05 July 2011

Who Could Believe that It Was Happening, Even as It was Happening?

A commentary by Ori Z. Soltes, chair of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP)

Ori Z. Soltes
Source: The Great Courses
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, a peculiar sort of discussion emerged eventually that, in some corners, continues to this day. That discussion pertained to the idea that the victims of the Holocaust, primarily the Jews, went “like sheep to the slaughter,” instead of fighting back. Accusing the victim for being victimized has long been an instrument with which humans who were in a position to help the victim but did not, assuage their guilt for their own failure. Blaming those who were herded and branded and slaughtered like cattle for not responding to the program of Nazi deceptions until it was too late might assuage and has alleviated that guilt for many, as they sought a return to normal lives.

It is always easy to blame someone else, and in this case, the guilt has run particularly deep and wide—not just those Germans or Austrians or French who stood idly by or contributed actively to the slaughter, but the British and the Americans who famously refused to bomb the train tracks to the killing centers, and who kept their immigration quota doors closed tight or made the paths to Palestine all but impassable. For it was one thing to be fighting the Germans and their allies in World War II, and another altogether to be fighting the Nazis in the Holocaust.

The numbers of Jews who did fight back remained, for the most part, unheralded and forgotten until the last few decades. Inevitably, those who fought did so with very little in the way of armaments and with very little reliable support from—even, at times, finding themselves betrayed by—the various non-Jewish underground forces who were themselves fighting the Nazis. Conversely, the myriad times and places in which well-armed or at least militarily experienced forces failed to resist or, in captivity, to rise up against their captors has typically been ignored.

Moreover, as in any large lie there may be a smaller element of truth, it is true that many (perhaps most) Jews did not resist. A perfect storm combined the Nazi genius for willful deception—to simplify the process of extermination by encouraging their victims to believe that they were not on the verge of victimhood—together with the victims’ desire to believe, and therefore to be deceived, that this was a storm that, like so many others in Jewish history, would pass. Physical resistance, in any case, had not been the primary means for a fragmentary minority to survive over the centuries in the face of hostility from the majority population.

For German and Austrian Jews in particular, the sense of having arrived at a point of truly being part of that majority mainstream—socially, economically, culturally, even to some extent politically—militated against believing that what was happening was happening. In the discussion of this issue it has often been pointed out that the very fabric of the late nineteenth/early twentieth-century Austrian and German communities was so interwoven with Jewish threads that, had the Holocaust not followed, historians would be constantly waxing about the Golden Age for Jews in those countries in that era. The photograph of which Sigmund Freud—to name one Jewish luminary among many within the Viennese firmament—was proudest, showed him with his two sons, both of in Austro-Hungarian military uniform; they were among myriad Jews who served in the Hapsburg and Prussian armies between the end of the eighteenth century and the end of World War I.

On the other hand, the Golden Age was by no means free of anti-Semitism (in fact the very term was a coinage of that era, as the Prussian pamphleteer, Wilhelm Marr, was the first one to label the Jews “Semites” in 1878—but that’s another story for another day). But this is part of what made the Nazi era so inexplicable as it gradually unfurled its full fury against the Jews. Who could imagine that such a definitive exterminationist intention would be directed toward a population so integrated into that world?

Marc Masurovsky and I uncovered one of the most extraordinary proofs of this a few years back as we were systematically studying the property census forms that every family with even an oblique Jewish component or connection was required to fill out for the Nazis after Austria fell before—or rather, embraced—the Anschluss. Our interest was in the cultural and similar property that the Nazis confiscated based on these on-demand listings of everything from silverware, desk lamps and jewelry to paintings, drawings and sculpture.

But along the way, we noted three other, unexpected features. One was the prevalent tone assumed by a good number of those who filled out the forms: little jocular side notes, as if submitting a report to a long-time superior with whom one has a warm, friendly relationship—as opposed to filling out what would amount to one’s death warrant. A second was the fact that a number of these forms were filled out and sent in from places as far away as Ankara and even New York City. This might have been out of fear for family members still in Austria, but may well have been out of a Teutonic sense of duty: one is required by the authorities to fill out a form as a Jew, then as a Jew more Viennese than the Viennese, one fills out the form—because regardless of where one lives one remains emphatically a Viennese.

Most intriguing is the third feature: virtually every form indicated the possession of real estate—from the partial ownership of an apartment to that of multiple apartment buildings and factories. The fact is that one does not invest in real estate if one has the slightest inkling of needing to leave a place quickly—it is too difficult to liquidate with alacrity. All of these Jews who bought real estate to live in, work in or employ others in, had to have been powerfully certain that they were in Vienna (after more than eight hundred years) to stay. When the Anschluss arrived and, as often happened, their neighbors turned against them, they could neither understand nor believe what was happening; it would not have occurred to them to “fight back.” That once-golden world disappeared before their eyes, never to be restored.

Ori Z. Soltes