curious. I wasn’t frightened at all, and I didn’t have to go very far from there. I started to hear these noises. These noises. Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.
I didn’t really associate this with shooting, because it sounds different. I don’t know. Anyway, I went towards the sound. And I didn’t go very far. I saw this huge ditch. And around it a group of—I began to hear also voices. Voices. And I saw a group of women, and who were undressed, and some of them were holding babies in their arms. And the Germans were shooting randomly. I mean, and they were falling.
I was so stunned, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t. I was just hypnotized. I was there. And very soon afterwards, somebody grabbed me and carry me again from there. And that was one of the nuns, older nuns. And they were telling me, she was telling me, and the others were dead. You were told not to venture. You were told not to go. You have not listened to us. It’s very bad.”
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