Category Archives: Poland

Who All “Collaborated” with Nazism in Europe?

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 366-368:

The frequently reiterated assertion that the clearance of German populations from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary has in some way prevented the outbreak of World War III is a proposition so obviously false as hardly to deserve rebuttal. What made for peace in Europe was a lengthy occupation of Germany by both superpowers, which in itself offers a complete explanation of why, so long as it continued, no danger was to be apprehended from that quarter. The successful rehabilitation of the German political system, the inculcation of democratic habits and instincts among the people, and the binding together of postwar Germany within a larger European union are nearly as important factors in the transformation that has taken place in the character of European nationstate interactions since 1945. In these circumstances, the continuing presence of significant ethnic German minorities in Italy, Romania, Hungary, and Russia has not threatened the peace of the continent. There is no reason to suppose that if others had remained in their ancestral homelands a greater menace was to be apprehended.

Lastly, the suggestion that the ethnic Germans were, as presumed fifth columnists before the war or eager Nazi collaborators during it, especially if not uniquely deserving of punishment is no easier to sustain. As we have seen, a rule specifying a minority nationality’s unconditional duty of loyalty to a state to which it has been unwillingly attached that can be depended upon to vindicate the Czech or Slovak nation’s stance in 1918 [deserting in great numbers to fight for Russia rather than Austria-Hungary] and to condemn that of the Sudetendeutsche twenty years later is difficult to formulate. As for their wartime record, evidence is scanty that it was any worse than, or different from, that of the German people as a whole. Unquestionably that is quite bad enough, and I should not wish to be interpreted as contending otherwise. But even if all Germans, ethnic or Reich citizens, were equally guilty, not all Germans were equally severely punished. Why the Volksdeutsche, who if the worst that can be said about them is true came late to Nazism, should have been imprisoned, expropriated, and deported when the people of the country that originated Nazism and exported it abroad by the most brutal means suffered none of these things is hard to square with notions of strict and impartial justice.

More to the point, it conveniently elides the wartime record of the majority populations, which itself did not always bear close examination. Many Slovaks, for example, bore little less responsibility for the dissolution of Czechoslovakia after the Munich Conference than did the Sudeten Germans. For most of the Second World War, Slovakia was a German client state; Slovak troops took part in the invasion of Poland alongside their German allies in September 1939, and of the Soviet Union in June 1941. With only a single dissenting voice in the Slovak parliament, the great majority of the country’s Jewish population was expelled to German-controlled territory, from which only a comparative handful returned alive. Yet few Slovaks were punished after the war for these offenses, and none expelled. Besides, at a more mundane level the postwar meaning of “collaboration” was highly variable, with the same actions—or inactions—attracting either official toleration or condign penalties based on one’s ethnicity. During the Great War of 1914–18, J. R. Sanborn points out, some of the inhabitants of central and southeastern Europe “held affinities for one occupying force or another … but most people wisely tried to keep their heads down, to stay out of danger when they could, and, when all else failed, to run away. Nothing got you on the end of a rope faster than taking sides in a fluid war with an uncertain outcome.” In the Second World War also, this inglorious but time-tested formula for survival was the most popular strategy practiced by ethnic Germans, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, and most other peoples who were given the opportunity to do so by their Nazi overlords, or, in eastern Poland between 1939 and 1941, their scarcely less vicious Stalinist counterparts. (Tragically, it was an option denied to Jews, Sinti, and Roma.) For only the Germans, though, was it adjudged a “passive war crime” at the end of the conflict.

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Removing Traces of German Settlement

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle p. 280:

In each of the expelling countries, governments, residents, and ecclesiastical authorities struggled mightily to eradicate all indications that Germans had ever been present. As Edvard Beneš urged his compatriots, “We must de-Germanize our republic … names, regions, towns, customs—everything that can possibly be de-Germanized must go.” Place names were changed overnight, often by direct translation into the new language (e.g., the substitution of “Zielona Góra” for “Grünberg”); statues and memorials demolished; and fanciful local histories composed that airbrushed into oblivion centuries of German presence. “In Wrocław the government had special teams that roved for years painting over and chiseling out German inscriptions. Derelict German cemeteries were converted into parks, and headstones were used to line ditches and sewers.” The most ambitious—and unrealistic—attempt to accomplish this objective was an order by Commandant Srević of the Banat military region in Yugoslavia that all German signs on buildings be removed within twelve hours, on pain of the immediate execution of the German occupants. Nor was this a passing phase. As late as 1989, applications for visitors’ visas to Poland from Germans born in the Recovered Territories were routinely rejected if the applicant used the former German place name when stating his or her place of birth. The de-Germanization effort extended not only to penalizing the use of the German language, but to putting pressure on residents to abandon German-sounding personal names. The success of the campaign, however, was mixed. Cultural and sometimes physical clashes ensued between settler Poles and many of the indigenes of the Recovered Territories, who had absorbed over the years a high degree of Germanization. New place names could also be rejected by the local population, who sometimes “boycotted new names and even broke road signs that identified the new name…. For them, place name changes on the lands in which they had been living were never the processes of re-Polonisation, but rather Polonisation against their will.”

Consigning evidence of German settlements to George Orwell’s “memory hole” was one thing; putting self-sustaining communities in their place entirely another.

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Czech and Polish “Wild West” in 1947

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 255-257:

The removal of the ethnic Germans was not just an enormous logistical undertaking. It was also the source of a highly disruptive economic and social transformation of the affected areas, one whose impact remains to the present day. In much the same way that the wartime cooperation of ordinary Germans (and, indeed, Poles, Ukrainians, and other nationalities) in the persecution and removal of Jews had been obtained by the opportunity it provided to appropriate Holocaust victims’ property, Czechoslovak, Polish, and Hungarian citizens’ enthusiasm for the expulsions owed a great deal to the prospect that they would profit from the confiscation of their German neighbors’ wealth. The new borderlands, however, proved to be no Eldorado, and the new economic and social realities that were produced under abnormal circumstances brought a fresh set of unforeseen complications in their train.

To a substantial degree, the scramble for booty dictated the breakneck pace of the expulsions, as local authorities, militia bands, or politically connected individuals rushed to grab the most desirable German properties for themselves before others, or the central government, got in ahead of them. The lion’s share of the loot, nonetheless, wound up in the state’s hands, where it became an important instrument of communization. Before the Second World War, Communist parties had been negligible influences throughout central and eastern Europe. The Nazi-Soviet Pact; Stalin’s treacherous attack on Poland’s eastern frontier when the country was fighting desperately for its life; the expulsions and massacres that had followed, at the Katyn Forest and elsewhere; and the Red Army’s cynical abandonment of the Polish Home Army to the Nazis in the Warsaw Rising of August 1944 did nothing to persuade ordinary Poles that the Russian leopard had changed its spots. Though the USSR’s standing in Czechoslovakia was higher—thanks in large measure to the perception that Moscow, in contrast to the appeasement-minded Western powers, had been ready to assist Prague militarily before the Munich Conference—there was little enthusiasm for state socialism on the Soviet pattern. Because Communists controlled the Ministries of the Interior and of Agriculture in both countries after the war, however, they were also in a position to decide the redistribution of confiscated German property. They took full advantage of the rich sources of patronage this provided to buy, if not the support, then at least the acquiescence of citizens in their continued rule. The expulsions, then, provided the material basis that enabled the governments of the Soviet satellites to solidify their domestic standing at the moment of their greatest vulnerability.

As the dispute over the Jelonka Hotel demonstrated, though, property redistribution could be an instrument of social disruption as well as social cohesion. Disputes over the true ownership of a confiscated house or farm, in a situation in which the premises might have changed hands several times over the card table in a single weekend, would clog up the court systems of the expelling countries for years into the future. Overnight, the borderland areas were stripped not just of population but of agencies of government: when a German town was cleared of its residents, its local council, police force, municipal administrators, and providers of essential services like waste removal or water supplies usually went with them. Even in those relatively rare cases when replacement officials from the majority population could be found to take their place, Soviet military commanders, preferring to concentrate the skeins of power in their own hands, often prevented them from taking up their positions. In a literal and not merely a metaphorical sense, then, many of these districts became lawless areas—as the hapless Kazimierz Trzciński had discovered when he tried to take possession of his hotel. For several years after the change in jurisdiction, a vacuum of state authority existed and the rule of the gun prevailed. It was hardly surprising, then, that fewer people than resettlement authorities hoped were willing to put down permanent roots in such areas; or that a disproportionate number of those who did, like Trzciński himself, turned out to conform poorly to the image of the sturdy, self-reliant pioneer depicted in Communist propaganda. The name that both Poles and Czechoslovaks gave to their frontier regions after the war—the “Wild West”—reflected their awareness that even after the Germans’ departure, these were places that remained alien in many respects from the countries of which they were nominally a part.

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Occupied Germany as Ethnic Wastebasket

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 192-193:

As 1946, the year of “organized expulsions,” began drawing to a close, each of the Big Three was feeling the strain. “At present,” Colonel Thicknesse warned, “we tend to regard occupied Germany as a waste-paper basket with a limitless capacity for the unwanted waste of the world. We are not convinced that this attitude is correct, either economically or politically.” According to figures reported to CRX [= Combined Repatriation Executive], by November the Soviet zone had admitted more than 1.8 million expellees from Poland and Czechoslovakia; the U.S. zone approximately 1.7 million from Czechoslovakia and Hungary (including 160,000 who had arrived via Austria); and the British zone more than 1.3 million from the Recovered Territories: a cumulative total of almost five million people. To this figure could be added a number which could not be precisely calculated—but certainly one in the hundreds of thousands for each occupation zone—of Volksdeutsche who had made their way under duress out of their countries of origin, but entered Germany as unregistered “infiltrees.” All were arriving in a country whose urban centers the Western Allies had gone to immense trouble and expense during the previous five years to level to the ground, an endeavor in which they had enjoyed considerable success and which had left Germany with “a worse housing problem than has ever before existed in any area of comparable size and population.” Even after every available camp, military base, school, church, barn, air raid shelter, and, in some cases, cave had been filled with expellees, the onrushing human tide continued to overwhelm the best efforts of the rudimentary German administration upon whose shoulders the occupying forces thrust the responsibility. As a rule, according to reception officers in all three occupation zones, the expellees were arriving in possession of little more than the—usually insufficient—clothing in which they stood. The overwhelming majority were women and children. Few could make any meaningful contribution in the short term to their own support. Hundreds of thousands needed immediate care, in hospitals, old-age homes, orphanages, or residential centers for the disabled, though the shortage of resources meant that a great many would not receive it.

This was not at all how the Allies had envisaged the population transfers when they had been sold on the idea during the war. Then the stated rationale had been to remove a cohort of “dangerous” Germans—above all, fit men of military age—who might threaten the security of the countries in which they lived. Instead, it had been the least dangerous Germans who had been deported, while the fit men were being held back for forced labor, and in many cases pressured to take out Polish or Czechoslovak nationality against their will. The occupying powers thus found themselves presented with a first-class social, economic, and humanitarian crisis that threatened to undo whatever plans they had made for German reconstruction, as well as to disrupt the economies of the expelling states for years to come. Predictably, each of the Big Three with the benefit of experience discovered its enthusiasm for this novel method of “stabilizing” the European continent shrinking to the vanishing point. After coping—or failing to cope—with the “wild expulsions” of 1945, and finding the “organized expulsions” of 1946 from their perspective to be less satisfactory yet, each of the Allied powers entered 1947 with the same overriding objective: to put an end to what was proving an intolerable burden to it as quickly as possible.

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Herding Fractious Volksdeutsche

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 53-55:

At all levels of German society, scruples over profiting from the displaced Poles’ and Jews’ misery were rapidly overcome. Volksdeutsch colonists brought in from outside the Incorporated Territories fought vigorous turf battles with those already there, who pressed the authorities—often successfully—for compensation for their losses at the hands of the Polish state during the interwar years. Both found themselves competing with hundreds of thousands of predatory Reichsdeutsche, the citizens of the “old Reich,” who flooded into the conquered districts with an eye to the main chance. (One of them was Hitler’s favorite tank commander, General Heinz Guderian, who trawled the Warthegau in search of an estate befitting his elevated status. When an aghast Field Marshal von Manstein asked him what had become of the Polish owners of the manor he eventually selected, “Guderian said that he did not know, when he had taken over his estate the Poles had gone and he had no idea what had become of them.”) Tensions among all three groups, and among different ethnicities within the Volksdeutsch “family,” frequently ran high:

Settlement advisers depicted Bessarabian German children fighting local Volksdeutsche children. Native ethnic Germans were portrayed complaining that everything was done for the incoming settlers but nothing for them, and murmuring that if the settlers hadn’t come, they would have got all the confiscated Polish land for themselves. One settlement adviser reported that the local ethnic Germans called the settlers from Bukovina “gypsies.” Bukovina Germans hit back by calling the local ethnic Germans “Poles.” Settlement advisers were also quick to criticize fellow Reich Germans, usually men, for arrogance towards the Volksdeutsche. One told the story of a settler’s wife from Bukovina who forgot to wear the badge showing she was German and was thrown out of the post office, where she was trying to post parcels to her son at the front, by a Reich German man who hit her in the face.

Trying in just a few years to concoct a cohesive Germanic whole from a Volksdeutsch melting pot that constantly threatened to boil over was thus a forlorn hope. For many colonists, the dream of an idyllic life in the Incorporated Territories ended even sooner. The Volksdeutsch holding camps proved irresistibly attractive as reservoirs of available personnel to military recruiters and to businesses struggling to maintain production in the face of Germany’s increasingly acute labor shortage. Inmates, facing an open-ended sojourn in ramshackle facilities whose commandants were prone to imposing upon them “a militarized regimen, separating them by sex and treating the newcomers as children, if not prisoners,” were susceptible to such overtures. Sometimes even Himmler yielded to the temptation, ordering in December 1940 that the Bessarabian Germans, who had not fulfilled his expectations as potential colonists, be conscripted instead into labor battalions. On other occasions it was the Volksdeutsche themselves who threw in the towel. Some colonists from Galicia, disappointed with the farms assigned to them in the Warthegau, abandoned them in the autumn of 1940 and sought readmission to their holding camp in łódź; another group was arrested for rejecting the properties they were offered and holding a demonstration against the authorities. And sometimes the mismatch between colonist and colony was so great that no amount of official intervention could make Germanic silk purses out of sociological sow’s ears. The genteel Estonian and Latvian Volksdeutsche proved a particular disappointment as settlers, looking askance at the notion that they should become agrarian pioneers in the agoraphobia-inducing Polish steppes. “Either they were large landowners, who were not prepared to accept the conditions of peasant settlements (which would be like suggesting to Thomas Jefferson or ‘Turnip’ Townshend that they take on three acres and a cow) or they were urban dwellers…. Soon planning officials were calling on the evacuation staff not to send them any more Balts.”

The sheer diversity among the Volksdeutsche, indeed, was probably the biggest single impediment to the success of the colonization program. Other than their regional accents, some were indistinguishable from their Reichsdeutsch counterparts. Arthur Greiser, born in Poznań province, was himself Volksdeutsch. But the claims of others were far more tenuous, if not completely fictional. Poles and Jews often observed with bemusement that many members of the Selbstschutz [self-defense] militias that sprang up to assist the Germans were, as one woman put it “people from our town, Poles,” who as soon as the Nazis arrived “suddenly heard the call of their German blood! Mostly they were scum: ex-jailbirds, card-sharps, thieves, petty (and not so petty!) crooks.” The ease with which yesterday’s Pole, Ukrainian, or Czech could become today’s German was not lost on the Reichsdeutsche, who began to describe their supposed co-racials as Beutegermane or “booty Germans” who had attached themselves to the Volk solely for the purpose of grabbing as much loot as they could.

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Degrees of French Patriotism in Alsace

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 69-70:

Even after the return of peace [in 1918], national governments would pioneer methods of displacing unwanted minorities that would be applied on a much larger scale twenty years later. A case in point was France’s “cleansing” (épuration) of the border provinces of Alsace and Lorraine between 1918 and 1921, in what Mark Mazower describes as “a blatantly racist assault on the civil rights of Germanspeakers” in the region. After his victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Bismarck had ill-advisedly annexed the ethnically mixed provinces to the Reich, creating a permanent antagonism between the two countries. When France reconquered Alsace-Lorraine in 1918, it immediately set out to eliminate any basis for future disputes about the provinces’ political complexion by purging them of those who might be thought to favor their reincorporation into Germany. To facilitate the process, the population was divided into four categories by the end of December 1918. Residents whose French loyalties were unquestioned were given identity cards marked with the letter “A,” signifying that they had been citizens of France before the Franco-Prussian War. Those who had at least one pre-1870 French parent received “B” cards. Citizens of Allied and neutral countries were placed in the “C” category; the remainder—a total of 513,000 “enemy” nationals and their children, including those who had been born in Alsace-Lorraine—became members of the “D” class. As we have seen, Heinrich Himmler’s racial gurus would use this system as a model when devising the Deutsche Volksliste in occupied Poland two decades later.

Like the Volksliste, the French classification scheme could readily be applied for the purpose of discrimination as well as expulsion. Category “A” card-holders, for example, could exchange Reichsmarks for francs at a much more favorable exchange rate than members of the other classes. Holders of “B” cards were often turned down for public-sector jobs on the ground of their mixed parentage. The most stringent disabilities, needless to say, applied to the “D” class, whose members among other restrictions were not permitted to travel. Petty persecution, however, soon gave way to deportation. The first to be removed were German-speaking civil servants; later, those marked for expulsion included factory owners and the unemployed. Their fate was determined by commissions de triage that held meetings in camera to assess the French patriotism of the persons concerned, often on the basis of denunciations solicited by local officials from individuals waging personal vendettas. Those who failed this examination were pushed across the frontier into Germany. They were permitted to take thirty kilograms of baggage with them and a maximum of two thousand Reichsmarks, all their remaining property being forfeited to the French state. But an even larger number were induced to opt for “voluntary repatriation” on the same terms. They did so because they expected to be removed eventually; because life in the “D” category had become intolerable; because, although not personally removable, their spouses or children were “D” card-holders; or, in some cases, because they feared physical attack by members of the majority population. Altogether, nearly 100,000 expellees and “voluntary repatriates” were transferred to Germany before the system was discontinued in July 1921.

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Missing Migration History in Europe

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 1-3:

Immediately after the Second World War, the victorious Allies carried out the largest forced population transfer—and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples—in human history. With the assistance of the British, Soviet, and U.S. governments, millions of German-speaking civilians living in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the parts of eastern Germany assigned to Poland were driven out of their homes and deposited amid the ruins of the Reich, to fend for themselves as best they could. Millions more, who had fled the advancing Red Army in the final months of the war, were prevented from returning to their places of origin, and became lifelong exiles. Others again were forcibly removed from Yugoslavia and Romania, although the Allies had never sanctioned deportations from those countries. Altogether, the expulsion operation permanently displaced at least 12 million people, and perhaps as many as 14 million. Most of these were women and children under the age of sixteen; the smallest cohort of those affected were adult males. These expulsions were accomplished with and accompanied by great violence. Tens and possibly hundreds of thousands lost their lives through ill-treatment, starvation, and disease while detained in camps before their departure—often, like Auschwitz I, the same concentration camps used by the Germans during the Second World War. Many more perished on expulsion trains, locked in freight wagons without food, water, or heating during journeys to Germany that sometimes took weeks; or died by the roadside while being driven on foot to the borders. The death rate continued to mount in Germany itself, as homeless expellees succumbed to hypothermia, malnutrition, and other effects of their ordeal. Calculating the scale of the mortality remains a source of great controversy today, but estimates of 500,000 deaths at the lower end of the spectrum, and as many as 1.5 million at the higher, are consistent with the evidence as it exists at present. Much more research will have to be carried out before this range can be narrowed to a figure that can be cited with reasonable confidence.

On the most optimistic interpretation, nonetheless, the expulsions were an immense manmade catastrophe, on a scale to put the suffering that occurred as a result of the “ethnic cleansings” in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s in the shade. They took place without any attempt at concealment, under the eyes of tens of thousands of journalists, diplomats, relief workers, and other observers with access to modern communications, in the middle of the world’s most crowded continent. Yet they aroused little attention at the time. Today, outside Germany, they are almost completely unknown. In most English-language histories of the period they are at best a footnote, and usually not even that. The most recent (2009) edition of Mary Fulbrook’s excellent History of Germany 1918–2008 disposes of the episode in a single uninformative paragraph; the antics of the tiny ultraleftist Red Army Faction in the 1970s and 1980s, in comparison, rate four. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany is typical in not according the expulsions even a single mention. What is true of German history textbooks is also the case with those dealing with the history of Europe as a whole, and even of the central European states most directly concerned. Joseph Rothschild and Nancy Wingfield’s fine survey of the region in the postwar era, Return to Diversity—by far the most accessible and reliable one-volume treatment of the subject—takes a cumulative total of less than a page to explain the means by which Poland and Czechoslovakia, until 1939 among the most heterogeneous and multicultural countries in Europe, had just ten years later become ethnic monoliths. It is, then, entirely understandable why so many of my splendid and learned colleagues on the Colgate faculty should have expressed their confusion to me after reading in the newspapers in October 2009 that the president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, had demanded that the other members of the European Union legally indemnify his country against compensation claims by ethnic German expellees, as the price of his country’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. None had been aware that anything had occurred after the war in respect of which the Czech Republic might require to be indemnified.

It would be incorrect, however, to attribute this pervasive ignorance of the expulsions, their context, and their consequences to any conspiracy of silence. What has occurred in the postwar era is something less calculated in nature, but more insidious in effect: the phenomenon of a historical episode of great significance that is hidden in plain sight. Certainly information, albeit of highly variable quality, on the expulsions is available—for those who possess the requisite language competence and are prepared to go looking for it. A 1989 bibliography lists almost five thousand works dealing with them to some degree in the German language alone. Even today, some sixty-five years later, living expellees are not hard to find; it has been calculated that a quarter of the current German population are expellees or their immediate descendants. What is denied, then, is not the fact of the expulsions but their significance. Relegated in textbooks to a single passing mention in a vaguely phrased sentence referring to the “chaos” existing in Germany in the immediate postwar era, or simply passed over in silence, the impression is effectively conveyed that they occupy a less important place in modern European history than the cultural meanings of football hooliganism or the relevance of the Trabant automobile as a metaphor for East German society.

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Estrongo Nachama, Cantor for Berlin

From Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Iain MacGregor (Scribner, 2019), Kindle pp. 168-173:

Nachama had been born the son of a grain merchant in the northern Greek city of Salonika. His family’s Jewish ancestry was Sephardic—which meant they had fled from Spain toward the end of the fifteenth century as the diaspora then settled throughout the Mediterranean and in the Ottoman Empire. Nachama’s family line was academic and religious, with many of his ancestors important rabbinic and Talmudic scholars. After attending Jewish elementary school and a French gymnasium, and discovering what an extraordinary baritone voice he possessed, Estrongo Nachama joined the family business and became the cantor of the synagogue in Salonika.

By the beginning of 1941, Greece had repelled one invasion by Italy, but could do nothing to prevent the later German assault in April, which went on to conquer the country, occupy Athens, and then finally capture Crete. Nachama traveled with the retreating Greek forces as his home city of Salonika fell on April 9, and as with nearly all Jewish families who suddenly had new Nazi rulers, Nachama, his parents, and two sisters would eventually be rounded up and transported to a concentration camp, Auschwitz, in the spring of 1943. All but Nachama were gassed, and he would spend the next two years of living hell surviving on his wits, charm, and his extraordinary singing voice.

Prisoner 116155, as was tattooed on Nachama’s wrist, entertained the camp guards, inspired and revived his fellow prisoners with his unique and powerful baritone, his popular rendition of “ ’O Sole Mio” gaining him the nickname “the singer of Auschwitz.” As the Soviets advanced through Poland, the Jews at Auschwitz, including Nachama, were moved to camps in the west, such as Sachsenhausen. Heavy labor work and his irrepressible optimism seemingly gave him the mental and physical strength to survive the infamous “Death March” of prisoners of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In May 1945, with the war in Europe over, he was freed by nearby Red Army units from his captors, in a small Brandenburg town called Nauen. From there, he was drawn toward nearby Berlin, originally with the intent of catching a train back to Greece. But the march from Sachsenhausen had weakened him to the point he was stricken with typhoid, and only nursed back to health by a Christian Berlin family whom he befriended. At this point, by 1947, just as the Allies were slowly sliding into a Cold War, Nachama decided to put his roots down in the city. He had come to know the Jewish community of Berlin, whose leaders had learned of the young man’s extraordinary singing voice and offered him the position as the community’s cantor. He would soon meet his future wife, Lily, who had survived the Holocaust in hiding.

By the time of the Berlin Airlift in 1948, Nachama’s voice was being heard celebrating Sabbath over the RIAS airwaves in the American sector, with his fame soon spreading as the program was taken up by other German radio stations. Before long, it became known even among non-Jewish Berliners, as he became a regular part of US garrison life, administering worship to Jewish soldiers. Despite the ongoing tensions between the Soviets and East Germans on one side and the allied powers on the other, the Jewish cantor seemed to float between the two halves of the city pre-1961, primarily due to his Greek citizenship.

What was left of Berlin’s Jewish community was not divided as the city had now become. Though Jews worshiped in various synagogues across both East and West Berlin, there was still just one community. The workers’ uprising in East Berlin on June 17, 1953, changed all of that. With its brutal suppression by the Soviets, East Berlin became a harsher place to live, work, and worship, and subsequently there evolved an eastern and a western Jewish community. Estrongo Nachama quickly bestrode both camps, his Greek passport again enabling him to travel safely between the two, though he was primarily working for the western community.

When the Wall was erected suddenly on August 13, 1961, the family was in Italy, to holiday in Venice. They watched in horror on Italian television as the evening news brought pictures of the barriers going up, and the anguish of Berliners. Somehow, they managed to drive back to West Berlin through East Germany.

The Jewish community in East Berlin developed differently from the one in the west of the city. Those staying in the east were mainly old people, with the younger ones going over to the west. The eastern community was also smaller, as very few new members could actually get into that part of the city.

Cantor Nachama rarely performed services in East Berlin as this would have happened at the same time he would have been doing them in West Berlin. In East Berlin, he mainly administered funerals, not just for East Berlin Jews, but also for those from West Berlin who wanted to be buried back in the east, where their spouse’s or the family grave was. He also gave concerts, singing with the East Berlin Radio Choir and also the Magdeburger Dom Choir. He performed many memorial services for the victims of the Shoah, and the service was an old Berlin ritual he knew by heart. The funerals were two to three times a week, and he tried to arrange them so as to conduct two appointments in one trip, to save time. The guards never suspected him despite this level of traveling, as there were others who crossed the border more often. Professional musicians, for example, who worked in the orchestra in East Berlin, traveled every day, sometimes more than once. Surprisingly, Nachama never came on the radar of the Stasi, though he was aware that he could be observed. In his Stasi file, opened in the 1990s, it said: “Hasn’t got anything in his mind but singing.”

For his sixtieth birthday in 1978, RIAS had a half-hour program celebrating Estrongo’s life and the contribution he had made to Jewish life in the city. He was now chief cantor; he led the choir, and had even managed to have a walk-on part in the Oscar-winning musical Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli and Michael York. The presenter of the RIAS program asked him why the community in West Berlin had six thousand members whereas the one in the east had only four hundred? How do you explain that there are so few and here so many? The question could have potentially caused him problems, as the authorities might have wondered, why did he need to travel to East Berlin so often then? But his reply was typical of the way he had survived the war; he brazened it out. “Well,” he said, “in East Berlin, I am only doing the funerals, in West Berlin, I am doing the prayer service.”

Cantor Estrongo Nachama died on January 13, 2000, aged eighty-one years old. He was still teaching music students the day before he died. His journey from war-torn Greece, to the concentration camps of the Nazis, to witnessing the start and the end of the Cold War, had made for a life full of optimism, compassion, religious tolerance, and love for his people. He was one of the key figures who rebuilt the Jewish community in the heart of Hitler’s Reich. “My father was pleased that by the end of 1989 the Jewish community was reunited,” remembered Andreas. “And travels to East Berlin were not restricted to Checkpoint Charlie anymore, and many routes could be taken. He enjoyed these practicalities. He certainly did not shed a tear for the old regime.” Many elderly German Jews who survived the Shoah decided to have their bones buried in Israel. But Cantor Nachama is buried in Berlin.

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Cemeteries of Przemyśl

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 241-242:

Przemyśl buries its dead to the south. Today, if one walks from the city’s clock tower down what used to be called Dobromil Street, whose end destination now lies cut off across the Ukrainian border, the municipal cemetery soon comes into view. Turn right up a twisting, undulating road which in 1914 led past some of the Fortress’s main powder magazines, and very soon you reach the military burial ground. For all its tranquility, this is a sad place. A pretty, lightly wooded field lies at the top of the sloping grounds. Only a monument, flanked by two imposing Byzantine crosses, warns visitors that below their feet is the mass grave of some 9,000 Russian soldiers. The Austro-Hungarian cemetery across the road appears more organized, with row on row of dark stone crosses. Yet no plaque records how many men lie here—as if that were still a military secret—and the crosses have no inscriptions; these peasant soldiers are in death, as in life, anonymous. The empires for which they fell would within just a few years both lie in ruins. Yet the violence unleashed by their war would live on. Silent witnesses to future, even greater horrors lie nearby: in a Polish military cemetery for soldiers killed fighting German invaders in 1939 and Ukrainians in the 1940s, and, just to the east, in the city’s eerily beautiful Jewish burial grounds.

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Ethnic POW Gulags in Russia, 1915

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 250-251:

The prisoners were driven by knout-wielding Cossacks “like cattle” on long marches to rail stations. Most entrained at Lwów or, another 90 kilometers (around 56 miles) to the northeast, at the Galician frontier town of Brody. Nearly all passed through the Tsarist army’s large transit camp at Kiev, 600 kilometers (370 miles) from Przemyśl. Here, prisoners’ names, ranks, and regiments were recorded. Above all, the Russian army was avidly interested in prisoners’ ethnicity. Its officers’ racialized thinking had already been evident in Przemyśl. There, first the Hungarian regiments were sent away—for the Russians regarded them as the most dangerous—then the Austrian Germans. Slavic units, whom the conqueror hoped were less hostile, were dispatched last. In Kiev, a more thorough sorting took place. Magyars, Germans, and Jews were separated to be cast into the harshest camps. Serbs and Romanians in Honvéd uniforms were sought out and earmarked for privileged treatment as “friendly” peoples. Hundreds of Przemyśl prisoners were transported to Russia’s capital, St. Petersburg, where they were paraded humiliatingly before the public along the main thoroughfare, the Nevsky Prospekt. Then they, too, were made invisible.

Most of the Przemyśl prisoners were incarcerated deep in Asian Russia, in the region of Turkestan (in today’s Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan). The rail journey lasted two to four weeks. Cattle wagons, those functional items of the nineteenth-century industrial revolution that, in the dehumanizing twentieth, became icons of ethnic cleansing and genocide, were provided for transport. Cold, dark, overcrowded, and stinking, they were breeding grounds for disease-carrying parasites. The wagons rolled slowly. Food was distributed only irregularly and could be barely edible. When the weak men eventually disembarked, they found themselves in a strange climate. Turkestan was a place of extremes. In the winter, it could feel like the arctic. In summer, temperatures soared up to 45°C (113°F). Its unsanitary camps were overseen by brutal guards, and epidemics raged through them in 1915. Everybody contracted malaria. Dysentery, cholera, and typhus killed thousands.

The Russian hell had many circles. There were prisoners who spent years in Turkestan. Others were moved around the Tsar’s empire. Sometimes Slavic prisoners—although not Poles, who were distrusted by the Russians—were set above their fellows and given privileged conditions; they themselves then became instruments of suffering. Many prisoners volunteered to work as a means of escaping the camps and earning money so they could supplement their meager rations. They might end up felling trees or plowing the fields on big landed estates. Those most fortunate were handed over to small peasant farmers who would treat them as one of the family. In contrast, labor in the mines of southern Russia could be lethal. Whether benevolent or brutal, however, employers had total power over their prisoners. For sure, they had duties of care, but often there were no checks to ensure these were observed. Instead, official regulations emphasized that “it is the duty of all prisoners to carry out all work to which they are commanded, no matter how heavy. If one refuses, he is to be… treated as a convict, and this punishment shall… last the entire period of his captivity.”

The deepest circle was the Tsar’s own Death Railway to Murmansk. This place of suffering was reserved largely for Hungarians and Germans. The line was urgently needed to transport war materials left by British ships at the northern port to the Russian armies at the front. Over 50,000 prisoners worked here until 1917 in conditions that in their hardship equaled, and even exceeded, those of the later Soviet Gulags.

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