Holocaust Remembrance Day 5754 (2014) is marked by the situation of the Jews in 1944 – exactly 70 years ago. The expression “on the edge,” taken from Nathan Alterman’s poem Joy of the Poor, very aptly expresses the feeling which prevailed that year among the Jews of Europe, who were in the throes of a double race on which their very lives depended.
On the one hand, cities from east to west, such as Vilna and Minsk, Warsaw and Riga, Belgrade and Sofia, Paris and Rome, were being liberated from the yoke of Nazi Germany; the Red Army was advancing, and the western Allies continued to bombard Germany, their landing in Normandy tipping the scales still further. On the other hand, in the same year, the Jews of Hungary were sent to Auschwitz, the Lodz and Kovno ghettos were liquidated, the last of their former inmates were deported and murdered, and death marches were initiated from the liberated territories to the heart of what remained of the Third Reich.
It was a year in which everything depended on the scales of time, and the Jews remaining in Europe were asking themselves: will the Red Army from the east and the Allies from the west arrive before the Germans come to murder whoever is still alive? Or, as Alterman wrote, which ending will come first? Events were occurring fast, one after the other, raising serious questions in their wake.
In March 1944, the Germans invaded Hungary and immediately commenced preparations for the swiftest and most organized deportation any Jewish community had ever witnessed: From the middle of May, over 430,000 Jews from Hungary were sent almost exclusively to Auschwitz, where the vast majority were murdered in the space of two months. A ray of light that year was the beginning of the return of the remnant of those exiled to Transnistria, a region in southern Ukraine where conditions were among the most horrific.
At around the same time, Zionist youth, other Jewish activists and neutral diplomats stepped up their rescue activities in Budapest, eventually contributing to the survival of over 100,000 Hungarian Jews. However, in June, Jews from the Greek island of Corfu were rounded up and deported, and in July, the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania was liquidated. Nazi ideology, which was centered around the burning desire to kill every single Jewish individual, dictated such efforts even in the final year of the war, when the Germans needed every means at their disposal to fight at the front, including the urgent requirement for trains to bring them equipment and arms, and for every pair of hands to produce weapons for them that would turn the tide of the war in their favor.
IN JUNE, the “Auschwitz Protocols” were disseminated around the world. This detailed account, written by Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, two young Jews who managed to escape from the infamous concentration and death camp, exposed for the first time the central role of the camp in the extermination system. Shortly afterwards, with the liberation of Majdanek, the hard labor and death camp next to Lublin, actual gas chambers were revealed for the first time. The industrialization of murder, the technology that acted in the service of Nazi ideology, the ability to commit crimes of such enormity in secret and over such a long period of time – all of them still deeply disturbing – were finally exposed.
Following these events, the Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin coined the phrase “genocide” in 1944, and participated in the drafting of the UN resolution for its prevention, approved in 1948.
In July, Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, was liberated by Red Army units, and Jewish partisans, who fought within the Soviet-Lithuanian Partisanka in the nearby forests, were honored to be among the first to enter the city, in a military march. It was perhaps in homage to their bravery in the battles, and a short-lived sign of sympathy to their personal and national disaster. Yet, when they entered, the Vilna ghetto was completely empty of Jewish life. The only consolation was the assignment they were given: to guard the many Germans who surrendered and fell into captivity. One young Jewish partisan, Vitka Kovner, led a long line of submissive prisoners, with one rifle in her hands.
During the same month, the remnants of the ghetto of Kovno, just half an hour away by train, were set on fire. A while before, its Jewish policemen and officers were brutally tortured, but refused to disclose the location of the hiding places dug by the last ghetto inhabitants, especially those where children were still alive.
The officers were killed and the hiding Jews eventually found, dragged out and taken either to the Ponary murder site or to Auschwitz. There, in a barrack in the women’s camp where prisoners mainly from Hungary were locked up, between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. a Jewish doctor helped a woman give birth to a healthy baby on a wooden shelf, while the other prisoners in the block raised their voices to cover up the infant’s cries. The baby was killed on the spot, so as to save the mother from certain death – giving birth was strictly forbidden. An hour later, the mother stood at the Appel, where all the prisoners had to be accounted for.
In October, an uprising in Auschwitz was staged by the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners tasked with the unspeakable job of handling the bodies of the murdered victims. They blew up one of the gas chambers with the help of explosives smuggled in to them by a group of young Jewish women. The question we must ask ourselves is, from where did these men and women, imprisoned in this indescribable place, draw the strength to organize, band together, choose the right moment, and actually hope to succeed? These events are at the heart of the tension between annihilation and liberation, a tension that was literally a question of life and death for the Jews at that time, who were living on the very edge.
The author is Yad Vashem’s chief historian. For information, testimonies, online exhibitions and more related to Holocaust Memorial Day: www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/ remembrance/2014/index.asp