WHO BETRAYED THE JEWS? : THE REALITIES OF NAZI PERSECUTION IN THE HOLOCAUST
By Agnes Grunwald-Spier
Amberley Publishing. 655 pages. £20. ISBN 978-1-4456-7118-5
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Gerta Vrbová was 12 in 1938 and lived in Trnava in
Just one story from the many that Agnes Grunwald-Spier catalogues in her extensive study of what happened to Jews in the period between 1933 and 1945. And after, in some cases. What they reveal is the way in which numerous people, not just committed fascists or faceless bureaucrats, were quick to take advantage of, and to further, the rising tide of anti-semitism that the Nazi propaganda machine endlessly promoted. Resentment against Jews had obviously simmered below the surface for years before Hitler came to power, and it only took approval of its open expression by the State for it to come out in both verbal and physical ways. To insult a Jew was acceptable and to assault him or her wasn’t likely to incur the attention of the police. After all, the state and its representatives, such as the police, were practising the same policies on an even bigger scale.
If, as happened, the authorities moved in to seize the property of Jews, then ordinary citizens felt empowered to grab whatever they could. Homes were ransacked and occupied and treasured items disappeared. Jews who felt they could trust long-standing neighbours, people they thought of as friends, to look after prized possessions, returned (if they had been lucky enough to leave in time) years later to find that no-one accepted that there had been an arrangement along the lines specified. Perhaps it was thought that the Jews weren’t likely to come back, and that if they took their valuables with them when they were arrested, the authorities would only seize them. So who was to know if a neighbour decided to step in first and benefit?
Those neighbours and supposed friends were not slow, either, to
inform on any Jews they knew were in hiding. 19,000 Gestapo files
were discovered in
It shouldn’t be thought that denunciations and betrayals only
It might be argued that people in occupied countries were usually
acting under duress when they co-operated with the German army. But
this wasn’t true in
No doubt the sort of people referred to would think of themselves as
intelligent, and there may be an assumption that many of those
carrying out systematic brutality against Jews were from the
lumpen-proletariat. It’s certainly true that people given some sort
of authority may well abuse it. The testimony of Magda Herzberger,
The physicians in
But the overall situation does raise provocative questions about the
effect on medical and scientific practice and research in
Big business was complicit in the rise to power of Hitler, and,
where necessary during the war years, benefited from an unlimited
supply of slave labour. Auto
There may be something surprising in the fact that Ford after the war claimed reparations for the damage done to its German factory by Allied bomber, and were awarded almost one million dollars. To a literal mind like mine, it seems a case of having your cake and eating it. Ford claimed that they had no control over their German subsidiary after December, 1941 though it doesn’t seem to have ever been taken over by the German government. And it turned out trucks and other equipment for the German army. It would therefore appeared to have been a legitimate target.
I’ve had to move quickly around Who Betrayed the Jews? almost out of necessity. There is so much packed into its pages that it’s impossible to do more than point to certain aspects of the persecution of the Jews. And there are so many questions raised by it that need to be answered at greater length than I can devote to them. Why was it that the Nazis often found willing allies among Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and others as they put their extermination programme into operation? There are terrible stories, such as when a group of Jewish children whose parents had already been eliminated had to be executed. German soldiers, not exactly noted for their humanity, were reluctant to carry out the task, but Ukrainians quite happily did the killing. Obviously, there was a tradition of anti-semitism among many Ukrainians, Poles, and Lthuanians, and it only needed it to be officially recognised and sanctioned for it to turn into brutal actions.
Another question relates to the way in which whole groups of people
could be persuaded to believe in the propaganda about Jewish
activities and influence. It may be true that some people chose to
keep quiet, say nothing, and hope that they could keep clear of any
involvement in the worst aspects of anti-Jewish actions. But there
seems ample evidence that many people welcomed Hitler, knew what he
had in mind, and were prepared to go along with it provided they saw
some benefit in doing so. Austrians like to claim that they were
“victims” themselves, but the Nazis were applauded by large,
enthusiastic crowds when they marched into
I sometimes had the feeling that most people went along with what
the crowds were doing because they didn’t want to be seen as
“different”. They conformed because it was the easiest thing to do,
and perhaps the safest in the circumstances. It isn’t wise to
quickly condemn them for this. As Professor Aubrey Newman says in
his Foreword: “No one can be sure what they might do under such
circumstances; no one can know that they would be able to resist the
ultimate temptation”. I have to say that, as a young soldier
stationed with the British Army in
Grunwald-Spier doesn’t shy away from the fact that some Jews were guilty of betraying their fellow-Jews. They were called greifer (snatchers or catchers) by other Jews, and the most notorious among them was an “attractive and intelligent, but also cruel and unscrupulous” young woman named Stella. She was reputed to have lured over 300 Jews into captivity by pretending to befriend them and offering to help with arrangements for their escape. It perhaps needs to be said that Stella had been tortured by the Gestapo before she agreed to act as an informer. Whether that was a justification for what she did, seemingly with enthusiasm and to her advantage in terms of money and preferential treatment, is another matter.
So far I’ve focused on what might be called the dark side of Who Betrayed the Jews? and Grunwald-Spier does allow a little light to shine through the gloom with occasional accounts of good people doing good things. Some neighbours did care for items left with them in an honest way. Others took Jewish children into their homes and passed them off as their own. There are stories about people being tipped off anonymously about impending raids by the Gestapo. There may be many more such tales to be told, but in the context of the wholesale betrayal and killing of Jews they can seem almost insignificant. They’re not, of course, and the men and women who risked their own lives to help deserve to be praised and remembered.
Towards the end of her book Agnes Grunwald-Spier remarks that: “The reality is that ‘never again’ has only really been observed by Jews and Israelis. They know that ultimately no one else can be relied on when Jews are threatened and betrayed”. It’s a statement I would tend to agree with. Who Betrayed the Jews? provides powerful evidence of how countries, governments, businesses, politicians, policemen, and ordinary people knowingly participated in actions that intentionally led towards Jews being harassed, hounded and in millions of cases, murdered.