80 years on, films & novels keep alive holocaust horror

By Parag Ranjan Dutta

On September 1, 1939, Hitler attacked Poland. Two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany which triggered the beginning of the World War II. During the next five years the war changed the face of Europe so much that it left an indelible scar in the body and minds of the millions. If we delve a little deeper it will not be easy to find out a single rationale which prompted Hitler to attack Poland.
Around 1901, the German geographer Ratzel theorised the concept of Labensraum, living space or biological habitat, which a territory or a country required to grow and survive. He asserted that political entities like countries behave similar to biological organisms. Hitler developed the belief that Germany required ‘living space’ and also believed in the ideology that Eastern Europe had to be conquered for Germany’s survival.
Labensraum became the ideological principle of the Nazis that provided the justification for territorial expansion. And to achieve that Nazis wanted most of the indigenous people of Central and Eastern Europe, mostly Polish, Russians, Czech and other Slavic nations should be removed through deportation to concentration camps, death or enslavement.
Nazism or National Socialism shared many elements of fascism of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, which advocated the annihilation of all enemies of the Aryan race. Hitler also made reference to Aryan Race as a superior type of humanity. Hitler did not invent the hatred against the Jews. The apathy towards the Jews developed in the early years of Christianity and reinforced by the belief that it was the Jews who killed Jesus Christ.
Antisemitism (Semitic relates to a family of languages that includes Hebrew, Arabic and other languages) played a major role in Adolf Hitler’s thinking.
Many years after the war was over and when the stories were retold by those who survived the holocaust and came to be known to the world it touched the hearts of people all over the world. The story begins about a German born Dutch Jewish girl Anne Frank. On her 13th birthday, she got a diary as a gift. She was delighted. She wanted to publish a book about her time. The diary of that young girl, also known as the Diary of Ann Frank, is a book from the writings in Dutch language maintained by Ann Frank while she was in hiding with her family for two years during the Nazi occupation of Netherlands. They went into hiding in an attic to escape the persecution.
After eluding the Nazi capture for two years in Amsterdam, the Frank family was finally spotted, arrested and was deported to concentration camps. Ann and her sister Margot were spared immediate death in the Auschwitz gas chamber and transferred to another concentration camp in northern Germany.
In February 1945, the Frank sisters died of typhus in Bergen-Beslen concentration camp and their bodies were dumped into a mass grave. After the Franks were taken away, the diary was retrieved by Miep Gies, Otto Frank’s employee. After the war she handed over the diary to Otto Frank, the lone survivor of the family.
Few years after Anne’s death her hopes and dreams were blossomed into The Diary of Ann Frank (Het Achterhuis). When published in English in 1952, it was highly acclaimed by the critics all over the world and became one of the best sellers. The diary has since been published in 60 languages.
Religious intolerance and persecution saw an unprecedented exodus of people to Israel. Before 1948, Palestine was a British mandate and there was no country called Israel. Jews were fighting for their motherland. In 1947, a ship named Exodus carried 4,500 Jewish immigrants from France to Palestine, most of whom were holocaust survivors, on a worn out US-owned coastal freight.
Way back in 1917, Arthur Belfour, the British secretary wrote a letter to Rothscchild, a very wealthy Jewish banker about a support for the ‘national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine. But the historical sequence of events required 30 more years and millions of Jews killed in the holocaust, before the national home was established.
In May 1948, David Ben Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel, recognised by the Harry Truman government of the US. Ben Gurion had a passion for Zionism and was a true leader who became the first Prime Minister of Israel.
Zionism is a movement for the development and protection of a Jewish nation. As recent as 1989, a record 71,000 Soviet Jews were granted exodus from the erstwhile USSR to Israel.
Exemplary story of endeavour that turned a salt marsh into a prosperous country named Israel influenced the American historical fiction writer Leon Uris so much that he narrated the unfathomable love and passion for the promised land and founding of a nation in what is now Israel in his famous novel Exodus.
The Nazi Army built a number of extermination camps across Europe and the one in Poland near the rail station of Sobibor has some tragic stories. Unlike the other camps Sobibor was built solely to exterminate Jews. Nearly 250,000 Jews are believed to have died in gas chambers at Sobibor. Most of them were shot dead on arrival. In October 1943 about 300 prisoners managed to escape from Sobibor.
Those unfortunate prisoners who could not escape was either captured or shot dead immediately by the Nazi guards. Escape from Sobibor, a 1987 British television film tells the story of a mass escape of the prisoners that was seen as the most successful uprising story of the Jewish prisoners. A number of characters portrayed in the fil were real and after the escape many inmates were happily married and lived in Poland.
Siemion Rosenfield, Sobibor’s last known survivor of the uprising at the Nazi extermination camp died recently at the age of 96 in a retirement camp near Tel Aviv. After his death the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid tribute to Rosenfield in his face book post and wrote ‘ May his memory be a blessing’.
During the Nazi occupation of Greece, the Germans captured Dodecanese, a group of islands known for their medieval castles. Germans built two heavy guns on the island at an advantageous position facing the Aegean Sea.
An upheaval task was given to a group of elite allied soldiers to capture and destroy the guns. The great novelist Alistair Maclean drew inspiration from this story. Based on a fictional plot but within the real historical context of the Allied effort wrote one of the bestsellers of the time The Guns of Navarone. Navarone does not exist in reality.
Based on the novel, one of the all-time great war movies was produced. Some sequences of the movie were shot on the Greek island of Rhodes. One of the lead actors, Mexican-born Anthony Quinn was so much impressed with the island that he bought a land there which is still called Anthony Quinn Bay!
Pedlock Pfeffeberg, a Polish American Jew and holocaust survivor from Krakow, decided to move to the US in 1948 and opened a leather goods business in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. There he persuaded a number of scriptwriters and filmmakers for long to make a film about a man who not only saved him and his wife but hundreds of Jews from the Nazis.
In 1980 the famous Australian novelist Thomas Kennealy met the most influential man of his life, Pfefferberg, in his shop asking about the price of briefcases. On learning that Keneally was a novelist he showed him the collection of documents that was his life’s work and told him how he escaped from the Nazi death camps during the war. Pfefferberg told Kennealy about Oscar Schindler who saved about 1200 Jews and described him as ‘Modern Noah’. Highly impressed with his story, Keneally penned his most well-known novel about Oscar Schindler, a German industrialist, a Nazi Party member and a factory owner who spent his entire fortune in an effort to save over 1200 of his Jewish employees: Schindler’s Ark.
The book was adapted by master filmmaker Steven Spielberg into Academy Award winning epic movie Schindler’s List. The 13-page yellow paper that includes the names of Jews saved by Oscar Schindler during the war can be found in research notes at an Australian library. This list was typed in a hurry on April 18, 1945, as the war was coming to its end.
In the movie when the Jews were forced into a ghetto one little girl on the street cries out ‘goodbye Jews’ again and again. She represents the open hostility towards the Jews, the hatred the little girl learned naturally. Through this little girl Spielberg sends a message to humanity. Edith Warthiem, a holocaust survivor recalls how 300 of Schindler’s women were interned at Auschwitz. ‘One night they took us to the gas chamber. We were waiting the whole night- in the morning we found out Schindler is here!’. He had come to rescue them, bribing the Nazis and bring them back. Oscar Schindler died on October 9, 1974, and according to his last wish he was buried in Jerusalem.
At the end of the war, Allied forces were planning to confront the Germans in France. General Eisenhower agreed on a mission of the US army and the allied forces to land in Normandy on D-day on June 5, despite inclement weather. The Longest Day, a book by Cornelius Ryan and published in 1959 tells the story of a masterpiece military invasion of Normandy. Based on his story an epic Hollywood blockbuster movie, The Longest Day was produced.

(The author is former head of the Department of Geography at
St Edmund’s College)

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