Category Archives: Holocaust Remembrance

‘Indifference to Injustice is the Gate to Hell’

‘Memorial to the Victims of the Injustice of the Holocaust’, 1990. Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2010_Appellate_courhouse_Holocaust_Memorial.jpg

On the façade of the New York Appellate Division, First Department Courthouse in Manhattan, there is a Holocaust memorial sculpture carved into a column of Carrara marble, a representation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, based in part on an aerial photograph taken by the 15th Air Force, United States Army Air Forces. I discovered it quite by accident, on one of my usual long strolls in the city, often ending by stopping at a park to jot down my thoughts. The park in this instance was Madison Square Park, a green expanse popular with locals enjoying an al fresco lunch, as well as with tourists taking snaps of the nearby Flatiron Building.

‘Memorial to Victims of the Injustice of the Holocaust’, a sculpture by New York artist Harriet Feigenbaum on the Madison Avenue side of the courthouse at E. 25th Street, was installed in 1990. The artist worked from ‘photographs of the death houses and a rendering of the main camp at Auschwitz in Poland, drawn by a prison inmate in 1944’, she told the New York Times in 1988. The piece had the impact on me probably intended by makers of public art: I was startled, then riveted, then overcome. I visited the sculpture many times afterward, a regular feature of my walks, a pilgrimage to honor the memory of the dead as well as those who sacrificed their lives to stop the genocide.

The Holocaust was ‘the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jewish men, women and children by the Nazi regime and its collaborators’[1], as well as ‘at least five million prisoners of war, Romany, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and other victims’.[2] Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp, was liberated by Soviet troops on 27 January 1945, commemorated in the UK and Europe as Holocaust Memorial Day. Over a million people[3] were murdered there, the vast majority Jews who had been deported from countries all over Europe in furtherance of the Nazis’ ‘final solution’ to annihilate the Jewish population.

Auschwitz was only one of a network of 44,000 concentration, forced labor and death camps and other incarceration sites in the Nazi-occupied countries. Dachau was the first such camp, opened in Germany in 1933 to intern political prisoners. It ‘served as a model for all later concentration camps and as a “school of violence” for the SS men under whose command it stood.’ [4] Over a twelve-year period, the camp imprisoned political opponents of the Nazi regime, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, ‘asocials’ and repeat criminal offenders.[5] The prisoners were used for forced labour. German doctors performed medical experiments on others. Over 200,000 people were detained there; of those, at least 28,000 died. American forces liberated the camp on 29 April 1945. ‘As Allied units approached, at least 25,000 prisoners from the Dachau camp system were force marched south or transported away from the camps in freight trains. During these so-called death marches, the Germans shot anyone who could no longer continue; many also died of starvation, hypothermia, or exhaustion. … In early May 1945, American forces liberated the prisoners who had been sent on the death march.’[6]

Photograph of the Dachau Concentration Camp circa May 1945, taken by the author’s father, Flight Officer Eugene L. Solomon. On the reverse, he wrote: ‘moat, barbed wire, high tension wire, living quarters.’

In October’s post for this blog, I wrote about my father’s service as a Jewish B-17 pilot with the 384th Bomb Group, stationed at Grafton Underwood. In a 2006 family interview, he described a mission in May of 1945, when he and his crew flew to an air station outside Munich to pick up supplies ‘destined for Dachau concentration camp.’ They then drove to the camp. When they went through the gates, they saw these ‘thousand men in striped uniforms.’ They were ‘walking bones – their eyes were sunk into their heads, and they would look at you and … mumble and try to talk. We were just stunned … looking at these people that are literally walking dead.’ He went into the commanding officer’s office and found in his desk ‘a series of little insignias. One was a gas mask.’ The crew walked through the gas chamber and saw ‘pipes with the false spray heads.’

As you walked in there were tons of shoes and clothing and all and you would see piles of adult shoes and piles of children’s shoes … when you came out the other end, you walked into the crematorium—there were three crematoriums there. There was a table there with a grinder, so if any of the bones weren’t completely demolished, they would put them into that grinder and grind them up and there was a basket there to catch it. And then they would take all of the ashes and bring it in the back. There was a huge field back there where for several years they were dumping ashes. … You’re twenty years old and you see that, it really shakes you up. And you don’t know what to say to the people. You don’t speak their language … You go through the barracks where they had nothing but a flat board where like nine people would sleep, and then there would be another deck and another deck, and they would crowd them in there. … There were thousands of US troops in there, and they brought food in. … We brought an airplane full of supplies. … There were men, there were women, there were Jews, there were Gentiles, there were gypsies. There were all kinds of people. [My mother asks, off camera: ‘Children’?] ‘Oh, yeah, there were children. … It was a terrifying sight.

It’s not hard to conclude that what my father and his crew witnessed, the horrific aftermath of unspeakable acts, was in fact, as the Holocaust memorial sculptor back in Manhattan saw it, ‘the gate to hell.’ If it was evil that conceived of and created this hell, it was indifference that facilitated it, and all the genocides afterward.

Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust and the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution of other groups and in genocides that followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. The theme for this year’s remembrance is ‘One Day’. As Holocaust survivor Iby Knill said: ‘You didn’t think about yesterday, and tomorrow may not happen, it was only today that you had to cope with and you got through it as best you could.’ 

You can find resources on genocide and the Holocaust at the American Library and check out e-books in our collection here. The Imperial War Museum’s Second World War and Holocaust Partnership Programme collaborated with writers to create an online exhibit, One Story, Many Voices, featuring the accounts of survivors. Other resources are available on the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website.

–post by Suzanne Solomon


[1] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/documenting-numbers-of-victims-of-the-holocaust-and-nazi-persecution.

[2] The National WWII Museum https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/holocaust.

[3] USHMM https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/auschwitz.

[4] Dachau Memorial site https://www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de/en/.

[5] USHMM https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/dachau

[6] USHMM https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/dachau.

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Filed under American History, Holocaust Remembrance, World War 2

Holocaust Remembrance

Today is a very important day and requires special attention in today’s fraught interpersonal climate. In order to do justice to the memory of those victims of the Holocaust I want to share another personal anecdote shared with me by a veteran of WW2.

My older friend, whose name I will withhold for the sake of his family’s privacy, was a scout for the 6th Armored Division of Patton’s 3rd Army. Being a scout meant he was often far from the front lines and was thereby the first to see many things which we know about now. One such thing was the concentration camp of Buchenwald. Now for those who may not know Buchenwald was one of the few places where the prisoners, hearing about the end of the war nearing and seeing the increased cruelty and efforts at extermination, managed to seize control. It was this scene of violence, deprivation, and horror that my friend was the first American soldier to witness.

Discussing his time in the army with him over the course of several unofficial interviews only once was he able to bring himself to talk about what he found or the impact it had on him. One thing that sticks out so sharply to me is the total lack of preparation he and his crew had for this discovery. While upper echelons of the military had at the very least heard rumors of work and death camps, especially as the Soviets had already liberated Auschwitz by this point, the rank and file servicemen were left in the dark. It was this that lead to the total shock experienced upon the discovery and the inability of many first responders to render appropriate aid.

Now while meeting a man who was one of the first American soldiers to see these horrors first hand is amazing enough his story does not end there. Those of you who may have read Night by Elie Weisel (if you haven’t I highly recommend it as a brilliant and unblinking account of the jewish experience in camps during the holocaust) know that the book finishes with the arrival of American tanks at the fences of Buchenwald the same day the prisoners overthrew the SS. It is, in fact, my friend and his crew who are mentioned.

Many years later my friend went to a reading by Elie Weisel, by then a celebrity and also a target for those who would continue to blame the Jewish people for WW2. After the reading he attempted to go and speak with Mr. Weisel and was stopped by security; however, Weisel recognized him, even after the span of roughly 30 years, and told his security that this man was welcome anywhere he was because of the lives he saved, his own among them.

I find myself immensely privileged to have known such a man who had such a lasting impact on the world. Whether he was just doing his duty as he frequently asserted or if he had a higher calling to humanity I will always call him a hero and a true witness to events which must never be forgotten. So, on this day, I want to call attention to the millions of victims, both alive and dead, of one of the greatest tragedies to befall humankind and to those who fought, and still fight tirelessly, against those who would seek to recreate history.

Thank you for reading and remembering.

 

-Mike

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Filed under American History, Holocaust Remembrance, Uncategorized, World War 2