1. The author, title, and publishing
The first two of the twenty-six categories are Pre-war Jewish home and community life, and Pre-war anti-Semitism. These describe what life was like throughout Europe for Jews, some of whose ancestors had lived in these countries for many hundreds of years. In Pre-war Jewish home and community life, survivors write about the culture, education, traditions, community structure, and the life Jews led as they struggled to grapple with changing twentieth-century values: Should they maintain family and religious traditions, or seek assimilation? Should they work toward a better economic situation where they lived, or would they find better opportunities elsewhere? Should they seek to fulfil their Zionist aspirations, or was carving out a life in the “desert” of Palestine too difficult?
One of the main factors that determined how pre-war European Jewish families faced these questions is that many of them lived amidst an all-pervasive Pre-war anti-Semitism, the second category of the Digest. They lived in a Christian world that was in many ways foreign to them or had alienated them.
The segregation and humiliation of Jews, legalized under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, had begun in Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933. Hitler separated the Jews from the general population by making them into a scapegoat – by taking advantage of latent anti-Semitism and blaming Jews for Germany’s ills. He then removed Jews from their positions in government, the law, universities, schools, and hospitals. German colleagues took over their positions; those who had been under them moved up the ladder. Jewish businesses were confiscated, or “sold” for a fraction of their worth to local people who were loyal to the Nazi Party.
By the time Jews were separated physically from the larger German community, those of Hitler’s compatriots who had accepted his plan, and benefited from this exclusion of the Jews, were not particularly interested in helping the Jews when persecution intensified. This segregation and humiliation extended to Austria in March 1938, when it became part of the German Reich, and to the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in October 1938.
The coming of war and Life under German occupation categories describe how the beginning of the war in September 1939, the sudden violent imposition of Nazi rule, and the constant struggle for survival affected the memoir writer. In each country that Germany conquered between September 1939 and June 1941 - Poland in September 1939, Denmark and Norway in April 1940, Holland, Belgium, France, and Luxembourg in May 1940, Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941 - anti-Jewish legislation was put in place, often upheld by the local collaborationist regime. Jewish businesses and possessions were confiscated.
In Poland, from the first days of the German conquest, Jews were rounded up, beaten, and several thousand were murdered. Later the Jews were forcibly removed from their homes and crowded into ghettos.
Ghettos were established in Poland in many towns in which Jews were confined amid considerable hardship and privation. Some ghettos existed for only a short time. Others lasted up to four years. This is described in the two categories Creation of the ghetto, and Daily life in the ghetto. Having lost their property and livelihood, the only further value Jews represented to the Nazi occupier was in their labour. Thus the struggle by Jews for survival in the ghettos centred on trying to find food and obtain valid work permits, both of which were tightly controlled and restricted.
Those Jews deemed by the Nazis no longer “essential” were rounded up and removed from the ghettos. The category of Deportation describes the physical movement of Jews from their home towns or ghettos, in most cases to their deaths. Usually deportations took place by train, and were undertaken with deliberate deception, and promises that were recognized as false only when it was too late. The destination of the deportation trains was a tightly guarded secret. Only a few deportees returned.
Starting in June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, four “commandos” of specially-trained SS killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen, rounded up Jews in hundreds of towns and villages, and took them by force to nearby ditches, ravines, and forests where they were shot. The largest of these Mass murder sites were located near cities which had large Jewish populations. These sites include Babi Yar outside Kiev, Rumbuli outside Riga, Ponar outside Vilnius, and the Ninth Fort outside Kaunas, at each of which tens of thousands of Jews were killed. Also included in this Digest category are smaller sites where thousands of Jews were murdered by shooting.
Transit camps: Drancy in France, Malines in Belgium, Westerbork in Holland, Fossoli in Italy, were among the principal transit camps where Jews were taken for short periods of time and then deported to an “unknown destination in the East” - in most cases, to their deaths. Other transit camps were to be found throughout Europe.
December 1941 saw the first systematic gassing of Jews.
This took place in German-occupied Poland, near the village of Chelmno
(in German “Kulmhof”), which became the first death camp.
Belzec (pronounced Belzhets), Sobibor, and Treblinka were also Death
camps in German-occupied Poland to which, with Chelmno, as many
as two million Jews were deported and killed. A fifth death camp, Maly
Trostenets, was situated near Minsk in German-occupied Byelorussia.
Many German factory owners took advantage of the plentiful labour supply and built factories and labour camps close to the ghettos and camps, as described in the category Slave labour camps and factories. Those Jews who were able to work had a better chance of survival, despite the harsh conditions in those camps which ensured a high turnover of labourers. Many memoir writers survived as slave labourers.
The deception practiced by the SS in their killing operations depended on secrecy and the complete control of information. Northwest of Prague, the SS established a ghetto in the former Czechoslovak garrison town of Theresienstadt, (Terezin in Czech). It was here that the Red Cross was shown what was “happening” to the Jews during a massive deception operation, complete with Jewish children at play. Much of the art, poetry, and music created by the Jews during the Holocaust came from those who were interned in Theresienstadt. Most of those who did not succumb to the privations in Theresienstadt were deported to Auschwitz and Maly Trostenets and killed.
While mass murder by shooting continued in the East throughout the last six months of 1941 and for all of 1942, experimental means were being investigated in German-occupied Poland to make killing more “efficient”. What had begun at Chelmno with exhaust fumes was “perfected” at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Zyclon B gas pellets were thrown into sealed “shower” rooms. The bodies were then burned in crematoria. This method of killing began in the summer of 1942. By the autumn of 1944, five crematoria were operating.
Although “Auschwitz” has come to refer to the whole facility, it consisted of three large camps in close proximity. The original and Main Camp, with its single crematorium, was known as Auschwitz I. Birkenau, where four of the five crematoria were located, was known as Auschwitz II. Auschwitz also contained several satellite slave labour camps in the vicinity, the largest of which was attached to the Buna synthetic rubber and oil factory at the nearby town of Monowitz, and was known as Buna-Monowitz, or Auschwitz III. Descriptions of Buna-Monowitz and the other slave labour camps in the Auschwitz region are to be found in the Digest in the category of Slave labour camps and factories.
In January 1945, as Soviet forces approached the Auschwitz region, the SS evacuated the camp and the surrounding slave labour camps, and moved the surviving Jews westward, initially on foot. Those who were sent westward by rail were put in open railway wagons in mid-winter. Amid terrible brutality by their guards, many of the deportees were to “march” with little food, water, or shelter, until April. The toll from these Death marches was high.
When the Nazi Party came to power in Germany in 1933, it immediately established concentration camps for political prisoners. These camps were run by the SS. Dachau outside Munich and Sachsenhausen north of Berlin, date from this period. These concentration camps, located on German soil, were used for German political prisoners, opponents of the Nazi regime, writers, artists, teachers, religious leaders, pastors, priests, homosexuals, common criminals, and later, prisoners of war, particularly Russians. Towards the end of the war, tens of thousands of Jews on death marches were brought to the Concentration camps in Germany, among them Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen, and their many sub-camps.
Also included in the Digest category of Concentration camps is Majdanek, although this camp had many different aspects. Located in Poland near the city of Lublin, Majdanek initially served as a concentration camp for Russian prisoners of war who were held there in horrific conditions, and for Polish political prisoners. For the thousands of Jews who were taken to Majdanek and were later sent to Auschwitz, it was a transit camp. In addition, thousands of Jews from as close as Lublin and as far as Holland and Greece were brought to Majdanek and killed. After the defeat of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt and the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, and later the revolt in Bialystok, many thousands of survivors of those revolts were taken to Majdanek and murdered during the notorious “Harvest Festival” in November 1943.
One of the main reasons that survivors have written their memoirs of the Holocaust is to bear witness, to describe what they lived through, what they saw, and what the people whom they knew had witnessed. The category of Witness to mass murder makes it possible to begin to understand the scale of what happened.
As well as recording the details of the places to which Jews were taken, survivors also sought to chronicle the events and to write about the people who inspired them to continue, the people who helped them, and the ways they were able to evade death. The category Resistance, ghetto revolts, individual acts of courage and defiance includes acts of physical resistance, armed revolts, and also acts of “spiritual resistance”: dignity in the face of inhumanity, the will to rise above the circumstances, the determination to live through the time of torment, the will to live.
Again and again, Jews fled to forests and outlying areas where they could fight the Nazi occupier. The category of Partisan activity refers to armed resistance against the German Army and German occupation, either by Jews, or by non-Jewish resistance fighters. Unfortunately, Jews who were able to escape to the forests and fight the Germans as Partisans, also had to fear some Polish and Russian Partisan groups who did not consider the Jews to be allies. One of the tragedies of the Holocaust is that some of those who were fighting the Nazi occupier were also fighting the Jews.
The category of Specific escapes refers to those few Jews who were able to escape from the deportation trains, or from those who would betray them, or from other situations of grave danger; or to find a brief respite from the constant terror.
In order to survive, many Jews went into hiding, as described in the category, In hiding, including Hidden Children. This could involve a physical hiding place: often a cellar or an attic, a cupboard, or a cavity in a wall, or under the floor, or in a barn. For those who did not have “typically Jewish” features and were able to pass as Christians, it also involved a psychological hiding. In such cases, along with the false identity papers, a whole new persona and demeanour had to emerge. In the struggle to find safety, families were split up; children were often hidden separately from their parents. Of those children who survived, many lost their families; nearly all lost their childhood.
Many Jews were fortunate to receive kindness and help from non-Jews. Many of these Righteous Gentiles, as they have become known, risked, and some even lost their lives for helping Jews. Showing great humanity, they shared food, shelter, and risk. It is to their credit that thousands of Jews survived.
The category of Liberation denotes the time when Soviet, American, British, Canadian, and other Allied troops liberated the camps and the areas in which many Jews had been in hiding. For the Jews, liberation meant an end to their physical suffering, and the beginning of their quest to try to find family members, and to try to find a country that would give them safe haven. Many eventually made their way to Palestine (later Israel); many went to Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Argentina.
The category of Displaced Persons camps, describes the refugee camps where survivors lived after they had been liberated. These camps were also used as a base for those who travelled to find relatives. Most survivors began to rebuild their lives while in DP camps; some spent several years there while waiting to find a country that would take them.
The category of Stories of individuals, including family members identifies the lives and fate of individuals mentioned by the memoir writer, as well as the fate of family members if known. Each survivor identifies extended family, neighbours, friends, colleagues, and many of those individuals with whom he or she came into contact.
The category of Post-war life and career focuses not only on the achievements of the survivors after liberation, but on their search to explore their past. The final category of Personal reflections provides an understanding of how the survivors view the world, and gives the reader the opportunity to learn - through the survivors’ own words - their philosophy, their psychology, their connection to religion, and what is important to them.
Because the borders of many countries in Europe have changed so much in the twentieth century, the names of Places also changed. For example, the capital of Slovakia is today Bratislava. When it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Germans called it Pressburg, and the Hungarians knew it as Posony. The capital of Lithuania is today Vilnius. It was a part of Poland between the two world wars when Poles called it Wilno; to the Jews it was Vilna.
Many towns in the East had a Yiddish as well as a local name. Thus Brest-Litovsk was Brisk, and Vladimir Volynski was Ludmir. The Digest shows these various spellings of towns and cities. Also, by locating each place on Maps, specially prepared by the Digest for each memoir, we can follow the memoir writer’s travels, experiences, and torments.