The Plight of the Jewish People – Historical Perspectives

By Dr. Rosarii Griffin

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Introduction

This year is the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of the Jewish survivors of the German camp in Nazi-occupied Poland: Auschwitz and Birkenau amongst others. That was a horrific aspect of history that the world should never forget.  When in my teens, I had read a number of books based on World War I and II. I found World War Two (1939-1945) more interesting. Incredibly, following World War I (1914-18, dubbed ‘The Great War’) no one could believe that the world would witness another world war so soon, but ironically, WW2 broke out less than 20 years later. The seeds of WW2 were to be found in the ‘settlement’ of WWI – in the famous ‘Treaty of Versailles’. This Treaty punished Germany by charging enormous reparation damages for WWI, and annexed part of the Rhine Valley area, ensuring most coal and steel production benefitted France and other countries. Hence, the seeds of German resentment were set, which became the catalyst for World War II.

The Rise of Populism

In the 1930s, Hitler rose to power though populism, not unlike the populism we are witnessing today. Populism arises because of depression, and a division of the classes between those who have and those who have not. Those who are down on their luck blame ‘others’ for their misfortune. People revert to protectionist policies and countries become nationalistic. Hitler’s rise came at an opportune time, and his populist message was well received. His SS army brutalised many minority groups, whilst ordinary Germans turned a blind eye.

Hitler and the Jews

One of Hitler’s main grudges was reserved for the Jewish people. Hitler, when he was younger, wanted to be an artist, but failed to achieve his ambition in Vienna, where the Jewish people formed part of the powerful wealthy elite class, though they were a minority group. He blamed them - vowing to punish them along with other non-Arian ethnic minority groups - for his and the German peoples’ misfortunes. The Jewish people traditionally kept the wealth within their own circles. This created resentment amongst the middle and lower classes, making this minority group an easy target for anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Hitler’s Ambitions

Soon, with the impact of the recession and depression and the German anger that following WWI, the prospect of WWII grew, and with it, Hitler’s rise to power. Hitler wrote his Treatise, called ‘Mein Kampf’. This was his little red book of revenge and hate. Ironically, this little publication was to mark the beginning of the end of the Jewish people and their place in Europe. Between 1939 and 1945, Hitler managed to exterminate, through gross, violent and murderous means, the majority of European Jewish community through his ‘final solution’. This effectively was his master plan for the extermination of the Jewish people. In that period, now referred to as ‘the Holocaust’, 2 million Jews were shot by the SS army, while 4 million Jews (including 1.5 million Jewish children, and other minority groups), were murdered in gas chambers. This was to become the largest mass ethnic-cleansing and genocide known to mankind, which virtually wiped out the entire European Jewish people, leaving just 1% survivors.

Disbelief and Shock

When the news filtered out about the Concentration Camps in Poland or Germany, nobody could actually believe it was true. These concentration camps included: Auschwitz and Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno and Gross-Rosen in Poland; Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Flossenburg camps in Germany. The truth about these camps seemed to be exaggerated, too vile, too unreal to be true. But unfortunately, as news reports, photographs and footage, filtered out through spies, allied soldiers, survivor stories, and through witnesses’ accounts, regrettably, it was indeed all true. By this time, it was already too late for the majority of the Jewish community, most noble and notable amongst them - the innocent Anne Frank and her beautiful and beleaguered Jewish family.

Prejudice and Self-Preservation

Hitler fed off of the prejudice and ignorance of the masses. He pointed the finger of blame for all of Austria and Germany’s woes at the Jews who were comparatively wealthy, protected against the worst effects of the depression due to their business acumen. Their ethnic differences became a source of ridicule and hatred amongst the people. This laid the ground for Hitler’s cunning plans. First of all, he introduced laws restricting Jews undertaking certain business activities, then he restricted their movements, and finally, they had to identify themselves by wearing the ‘Star of David’ badge on their coats. The SS encouraged hate acts against the Jews, and fed off the frenzy of the populace. And so, by World War II’s end, through the careful application of ‘the final solution’, the Jewish population was almost extinguished.

The American Jewish Community

Many Jews escaped the perils of World War II, finding refuge in America - the land of the free, where religious tolerance was then a feature of the American landscape. Some famous Jewish refugees include Albert Einstein, probably the best scientist of the 20th Century. His genius was recognised, nurtured, and his achievements reached such heights in the USA, that he will surely go down as one of the greatest scientists of all time. And, there were many more Jewish refugees like Einstein, who excelled in their respective professions. For instance, 22% of all Nobel prize winners are Jewish (comprising 0.2% of the world’s population). Now that is some statistic to behold!

The NY Jewish Community

The Jewish Community in New York are known to be quite a powerful lobby group. The Clinton’s courted this group to secure votes and campaign funding. Typically, the Jewish lobby group voted Democrat. When I worked in NY as a student on a J1 Visa, it was said at the time, ‘once there was a Jewish Holiday, NY effectively shuts down’. Most of the big businesses in NY are run by the Jewish community.

NY Jewish Dentist

As a summer student in NY, I was employed by a NY dentist who appeared to be at the top of his game, mostly through hard work. He left his Long Island home at 6am to begin work in Manhattan at 7am. He had many powerful clients who required early morning or evening dental appointments. Dr Steinburg always obliged. He worked long days. Some days, he didn’t even stop to eat. I used to press him to have lunch, reprimanding him severely (with my Irish brogue): ‘if I were your patient about to get an injection, knowing you didn’t have lunch, I would object’ I would say harshly to him. He would smile and allow me bring back a sandwich for him. Ordinarily he would have a tuna sandwich with tomato but no onion, so as not to upset his elite clientele with bad breath.

The Jewish Work Ethic

I thoroughly enjoyed working for Dr Steinburg. I noticed all of his patients were Jewish, and were very successful in their own sphere: media, medical, business or financial world. I noticed how this close-knit community supported each other. Dr Steinburg read the latest journals in dentistry, attended professional development courses, learning new techniques, tips or advances in his profession. I was impressed by his singular dedication to dentistry. I didn’t think there could be any dental update that he wasn’t aware of, given his dedication. Before I left, he kindly offered to train me to become a dentist, potentially becoming a full partner in his dental practice. While I very much appreciated his generous offer, I really wanted to return home to Ireland and continue with my UCC studies. So, it was with some regret I turned down his very kind offer.

Jewish Community

In my experience, the NY Jewish community seemed affable, very willing to share their knowledge, expertise, advice, are clever and are extremely hard working. In America, they learnt the rules of the game to realise their American Dream: work hard, learn continuously, grow into expertise, and succeed. The Jewish community always seem to support each other. They know when and where to spend their hard won earnings. To me, the Jewish are a community of makers, of doers, of learners and of net contributors, neither are they a community of mindless consumers. Not at least unless they know that their final investment will exceed the initial net contribution!

Jewish Friends

I once asked a Jewish friend ‘why are the Jewish people like cream, they always rise to the top of their game?’ ‘The Jewish people, he replied, have had a difficult and chequered history. They are resilient and developed all kinds of survival mechanisms for withstanding difficult circumstances.’ But, he said, they understand what matters most is knowledge. Throughout history, the Jews often had to leave their homes, livelihoods and wealth behind, but they could always carry their knowledge, skills and abilities with them wherever they went, especially if they had to begin again. As an educationalist, that explanation was good enough for me, and summed up the Jewish recipe for success. I think we could all learn something from it.

Conclusion

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps, located just outside Krakow. It was a very moving experience. I remember visiting the sleeping quarters, the gas chambers and the gas ovens. I remember looking at the stacks of suitcases and shoes. It must have been horrific, especially for the mothers and children. Such evil. There was an eerie silence as we walked around. The tour guide recounted the horrors of this death camp, and I could visualise what I had read in Anne Frank’s Diary, amongst other such books. A silence befell the group, each person deep in contemplation of the horrors of war. We could see the train tracks from whence the innocent travellers arrived, not knowing what lay before them as they walked through the gates that read ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘works sets you free’) - a sad irony. As this year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of these camps, it is important not to forget our collective European history so as never to allow such atrocities to happen again. We must remember the lessons of history, so as not to repeat them. And most importantly, we must always uphold the dignity of the human person, irrespective of race, ethnicity, colour or creed. That is the lesson the holocaust teaches us.

Profile: Dr Rosarii Griffin is a Lecturer and Researcher at UCC, and lives in Midleton. She presents ‘The Perspectives Show’ on CRY104fm Wednesdays, 6.30-7.30pm. Rosarii is also a Fellow of the London Royal Society of Arts. All views expressed are her own. Email Rosarii on info@eastcorkjournal.ie or @rosarii_griffin. Copyright Rosarii Griffin.

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