"The people who took in these children did so, because they thought it was the right thing to do. And we can only admire them for doing so. But that doesn't mean that they had any love or affection for these children in their hearts."
Deborah Dwork is Rose Professor of Holocaust History at Clark University in Massachusetts. She is the founding director of the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and is the author of several books including Children With A Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe, which examines the experience of Jewish children during the Holocaust.
ROTH: I think this remains one of the deepest and most difficult heart-wrenching questions that the Holocaust or any genocide raises. Well, we know, of course, that they not only can but they do.
There was education, there was teaching that taught that Jews are not really human beings, that they are a threat, that they must be done away with to defend the purity of the German people. Much of this killing actually took place in wartime situations.
War has a way of affecting people in ways that brutalize. I think there was also a factor of peer pressure. If you were the only person who didn't do certain things in your unit, this might cause problems for you. I think there was also some element of fear as to what would happen if you didn't do what was expected or what was ordered.
All of these things still leave open why any particular individual does something. I think at the end of the day, we would be misled if we failed to underscore that every person still has a choice to make—and we know that there were at least a few cases for a while where, confronted with the order to kill children, the people who received those orders did not do what was ordered.
DWORK: Let me walk you through the selection process in the company of a Jewish family in the Lodz Ghetto.
They've been incarcerated in this ghetto for the whole of the five years, from 1939 until August 1944, when the Germans liquidated the ghetto. Sara Grossman-Weil and her husband Menek, her mother-in-law, her father-in-law, her sister-in-law Esther, Esther's two children, a little one, Mirka, and a teenage girl, Regina-all of them were traveling together on this cattle car from Lodz to Auschwitz.
The train stopped at Auschwitz. The doors opened, and the Jews were hauled from the trains, with screaming and shouting and dogs barking—a nightmarish situation in which people who already were dazed and confused could not comprehend what they faced.
The men were separated from the women.
Then, from Sara Grossman's point of view, she got out of the train with her mother-in-law, her sister, her sister-in-law Esther, Regina, and Meerka [above and below spelled Mirka] and were formed into a column of five.
A Jewish slave laborer working on the ramp slipped up to them and whispered, "Give the child to the grandmother." Esther gave her little girl, Mirka, to the grandmother. The grandmother and the little one went to the left, to the gas chambers. Regina, Esther, and Sara were joined by two other women and in a column of five entered the camp.
The littlest one and the oldest one, the ones who could not work, were sent off to be murdered immediately, while the teenaged girl, her mother, and her aunt, who could work, were admitted into the camp. This was no guarantee of survival. It just meant that they were physically alive for another few hours, for another day.
DWORK: It is very important to remember that Jewish children who went through the experience of the Holocaust should not be seen as damaged, psychological goods. Nearly all of them went on to lead creative and productive lives, married, had children, had professions and occupations, were functioning members of society. At the same time, they carried their own special historical burden with them.
So, for example, let us go to France and a girl named Eugenie Poretzky, who lived with her family in a small little town in the Auvergne. She was safe. She was frightened every day. And she was especially frightened of all kinds of bureaucratic processes. 'What did policies mean?' Policies meant trouble. 'What did gendarme or police mean?' They meant trouble.
When the war was over and the family moved back to Paris she was supposed to resume her studies. But to resume her studies meant dealing with all kinds of bureaucrats and officials and, for example, being at her exams on time. She reported, "I just couldn't manage it. I somehow wouldn't find my way. I would go too early or too late. I just was allergic to it." She ended up a mother, an artist, having a loving life—but her life had been shaped and some might say warped by her experiences.