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Yizkor--The Fate of the Family Members Left Behind
What was it that the brothers had escaped?
Raoul Hilberg, noted historian of the Holocaust, the first one to apply detailed statistical accounting to the Destruction of the European Jews ,as he titled his sweeping research of the political, economic, and military resources brought to bear on the Jews. While it is important to note that Nazism’s victims numbered in many millions, it was the Jews that were singled out as the prime enemy of the Third Reich and the prime target of the largest manhunt in history. It was the culmination of a historic trend, as he described:” The missionaries of Christianity said: You have no right to live among us as Jews. The secular rulers who followed had proclaimed: You have no right to live among us. The Nazis at last decreed: You have no right to live.” Hilberg delineated the systematic processes of destruction: the rollback of civil and human rights by a thousand years; the expropriation of Jewish property; the deportation and concentration of Jews; the killing process, first through mobile killing units and then through killing centers.
My father had been through the loss of his civil rights, had lost his source of income ( as the family had lost much of their finances), and had been deported, luckily, to escape the ultimate bitterness of concentration and destruction.
With the opening of Operation Barbarossa, alongside the Wehrmacht, special units, Einstazgruppen ( task forces) went in as well. These commando units had been established, under the Schutzstaffel ( SS, Defense Corps) to secure Nazi interests in the Anschluss with Austria and then were sent into Poland to establish order—by summary execution of anyone who might make trouble for the regime—Polish leadership, Jews, Roma, mentally ill. Within the space of a few months, they murdered some 65,000 civilians, and herded the Jewish population into the ghettoes such as in Warsaw.
Now with Operation Barbarossa, Hitler personally gave orders to enable the Einsatzgruppen to operate unhindered and free of any liability in court for atrocities. Hitler’s speeches made it clear that this war would require extermination of all Bolsheviks, and it was clear that he meant by this, all Jews in the territories to be overrun. The leadership of the SS understood and passed on instructions to single out Jews, and the Einsatzgruppen, as trained commandos, set about this with a single –minded purpose. In the space of a few months, they had killed almost a million and a half Jews, coming in swiftness, rounding up Jews, and machine gunning them with such speed that several hundreds of thousands “ could be killed like sleeping flies”, in Hilberg’s words. This massive wholesale slaughter could only whet the appetite for more blood and eventually a more modern and efficient system, based on mass production methods, a “conveyor belt”, was developed: the killing centers at the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, to name a few. Human cargo, packed on cattle cars, unloaded, sorted, some enslaved and worked to death, the rest packed into gas chambers and killed with an insecticide poison ( Zyklon B), their corpses disposed of by cremation. The few that survived the camps by the end of the war were skeletons, a shadow of their former selves. By August , 1944, Eichmann had reported a rough estimate of the Jews killed- some 2,000,000 by the mobile killing units and some 4,000,000 in the death camps, some 6,000,000 in total.
What of the family left behind?
Their parents, Samuel and Binah Weinberg, had been among the few allowed to enter Switzerland, which had been untouched by the Germans.
Cousins Rachel, Ada and Wolf had gotten into Palestine. Cousin Marcus survived in Italy.
Cousins Boaz and Gideon Gelernter had been able to get to the United States, but their parents, my father’s aunt and uncle, Sara and Jona Gelernter, were not so fortunate. Sara was killed somewhere in Poland; Jona managed to escape, via Italy to Vichy France, where he awaited transportation to Portugal on his way to the United States—he was instead put on a train to a concentration camp where he was killed.
Jonah and Sarah Gelernter in center, my father, Wilhelm, on the right, my uncle, Benjamin, on the left.
“List No.2- List of foreigners in the Special Center for Assembly requesting visa for entry to Portugal”
Shows name, birth date, nationality, visa, and identification document.” Jona Gelernter is twelfth on the list . (Courtesy: George Fogelson, who found this list of refugees among his aunts documents.)
What of my father’s cousins in Lwow that stayed behind? Irene Gottdenker( to be my mother ten years later) together with her aunt, Dora Iger, succeeded in going underground and survived in Lwow and later Warsaw under false identities.
( Irene Gottdenker, circa 1941-42, in Lwow, picture is from her ID at work, which has the stamp on it “HOB Holzbau Aktien Zweigstelle LW”-in German,” HOB-Construction Timber Shares-Branch Location LW ( perhaps for Lwow).)
Karol Gottdenker, her brother, escaped to Buczacz( at the eastern Polish border), where he found refuge among the local Poles, only to be caught towards the end of the war and executed by the Nazis.
Their mother, my grandmother, Helena Iger Gottdenker was beaten by the Nazis and Ukrainian henchmen in the first days of occupation of Lwow, taken to the Janowska Concentration camp and then summarily executed by the Einsatzgruppen at a mass grave in the Piaski, the sandy ravine outside of Lwow, probably in the major “Aktion” in June of 1942.
(Helena Iger Gottdenker)
No discussion of this period is possible without asking: “Unde Malum”, What is the source of this evil that drove an entire nation to bloodlust?
Was it , as some suggested, a peculiar pathological hatred of Jews endemic to the Germans?
Was it the outcome of centuries of Christian denunciation of Jews as Christ-killers?
Was it an overly effective an efficient bureaucracy merely caught up in proving itself, no matter whether it was manufacturing Volkswagens or turning human beings into ashes?
In the 1960’s, the Catholic Church convened Vatican II to address the needs of the modern world and reevaluate, once and for all, the status of Judaism vis a vis Christianity. Fifty years later, I could sit in the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, as our granddaughter performed in a chorus about Noah, and feel perfectly at home, especially when I opened the Catholic Missal to see an explanation about “our Jewish ancestors”. Certainly, after Vatican II and official Papal visits to the State of Israel, there has been a change as great as day and night. On the Christian Evangelical side, there is an outpouring of love for Jews, something unimaginable before. (On the Christian progressive left, however there is a cold harshness and denunciation of Israel, the State of the Jewish people, singled out alone among the nations for its treatment of Palestinians while far greater atrocities are occurring on a daily basis in the neighboring states.)
Nevertheless, even as Jews sent delegation upon delegation to the Vatican to negotiate the final Church documents, my father was very concerned that it was much ado about nothing. He told me that when Churchill warned Stalin about incurring the wrath of the Church over the fate of Poland, Stalin replied:”So how many divisions does the Pope have.”The moral suasion of the Church was very limited n the modern world. ( Years later, a Polish Pope had great moral suasion, but it was the American economy, backed by American missiles, that brought down Stalin’s successors).
This is what he wrote for the National Jewish Monthly of the B’nai B’rith, which published his essay (while at the same time denying his position in an editorial side-bar):
... “ Neither Hitler , nor the Dreyfusards, nor the anti-Semitic right-wingers who between the two World Wars grouped themselves around the daily “L’Action Francaise”, fought under the faded banner of the church. We must not be deceived by smuggled in pieties. Nazism’s anti-Jewish ideology was not based on the theological antagonism between the Pharisees and Jesus. The Nazis did not adorn themselves with the symbol of the cross but with the swastika, which stood for many things but not for Christian myths or beliefs. Hitler was not a modern Torquemada, and the gas chambers were not regarded by him as auto-da-fe, a places for burning heretics.
“It is wrong in or day and age to indentify anti-Semitism, primarily, with religious intolerance, though the words are still used interchangeably, especially by Jews. The religious wall turned long ago into a “paper curtain”. If we are still excluded from some clubs or neighborhoods, it’s not for our disbelief in Jesus. The idea that hostility towards us is, mainly and directly, the result of religious intolerance, is a product of frustration. The seed of anti-Semitism is undoubtedly Christian, the root and branches are not. Creeds are not the insignia of our present-day civilization, and the Christ-killer myth rarely, if ever, pops up in conversations. To the best of my recollection, no Nazi ever threw the New Testament at me, nor did any Russian anti-Semite , during the four years I was a refugee in the Soviet Union. Anti-Semitism is essentially a-religious, thoroughly secularized and materialistic.
“ . . .We are under a spell and look in the wrong direction. Out of fear of another Holocaust, we have put up a warm blanket of belief that if only the churches got less nasty, most Jew-baiting would disappear. And yet I venture to say that if every trace of religious discrimination against us were wiped away overnight, it would have the same effect as a heart operation on a broken leg. In September, 1938, Pope Pius stated clearly:”Anti-Semitism is. . . a movement in which we, as Christians, cannot have any part whatever. . .Spiritually we are Semites.” Did this noble statement prevent the Germans, the Ukrainians, the Poles and Lithuanians from slaughtering Jews? Does the contemporary left-or-right winger pay much attention to church statements? Does the average Catholic study them?
“. . .For modern anti-Semitism is primarily a secular movement, and large parts of it are anti-Christian. . . We must look for friends who themselves are power factors, for men ready to protect their liberties, law and peaceful procedures for the redress of their grievances—within the framework of our Constitution.
“We need an increased realism and sobriety with which to approach the modern varieties of Jew hatred. This is a job for politicians, political scientists, criminologists, and psychopathologists rather than for theologians.”
The Bible is strikingly silent on what motivates us to evil. We are told of Cain and Abel:” Vayomer Kayin el Hevel Akhiv”,” Cain said to Abel, his brother.and when they were in the field, Cain rose against Abel his brother and killed him.”. The Hebrew word “Vayomer”,(and said) introduces a quotation, yet there is no quotation. What is it that Cain said to Abel? What did Abel say back to him? What were they talking about? The Bible does not care. It only cares that Cain and Abel were brothers and one brother killed the other.
Not what is the cause of the quarrel, but what is the consequence. The world spent years in bloodshed as a consequence of this act of Cain against Abel in the 20th Century.
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