Stepping stones of the Nazi Era

Evian, Auschwitz, the Pinelli brothers all explain why, for Jews, the Nazi era is more significant than any other.

PORTRAIT of Martha Liebermann 311 (photo credit: WikiCommons)
PORTRAIT of Martha Liebermann 311
(photo credit: WikiCommons)
The painter Max Liebermann was a lucky man. He died in the third year of the Nazi era – in February 1935. The Nazi era began in January 1933, when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Liebermann was a world-famous German Jewish painter, the father of German impressionism and of the Berliner secession school. He was a committed Berliner, born and bred in the capital. He lived with his wife Martha in the Pariser platz, in an apartment overlooking the Brandenburg gate (when asked for his address, he would say: “I live in Berlin,” first turning to the right). He was born in the same house his father and grandfather were born in. The Liebermanns also had a summer house in fashionable Wannsee district – not far from another Jewish-owned villa where the infamous Final Solution conference took place some years later. When he saw from his window the Nazi march of victory, he commented: “I cannot eat as much as I would like to vomit.”
In the first year of the Nazi era, he resigned from the presidency of the Prussian Arts Academy to protest the academy’s decision not to exhibit works by Jewish artists. None of the members of the Academy showed any interest or sympathy. He lived to see the first measures taken against Jews by the new regime, but passed away before it enacted the Nuremberg laws, and while many Germans still believed the Nazis were a passing phase.
Liebermann was indeed a lucky man. Before he died, he wrote the then-mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengof: “with much sorrow, I realize that I woke up from the dream of assimilation to a nightmare.”
His surviving wife was not that lucky. In the seventh year of the Nazi era, she was forced to sell the Wannsee villa to a German Aryan. In the twelfth year, at age 85 and incapacitated by a stroke, she was told that the police would come and deport her to the Terezinstat concentration camp. They came in the afternoon with a stretcher to carry her out. Despite her weakness, she managed to commit suicide by swallowing barbiturates before they dumped her on the stretcher. Her last words were: “If I cannot live in Germany, at least I can die here.”
THE NAZI era is certainly more relevant to mankind than any other. This was the era in which the word “not” was struck off the commandment “thou shall not kill.” And, therefore, it divides human history into “before” and “after” more significantly than any other time. To Jews, this division is especially relevant: the Holocaust was not like a road accident, but a culmination of stages of hatred, persecution and brutality. To be a Jew after the Holocaust is different from the days preceding the Nazi era. True, Jews were not the only victims of the murderous Nazi offensive: millions of non-Jews – including Germans – were also killed. But all Jews were by definition sentenced to die because of their birth. And in this they were alone.
And there is another important distinction: for Jews, the stepping stones of the Nazi era were not confined to the horrific events of World War II, but extended to events which took place before and after the war.
From a Jewish point of view, Evian is a name as relevant as Auschwitz. In July 1938, President Roosevelt convened an international conference in Evian-les-Bains to deal with the plight of “refugees” – the word Jewish was not mentioned in the invitation. The conference ended with a flat refusal to give shelter to these refugees from Germany and Austria. These people belonged to the elite of Europe and would have enriched the arts, industry and science of any host country. They were refused shelter only because of their Jewishness.
Europe at the time was full of homeless refugees, but only the Jewish displaced persons had no home to go to. When they went back to their former home countries, they found them Jew-less and infested by the same old hatred, culminating in pogroms in a few cases. Great Britain closed the gates of Palestine to these refugees, thus preventing them from joining the Jewish Yishuv – the only community ready to give them shelter. And one cannot forget the circles in the pre-reconciliation Vatican, which encouraged Catholic monasteries not to return Jewish children – who were sheltered there during the war – to their families. There were many such cases, and we shall never know how many children were not claimed back because all their relatives had perished. The most notorious case was the refusal of a French monastery to hand over the two Pinelli brothers to their Jewish relatives. It took a long time for the relatives to get custody of the two orphans. Only in July 1953 – the 20th year of the Nazi era – were the brothers allowed to join their cousins in Israel.
These stepping stones – Evian, Auschwitz, the Pinelli brothers – explain why, for Jews, the Nazi era is more significant than any other.
The writer is a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, a former minister of education and Knesset member, as well as the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.
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