Bergen-Belsen and Four Perfect Pebbles

Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

Bergen-Belsen and Four Perfect Pebbles

Review by Claudia Moscovici

In a child’s imagination, there’s a fine line between hope and superstition. For Marion Blumenthal, a nine-year-old Jewish girl imprisoned with her family in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, hope means psychological survival in dire conditions, in which death is a near certainty. Holding four pebbles in her hand, the young girl tells her older brother, Albert: “Look closely. I have these three pebbles, exactly matching. Today I will find the fourth. I suppose you think I’m silly’” (Four Perfect Pebbles co-written by Lila Perl and Marion Blumenthal Lazan, New York: Scholastic, 1996, 7). Although Albert humors his emotional and imaginative sister, for Marion finding the fourth pebble represents the survival of each of her family members: her mother, her father, herself and her brother.

The memoir Four Perfect Pebbles tells the story of the Blumenthal family’s survival against all odds. Of German Jewish origin, the Blumenthals flee the anti-Semitic measures adopted by the Nazis in Germany. They believe that they have escaped to relative safety in Holland. As the Nazi empire expands to Holland, however, in 1944 they arrange to be part of a group immigrating to Palestine (in exchange for the release of German POW’s). However, to their misfortune, their ship is delayed for three months. Instead of finding their way to Israel, the Blumenthals are sent off first to the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork and later to the “Family Camp” in Bergen-Belsen.

Four Perfect Pebbles offers invaluable historical information about the Holocaust, targeting a young adult audience. The book describes an exceptional story of survival in what became, during the final months of the war, one of the most lethal Nazi camps: the same one, in fact, where the sisters Frank perished. Initially intended as a prisoner of war camp, in 1943 Bergen-Belsen became a full-fledged concentration camp. Located in Northern Germany, it operated between 1940 and 1945. In June 1943, Bergen-Belsen was designated as a “holding camp” for Jews who were supposed to be exchanged for German prisoners in other countries. Initially, the conditions were relatively good, but with overcrowding they deteriorated. The SS divided the camp into several sections, including the “Hungarian camp”, the “Special camp” for Polish Jews and the “Star camp” for Dutch Jews, where Marion Blumenthal and her family were interned.

Aside from being deprived of sufficient food, water, adequate medical treatment and basic hygiene facilities, the inmates of Bergen-Belsen were forced to work all day long. Approximately 50,000 people perished there. Bergen-Belsen imprisoned Jews, Poles, Russians, Dutch, Czech, German and Austrian inmates. In August 1944, the Nazis created a new section, the “Women’s Camp”, which held about 9,000 women and girls at any given time. In general, the concentration camp became dangerously overcrowded. Over 80,000 people were brought there in cattle trains from camps in Poland and other areas overtaken by the Soviet army.

Unlike Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen had no gas chambers. Yet as death surrounded her and dozens of corpses were laid out on top of one another outside her barracks each day, Marion lived in constant fear of extermination: “Even though we had been told that there were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, how could we ever be sure? … The soap that the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen were given before entering the showers did not guarantee their harmlessness. For it was common practice at Auschwitz to provide victims some soap—and also promise them hot coffee or warm soup afterward—in order to maintain calm and to deceive those about to be gassed” (66-67).

Conditions at Bergen-Belsen deteriorated rapidly towards the end of the war, even by Nazi concentration camp standards. As Marion Blumenthal recalls, “By early 1945 the food at Bergen-Belsen consisted mainly of cabbage-flavored water and moldy bread. This ration was far less than the six hundred calories a day per inmate that the camp had formerly provided… The death toll was now mounting rapidly as the result of exposure, hunger, severe diarrhea, and fevers” (70). Anne and Marion Frank perished there from typhus in February 1945, only weeks before the camp’s liberation by the Allies.

When the British and Canadians entered the camp on April 15, 1945, they found thousands of corpses and 60,000 prisoners. Fortunately, Marion and her family were not among them. After having been starved, forced into slave labor, infested by fleas and ill with typhus, the Nazis transported them in cattle trains away from the approaching Soviet army. They were nevertheless found and freed by the Soviets, ending up in a refugee camp in Tröbitz. As she had grasped the four perfect pebbles, Marion continued to hold on to the hope of her family’s survival. Unfortunately, her father didn’t make it. He succumbed to typhus in May 1945. His death came as a blow to their tight-knit nuclear family. As Marion wistfully notes, “We had come so far, through flight, imprisonment, evacuation, the Nazis’ final attempt to destroy us, liberation at last, and now this—freedom and sorrow”(99). Her memoir, Four Perfect Pebbles, keeps his memory—and that of countless other Holocaust victims–alive. This book offers a moving testimony of the paradoxical “freedom and sorrow” of being liberated after having suffered so much trauma and the inconsolable loss of loved ones who perished in the Holocaust.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memories

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The Psychopaths of the Holocaust: Lovefraud.com Review of Holocaust Memories

Holocaust Memories by Claudia Moscovici

Book Review: The psychopaths of the Holocaust

Holocaust Memories: A survey of Holocaust memoirs, histories, novels, and films, by Claudia Moscovici

Review by Donna Andersen on Lovefraud.com

Most of us have some knowledge of the Holocaust. We’ve heard about the concentration camps and gas chambers. We know one of Adolf Hitler’s objectives during World War II was the “Final Solution” — an attempt to wipe out the Jewish population of Europe. We know that six million Jews were murdered, plus millions more Communists, prisoners of war, gypsies, intellectuals, handicapped people and others.

We may have seen movies like Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice. Maybe we read The Diary of Anne Frank. But it’s doubtful that we understand the true brutality of the killings, and the depravity of the people who committed them.

Claudia Moscovici’s book, Holocaust Memories, captures the scope of the horror.

The book is a collection of 70 essays by the author, each one a summary or review of a classic book or film about the Holocaust. Some are well known, such as Night by Elie Weisel, and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil, by Hannah Arendt. Because each of Moscovici’s essays is short — usually only two pages — the painful history comes in small doses.

Many of the works were new to me, depicting particular aspects of the Holocaust that I didn’t know. The author Leni Yahil described what happened in Hungary: In less than two months, from May 15 to July 9, 1944, 440,000 Jews, more than half of the country’s Jewish population, were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Most of them died in the gas chambers.

How can people do this?

Moscovici knows about psychopaths — she is author of the Psychopathy Awareness blog. In some essays, she analyzes the perpetrators’ disorder. For example, she talks about Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi lieutenant colonel who was one of the main organizers of the mass deportation of Jews. Eichmann escaped after the war and fled to Argentina. He was eventually captured and tried for his crimes in Jerusalem.

Hannah Arendt, who covered the trial, was surprised that Eichmann seemed so normal and felt no moral responsibility for his crimes. As Moscovici points out, the reason for this is simple — the man was a psychopath. Failure to take responsibility for anything is one of the key characteristics of a psychopath.

Holocaust Memories is an exceptional work of scholarship about one of the darkest chapters of human history. For all those people who now say the Holocaust never happened — well, there are plenty of eyewitnesses who know that it did, because they lived it.

Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

 

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Elie Wiesel’s Night: Shedding Light upon the Darkness

 

Elie Wiesel’s Night: Shedding Light upon the Darkness

 by Claudia Moscovici

Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night (New York, Hill and Wang, 2006, translated by Marion Wiesel), is one of the best-known and most highly acclaimed works about the Holocaust. The New York Times called the 2006 edition “a slim volume of terrifying power”. Yet its power wasn’t immediately appreciated. In fact, the book may have never been written had Wiesel not approached his friend, the novelist Francois Mauriac, for an introduction to the French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes France, whom he wanted to interview. When Mauriac, a devout Catholic, mentioned that Mendes stated that France was suffering like Jesus, Elie Wiesel responded that ten years earlier he had seen hundreds of Jewish children suffer more than Jesus did on the cross yet nobody spoke about it. Mauriac appeared moved and suggested that Wiesel himself write about this difficult subject.

The young man followed his advice. He began writing in Yiddish an 862-page manuscript about his experiences of the Holocaust. The Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina published an abbreviated version of his book, under the title And the World Remained Silent. Wiesel later translated the text into French. He called it, more simply and symbolically, Night (La Nuit) and sent it to Mauriac, who helped Wiesel find a publisher (the small and prestigious publishing house Les Editions de Minuit) and wrote its Preface. The English version, published in 1960 by Arthur Wang of Hill and Wang, received strong critical acclaim despite initially modest sales. Over the years, Elie Wiesel’s eloquent books and informative interviews helped bring the difficult subject of the Holocaust to the center of public attention. In 2006, Oprah Winfrey selected Night for her high-profile book club, increasing its public exposure.

This work is autobiographical—an eloquent memoir documenting Wiesel’s family sufferings during the Holocaust—yet, due to its literary qualities, the text has also been read as a novel or fictionalized autobiography. The brevity, poignant dialogue, lyrical descriptions of human degradation and suffering, and historical accuracy of this multifaceted work render Night one of the most powerful Holocaust narratives ever written.

Elie (Eliezer) Wiesel was only 15 years old when the Nazis entered Sighet in March of 1944, a Romanian town in Northern Transylvania that had been annexed to Hungary in 1940. At the directives of Adolf Eichmann, who took it upon himself to “cleanse” Hungary of its Jews, the situation deteriorated very quickly for the Jewish population of Sighet and other provincial towns. Within a few months, between May and July 1944, approximately 440,000 Hungarian Jews, mostly those living outside of Budapest, were deported to Auschwitz aboard 147 trains.

Wiesel’s entire family—his father Shlomo, mother Sarah, and sisters Tzipora, Hilda and Beatrice—suffered this fate. Among them, only Elie and two of his sisters, Hilda and Beatrice, survived the Holocaust. However, since women and men were separated at Auschwitz upon arrival, Elie lost track of what happened to his sisters until they reunited after the end of the war. In the concentration camp, father and son clung to each other as the only family they had left.

Night recounts their horrific experiences, which included starvation, forced labor and a death march to Buchenwald. Being older and weaker, Shlomo becomes the target of punishment and humiliation. He’s abused by SS officers as well as by other prisoners who steal his food. Weakened by hunger and fatigue, he dies after a savage beating in January 1945, only a few weeks before the Americans liberate the concentration camp. Throughout their tribulations, the son oscillates between a filial sense of responsibility towards his increasingly debilitated father and regarding his father as a burden that might cost him his own life. Elie doesn’t dare intervene when the SS officer beats Shlomo, fearing that he himself would become the next victim if he tries to help his father.

In the darkness and despair of Night, the instinct of self-preservation from day to day and moment to moment counteracts a lifetime of familial love. Even when Elie discovers the death of his father in the morning, he experiences a sense of hollowness: not only his father’s absence, as his bunk is now occupied by another inmate, but also the lack of his own human response: “I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!” (112)

Night offers a stark psychological account of the process of human degradation in inhumane conditions. Even the relatively few and fortunate survivors of the Nazi atrocities, such as Elie Wiesel, became doubly victimized. They are the victims of what they suffered at the hands of their oppressors as well as the victims of what they witnessed others suffer and were unable (or unwilling) to help. Although Night focuses on the loss of human dignity in the Nazi concentration camps, the author’s life would become a quest for regaining it by writing and talking about the Holocaust. As Wiesel explains to his audience on December 10, 1986 during his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize in Oslo, his message to his son–and to the world at large—is about the empathy required to perpetuate Holocaust memories. He declares, “I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. … We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” (118).

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memories

Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

 

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction