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 Slovakia. She was Jewish and had a close friend, Marushka, who lived next door. One day Marushka told Gerta that she could no longer associate with her because she was a Jew and would soon be rounded up and sent to a work camp. Marushka’s father had said that once Gerta’a family had left they would move into the empty house and also take over the shop that Gerta’s father ran. What particularly shocked Gerta, who survived to write her memoirs many years later, was Marushka’s “total lack of compassion, feeling of justice and crude greed”. The years of friendship clearly counted for very little.

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 Munich some years after the war ended and gave details of denunciations by members of the public. Grunwald-Spier says that, prior to the discovery of the files, it had been assumed that most of the “snooping” had been done by the Gestapo and secret police, but the files showed that a great many ordinary citizens provided details that led to investigations. It wasn’t that they informed out of fear of the authorities, or because they were patriotic or dedicated Nazis. The motives were “banal – greed, jealousy, petty differences”. Business partners turned in their associates for their own benefit. It’s easy to see how this would operate if one of the partners was Jewish.

It shouldn’t be thought that denunciations and betrayals only occurred in Germany, nor that only organisations like the Gestapo were involved. Grunwald-Spier has examples of them in France, Holland, Belgium, and other countries. When one French Jewish woman was informed on by a neighbour it was a French policeman who came to arrest her, not the Germans. “We should remember that when three Jewish women were ordered to report for deportation on Guernsey in 1942, that order was made by policemen wearing the traditional uniform of the trusted British ‘bobby’ “.  Details of the Jews living in the Channel Islands had been promptly provided by the local authorities involved.

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 Lithuania, for example, where local Fascists didn’t wait for the Germans to arrive before pogroms got under way: “Among the ringleaders were prominent local people - including the high-school principal, the school inspector, the deputy provincial prosecutor and the secretary to the provincial court”.

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, imprisoned in Auschwitz, is significant: “People would think that physicians had privileges, but not all physicians were treated well. Many were treated very badly where I was. Sometimes they would line up physicians in order to persecute them more because they were intellectuals. Some of these guards with very little education now suddenly got power. They hated intellectuals”. But what are we to make of the intellectuals in universities who were supposedly above crass behaviour in relation to their colleagues, but who happily signed petitions to have Jewish academics removed from their posts?

The physicians in Auschwitz were, of course, Jewish. Within the medical fraternity in general there was more than enough support for Hitler. Talking about Professor Hans Eppinger, described as an “ardent Nazi”, it’s said that he “fervently believed in the goals of the Third Reich and many doctors agreed, as 45 per cent of the profession were members of the Nazi Party – no other profession had so many”.  It’s not necessary to go into detail about the medical experiments carried out on prisoners in concentration camps, nor the euthanasia programme, which some doctors enthusiastically supported, to suggest that the medical profession had a lot to answer for. So had the legal profession, and it would be enlightening to know how many lawyers, judges, and related officials joined the Nazi Party, either out of conviction or because they saw it as a useful career move. I seem to recall reading that most of those present at the Wannsee Conference in 1942, when the “Final Solution” was discussed, were qualified lawyers.

But the overall situation does raise provocative questions about the effect on medical and scientific practice and research in Germany and elsewhere:  “153 out of 197 members of the medical faculty in Vienna were sacked after the Anschluss, mostly Jews”. Did no-one in the Nazi Party ever pause to consider the effect that ridding medicine, the law, science, and other professions of so many skilled and intelligent people might have? Grunwald-Spier does say that “Hitler’s attitude to his scientists was particularly bizarre. Some suggest it cost him the war because he got rid of all the scientists with Jewish blood, who then went to work for the Americans and developed their atomic weapons”.

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 Union (now named Audi), Siemens, BMW, Allianz Insurance Company, IBM, Volkswagen, Ford, and others, are all named as involved, in one way or another, in sustaining the Nazi regime. The role of Ford, as outlined by Grunwald-Spier, particularly interested me: “The American Ford Motor Company owned the majority of the shares in its subsidiary Ford Werke AG from 1933 to 1945. Two senior executives of the firm, Edsel Ford, Henry’s only son, and Robert Sorenson, served as directors of Ford Werke AG throughout the Third Reich”.  The mind boggles at the thought that, while American soldiers were dying from German bombs and bullets, profits from Ford’s German subsidiary were steadily mounting. But it’s perhaps relevant to note that Henry Ford was a notorious anti-semite and had written a pamphlet entitled, The International Jew, a Worldwide Problem, that Hitler approved of. And business was business. The French railway company, SNCF, made sure it claimed every last franc for transporting Jews on their way to the death camps.

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 Vienna. And the sight of Jews being abused in the streets often caused merriment among onlookers.

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 Germany in the 1950s, I often wondered what the pleasant and friendly Germans I worked alongside had done in the years when Hitler was in control?  And what I would have done?

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.