Center Field: 'Glumstruck' 80 years after the Nazi invasion of Poland

It was the Poles and Ukrainians and Lithuanians, who aided and abetted or snitched or laughed or pillaged or welcomed the few surviving Jews back with pogroms.

September 4, 2019 08:58
Center Field: 'Glumstruck' 80 years after the Nazi invasion of Poland

Poland's guard of Honor stands at attention September 1 2005 in front of the Westerplatte monument erected where the first shots of World War 2 were fired on Setember 1 1939 in Gdansk. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

It crept up on us, underreported. But September 1, marking 80 years since Germany’s invasion of Poland started World War II, unnerved me. Perhaps visiting the Australian-Jewish community heightened my sensitivity – that community still throbs with the anguish of tens of thousands of Holocaust heroes who rebuilt their lives there.

The Germans may have some contradictory word for my emotions. I call it “glumstruck”: dumbstruck, depressed, yet awestruck. Even having been born into this world wherein the Nazi evil was history, not horror movie, can we comprehend it?

It wasn’t just Hitler the madman trying to conquer the world while unleashing a Jew-killing spree. It wasn’t just Himmler the soulless planning the “Final Solution” to “exterminate” a pesky people.

It was the Mengele-doctors who experimented on fellow humans after “selecting” those they deemed to be slave-worthy from those they deemed to be unworthy of living.

It was the proper Germans who bounced babies against walls for sport, machine-gunned innocent humans en masse, raped savagely, tortured easily, and ran their killing machine ever so efficiently.

It was the “good Germans” who heard trains screeching into the killing camps at all hours and smelled human flesh burning day by day, yet claimed “we didn’t know.”

It was the Poles and Ukrainians and Lithuanians, who aided and abetted or snitched or laughed or pillaged or welcomed the few surviving Jews back with pogroms.

And it was the rest of the world that stood by, limply, letting Hitler believe he was doing the dirty work against the “dirty Jews” millions had dreamed about for millennia.

We grew up knowing this was the greatest mass murder ever. Now, we also realize it was the most horrific mass rape, robbery, and ethnic cleansing ever. And, depressingly, it worked. Poland, the Ukraine, most of Western Europe, remain mostly “judenrein,” purged of Jews – especially compared to 1939.

So, yes, dumbstruck by the scale, depressed by the cruelty, yet awestruck, too. The many collaborators and the Nazi war machine’s brute force make me cherish every German, Pole, Ukrainian and Lithuanian who stood up and resisted. Good people fought as partisans, hid Jews, risked their lives and sometimes sacrificed them to deviate from the mainstream deviants. If the masses who expedited the mass crime reveal how evil anyone can be, the individuals who desisted illustrate how good we all should try to be.

As an American, I am proud that after a long, vicious, divisive debate, that “Greatest Generation” of Americans joined the British and Russians and some French to fight for freedom.

Just as the German mass evil demonstrates xenophobic nationalism’s monstrous menace, the Churchillian and Rooseveltian calls for noble self-sacrifice reflect liberal nationalism’s curative magnificence.

Without his prickly, we-shall-never-surrender nationalism, how could Churchill have roused a demoralized England after the Dunkirk disaster?

Without his inspirational Four Freedoms-infused nationalism, freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear, how could FDR have motivated a distant, isolationist America into the war against Nazism – even after the Japanese Pearl Harbor sneak attack?

Even amid a new antisemitism, even though much of the Islamic world and vast parts of the European world ignore the Holocaust’s lessons, I still appreciate how much the Jewish condition has improved in 80 years. The world, especially the Anglo-American world, is kinder, gentler, braver, and a more proactive force for good than it was on invasion day.

Finally, as Jews, just as we were born into a red-flagged world where the worst happened to us, we have grown up surrounded by proof that humanity is blessed by heroes, while once unimaginable dreams can come true. All survivors are superheroes, be they broken or psychologically whole, poor or rich, miserable or happy. Those who ended up living ordinary lives were, or still are, extraordinary poets of the prosaic, everyday magicians who turned a living death into life. Simply walking the earth with these people has made me a better person, let alone being fortunate enough to befriend some, and marry into a family filled with others. These people tapped into a grit, an optimism, a marvelous survival drive I am lucky enough never to have needed.

That so many of them made it to Israel – and helped make Israel, Israel – is even more miraculous.

THIS ANNIVERSARY offers another opportunity to appreciate how rapidly Israel has progressed in a blink of a historic eye. Eighty years ago, the 240,000 or so Jews living in Israel were nine years from statehood. They represented a fringe movement, Zionism, that the entire Jewish world accepted only after the Holocaust and after Israel’s establishment. Jewish Palestine then was weak, wild, obviously doomed to fail.

It’s too easy for us to examine Nazism’s evils, the collaborators’ crimes, the survivors’ resilience, Zionism’s wonders, and feel dwarfed by it all. I feel “glumstruck” because the scale of the destruction and reconstruction is overwhelming. But I’m also inspired because I know how ordinary – and scared – the soldiers of World War II who won the war were, how ordinary – and crushed – the survivors who rebuilt after the war were, and how normal – and intimidated – the Zionist pioneers were.

I also know that if they could make their miracles under the unimaginably difficult conditions of yesterday, I and we can follow their example – and better them – today. Building Israel, revitalizing Judaism, defending the Jewish people and, most pressing today, finding meaning in old-new Jewish life remain our challenge, our responsibility, our privilege, our salute to World War II’s saviors and survivors.

The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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