|The time may come when these words will be published Listen, and you will hear.|
|(Chaim Kaplan - 20 February 1940)|
There is a long and deep-rooted tradition among Jews of recording their persecutions. During the Crusades and at the time of the Chmielnicki massacres in 1648-1649, Jews graphically recorded these afflictions for posterity. But never has so much been written by Jews who were condemned by a ruthless and remorseless persecutor as during the Shoah. Literally hundreds of people maintained records of daily life under Nazi occupation. Sometimes these were collective and organized, such as the Oneg Shabbat Archive in Warsaw, the Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, or the Archive of the Bialystok Ghetto. Other individuals maintained personal diaries or journals recording the horrors of daily life Emanuel Ringelblum in Warsaw, Avraham Tory in Kovno, Herman Kruk in Vilna, to name only a few. An unknown number these diaries were lost, along with their authors. Among those works which survived was the diary of Chaim Aron Kaplan.
The importance of these works cannot be overstated. Written at the time of the events described, or shortly afterwards, they have an immediacy and reality that survivors, sometimes writing years later, were not always able to recreate. They provide an authentic and reliable source of the daily anxieties, deprivations and torments through which their authors lived. None does this to greater effect than the diary of Chaim Kaplan.
Chaim Aron Kaplan was born in Horodyszcze in 1880, then part of the Russian Empire, and today the town of Gorodishche in Belarus. He attended cheder (Hebrew classes) as a boy and received a traditional education, going on to study at the famous Yeshivas of Mir, Minsk and Lida, before continuing his studies at the government pedagogical institute for teachers in Vilna. In 1900, Kaplan became involved in the secular Jewish school movement and moved to Warsaw, where, in 1905, he founded a secular Hebrew elementary school which he ran for the next thirty-four years. He visited the United States in 1921 and produced a number of books, including a Hebrew Grammar in 1926, followed two years later by a Passover Haggadah for children. The latter work included a lengthy introduction on Passover customs among Jewish communities around the world, and was also published in Warsaw in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish as well as being reprinted after the war in a Hebrew edition. Kaplan visited Palestine in 1936 with the intention of settling there. His two children had emigrated earlier, and Kaplan hoped to join them, but he was unable to obtain a position and returned to Warsaw.
He began his first diary in 1933, and the initial entry of his wartime record, on the very first day of the Second World War, contains a frighteningly accurate prediction of the horrors to come:
This war will indeed bring destruction upon human civilization. But this is a civilization which merits annihilation and destruction. There is no doubt that Hitlerian Nazism will ultimately be defeated, for in the end the civilized nations will rise up to defend the liberty which the German barbarians seek to steal from mankind. However, I doubt that we will live through this carnage. The bombs filled with lethal gas will poison every living being, or we will starve because there will be no means of livelihood (1 September 1939).
It was by no means the last of his unerringly precise predictions. On Hitler's declaration of war with the United States, he wrote: Over the radio today came the declaration that `behind Roosevelt stands world Jewry.' As always, no matter what the trouble, the Jews are responsible. Henceforth, the stupid Nazis will insist that Germany is at war with world Jewry. They will say that on the one hand is Bolshevist Russia which was created by Jews, and on the other is plutocratic America, which is controlled by Jews. (12 December 1941).
Kaplan's diary is notable for its insight into the nature of Nazi anti-Semitism, as well as its frank and astute observations about the Warsaw Jewish community, the Judenrat and Jewish police, and the recording of Nazi policies, amongst many other things. From the very beginning of the Nazi occupation, Kaplan sought to uncover a larger overall aim out of the host of unpredictable and malicious decrees imposed by the conquerors. Kaplan sensed the disastrous implication of initial Nazi edicts at an extraordinarily early stage of the occupation: A long, long time will pass before our lives become liveable again. (7 September 1939), and We are at the mercy of shameless murderers. (4 October 1939). When the Judenrat was ordered to conduct a full census of the Jewish population less than a month after the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, Kaplan commented: For what purpose? Nobody knows. But it is certain it is not for the benefit of the Jews. Our hearts tell us that a catastrophe for the Jewry of Poland is hidden in this demand (16 October 1939). By the end of October 1939, Kaplan suspected the worst, writing, Blatant signs prove that some terrible catastrophe, unequalled in Jewish history, is in store for Polish Jewry (25 October 1939). He further commented, Under the cloak of black-marketeering they will utterly destroy us (27 October1939).
Kaplan understood almost immediately that in the eyes of the conquerors we are outside the category of human beings The plan in general shows no pity towards the Jews (28 October 1939). He lamented: It is hard to watch the death of an entire community (23 November 1939). One week later, Kaplan foresaw that the liquidation of Polish Jewry is in full force The concept of complete extermination and destruction was to be applied to the Jews (1 December 1939). In projecting German intentions, Kaplan's ability to read Hitler's thoughts was uncanny: `Many projects have been undertaken by me [Hitler] which no statesman would have dared to think possible, and they were successful. In the destruction of the Jews as well, I will show wonders that my predecessors never imagined.' (9 February 1940). By 6 July 1940, with the fall of France his pessimism grew: If the war drags on we are doomed to destruction A new line of attack has appeared lately The Jews caused [the war] in order to bring destruction on the Reich There are more terrible rumours of cruel edicts The agenda includes a ghetto, degradation to the point of strangulation.
Any extracts from the diary can provide no more than a brief introduction to Kaplan's eloquent style and his determination to retain objectivity despite the harrowing nature of the events he describes. Only by reading the diary in its entirety can this be fully appreciated. But however terrible the circumstances, belief in some kind of salvation is never entirely absent: Even though we are now undergoing terrible tribulations and the sun has grown dark for us at noon, we have not lost our hope that the era of light will surely come. Our existence as a people will not be destroyed, but the Jewish community will live on. (26 October 1939); A nation which for thousands of years said daily, `And even if he tarries, I will await the coming of the Messiah every day,' will not weaken in its hope, which has been a balm of life and has strengthened it in its miserable survival. (30 January 1940); The cold is so intense that my fingers are often too numb to hold a pen. There is no coal for heating and electricity is sporadic or nonexistent. In the oppressive dark and unbearable cold you mind stops functioning. Yet even in such a state of despair the human spirit is variable. The call for a free tomorrow rings in your ears and penetrates the bleakness in your heart. At such a moment one's love of life reawakens. Having come this far I must make the effort to go on to the end of the spectacle. (15 January 1942).
There is defiance of a merciless enemy too: With my own eyes I saw the `badge of shame' It is a yellow patch on which it is written `Jude', sewn to one of the coat lapels I advised that each Jew add, next to the word `Jude', the words `Mein Stolz' [my pride]. (17 November 1939); The words of the prophet have almost come true: `No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper.' (26 January 1940). And, on occasion, even a glimpse of gallows humour: A Polish Jew says: `It is enough that I won't eat after I die. Then I'll have no other choice, But as long as I'm alive, let them make any law they like, as long as they don't ban eating.' (9 May 1940).
He was appalled by the prospect of the creation of a ghetto: What has today brought us? Nothing less than a Jewish ghetto! A ghetto in Jewish Warsaw! Who could have believed it? (5 November 1939). The establishment of the ghetto was deferred; the reprieve was temporary: At almost every intersection that does not have trolley tracks, the Judenrat is putting up a thick dividing wall which leaves no room to pass (18 May 1940); We sense in all our being that we are drawing near a fateful hour in our history. (20 June 1940); There is no formal ghetto in Warsaw for the time being, but in practice a ghetto exists. (27 June 1940); The business of the ghetto is cropping up again It is a prolonged agony, a lingering death. (26 September 1940). Then the dreaded day arrived: At last the ghetto edict has gone into effect. For the time being it will be an open ghetto, but there is no doubt that in short order it will be closed 120,000 people will be driven out of their homes and will have to find sanctuary and shelter within the walls. Where will we put this great mass of people? Most of them are wealthy, accustomed to beautiful apartments and lives of comfort, and they will be totally impoverished from now on (12 October 1940). Still, there was a morsel of hope, as he speculated: Will it be a closed ghetto? A closed ghetto means gradual death. An open ghetto is only a halfway catastrophe. (24 October 1940), only to have his worst fears realised: In all the thoroughfares leading to the `Aryan' quarters, high walls are being erected Before our eyes a dungeon is being built in which half a million men, women, and children will be imprisoned, no one knows for how long. (10 November 1940); and finally: What we dreaded most has come to us We went to bed in the `Jewish quarter', and the next morning we awoke in a closed Jewish ghetto, a ghetto in every detail. (17 November 1940).
With the creation of the ghetto, Kaplan devoted many of his diary entries to describing the anguish of everyday life. He had no illusions I am completely broken A community of half a million people is doomed to die, and awaits execution of their sentence. (26 November 1940); All along the sidewalks, on days of cold so fierce as to be unendurable, entire families bundled up in rags wander about, not begging, but merely moaning with heartrending voices. (18 January 1941); It is hard to endure the agony of Polish Jewry. (27 February 1941); In reality, we don't have a ghetto, but rather a madhouse. We are imprisoned within the walls and cut off from the entire outside world. (11 March 1941); The members of the ghetto condemned to die, want to enjoy life as long as breath remains within them Of all the beauties of nature only one remnant is to be found in [our] possession the blue sky over our heads. (17 June 1942).
Kaplan was particularly dismayed by the insensitive treatment of the dead, so at odds with the teachings of Judaism: Every great man or leader of his people who passes on in these evil times is carried to his grave alone, with his death and burial unknown to anyone. (6 August 1940);
No one pays any attention to funerals no one turns to watch or pays any attention to the fact that in the coffin which goes by lies one of the victims of starvation. Sometimes several corpses are placed in one coffin And there is one madman in the ghetto who runs after every coffin, shouting: `Did the departed leave his bread card?' (13 March 1941). Kaplan returned to this theme a few months later: In normal times burial was in the hands of the Jewish community, undertaken by the Judenrat Not so now. Wherever you turn you see offices for burial arrangements. In front of each stands the black wagon, in sight of all. This is the quick aid for human beings who died of starvation and typhus and who now number many tens of thousands This death traffic makes no impression on anyone. Death has become a tangible matter The dead have lost their traditional importance and sanctity In a slaughterhouse the carcasses of the slaughtered calves are handled more carefully than are human beings in the Warsaw cemetery in the year 1941 (9 October 1941).
The torment of hunger and the dread of disease were Kaplan's constant companions in the ghetto: Can we survive? That is the question everyone asks Logic would indicate that we are going to starve to death. (25 January 1941); Death from starvation has become a commonplace in the ghetto The road from life to death is a short one these days. (6 March 1942); Hunger rules the ghetto. Anyone who says that living human beings walk the ghetto streets is mistaken; they are all skeletons! Except for the very few who can afford to enjoy life even in these evil days, most of us have become unrecognizable to our friends. (1 April 1942). When anyone dies, the cause must be typhus. The number of fatalities is enormous. Some families have lost half their number But God plays no favourites. The poor rally and recover, while the rich succumb and die. (10 October 1941); The Warsaw ghetto suffers 10,000 deaths per month. At this rate, in fifty months our entire ghetto will die out. (18 October 1941).
The overcrowded ghetto streets were a source of perpetual anxiety: On Karmelicka Street the congestion grows worse from day to day. Crossing this thoroughfare, which joins two ghettos, you feel that you have been catapulted into a pot that is boiling over. People push and shove and elbow you until you are forced to step down to the cobble-stoned gutter. There is a great confusion of pedestrians, street vendors, overloaded porters, carriages and delivery carts, beggars and all sorts of creatures whose proximity you cannot bear for fear of lice. The fear of lice obsesses all of us, for the tiny creatures are the carriers of typhus. (7 November 1941). A merciful death could come as a blessed relief from the horrors of everyday life: Menachem Kipnis died an author, singer, and poet, who acquired great fame in his lifetime What was unusual about his death was that he did not die like everyone else here, of hunger and privation. On the contrary he died of a stroke. This is a good death because it is a quick one. In the ghetto everyone wishes a quick death for himself because death from hunger is a slow one; its final agony is long and its sufferings great (16 May 1942).
Kaplan's diary entries reflect the dreadful confirmation of what had initially been whispered rumours of Nazi genocide: Terrible rumours reach us from the country. Dozens of Jewish towns have been burned, wiped off the face pf the earth. (8 November 1939). He harboured no doubt that in the event of war with Russia we are lost the Jews will immediately become the target of revenge (13 March 1941). A year later, when the war between Germany and the Soviet Union had arrived, he wrote: It is reported that the Führer has decided to rid Europe of our whole people by simply having them shot to death You just take thousands of people to the outskirts of a city and shoot to kill; that is all In Vilna 40,000 Jews were shot to death Had [Hitler] not stated that if war erupted in Europe, the Jewish race would be annihilated? This process has begun and will continue until the end is achieved. (2 February 1942). Worse was to come: I was told by an acquaintance of mine who has seen the official documents that thousands of Jews have been killed by poison gas. It was an experiment to test its effectiveness. (23 February 1942).
By spring 1942, the details became more specific: We tremble at the mention of Lublin An entire community of 44,000 Jews was plucked out by the roots and slaughtered or dispersed Thousands of Jews were rounded up and led where? Nobody knows According to rumour they were taken to Rawa Ruska and were electrocuted there (7 April 1942); The deportees are transported as prisoners in tightly sealed freight cars until they come to the place of execution, where they are killed About 40,000 Jews of Lublin have disappeared, and no one knows their burial place But there is no doubt that they are no longer alive. ( 3 June 1942); A catastrophe will befall us at the hands of the Nazis and they will wreak their vengeance on us for their final downfall. The process of physical destruction of Polish Jewry has already begun Not a day goes by that the Nazis do not conduct a slaughter The rumours that reach us from the provincial towns are worse than the tidings of Job (16 June 1942); Every day Polish Jewry is being brought to slaughter. It is estimated that three-quarters of a million Polish Jews have already passed from this earth Some of them are sent to a labour camp, where they survive for a month at the outside Some are shot; some are burned; some are poisoned with lethal gas; some are electrocuted. (25 June 1942); It has been decreed and decided in Nazi ruling circles to bring systematic physical destruction upon the Jews of the General Government The killing of thousands of people has turned into a business that employs many hands. After the souls expire, they strip the corpses. Their clothing, shirts, and shoes are not wasted, but are collected in piles upon piles and turned over for disinfection, mending, and repairs. Hundreds of Jews are employed in these tasks (10 July 1942).
Kaplan recorded people's bewilderment and confusion as the end of the ghetto approached, the dashed hopes of survival and the terror of deportation: There is an instinctive feeling that some terrible catastrophe is drawing near for the Warsaw ghetto, though no one can determine its time or details.(20 June 1942). There was a brief moment of optimism: The ghetto is quiet. All the terrible rumours are false When the rumours reached the ears of the Nazis, they were angry. (20 July 1942). But then came the announcement of the resettlement: I haven't the strength to hold a pen in my hand. I'm broken, shattered A whole community of 400,000 people condemned to exile (22 July 1942). And the anguish of mass transportation: The seventh day of the expulsion. Living funerals pass before the windows of my apartment cattle trucks or coal wagons full of candidates for expulsion and exile, carrying small bundles under their arms. Their cries and shrieks and wails, which rent the very heavens and filled the whole area with noise, have already stopped. Most of the deportees seem resigned to their fate (30 July 1942). And finally: Jewish Warsaw is in its death throes. A whole community is going to its death! (2 August 1942)
Kaplan realised the historic value of his diary, but was plagued by doubts about whether he was adequately recording events, and if so, whether he, or it, would survive: I sense within me the magnitude of this hour, and my responsibility towards it I am sure that Providence sent me to fulfil this mission. My record will serve as source material for the future historian. (16 January 1940); I am afraid that the impressions of this terrible era will be lost because they have not been adequately recorded. (27 August 1940); This journal is my life, my friend and ally. I would be lost without it In keeping this diary I find spiritual rest. That is enough for me. (13 November 1941); Some of my friends and acquaintances who know the secret of my diary urge me, in their despair, to stop writing. `Why? For what purpose? Will you live to see it published?'... And yet in spite of it all I refuse to listen to them. I feel that continuing this diary is a historical mission which must not be abandoned. (26 July 1942); My utmost concern is for hiding my diary so that it will be preserved for future generations. (31 July 1942). The final entry in the diary is dated 4 August 1942: If my life ends what will become of my diary?
Emanuel Ringelblum, that other great chronicler of the destruction of Warsaw Jewry, knew of Kaplan's diary: Several times I implored Kaplan to let me preserve his diary, assuring him that after the war he would get it back. The most he agreed was to have me copy the manuscript, but that was a physical impossibility because of the hardships. Ringelblum considered the diary to be an important and accurate depiction of ghetto life.
Chaim Kaplan and his wife are believed to have perished in Treblinka either shortly after his final diary entry, or in December 1942 or January 1943. Before his deportation, Kaplan entrusted his diary to a Jewish friend named Rubinsztejn, who was a forced labourer working daily outside the ghetto. Rubinsztejn smuggled the notebooks out singly and passed each one to Wladyslaw Wojcek, a Pole living in the small village of Liw, near Warsaw. Wojcek subsequently immigrated to the United States in 1962, taking the notebooks, mainly covering pre-war years, with him. There the diaries were purchased by Abraham I. Katsh for the New York University Jewish Cultural Foundation Library of Judaica and Hebraica. Other volumes were acquired by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and by Moreshet, the Mordechai Anielewicz Memorial Institute in Israel. The diary first appeared in English in 1965 and one year later was published in Israel in the original Hebrew. It was only in 1972 that the first comprehensive edition of the diary was published.
Three months after the war had begun, Kaplan sensing what lay ahead and what was required, had recorded what many would regard as his own epitaph:
Who will write of our troubles and who will immortalize them? Where is the folk poet of Polish Jewry, who will gather all the tragedy in our lives and perpetuate and guard it in the reliquary of his tears? (30 November 1939)
Kaplan, Chaim A. Scroll of Agony The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1999.
Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990.
Prior to the outbreak of war, Mosze Meryn had been a notably unsuccessful commercial agent. Although active in Zionist affairs in Sosnowiec, he was considered unstable and thoughtless, a man who had devoted most of his time to idleness and card-playing. Emanuel Ringelblum considered that Meryn had been very much on the decline as a force before the war, continually changing political allegiances. However, he still became a Revisionist Zionist member of the Sosnowiec Kehillah (Jewish Community Council) in January 1939.
Sosnowiec fell to the invading Germans on 4 September 1939. A large group of Jews was held incommunicado for 24 hours in the public baths. A German officer then demanded that whosoever among them had been a member of the Community Council immediately report themselves to him. Szlomo Lajzerowicz, who was chairman of the Kehillah, was among those present, but was afraid to come forward. Instead, Meryn presented himself as the representative of the Council and was appointed chairman of the Sosnowiec Judenrat. The city was part of the Zaglebie Dabrowskie region, which was incorporated into the Reich in October 1939. In January 1940 the Zentrale der Jüdischen Ältestenräte in Ostoberschlesien (Central Office of the Jewish Councils of Elders in Eastern Upper Silesia) was created by the Germans in Sosniewic. At its head (Leiter) stood Mosze Meryn. By October 1940, the Zentrale controlled thirty-four communities, containing some 96,283 Jewish inhabitants in total. With Mosze's promotion to head of the Zentrale, his brother Chaim became head of the Sosnowiec Judenrat. Abraham K., a former resident of Dabrowa-Gornica, characterized Mosze as follows:
I don't know how he worked himself up so high. He had influence with the Gestapo and everywhere had his say. He had his own automobile, he had a chauffeur, and he led the life which he certainly could not have afforded before the war. He took in people whom he knew before the war, his friends and his relatives. He was not a highly educated person. His character was not so good. That later became evident from his deeds. He gave good jobs to his best friends. They had pull, and they fared well.
Meryn proved to be a capable organizer, enjoying the confidence of the Nazis. As overall head of the centralised regional Judenrat, he was in a position to appoint and dismiss the leaders of local Judenräte, which he did in places such as Bedzin, Chrzanow, Oswiecim, and elsewhere, ensuring that those appointed shared his philosophy. He appointed inspectors to supervise the activities of the local Judenräte, vigorously enforcing German demands for Jewish forced labour through control of the labour office and the Jewish police. It was Meryn who suggested to the Germans that the Judenrat be used to enlist the required quantity of forced labourers. He was permitted by the Germans to undertake visits to Berlin, Prague, Slovakia and Warsaw. Wherever he went, he would boast of his excellent relations with the Nazis, one consequence of which, he claimed, was the repatriation of 300 Jews from the abortive Nisko project to their native Czechoslovakia. What was not in doubt, and added immensely to his prestige, was that in the Zaglebie region and Eastern Upper Silesia, Jews were not initially forced into ghettos, most were employed, and food supplies were relatively adequate. As with Rumkowski in Lodz and Gens in Vilna, Meryn shared a Messianic complex, like them earning the derisive title of King of the Jews. In April 1940, Ringelblum recorded:
In Sosnowiec no one knows whose idea it was to make a gold and silver contribution [to the Germans.] It's suspected that the idea came from the King [Meryn.] The Poles don't consider it proper, but the Jews think it should protect them from persecution The King has a warm Jewish heart. It is very well received in Merysz-Ostrow and Prog, where he managed to free the Jews from the camp in Nisko Luck has played into his hands in many instances. Still, it is maintained that he will wager everything on emigration [of Jews from Poland], and will stop at nothing Recently [he] has compromised himself by promising 20,000 [emigration permits]. Nothing came of it. This has seriously weakened his position. Still, he managed to delay the deportation from Silesia for a few months King M. now wants to remove to Krakow and there become king of the whole province, and of the old Reich, together with the Protectorate, in general.
Originally the SS plan had been to deport all of the Jews (as well as many tens of thousands of Poles) in the Polish territories incorporated within the Reich to the Generalgouvernement, which was to become a kind of dumping ground for Untermenschen. However, the plan was not realized, due to the refusal of Hans Frank, Governor of the Generalgouvernement, to absorb hundreds of thousands of deportees within his realm. Since the Jews were to remain in Zaglebie, an extensive mechanism was established for dealing with the utilization of the Jewish work force. In October 1940 a special office was established for this purpose under the direction of SS-Oberführer Albrecht Schmelt; the new institution was named the Schmelt Organization after him. Schmelt was directly responsible to Himmler and dealt with the conscription of Jewish forced labourers for the camps that were established throughout Silesia. In November 1940, Schmelt ordered Meryn to prepare a list of all of the Jews of the region divided between the able-bodied and those unsuitable for work. Meryn encouraged young Jews to volunteer for the camps, on the basis that this would provide training for future kibbutzim. At this stage, Meryn did not encounter a great deal of opposition from the majority of the Jewish population, who regarded him with a mixture of fear, deference, and scorn.
There is no doubt that Meryn believed that he was to be the saviour of the Jews, not simply in Eastern Upper Silesia, but everywhere under Nazi rule. He dreamed of creating a Jewish state, allegedly confessing to Fanny Czarny (variously described as Meryn's deputy, secretary, wife and mistress) that he had heard an inner voice calling to him: You, Mosze, are chosen to redeem your people out of Hitler's bondage, even as your namesake freed the Jews from the bondage of Egypt, adding that I devotedly believe in this call. On 17 April 1941, Ringelblum noted a visit by Meryn to Warsaw. He had received a royal reception:
In the theatre actors saluted him. Menachem Mendel [Kirshbojm] presented him to the audience as the redeemer of the Jewish people! Thanks to his efforts, ghettos had been avoided in Bedzin, and Sosnowiec. The mortality in those towns was actually lower than it had been before the war. There were no beggars in the streets. Meryn had quickly organised the resettlement of 6,000 Jews from Oswiecim and vicinity [in Bedzin and Sosnowiec] Any family that would not voluntarily accept a refugee was threatened with eviction
Dr. Feivl Viderman described a meeting that took place in the Judenrat under the chairmanship of Meryn, where the latter reported on his visits to a number of Jewish centres and their impending liquidation. At that time he said:
You have heard that Frau Czarny and I have visited the largest Jewish centres so that we know exactly what is happening there. We have even been to Berlin and Prague and what we saw there can only be described as desperation. A strong hand is needed to be effective in this difficult situation. The leaders of the German and Czech Jews lost their heads. The Jews there do not have any influence regarding the deportations. When I was there I reminded the leaders of their opposition to my suggestion of a half-year ago that we should establish one central body for all the Jewish communities in Germany and the annexed territories, but they did not want to hear of it, all because of their dislike of Polish Jews. Today they are still against the establishment of a union of all communal bodies, fearing that the influence will fall into my hands, the hands of a Mosze Meryn, a Polish Jew who does not have a good command of the German language, not trusting me to deal in their name with the Germans. Furthermore, because of their faults, the German and Czech Jews are suffering so badly today. Today we need energetic, courageous new leaders because the former diplomacy has gone bankrupt and that explains my great success.
That's how it is on the Western front, but it's no better in the East. There too, helplessness and desperation prevails. I foresee that in the near future all Jewish communities will be wiped out, and no sign of them will remain. That, meine Herren, is the result of false politics which the heads of the communities are practising: Rumkowski in Lodz and Czerniakow in Warsaw with whom I can't come to terms. At a meeting with them, during a talk which lasted three hours, I could not convince them of the falsity of their approach and in the correctness of my politics. They did not want, or simply were not capable of understanding me. Because of this the sad consequences won't be long in coming.
The years 19401941 were successful for Meryn and his strategy of compliance with German commands. The absence of a clear cut German policy toward the Jews of Zaglebie or of massive anti-Jewish actions during that period resulted in a growth of confidence by the Jewish population in Meryn's methods. But by May 1942, the machinery of extermination had reached Upper Silesia. In common with some other Judenrat leaders, Meryn adopted a policy of sacrificing one section of the community in order to save another. In this he was supported by the rabbis of Bedzin and Sosnowiec, although there were those who objected to the principle of offering the most vulnerable in order to save those considered the most valuable. With rabbinical blessing, Meryn and the Jewish police took an active part in organizing a transport of approximately 1,200 people to Auschwitz. On 12th August 1942, the Great Deportation took place. All of the remaining Jews of Sosnowiec and other towns in the area were ordered to report for registration. On 15 August the deportation began. Over the next three days 8,000 Jews were transported to Auschwitz- Birkenau for gassing. After these deportations, Meryn told those Jews remaining that the Great Deportation was proof that only through work would they have a chance of survival. Arbeit Macht Frei indeed. However, as a consequence of the deportation of the Jews and the establishment of ghettos in Bedzin and Sosnowiec, Meryn's reputation had suffered significant damage by the summer of 1942,.
Meryn announced that he had received assurances from an authorized source that only a few transports would be resettled to new places, where the deportees, particularly those living in bad housing conditions and without regular income, would be better off. By August of that year, about one-third of the Jews of Eastern Upper Silesia had been deported to Auschwitz, but Meryn still did not abandon his policy, which he had derived from the method used by the Nazis to determine their victims. As elsewhere, Jews who were non-productive were selected for death; those considered capable of further exploitation were either sent to labour camps in Germany or retained within the region to serve the needs of the Wehrmacht. This in turn gave rise to Meryn's concept of survival through work, an idea that was so prevalent in Lodz, Vilna, and elsewhere. Following this first series of resettlements, Meryn stated:
I knew that I would be blamed for causing the deportation of 25,000 Jews I want to show how superficial, unfounded, and foolish this reproach is To the contrary I state that I have saved 25,000 people from resettlement. Blood would have flowed in the streets. I have information from very reliable sources that the resettlement would have engulfed 50,000 people Nobody will deny that, as a general, I have won a great victory. If I have lost only 25 percent when I could have lost all, who can wish for better results?... Only we could have adopted the teaching of Maimonides [`If pagans should tell the Jews Give us one of yours and we shall kill him, otherwise we shall kill all of you, they should all be killed and not a single Jewish soul should be delivered.'] I have never considered the interests of the individual as against the interests of the community; I always bear in mind the best interests of the community, for whom I am ready to sacrifice the individual at any time.
Meryn mocked his critics. He dismissed the idea that Maimonides' decision was binding in all circumstances. A different approach was now required. One must act as a statesman in arriving at a decision to either rid the community of its worthless elements or to permit strangers to do so, which would inevitably result in the community losing its most valuable individuals. As a serious and wise statesman, he could not hesitate about which path to choose. Among the hundreds of testimonies that record Meryn's behaviour vis-à-vis the Germans, there is only one single questionable statement concerning Meryn's disobedience and protest. In every other recorded case, Meryn is described as one who did everything he was ordered to do - and more. His slogan was: The more we do ourselves, the less we suffer.
Meryn knew about the suicide of Adam Czerniakow, head of the Warsaw Judenrat, and declared publicly: I would not follow him. He also stated that he was ready to be judged one day, and was confident that history would justify him and his methods. In 1943, he addressed those who had so far escaped the deportations with the words; I stand in a cage before a hungry and angry tiger. I stuff his mouth with meat, the flesh of my brothers and sisters, to keep him in his cage lest he break loose and tear us all to bits.
According to the testimony of one witness, Meryn extorted vast sums of money from potential deportees. People allegedly grovelled in front of the windows of the Treasury Department of the Zentrale and begged to have their money accepted in return for exemption. Based on a promise he had received from German authorities to release 100 prisoners from camps, Meryn demanded the then huge sum of 15,000 zlotys for the release of each inmate. Some women sold their belongings to obtain the money needed to free their husbands. Enormous sums were paid, but no prisoners were ever released and the money was never refunded.
Mordechai Anielewicz visited Zaglebie between June and September 1942. He met several times with Meryn, trying in vain to persuade the latter to support a plan to send an emissary abroad to report on the annihilation of the Jews. However, although trying to use Meryn's connection with the Germans for underground purposes, Anielewicz considered Meryn to be a collaborator and instructed his followers to act against Meryn when the time came. Following the initial deportations, a Jewish resistance movement had been established in the Zaglebie province. Meryn was regarded by the underground as a Quisling; as a consequence, the underground passed a death sentence on him. For his part, Meryn regarded the underground movement as a threat to the stability and even the continued existence of the Zaglebie communities. In spring 1943, he handed over two resistance activists, Lipek Mintz and Zvi Dunski, to the Germans, as well as denouncing them as part of an underground group conducting Communist activities in Bedzin. Eight members of this group, including Mintz and Dunski, were executed in April 1943.
There then followed an obscure series of events surrounding the supposed provision of hundreds of South American passports via a Swiss connection, culminating with the sudden arrest of Meryn on 21 June 1943. Together with four of his senior assistants, he was sent to Auschwitz and gassed. It would appear that so far as the Germans were concerned, Meryn had outlived his usefulness. Those Jews who had believed in Meryn as a saviour were panic stricken; those who had opposed him as a despotic tyrant were relieved to see him gone. Following Meryn's death, the final liquidation of the ghettos of the Zaglebie region was completed. Udel S., a survivor from Bedzin had this to say of Meryn:
He was a congenial Jew; he meant well at first, but later he was the executor of all the orders of the Gestapo. He knew that the Jews were going to Auschwitz, and he would assemble those Jews. He would send the old people to Auschwitz because he judged that an old person was already useless But in time it became clear that he was simply a traitor to the Jewish people. If he hadn't confused our minds, if he hadn't talked us into thinking that there was a chance for salvation, we possibly would have organized for resistance. But he lulled us to sleep so much that we did not organise any resistance, and we went like sheep to the slaughter. Without any resistance whatsoever [Then] for reasons which we could not ascertain, the Gestapo took this same Mosze Meryn with all the other [Jewish] authorities and sent them, too, to Auschwitz. And we Jews remained without leadership, without anything.
In the newly created State of Israel, a number of trials were held of Jews who were accused of collaboration with the Nazis and had survived. One of these was Hersz Bernblat, deputy chief of the Bedzin Ghetto police, who in February 1954 was sentenced to five years imprisonment by the district court of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The sentence was subsequently rescinded by the Israeli Supreme Court, but the verdict of the district court contains an interesting analysis of Meryn's strategy:
It does not seem to us that the Israeli legislator intended to justify assistance in handing over thousands of Jews to the Nazis in order to postpone the end of the rest by severing the [gangrened] arm, to use Meryn's expression. This is no more than a paraphrase for the sacrifice of thousands of souls, mostly of old people, children, the ill, and the weak, in order to delay the war of destruction against the community, in the hope that part of the people would be lucky enough to see the end of the bloody hunt [The] honest intention of rescuing a remainder by this method was intermingled with egoistic intentions to preserve themselves, their families, and close friends The historical and psychological criteria of this case [will not always] correspond to the legal criteria of the legislator and, therefore, the study of the character of Mosze Meryn should be left to the historians.
Sources and Further Reference:
Gilbert Martin. The Holocaust The Jewish Tragedy, William Collins Sons & Co. Limited, London, 1986
Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990
Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003
Niewyk, Donald L. ed. Fresh Wounds: Early Narratives of Holocaust Survival, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 1998
Ringelblum, Emanuel. Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, Schocken Books, New York, 1974
Trunk, Isaiah. Judenrat - The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation, The Macmillan Company - New York 1972
The killing of Jews by Jews is unusual in any circumstances. That it should occur in the midst of murder on the scale of the Holocaust, when all Jews were potential victims of a merciless persecutor, makes it doubly so. Yet there were such events, and the assassination of Dr Alfred Nossig was one of them.
Alfred Nossig was, by any standards, an unusual man, both brilliant and, many would say, somewhat eccentric. He was born in 1864 in Lemberg, then part of the Habsburg Empire, a city subsequently known as Lwow (Ukrainian -L'viv) when under Polish rule post 1918, and which became a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic following the region's absorption into the Soviet Union in the wake of the latter's invasion of eastern Poland in 1939. After the outbreak of hostilities between Germany and the Soviet Union, the city fell under German control between 1941 and 1944. Post-war, the region remained part of the Soviet Union until 1991, with the creation of the independent Republic of Ukraine. In his lifetime, therefore, Nossig had seen the city in which he was born be successively under the control of Austria, Poland, the Soviet Union and Germany. These 20th century geographical and political shifts were common to many places in eastern Europe.
Nossig was the son of the secretary of the Lwow Gmina (Jewish Community Council). He studied law and economics in Lwow, philosophy in Zurich, where he was granted his doctorate, and medicine in Vienna. He was a complex combination of intellectual, artist and scientist the epitome, it has been suggested, of Renaissance man. As a youth he was an assimilationist, editing the newspaper dedicated to that cause, Ojczyzna, but over time his views evolved and he became an ardent Zionist, only to subsequently change his position once more and propose the creation of a homeland for Jews other than in Palestine. It was typical behaviour. His career had frequently changed course dramatically as a consequence of the inconsistency of his opinions and his political instability. A novelist, poet, essayist, playwright, philosopher, mathematician and sculptor, his numerous plays on Jewish subjects, written in Polish and German, were extremely popular in their time. In certain respects he was a forerunner of the later 'Polish-Jewish' writers, who, writing in Polish, dealt with Jewish topics from a Jewish national point of view. He was also considered sufficiently talented to be commissioned to write the libretto to Manru, the only opera composed by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the pianist who would later become the first Prime Minister of the newly created post-First World War Republic of Poland. The two men had first met in 1889 in Vienna. Nossig's efforts to improve the self-esteem of his fellow Jews with his commitment to a variety of projects and institutions, coupled to his obvious other talents, ensured that he was acknowledged as an important and influential member of contemporary Jewish society.
His restless nature was illustrated by his successive moves within a few years to Vienna, Paris and Berlin, where he took up residence in 1900. He was recognized in Vienna and Berlin as an authoritative critic on art and drama, and his work as a sculptor was exhibited at Paris in 1899 and in Berlin in 1900. In 1887, whilst still living in Lwow, Nossig had written a pamphlet on the Jewish Question, in which he proposed the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and advocating Jewish emigration as the only option guaranteeing the survival of Jewish culture. In the years that followed, he wrote a number of books on this subject. In the first years of the new century he championed the creation of a Jewish institute of higher learning, and together with Arthur Ruppin and Jacob Thon, founded the Jewish Bureau of Statistics in Berlin, thus becoming one of the first to apply statistics to the study of Jewish life. In 1904 he became head of the Bureau. He aligned himself with the Democratic Faction of the Zionist movement, a group whose leading light was Chaim Weizmann. This caucus formed an opposition to Theodor Herzl, who was actually Nossig's cousin. It has been suggested that after quarrelling with Herzl, Nossig became an embittered man, and was disillusioned with Zionism. Whatever the reason, he left the movement in 1908 and founded the Jewish Settlement Association (Allgemeine Jüdische Kolonisations-Organisation: AJK-O), an entity devoted to political lobbying on behalf of Jewish emigration to places other than Palestine a kind of non-Zionist Zionism.
Throughout his life, Nossig remained a Germanophile, an enthusiastic admirer of German society and Kultur. In his 1892 novel 'Prophet Johannes,' published in Lemberg and set there in 1880, he depicted a group strolling along the Lemberg promenade: the adults walk at the head of the group, among them the narrator, who hears only chitchat in German all around him. During the First World War, he continued to pursue the objectives of the AJK-O, even attempting to seek approval from the Central Powers and Turkey for the emigration of Jews to the Ottoman Empire - although not necessarily to Palestine. Whilst he never hid his admiration for all things German, there were those who believed that Nossig went somewhat further than mere veneration at this time, by acting as an agent for German and Austrian military intelligence. In 1915 Nossig founded a `Preparatory Committee for the Regulation of Jews in the East', and in August of that year he travelled to Constantinople, bringing with him several truckloads of medical supplies as a gift for the Red Crescent . He was almost certainly also acting for German intelligence. Henry Morgenthau, then United States ambassador to Turkey, wrote of his meetings with Nossig: In the early autumn, a Dr. Nossig arrived in Constantinople from Berlin. Dr. Nossig was a German Jew, and came to Turkey evidently to work against the Zionists. After he had talked with me for a few minutes, describing his Jewish activities, I soon discovered that he was a German political agent. He came to see me twice; the first time his talk was somewhat indefinite, the purpose of the call apparently being to make my acquaintance and insinuate himself into my good graces. The second time, after discoursing vaguely on several topics, he came directly to the point
However, the true purpose of Nossig's mission was undoubtedly to persuade the Turks of the benefit of his plans for Jewish immigration. He was granted an audience with the Sultan and heir to the throne, Jussuf Izzedin, as well as other prominent members of the Turkish government. The politicians spoke approvingly of the Jewish population. Elated by their approbation, Nossig approached leading Ottoman Jews and established the `Ottoman-Israelite Union.' Its purpose was to foster an organized immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to Turkey. The idea foundered, but despite his lack of success, the aim of this policy was hardly likely to endear Nossig to the Zionist movement, who were pursuing a very different objective through the British government.
In 1919, Nossig proposed that both Poles and Jews should work together for the emigration of half of Poland's Jews. Where they were to emigrate to was, of course, another matter. A year later, Nossig was invited by Polish authorities to mediate between the leadership of Polish-Jewish organizations and the newly established Polish state, and visited Poland for this purpose. However, he came to be regarded by all parties as representing foreign (i.e. German) interests, and his mission was unproductive yet again. In the 1920s Nossig became an enthusiastic supporter and spokesman for another far-reaching, prophetic idea - a federation of European states. He continued to lead a shadowy existence in Berlin during the inter-war years.
After the fall of Poland in 1939, Nossig returned to Warsaw at the behest of the occupiers. By order of the Germans he was appointed a member of the Warsaw Judenrat as the person responsible for Jewish emigration. Adam Czerniakow, chairman of the Judenrat, regarded Nossig as a thorough nuisance, calling him Tausendkünstler (artist of a thousand parts.) On 11 December 1939, Czerniakow recorded in his diary that Nossig, who had been paid his salary a month in advance on his appointment two days earlier, had not shown up for work the previous day. It appears he won't be any solace to us, Czerniakow noted wryly. Later, Nossig became director of the Judenrat department dealing with culture and the arts. Ominously, on 11 April 1940, Czerniakow wrote that Nossig keeps on writing unnecessary letters to the authorities. I reprimanded him. It appeared that Nossig enjoyed some kind of special relationship with the authorities, for on 17 May 1941, Czerniakow recorded: Nossig had been thrown out yesterday from the Transferstelle [the Transfer Authority, responsible for all food and goods entering and leaving the ghetto]. He made a complaint about it to the proper authorities, and the reaction followed today. Czerniakow was careful not to be too explicit in his diary entries, but the implications were obvious. Nossig was suspected of collaboration with the Nazis.
Ber Warm was a member of the Jewish police assigned to the Befehlstelle, the SS command post for the Warsaw deportation. Before his death in Aryan Warsaw sometime after the ghetto uprising in April 1943, Warm wrote an account of the events he had witnessed. Nossig had been a frequent visitor to Untersturmführer Karl George Brandt of the Jewish section of the Gestapo. I myself witnessed how cordially Brandt greeted Professor Nossig at the Befehlstelle and how they conversed at some length in the waiting room Nossig possessed the so-called Brandt pass, which enabled him to move about the whole of the big ghetto, giving him unlimited access to all factory shops. Halina Szereszewska, a woman living in the same house as Nossig during the last months of the ghetto's existence, and who was neither a member of the underground nor of the fighting organization, the ZOB, wrote in her memoirs: It was no secret that he [Nossig] belonged to the Gestapo and worked for the Germans.
According to Yitzhak Zuckerman's account, when the ghetto was surrounded by German forces on 18 January 1943 as part of the second Aktion, only one person could openly enter and leave the ghetto Nossig. The Germans saluted his imposing figure as he passed. Jewish policeman were asked to determine from Polish guards where Nossig went when he left the ghetto. A few days later, the ZOB were reliably informed that on doing so, he frequently headed straight for Gestapo headquarters at Aleja Szucha. Although he did not go there every day, and his whereabouts were still often a mystery, the ZOB now had no doubt about the nature of Nossig's contact with the Germans. Zuckerman was assigned to organize the death sentence that had been passed. He selected three members of the ZOB to carry out the execution: Zacharia Artstein, Abraham Breier and Pawel Schwartzstein.
On 22 February 1943, the three men arrived at Nossig's apartment. When they began to interrogate him, vigorously pressing him for answers, Nossig fell to his knees and begged for his life. He threatened them with German revenge if he was harmed; Brandt would avenge his blood. The executioners were not impressed. They were of a generation who knew little, if anything, of Nossig's past, unlike older members of the underground like Zuckerman, who had always treated Nossig with respect. To the young he was simply an old man, a traitor to be disposed of. In the climate existing in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 there was no time for sentiment. The assassins shot and killed Nossig, then searched his body, discovering documents written in German. They also saw other documents in the apartment, but understandably were not prepared to linger too long at the site of the killing.
It was subsequently concluded that Nossig had written periodic reports for the Gestapo concerning events in the ghetto. After Nossig's death, the Germans appeared and confiscated the contents of his apartment before the ZOB had the opportunity to do so. There seemed little interest on the German's behalf to discover who had been responsible for the deed. Ber Warm recorded that the documents found on Nossig's body by the ZOB guaranteed his immunity as a Jew of proven merit. A letter Nossig had written to the Gestapo supposedly provided details of the location and equipment of the bunkers Jews were preparing in the event of another Aktion. Warm also wrote that on hearing that Nossig had been shot, Brandt was said to have declared: Ja, die Lumpen haben solch einen alten Mann nicht verschont So, the scoundrels didn't even spare an old man like him. Coming from an individual who had been responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands, Brandt's crocodile tears represented the height of hypocrisy.
Some accounts state that Nossig's good standing with the Germans was proclaimed on his front door. Marek Edelman wrote that a Gestapo identification card issued as far back as 1933 was found on his [Nossig's] person. Whilst it is impossible to state the extent of Nossig's collaboration with certainty, it can be said that at the very least he enjoyed a comfortable relationship with the Germans, and that this association may well have gone much further. The intriguing question is what, if anything, Nossig derived from this rapport with the gangsters who were murdering thousands of his fellow Jews every day. Self-preservation? Perhaps even a 79 year-old man clings desperately to life. He surely could not have been so deluded as to believe that, given the circumstances of the Warsaw ghetto, the Nazis retained any interest in the kind of Jewish emigration to which he had been so dedicated in earlier years. It has been suggested that, rather than being a collaborator, he may have used his good standing with the Nazis in an attempt to relieve the suffering of the Jewish community. If so, evidence of such activity is not apparent. Holocaust survivor, Jonas Turkow described encountering Nossig in the ghetto, calling him the tragically famous Professor Dr. Nossig and an old renegade, which suggests that Nossig was by then regarded almost as an object of ridicule, a pathetic shadow of his former self.
Alfred Nossig remains an enigmatic figure, an intellectually brilliant failure. In other circumstances he might have achieved greatness in any one of the many fields for which he was qualified. Instead, today, if he is remembered at all, it is with revulsion - as an informer, or worse. As early as 1929, Rabbi Joshua Thon had interpreted Nossig's flawed personality with great foresight. Fourteen years before Nossig's death, Thon provided an epitaph for him with the words: Success did not shine upon him at any stage of his life. The story of this talented man is tragic. Something always stood between him and perfection.
Sources and Further Reference:
Almog, Shmuel. Alfred Nossig, A Reappraisal, Studies in Zionism, Spring 1983, pp. 1-29
Czerniakow, Adam, Hilberg, Raul (ed.), Staron, Stanislaw (ed.), Kermisz, Josef (ed.). The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow : Prelude to Doom, Ivan R Dee Inc., Chicago,1999
Dor, Danny, ed. Brave and Desperate 60 years since Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Ghetto Fighters' House Museum, Israel, 2003
Grynberg, Michal, ed., Words to Outlive Us - Eyewitness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto, Granta Books, London, 2003
Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990
Gutman, Yisrael. The Jews Of Warsaw 1939-1943, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1989
Zuckerman, Yitzhak. A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, University of California Press, 1993
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