Chapter Excerpt

The Years of Extermination
Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945

Chapter One

September 1939-May 1940

"On Friday morning, September 1, the young butcher's lad came and told us: There has been a radio announcement, we already held Danzig and the Corridor, the war with Poland was under way, England and France remained neutral," Victor Klemperer wrote in his diary on September 3. "I said to Eva [that] a morphine injection or something similar was the best thing for us; our life was over."1

Klemperer was of Jewish origin; in his youth he converted to Protestantism and later on married a Protestant "Aryan." In 1935 he was dismissed from the Technical University in Dresden, where he taught Romance languages and literature; yet he went on living in the city, painstakingly recording what happened to him and around him. The British and French responses to the German attack remained uncertain for two days. "Annemarie brought two bottles of sparkling wine for Eva's birthday," Klemperer reported on September 4. "We drank one and decided to save the other for the day of the English declaration of war. So today it's the turn of the second one."2

In Warsaw, Chaim Kaplan, the director of a Hebrew school, was confident that this time Britain and France would not betray their ally as they had betrayed Czechoslovakia in 1938. On the first day of the war Kaplan sensed the apocalyptic nature of the new conflict: "We are witnessing the dawn of a new era in the history of the world. This war will indeed bring destruction upon human civilization. But this is a civilization that merits annihilation and destruction."3 Kaplan was convinced that ultimately Nazism would be defeated but that the struggle would entail enormous losses for all.

The Hebrew school director also grasped the peculiar threat that the outbreak of the war represented for the Jews. In that same September 1 entry, he added, "As for the Jews, their danger is seven times greater. Wherever Hitler's foot treads there is no hope for the Jewish people." Kaplan quoted Hitler's notorious speech of January 30, 1939, in which the Nazi leader threatened the Jews with extermination in case of world war. The Jews were thus more eager than most to take a hand at common defense: "When the order was issued that all the inhabitants of the city must dig shelter trenches for protection from air raids, the Jews came in numbers. I, too, was among them."4

On September 8 the Wehrmacht occupied Lodz, the second largest Polish city: "All of a sudden the terrifying news: Lodz has been surrendered!" Dawid Sierakowiak, a Jewish youngster, barely fifteen, recorded. "All conversation stops; the streets grow deserted; faces and hearts are covered with gloom, cold severity and hostility. Mr. Grabinski comes back from downtown and tells how the local Germans greeted their countrymen. The Grand Hotel where the General Staff is expected to stay is bedecked with garlands of flowers: [Ethnic German] civilians—boys, girls—jump into the passing military cars with happy cries of Heil Hitler! Loud German conversations in the streets. Everything patriotically and nationalistically [German] that was hidden in the past now shows its true face."5

And in Warsaw again, Adam Czerniaków, an employee of the Polish foreign trade clearinghouse and an active member of the Jewish community, was organizing a Jewish Citizens Committee to work with the Polish authorities: "The Jewish Citizens Committee of the capital city of Warsaw," he wrote on September 13, "received legal recognition and was established in the Community building."6 On September 23 he further noted: "Mayor Starzynski named me Chairman of the Jewish Community in Warsaw. A historic role in a besieged city. I will try to live up to it."7 Four days later Poland surrendered.

The voices of many Jewish chroniclers will be heard in this volume, and yet all of them, as different as they may be, offer but a faint glimpse of the extraordinary diversity that was the world of European Jewry on the edge of destruction. After a steady decline of religious observance and an increase in the uncertainties of cultural-ethnic Jewishness, no obvious common denominator fitted the maze of parties, associations, groups, and some nine million individuals, spread all over the Continent, who nonetheless considered themselves Jews (or were considered as such). This diversity resulted from the impact of distinct national histories, the dynamics of large-scale migrations, a predominantly urban-centered life, a constant economic and social mobility driven by any number of individual strategies in the face of surrounding hostility and prejudice or, obversely, by the opportunities offered in liberal surroundings. These constant changes contributed to ever-greater fragmentation within the Diaspora, mainly during the chaotic decades that separated the late nineteenth century from the eve of World War II.

Where, for example, should one locate young Sierakowiak, the Lodz diarist? In his diary entries, started just before the beginning of the war, we discover an artisan family steeped in Jewish tradition, Dawid's own easy familiarity with this tradition and yet, at the same time, a strong commitment to communism ("The most important things are school work and studying Marxist theory," he wrote somewhat later).8 Sierakowiak's divided world was not untypical of the multiple and at times contradictory allegiances coexisting in various segments in Jewish society on the eve of the war: Liberals of various nuances, Social Democrats, Bundists, Trotskyites, Stalinists, Zionists of all possible stripes and factions, religious Jews sparring in endless dogmatic or "tribal" feuds, and, until the end of 1938, a few thousand members of fascist parties, particularly in Mussolini's Italy.9 Yet for many Jews, mainly in Western Europe, the main goal was social and cultural assimilation into surrounding society, while maintaining some elements of "Jewish identity," whatever that meant.

All these trends and movements should be multiplied by any number of national or regional idiosyncrasies and internecine struggles, and, of course, by a high count of sometimes notorious individual oddities. Thus the old and terminally ill Sigmund Freud, who had fled from Vienna to London after the Anschluss . . .

The Years of Extermination
Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945
. Copyright © by Saul Friedlander. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945 by Saul Friedlander
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