Europeans, I’ve read, are baffled by the sudden surge in the talk of Nazism in the United States during the past two years, especially after the election of the first African-American President. Those having lived through Nazi occupation, as well as an entire generation hearing stories from the parents, wonder how the atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s can be possibly equated with the political situation in America.
Until last year, my closest connection with the Holocaust was conducting the publicity for the annual Holocaust Survivors Memorial Service in Skokie for fifteen years. The gentleman with whom I worked spent his teenage years as a slave laborer machining parts for V-1 and V-2 rockets in an unheated bunker beneath Auschwitz. His entire family was liquidated. One of the youngest survivors was a woman who was tossed over the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto as an infant and raised in secret until the war ended. I once watched fascinated as another gentleman ate lunch, remembering he told me an American G.I. carried him out of the concentration camp because he weighed only 60 pounds. And one never forgets seeing a petite woman pull up her sleeve to show a reporter the numbers on her arm.
Entrance to the Belzec death camp
I was therefore very disturbed at Nazi references that started even during the 2008 election, including Peggy Noonan writing that the huge gathering at Invesco Field in Denver during the 2008 Democratic National Convention could take on aspects of the Nuremberg rallies. Since an Internet search couldn’t find her response to the subsequent criticism, I sent an e-mail asking for her rationale, pointing out that if the Nazis came to America, a large number of rally goers would be murdered or sent to labor camps, including Barack Obama. I never heard back.
Because three of my four grandparents were born in Chicago and the fourth immigrated here around 1900, I’d always assumed no family members were liquated in the Holocaust. While doing some routine research last year on my father’s family, I found a Web site with genealogies for my mother’s father’s family. My great-grandfather, Abraham Bloomfeld, was born in 1868 in Bursztyn in Galicia, then part of Austro-Hungary. He had three sisters, one of whom was Rose Winz (I don’t know why he didn’t share the same surname as his sisters.). Rose married Meshulum Mandel in Bukachevtsy, Austro-Hungary, in 1884, and they had ten children (the first three died as infants). I was shocked to discover that one son, Benjamin, and two daughters, Charcha and Gitel, and most of their families were murdered in the Holocaust. The other four had moved to the United States before the war.
Benjamin Mandel (1888-1942)
Murdered at Belzec
Despite the many degrees of separation, this Nazi talk is now personal. Benjamin’s wife died before the killings began; of their six children, three were liquidated, one survived and two had died in infancy. Charcha married David Lempel and had one son; all perished. Gitel, her husband Leon Dawer and their three children were murdered (a fourth died as an infant). Ironically, the killings took place at a ghetto and death camp for which I had no knowledge.
Gitel Mandel Dawer (1901-1943)
Murdered at Belzec
The Jews of Galicia were sent to a ghetto in the north of Lvov in late 1941. German police shot thousands of elderly and sick Jews on their way to the ghetto. In March 1942, the Germans began deporting Jews to the Belzec extermination camp, where several of my relatives were liquidated in gas chambers. By mid-1942, more than 65,000 Jews had been deported from the Lvov ghetto and murdered. In June 1943, the Germans destroyed the ghetto, killing thousands of Jews. The remaining residents were sent to the Janowska forced-labor camp or deported to Belzec.
Jews being deported to Belzec, March 1942
Approximately one-half million Jews were murdered at Belzec, constructed for the sole purpose of mass liquidations. Only one or two persons escaped. Somehow believing this atrocity might go undiscovered, the Germans dug up the mass graves and burned the corpses, although about 15,000 remained. After decades of neglect, the fomer camp was cleaned up and a memorial was erected in 1994, thanks in great part to my sister-in-law’s uncle, Miles Lerman, who lost immediate family at Belzec.
Polish soldiers at the dedication of the Belzec memorial, 1994
The ignorance of Beck, Limbaugh and those carrying Nazi-inspired signs and placards at Tea Party rallys is appalling. I’ve nearly come to blows with LaRouchies, with their Obama-as-Hitler posters, especially when one equated “people in hospitals” to Holocaust survivors. What part of our country does the Mandel family experience resemble? Maybe a few hours listening to the bravest people I’ve met talk about being nearly worked or starved to death by other human beings would end this talk forever. Or perhaps looking at the mass of photographs from which I chose these few. It has gone on far too long.