AmCon 2015


Peter Bazalgette, TV producer: As I’ve stated previously, this year marks the 70th year of the liberation of the Holocaust camps. Peter Bazalgette, Chair of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation opened the Conference with a speech on Remembering For the Future. This was especially relevant after the death of Nicholas Winton (liberator), often described as the “British Schindler”, last week.

Bazalgette’s question was: “How do we remember for the next 70 years?” A Commission has been organised for a London Memorial, with the intention of recording primary witnesses to educate the future generations. Bazelgette concluded by stating that whilst the Holocaust was a terrible historical episode, it is also an important lesson that needs to be taught. Ben Jones, a Regional Ambassador and a member of the Holocaust Commission Youth Forum supported this by stating that it is both “believable and desirable to learn from history.”

Laurence Rees: Talking to Nazis

Rees believes that there are 5 beliefs that ultimately caused the Holocaust.

1) Scapegoating:
Rees stated that scapegoating is a “natural human reaction” to defer the blame from ourselves or to find another excuse. Fridolin von Spaun in Rees’ documentary believed that the Jews deserved what they got because they were sabotaging Germany, emphasising their links to both Communism and Capitalism. Hitler believed that the Jews were behind everything deemed to be wrong or different – as people don’t seem to like change.
2) Conspiracy:
Gossip was a useful way of spreading the opinions of the Jewish community like wildfire. This allowed Germans to judge the Jews before meeting them, especially as they were in insolation. Johannes Zahn, also in Rees’ documentary said that the Jews had “gone too far” and were taking over Germany. The Germans could have said “so what?” as the Jews in Germany were in fact German, however they decided to address the issue by creating the conspiracy that the Jews were planning to undermine their host country, like a parasite. Because biological tests such as blood types would prove that the Jews were in fact the same as the Germans, they had to create another way of distinguishing the Jews as the “other” by testing against their grandparents and heritage of Judaism, as the lack of biological evidence fuelled the conspiracy further, by believing that the Jews were just good at hiding things.
3) Denunciation:
Rees believed that the Germans focused strongly on the differences between Jews and non-Jews, whilst ignoring the similarities – as most people tend to do. However the Germans used this as the focus of their anger. Resi Kraus handed over her neighbour to the SS for not responding to the Heil Hitler Salute and for “acting suspiciously”. In her interview, Kraus seemed very much in denial about her actions; in fact, she had no recollection of signing the forms presented to her when questioned (although she did admit that the signature and address were correct). Her response was “to think they rake it up again in 50 years”. Highlighting that Kraus believed her actions to be insignificant because she personally “didn’t kill anyone, didn’t murder anyone.”
4) Hatred:
Petras Zelionka showed obvious hated towards the Jews. He believed them to be selfish. Petras was imprisoned for 20 years for his participation in executions of prisoners. He stated in his interview with Rees: “You just pull the trigger, he falls, and that’s it.”It was obvious from the clip shown that he too felt no remorse for his actions, and still believed it was the right thing to do.
5) Racism:
Oskar Groening wasn’t prosecuted immediately after the Holocaust, however he is currently being accused of being an accessary to the deaths, for having involvement regarding the gassing of millions of people. Groening was convinced of the Jewish betrayal to Germany, and believed in the conspiracy. He believed that the Germans were right to also execute Jewish children, due to “the enemy blood being inside them”. Many shared the same attitude as Groening, and were afraid of the children having the capacity to grow up as a Jew. They thought that killing the Jewish children would be an act of love towards their own, by creating a happier future for them; Rees called this a paradox.

Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls – Forensic Archaeology within Holocaust sites

Whilst at the conference, I was able to take part in two workshops.

The first was one on forensic archaeology within Holocaust sites with Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls. Dr Sturdy Colls began by telling us of the 3 archaeological methods: search, recovery and post-examination analysis. There are both domestic and mass grave cases of archaeology when examining Holocaust sites such as concentration camps – the scale of which is increasing due to identification of victims being possible, and closure for families potentially still searching for their relatives and friends. However, excavation on mass graves hits one major obstacle: religion – the Jewish Halacha law by which the buried remain undisturbed, despite the site being a crime scene as well as a cemetery. One team was previously sued for disrespecting this.

1300 objects were found at Treblinka during Dr Sturdy Colls’ investigation. There had been no precise map of the camp. However, Sturdy Colls’s team discovered a punishment bunker which allowed a map to be produced and the layout and signs on the site to be corrected. Previously they had tried to match the site up with eyewitness testimony alone. 3 mass graves were also marked for the first time. The assumption of these is that many people were just shoved in, as they discovered bullets, shoes and damaged bones. The graves were located from their vegetation type as their soil appeared to be disturbed. Tiles had been discovered with what appeared to be the Star of David on, from within the gas chambers. It is thought that not only did the Nazi’s try to make the chambers look convincingly like showers, but they had also modeled it on a traditional Jewish bathhouse.

There is physically not much to see still standing at Treblinka, as the Nazi’s tried to hide as much of their crimes as possible. However, prisoners tried to hide as much of their personal belongings as possible, just in case they were discovered again one day. The most common items found were things like women’s hair clips and broaches. Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls concluded by saying that archaeology within Holocaust sites is important as forms of resistance, deception and individual stories are uncovered, which ultimately fill the void of the lack of survivors, and will educate the next generations.

Martin Winstone: Jewish Resistance

After a lunch break I attended my second and final workshop of the day on Jewish resistance, led by Martin Winstone. Winstone started by describing the traditional view of the Holocaust: that the Jews passively let it happen to them. Winstone continued to state the obstacles preventing resistance such as the imbalance of power between the prisoners and the Nazis both militarily and physically as the prisoners had low food rations and had become weak in addition to having all possessions stripped from them. In addition to this, the Jewish prisoners were reluctant to defy the regime unless it would be an obvious success, as failure they knew would result in even worse conditions – they didn’t want to create a suicide mission; they actually wanted to stand a chance.

There is then the debate about knowledge, or rather the lack of knowledge. There is the ongoing debate about whether Germany and the rest of the world knew what was going on – and if so, why didn’t the Jews try and stop it earlier (this is easy for us to question in hindsight as we have the facts available to us). However, it was most likely that the Jews didn’t know what was going to happen, i.e the Final Solution, until it was too late for them and they were already imprisoned. In addition to this, most were hopeful that Anti-Semitism would stop ‘tomorrow’, but ‘tomorrow’ never came. The Jewish community once imprisoned were also reliant on the help of outsiders if they were to stand a chance of escaping, in order to supply them with weapons to join the underground or hide in homes. Despite all these obstacles however, resistance was in fact widespread within ghettos, labour and extermination camps. In fact, the prisoners were most likely to resist when they had nothing left to lose, as they were going to die either way; therefore they took the risk of fighting. In addition to escape and rescue as a form of defiance, there was also an element of spiritual resistance, by which prisoners would bury their writings and belongings for others to uncover in the future. Underground schools were also set up to educate the Jewish youths which was made illegal under Nazi rule. Likewise, so was praying; basically any form of Jewish culture being kept alive was a form of resistance e.g. theaters, books and religion.

Panel Discussion

Next came a panel discussion on representations: how we think and talk about the Holocaust. Professor Robert Eaglestone from the University of London was asked about literature. He compared literature concerning the Holocaust to a river as there are 2 parts to it. 1) The broken voice shaping thought and reflection, and 2) echoes throughout all literature since. He expanded on this by stating that the Daleks from the famous Doctor Who are in fact Nazi’s, forever calling themselves the superior race and wanting to “exterminate”, and on reflection, I realised that they even have the one eye positioned like the “Heil Hitler” salute. Prof. Eaglestone said that there are several dangers of having all literature now shaped by this event in history, the first being that literature becomes disconnected from the event, and the figures are just evil. The key stream is literature taken directly from, or about the Holocaust. The second danger being trying to over identify with testimonies as we would do with fiction, when we cannot cross the barrier. The third problem is that whilst it invites people in to this horrible period of time, it also pushes us away as it is not an enjoyable topic to read about.

Rex Bloomstein, documentary filmmaker, was asked on the relationship between what films show, and the truth with regards to the Holocaust. He commented that whilst some truths can be absorbed, we should be suspicious of drama as it is primarily a form of entertainment. Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls, University of Staffordshire, was asked about archaeology with regards to the Holocaust. She said that we should search for physical evidence, however the landscapes show traces of what there once was, and therefore sites should be considered in their entirety. Hugo Rifkind, journalist, was asked about whether social media was destructive with regards to the Holocaust. He came to the conclusion that social media is being used to deny the truth of the holocaust, to hate further, and to generally be disrespectful – as most of the time it can be done anonymously.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as a book and film were also discussed by the panel. It was acknowledged that this is used by many teachers to primarily introduce the Holocaust to younger students (around year 9). However, there was much debate over how true the adaptation really is – as in reality, Bruno the young German boy, would know exactly what was going on in the camp next door, and would have been indoctrinated with Anti-Semitism either from the Hitler youth or from school. In addition, Schmall, the young Jewish boy, would have been gassed upon arrival had he really been in the camps, therefore the novel and film portray a sense of falseness when it comes to history. The panel were also quite offended by the film, as the ending leaves most feeling more sorry for the father (the Nazi soldier), than we do for all those imprisoned due to the dramatic effects… Despite this, it is also right to argue that the film does possess a great lesson to younger children, which is perhaps its purpose – that children (and adults) who are different in one way or another, aren’t actually all that different, and can actually get along harmoniously.

Mala Tribich’s Survivor Testimony

After the panel discussion, we heard from Mala Tribich, a survivor. I’d previously heard Mala tell her story at the first seminar I went to before my visit to Auschwitz earlier this year. Mala lived as a child in an overcrowded, poorly sanitised Ghetto where there was food shortage. She described life here as “harsh”, “tragic” and “inadequate”. She spoke about those rewarded for handing in Jews, and how easy it was for them as the frightened Jew’s body language gave them away. Mala was later deported to a camp and arrived after what she’s later discovered was a 4 and a half day train journey without food or water; people died on the journey as a result. The camp Mala arrived at was Ravensbruck, and on her arrival she was stripped of all of her belongings, had her head shaved, showered and was given the striped uniform. She described herself and the people she arrived with as “unrecognisable” from this point onwards. Mala stated that it felt as if her soul had been taken away so that she was no longer human. Mala was deported again, this time to Bergen–Belsen, which again was overcrowded and experiencing terrible conditions. Mala said that the smell was appalling – something which books and cameras cannot portray. She described the people as “skeletons shuffling along aimlessly”, she stated that “you could be speaking to someone and they would drop dead in front of you.”

Bernard Levy’s Liberator Testimony

Next to give his story was Bernard Levy, who was one of the liberators of Bergen-Belsen, aged only 19 years. For Bernard, this was his first time speaking in front of a group like this. Bernard said that it was his compassion for the prisoners that motivated the liberation movement – they didn’t think about the perpetrators at the time as they were doing their job, their duty. Mala was ill with typhus as the liberation was taking place, along with many other prisoners. Bernard arrived at the scene discovering the conditions that Mala had previously described, along with the evidence that the soldiers had tried and failed to hide such as dead bodies and those that had managed to survive as victims, were primary witnesses to the final solution.

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