The Holocaust

Witnesses to Murder

And then, outside the Sydney Opera House, they said “Gas the Jews”. I’m writing in past tense and suddenly everything is present tense.

The murder of millions of Jews by the National Socialists was an invention—invented by Jews themselves to blackmail the Germans. When he was told this in the 1970s by a German schoolfriend, then living in America, film-maker Alexandre Szombati was outraged, and made a film:

Until then I only knew what the victims had said, the survivors, but how did the Germans and the Austrians, prominent people as well as the men in the street, see the murder of the Jews? How did they find out about it, and when?

The interviews answer his questions, and in 1981 his film, Murder of the Jews, was screened on German television, once. In the last year the film has been released in English and French versions on YouTube.

None of the people talking to the camera are well-known figures, with one exception. None of them are Jewish victims. Some may not be telling the whole truth: one is a liar and another tells a very odd story which I find hard to believe. Szombati is not a prosecuting interviewer; the simple questions he asks are well chosen to educate the generations who have no knowledge of life earlier than yesterday. Yad Vashem has put online many interviews with Jewish victims of the Holocaust but this is a different approach and suggests how much eyewitness history was still available, and unrecorded, as late as the 1970s. Szombati was assembling his interviews at the same time Claude Lanzmann would have been working on his film Shoah (released in 1985).

The currently available version of Szombati’s film is without opening or closing credits. There are no name captions for interviewees and it is possible that this is a shortened version of a longer film. It is a simple and effective work which simply cuts from participant to participant with a brief spoken introduction for each individual, giving their name, age and some background to their activities during the Nazi period. Many of them are speaking in the familiar environment of a home or office or, in one case, prison. There is lightly chronological backbone to the assembled interviews, and several with younger historians are included to provide context to the speaking heads. The simple flute music that links the interviews is sensitive and touching.

The narrations begin with a student memory from Linz, Austria. A young man going to a local sweet shop after the Anschluss in 1938. A stormtrooper with a sign saying “Don’t Buy from Jews” bars entry to the store. The boy watches from the other side of the street. He sees the friendly shop owner, wearing his war decorations, and the arrival of more stormtroopers. The Jewish shopkeeper is pushed back into his store and there are sounds of violence. When he again emerges onto the street his face is bloodied and his decorations have been ripped off. A stormtrooper brandishes a pistol as its owner begs for it back, “When I was wounded it was washed in my blood.”

Another interviewee offers a memory of the Kristallnacht pogrom in Baden-Baden. He saw the public roundup of Jews, their humiliation and the violence which they suffered before being sent to Dachau. At the time he was seventeen years old and would go on to have a military career, resumed in post-war Germany when he returned from a Soviet prison camp after Stalingrad. From his family’s apartment he had watched a procession of stormtroopers wearing looted Jewish prayer shawls and waving Torah rolls. Mocking their victims, “They all broke into wailing and lamentation. This scene made a very deep impression on me. Somehow it seemed unreal.”

State violence against German and Austrian Jews before the war, as the police stood by, is clearly established by the observers—perhaps if they had been older they themselves would have been active participants: “People were just standing around gawking—as though it served the Jews right.” A further witness saw the arrival of the Kristallnacht Jews at Buchenwald.

It seems a short distance from peacetime anti-Semitism to the wartime massacres. Hans Sigmund was a German soldier stationed for a time in occupied Warsaw near the Ghetto. He belonged to a motorised column and would go into the Ghetto for vehicle repairs from Jewish workshops—the workers were not paid and he had no idea if they were fed. They were good workers, he remembered. There were dead in the streets, beggars and desperate trading and he recalled SS brutality towards the Jews.

“How did the people look?”

“Emaciated, run-down, starving and ill, more than ill.”

He also took photos. He carefully selected each subject, composed his image, adjusted the camera and snapped his shot. He has a packet of photos which he displays—beggar, street market, Ghetto fence, young man begging, a woman probably dead, Jewish policemen, children, old woman probably dead, young girl with her brother and sister, tram, street scene, an entrance to the Ghetto with its prominent warning sign that this is an infected area. Those, still living, who looked into his camera were fearful. Did the photographer smile? Offer them food or money? These stolen images are the only records that they ever lived. If his subjects survived a little longer they would have been rounded up by Jewish policemen and ended their existence naked, beaten and choking to death on vehicle exhaust in the gas chambers of Treblinka.

Ludwig Wolff was appointed manager of a German-owned mattress factory in the Warsaw Ghetto. His Berlin employer had seen an opportunity for profit using Jewish slave labour. A factory was opened; the unpaid Jewish workers provided the sewing machines. Wolff remembers arriving in Warsaw on April 15, 1942. The date is noteworthy  because almost at the same time other Germans were also arriving in Warsaw.

On the morning after Wolff arrived a transport of German Jews found themselves at the Umschlagplatz (marshalling yards) in the Ghetto. There is film of them being taken to the Ghetto registration office. They are calm and clean and well dressed. The women’s hats seem coquettish and fashionable. Within a very short time, and starving like everyone else, some of them would be deported to Treblinka 1 work camp and in July others would be on the first transports to Treblinka death camp when it opened—a period when the killing was disorganised and uncontrolled to such a degree that it even shocked experienced killers with skills acquired in Belzec and Sobibor extermination centres. It may have been one of these newcomers Wolff remembered meeting:

I went through the streets with the owner and another executive from the south German works and so we had to wend our way through and then somebody heard us speaking German—this was a middle-aged woman—she threw herself at us saying, “I was a piano teacher in Berlin, help me, please”, and then the executive said in his dialect, “Push off, you stupid cow”—that was normal behaviour in the Ghetto between Germans and Jews, you see.

His testimony is passionate:

I saw when I went out once [from the factory], I didn’t like it, I didn’t do it often, there were these three completely naked children about two or three years old, with these bellies, swollen heads, protruding eyes, in the gutters, lying on the pavements and gulping the filthy water, this ghetto sewage. Three years old, still children, perhaps they were even younger than that, children who must have been thrown out by their parents because they simply couldn’t feed them anymore, lying there, completely naked. I stood on the edge of the curb and next to me stood a Jew in a robe, a beard and so on, and he noticed obviously from my clothes that I was a German and then he said in German, half German half Yiddish, “My God, what are you doing to us?”

Alfred Spiess was senior state prosecutor in Düsseldorf and prosecuting counsel for both Treblinka trials in 1964 and 1970. Alexandre Szombati asks him simple and straightforward backgrounding questions about what the camp was and how it operated. Spiess is clear and knowledgeable—he also appears in Lanzmann’s Shoah. With a large-scale map prepared for the Treblinka trials he explains how the system functioned from train arrival to body incineration an hour or so later. The process was once very familiar to the next interviewee, though he seems to have forgotten most details and his own role in the business of killing.

Watching this film for the first time I had no idea who the people talking were and each interviewee was completely unknown—except for this one appalling example.

The interview took place in a comfortable room. The two men sit at a table. There is a window overlooking a garden. The window has curtains and outside are white painted bars. The interviewee is a healthy looking man in his sixties. He is brightly tanned—he could have just returned from a skiing holiday. He wears a light blue shirt, gold-rimmed glasses, an ostentatious ring, a watch. He is clean shaven and his hair is closely cut. His cheeks are full.

The clothes are different, of course, but he is immediately recognisable. This is Kurt Franz. In 1965 he was condemned to this prison in Düsseldorf for life. Completely accurately the court noted that “A large part of the streams of blood and tears that flowed in Treblinka can be attributed to him alone.” He was freed, for health reasons, in 1993 and died in a retirement home in 1998. His current residence is Hell.

This is how the film introduces him:

Kurt Franz, born in 1914—trained butcher and cook. Commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp. Sentenced by the Düsseldorf district court for joint-murder of at least 300,000 persons, for murder in 35 cases of at least 139 persons, and because of attempted murder to life imprisonment. He has never admitted before the German judicial authorities that he was the commandant of the Treblinka death camp.

This is how Richard Glazer remembered him in his magnificent account of Treblinka, Trap with a Green Fence:

Lalka appears immediately, because this [prisoner punishment] is now his responsibility. He doesn’t walk; he strides. He is aware of every one of his steps. He knows that everything about him is perfect, perfectly pressed, polished bright: the black boots, the grey jodhpurs with the large yellow leather patches stretching across his rear and down to his knees, the green uniform jacket, the grey deerskin gloves, the skull and crossbones cap worn at an angle. SS master sergeant Kurt knows only too well that here he is the most highly cultivated, the most handsome of all. What he doesn’t know is that among the damned here in Treblinka his appearance, his red cheeks, his sparkling brown eyes, have earned him the Polish nickname Lalka—the Doll.

The few survivors of Treblinka remember Kurt Franz as a sadist, with his dog, Barry, trained to attack naked prisoners on command: “Man, go get that dog!”—the man being the dog, and the dog a Jew. Without its master it was a friendly dog—it died post-war of old age and a vet’s injection.

Franz had been involved in the deception of making the back of a warehouse, for processing the stolen property of murdered Jews, look like a normal railway station. The fantasy offered to arriving deportees was that they were making a short stop in Treblinka on their journey towards resettlement further east. In testimony given by Samuel Rajzman at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946 (Transcripts, part 8) there is a memory of Franz and one of the 300,000 who died in Treblinka:

A train arrived from Vienna. I was standing on the platform when the people left the cars. An elderly woman came up to Kurt Franz, took out a document and said that she was the sister of Sigmund Freud. She begged him to give her light work in an office. Franz read this document through very thoroughly and said there must be a mistake here, he led her up to the train schedule and said that in two hours a train would leave for Vienna. She should leave all her documents and valuables and then go to a bath-house; after the bath she would have her documents and ticket prepared to be sent to Vienna. Of course the woman went to the bath-house, and never returned.

The filmed interview is fascinating, unrevealing and dishonest:

I have never had anything against Jews. For example, I played handball with Jews at Ratingen [near Düsseldorf], played handball with Jews in the stadium in Düsseldorf. In Düsseldorf I played handball as an opponent, there were never any problems, I did not see any difference between Catholics or Protestants or Jews.

When he had played “sport”, as he did with Jewish prisoners in Treblinka, they died from the injuries he inflicted. For those interested in such matters, there is a possible continuation with the famous homosexual sadistic murderers of the Weimar period and Kurt Franz. When he was released from prison in 1993, historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen protested in the New York Times: “The German courts, the silent government and press have shamed themselves. Franz might as well be given back his photo album.” When arrested in 1959, while working as a cook in Düsseldorf, a photo album of his extermination years was found in his possession. He had given it a hand-written title, “The Good Old Days”.

The interviews continue. There is an SS hygienist from Auschwitz who would not work on the selections but did still help out around the crematoria in busy times. He tells of “the official opinion of people who were all convinced that the gassing, the extermination, was right and the gassing was the best method until then that could be found to do this. That was their opinion and in that sense it was not open to debate.”

Ella Lingens-Reiner was an Austrian doctor, the author of a memoir, Prisoners of Fear (1948). She was sent to Auschwitz concentration camp (not the death camp) for helping Austrian Jews escape from their country. She worked in a hospital with no medicines, no surgical implements, no sheets and blankets and prisoner patients lying three or four to a bed. She recalled a conversation with SS doctor Fritz Klein, who was later hanged:

Once, that was the time of the Hungarian transports when uninterrupted day and night these flames were coming out of the chimney and you could even see the fire outside the crematorium from a distance and I was standing right next to him and he was watching that and I said to him how can you reconcile that with your Hippocratic oath and then he replied, “Because I have sworn a Hippocratic oath I cut a festering appendix out of the human body. The Jews are the festering appendix in the body of Europe and must be cut out.”

One further interview stands out for head-shaking improbability, as Mieke Monjau (wife of the artist Franz Monjau who was murdered in Buchenwald) recalls a day trip to Auschwitz. Having noticed a normal passenger train on Berlin station platform, destination Auschwitz, she inquires and finds there is a daily Berlin-to-Auschwitz service. She buys a ticket and spends a day in the administration section of the camp—not the prisoner side. In the evening, before midnight, after being entertained in the SS officers’ mess, she takes the return journey. At the camp she has inquired of a helpful SS officer about a deported Jewish friend.

Murder of the Jews ends with hope: stories of German soldiers wounded in the Soviet Union and treated with care by Jewish Soviet doctors whose families had been murdered by the Germans.

On news media a day or two ago an angry young protester appeared screaming hate for Israel. She faces the camera and with extreme self-righteousness tells the Jews to get out of Israel. Go back to where they came from. In a dramatic climax to her oration of hate she asks where they were living in 1940 and 1945. Szombati’s film might answer her question.

Leave a Reply