Auschwitz Untold: In Colour – More4


On the day I visited Auschwitz, the sky was bright blue.  The red brick of the gas chamber chimney stood out against it, and it was quite striking.  That felt wrong, somehow, as if the sky should have been full of black clouds.  I wasn’t sure that colourising footage of the Holocaust – and, despite the title of the programme, this wasn’t only about Auschwitz, but also about many other aspects of the Holocaust, including the Einsatzgruppen massacres, the ghettoes and the destruction of centuries of culture – would work, but it did.  It also included interviews with sixteen survivors, including a female Jewish resistance fighter who escaped from the Vilnius Ghetto, and a Romani man who spoke about the decimation of his community in France.

A considerable number of TV programmes are being shown to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  The BBC are showing “The Windermere Children” tonight, as well as coverage of the actual Holocaust Remembrance Day service in London, and there’s a programme on tomorrow about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.  Several Holocaust-related films have also been shown, and special episodes of both Holby City and Songs of Praise have been made.  The specialist history channels have also shown Holocaust-related programmes; and More 4 brought us this, the first in a two-part series.  It’s harrowing stuff, but most people seem to agree that the 75th anniversary needs to be marked on a significant scale, whilst there are still survivors with us to tell their stories first-hand.

I’m not sure what I make of the idea that a younger audience won’t be able to “get” the full horror of the Holocaust unless the footage is in colour, but there’s no denying that colour adds something to historic photographs and film, as with Edwardian Britain in Colour and some of the First World War footage which has been colourised.

I thought the inclusion of footage from several different parts of Europe worked very well, in getting across the scope of what happened. One of the first people interviewed spoke about his childhood in a shtetl in the Carpathians. The deportation of people to ghettoes can create an impression that the Holocaust was all about the destruction of urban populations: the word “shtetl” usually creates a picture of an earlier time.  There had been a lot of emigration from the shtetls to Western countries, or to Budapest, Warsaw, Moscow and other cities, but it was the Holocaust that destroyed that way of life, not urbanisation and not the pogroms.

Another survivor spoke about Lithuania – and a point was made about the armed resistance in the ghettoes. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is familiar, but armed resistance in Vilnius, Krakow, Minsk, Bialystok and Krakow was also mentioned. We were reminded of the Einsatzgruppen massacres – including some very harrowing footage, now colourised, of a mass grave. I know I’m always saying this, but there can be a tendency to focus on the concentration camps at the expense of the massacres carried out in so many places. The people of the Vilnius ghetto were shot outside Vilnius, not deported to Auschwitz.  It was fascinating to hear this lady, who’d been a teenage girl when she escaped from the ghetto, the day before it was liquidated, talk about her experiences as a resistance fighter.  There’s a film about Jewish resistance fighters, Defiance, but it’s not particularly good.  Maybe someone could make a better one.

We also saw pictures of Jewish life in Vilnius before the war. It was such an important cultural centre: the term “Lithuanian Jews” is still used to describe religious people who emphasise the important of studying. About 13% population of Lithuania was Jewish at one time, the highest in the world, and – depending on which books you read! – 50%, 65% or even 75% of the population of Vilnius itself was Jewish. There’s very little left of that culture now. As the programme said, the Nazis aimed to destroy so much historic culture. We were shown colourised footage of Kristallnacht and, 5 years earlier, the book-burnings- the flames colourised in bright orange. They burned books. Then they burned buildings. Then they burned people.

It’s a shame, really, that the title of the programme didn’t make it clear how much this was going to include.  We saw footage of huge German tanks rolling into Poland … and the Polish Army riding out to meet them on horseback, as if it were the Napoleonic Wars.  They didn’t stand a chance.  We also saw a lot of footage of the Lodz ghetto. Lodz, the textile city, the “Polski Manchester”. Dead bodies lying on the ground. Nooses in a row, ahead of a mass public hanging. And hundreds of small children, 4,000 in all, being marched off for deportation to Chelmno, to be gassed to death … the test runs for Auschwitz. Little kids. One survivor, who’d been living in Amsterdam before the war, spoke about how, after his political activist Jewish father was arrested, the Nazis came into his primary school to arrest him. He was 5 years old. His teacher tried to tell them that he was off sick, but they got him anyway. 5 years old.

The shtetls were an Eastern European thing: in Central and Western Europe, it was more of a destruction of an urban population. And such an essential part of every country – in Germany, in Austria, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, everywhere. Think Einstein, Freud, Mahler and, hey, Franz Sacher, the man who created Sachertorte. Budapest even used to be nicknamed “Judapest”. The programme – the title really didn’t explain just how much it encompassed – went back to the time just after the First World War, and explained how Jews were made a scapegoat for defeat, as if they’d been working again their own countries, the countries to which they belonged. It talked about Germany: it could also have talked about Hungary. And then there was everything that went on in the “Ukrainian People’s Republic”.

The programme made the point about what utter rubbish this was.  Two of the survivors spoke about how their fathers had fought in the First World War, one for Germany, one for Austria-Hungary, and how they’d both been decorated. They spoke about the number of Iron Crosses awarded to German-Jewish soldiers. With the shtetls, I think identity tended to be religious. Not just with Jews – in Austrian Galicia, before the First World War, Ukranians seem generally to have identified as “Orthodox” rather than as “Ukrainian” or “Ruthenian”, at least until the late 19th century. But, elsewhere, identity was national, not religious.  And then, as one survivor, deported from Budapest said, thousands of people were marched along the main streets into the ghetto, and other people passed by and didn’t even look at them.

People would have been too scared to do anything.  And there were people who tried to help.  The BBC spoke to a German woman who, as a young girl, along with her mother, provided shelter to a Jewish woman – and they also spoke to the British descendants of the woman they saved.   And, just as an aside, Songs of Praise spoke about the vital work done by British Quakers in organising the Kindertransport. But still.

One of the survivors was a French Romani man, who made it quite clear that it was officials from the Vichy government who arrested and took away most of his relatives and other members of his community.  I’m so glad (if that’s the right word) that the programme included the Romani Holocaust, because it’s not given as much attention as it should be.  We saw pictures of some of the camps in which Romani people were imprisoned – and, of course, many Roma and Sinti people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It also covered the horrible irony of Jews taken to forced labour camps having to build the railway lines which would later be used to help the Nazis to deport people to the death camps, and also to invade the Soviet Union.  Most of those alive now were children at the time.  One lady spoke about clinging to her mother’s hand as they were marched away in Budapest.  One man spoke about how he associated the word “camp” with tents and jolly outdoor eating – until he got to a forced labour camp, where he had to help to build railways, and many of those working alongside threw themselves in front of trains because they couldn’t take it any more.  One lady spoke about asking, shortly after arrival at Auschwitz, when she’d be able to see her mother – and being told that her mother had been gassed to death.  Another spoke about her father putting his hand on her head in blessing, the last time she ever saw him

The juxtaposition of the testimony of the survivors and the colourised footage worked very well.  It doesn’t always work when you’ve got a bit of film and then a bit of talking, and then a bit more film and then a bit more talking, but it did in this case.  It really was a very interesting hour’s TV.  My only quibble is that the title of the programme didn’t show just how much it encompassed – they made a big effort to include aspects of the Holocaust which are not always discussed.  Well done, More4.  This was excellent.


1944: Should We Bomb Auschwitz? – BBC 2


Another Second World War programme, this one about the very difficult question of whether, having learnt about the atrocities taking place at Auschwitz-Birkenau from two incredibly brave men who managed to escape, the Allies should have tried to destroy the gas chambers by bombing the site. Those in favour felt that doing so might save the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews whom the Nazis were planning to exterminate, and also that it would make a strong moral point. Of those opposed, some were concerned about the risk of killing tens of thousands of prisoners in the process, whilst others, the majority, felt that it was more important to concentrate on winning the war.  There are no easy answers, but this programme asked a lot of important questions.

It was presented as a docu-drama. I think that that format does work better than the rather dry format of a professor sitting behind a dusty old desk, but it did feel quite strange to see something as horrific as the two escapees describing their experiences at Auschwitz being shown as a “drama”. One of them was played by David Moorst from Peterloo … and I know that this sounds daft, but hearing all these horrors described, as if by an eye-witness, in a Lancashire accent, really hit me particularly hard. What courageous men Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, the two Slovakian Jews who, in April 1944, somehow managed to escape from Auschwitz and make it from Nazi-occupied Poland into the Slovak Republic, a Nazi client state, were. Why are their names not better-known?  We should all know those names.  And how courageous also were the people working for the Jewish underground in the Slovak Republic and elsewhere.  Before going to Budapest earlier this year, I read a lot about their work in Hungary.  Incredible.

One of the underground leaders interrogated them about what was going on – and we’re talking a real inquisition. How horrific for them to be grilled like that, after everything they’d been through already, but obviously they had to make sure that the report was convincing, and that people wouldn’t just dismiss it as some kind of propaganda or even fantasy … because it was so far outside the scope of human experience that people were going to struggle even to begin to take it in.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of what the Nazis had done. I honestly don’t know whether someone – a family member, or maybe even a teacher – told me, or I read about it, or I just somehow gradually absorbed it as little kids do.  But I feel that I’ve always known about it, and that everyone around me has always known about it.  It’s hard to try to comprehend how people in 1944 and 1945 felt when they found out what was going on, because this was something new to history. Mass shootings, prison camps – people knew about these, both in the context of the Second World War and in the context of previous dark periods in history.  But to find out about these extermination camps, about the industrial killings of thousands of people a day – how did they process that information?  And that was why the report had to be so detailed, and to be factual rather than emotive.  People would struggle to believe it otherwise.

The first report, the Auschwitz Protocol, was prepared by the end of April 1944, and a copy of it was somehow transferred to the American-run War Refugee Council in Switzerland. I’m not quite clear on what was going on with post coming out of Switzerland at this time, but apparently they couldn’t get the full report out, so an edited version was distributed – but it said more than enough.

The rest of the programme alternated between what was going on with the report and what was happening to the Hungarian Jews, which worked very well: it really got across the message of what was going on. I visited the Budapest Ghetto only a few months ago, and I read quite a few books about it beforehand, but actually seeing the deportations on film – there was a lot of film, from both Hungary and from Auschwitz – was really horrible . And there were interviews with survivors. They genuinely had no idea what they were going to. They smelt a strange smell when they arrived at Auschwitz, but thought it was some sort of industrial process, or even a bakery. They were separated from other family members on arrival, but just assumed they’d been sent to a different barracks: it was only later that they realised that they’d been murdered.

Meanwhile, the British, other Commonwealth and American forces were preparing for the D-Day landings, the Americans were also advancing on Japan, and the Soviets were advancing through Eastern Europe.  Everything was happening at once.

The report reached Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, in London. It also reached the War Refugee Board in Washington. The people at the Swiss end were urging the Allied authorities to bomb Auschwitz, or to bomb the railway lines which led to it: they were in no doubt that this was what had to be done. In London, Eden called in Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Shertok.   Weizmann, the future first president of Israel, was born in what’s now Belarus but lived in Manchester for decades and was very involved with the “Manchester School of Zionists”, whose other members were mostly old girls of my old school and old boys of our “brother” school (sorry, I do know that that’s irrelevant), and is a very familiar name … well, to me, anyway.  Shertok, later the second prime minister of Israel, had spent most of his life in what was then Palestine.  It’s quite interesting that Eden called in Jewish Agency/Zionist leaders.  Somehow, I would have expected the Foreign Office to call in someone more from the Anglo-Jewish Establishment. I don’t know why.  Anyway, that’s beside the point.

They were in favour of bombing Auschwitz.  Although it’s all a bit confusing and a lot of changing of minds seems to have gone at various points, it seems that so was Eden, and so, when the report was passed to him, was Churchill.  We were shown some of Churchill’s letters: it was clear how deeply, deeply shocked, distressed and traumatised he was by the news. It does seem that there were some people at Westminster who dismissed the report as some sort of attempt to try to guilt-trip Britain into letting refugees in, but Churchill and Eden were certainly not amongst them.

The Allies did have pictures of the Auschwitz-Birkenau. The airmen who’d taken them could have had no idea what they were photographing, presumably thinking it was an industrial site, but, putting them together with the drawings made by Vrba and Wetzler, it was pretty clear where the gas chambers were. But obviously there was no sort of precision bombing then, and any sort of air raids would probably have killed many or all of the prisoners. Forty prisoners were killed when Allied bombs aimed at a nearby factory hit the site in the September.

However, no-one seems to have been willing or able to make a decision, even over something so big and even when so many big decisions were being made about so many things. British and American Air Force leaders were consulted, and the commander of the US Air Forces in Europe seems to have supported the idea. The British Air Ministry seems to have argued against it, because of “operational reasons”, but it’s not clear whether this meant in terms of actually being able to hit the site or concerns about killing prisoners or anything else. It’s all very vague and very unclear.

Over in Washington, nobody even told Roosevelt. I find that really weird. OK, you can’t bother the president with everything, but this was pretty big, to say the least. And, yes, he was in poor health – but then why not tell the vice-president, or the Secretary of State? It doesn’t seem to have got much past some fairly junior minister at the War Office. Someone must have told Roosevelt at some point, but we don’t seem to know when. And yet the news was getting out – there were rumours flying about.  In fact, the news had spread sufficiently for a huge demonstration to be held in Madison Square Garden, in August 1944.

The full text of the report eventually reached the US, and presumably Britain as well. In Washington, the War Refugee Board was definitely in favour of bombing, but the War Department wasn’t. And, in London, Weizmann was told that bomb attacks on Auschwitz weren’t possible. Frustrated at the lack of action, the War Refugee Board linked the report to the press. The word “Genocide” appeared emblazoned across the front page of the New York Times.

Nothing was done.

As we know, Auschwitz-Birkenau was eventually liberated by the Soviets on 27th January 1945.

About 140,000 Hungarian Jews survived. The Soviets liberated around 6,000 people at the camp, although some of them were too ill for their lives to be saved. 15,000 others, maybe more, died whilst being marched away from the camps as the Nazis tried to cover up what had been going on. Some were transferred to other camps, and were liberated there.

The BBC interviewed a number of prominent Holocaust historians, including Deborah Lipstadt. Most of them seemed to feel that the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz-Birkenau – but not so much because it would have done any good as because it would have sent a message to the Nazis, and to history, that what they were doing was morally unacceptable – to put it ridiculously mildly.

I don’t know. I can certainly see the argument that bombing the camp would have killed tens of thousands of innocent people. I don’t know that it would have done much good anyway – there were other death camps, and the Nazis had other ways of killing people. But not on that scale, though? Could bombing Auschwitz-Birkenau have saved tens, even hundreds, of thousands of lives?

And I don’t claim to be a military expert, but, if there were air raids being made close enough to the site for it to be hit by accident, and given the scale of the bombing on Germany and elsewhere at the time, how much could it have affected the war effort if a number of raids had been made on Auschwitz rather than on other targets? But I am presumably missing something major, because the general verdict seems to be that the reason no action was taken was that it was considered more important to focus on winning the war. I can certainly see the argument that winning the war sooner rather than later would save lives.  And, whilst I hear the argument that bombing Auschwitz-Birkenau would have made a moral statement, it’s easy to talk about moral statements seventy-five years on, when you’re not trying to win a war that’s already been going on for five years.

There aren’t any easy answers, but I wish we knew what the answers that were reached actually were. The questions were asked. The issues were raised and discussed. It’s not as if it was a subject that just never arose. It was decided not to bomb Auschwitz: that’s the only answer we really have. I’m sure that the people who made that decision had very good reasons for it, and felt that it was the right choice. And talking about it now isn’t going to make any difference. But I want to know exactly what those reasons were, and which of them carried the most weight.  And, for all the discussion, and all the speculation, no-one can give me a definitive answer on that.  I really wish they could.

The Last Survivors – BBC 2


I’d have said that there was quite a lot of attention paid to the Holocaust; but recent surveys have shown that over 50% of German schoolchildren have never heard of Auschwitz, 20% of French people aged between 18 and 34 have never heard of the Holocaust, 41% of American adults aren’t sure what Auschwitz was, and 5% of British adults don’t believe that the Holocaust took place.  Hopefully this is ignorance, rather than some sinister political forces manipulating history for their own ends, but it’s very worrying.  Ignorance can easily facilitate manipulation, and is best answered by education – and it was a shame that the BBC, put this programme, showing the testimony of some of the few remaining survivors living in Britain, over on BBC 2 and head-to-head with The Voice and Les Miserables.  But at least the programme was made, and shown – on Holocaust Memorial Day.  On the same day, a Polish far-right group held a demonstration at Auschwitz, at the same time as the official commemorations were taking place.  And all forms of hate crime seem to be on the rise.

We’re supposed to learn from history, but something’s going badly wrong somewhere.

The people interviewed, now mostly in their late 80s, had been children at the time of the Holocaust.  Some had survived Auschwitz, others has survived other concentration camps.  Some had been old enough, or convinced the Nazis that they were old enough, to be used for forced labour, rather than being sent to the gas chambers.  Others had been at camps which weren’t actually extermination camps.  One of them, the well-known cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, had been saved from the gas chambers at Auschwitz at the last minute, when a chance remark about her musical studies had led to her being given a place in the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra, which had saved her life.  One way or another, they’d all somehow survived, and come to Britain.  You’d think that living through such horrific conditions would weaken your constitution, for lack of a less Victorian way of putting it, but these incredible people were all hale and hearty, and extremely eloquent.

It was very personal, and that worked really well.  Statistics and pictures and film reels are effective and hard-hitting, but listening to someone’s personal story gets a message across in a way that nothing else does.  The stories of loss – even more than their own horrific experiences, they were telling their stories of loss – of the ordinary families, ordinary communities, which had been destroyed, of the relatives and friends who’d been murdered.

One man had never been able to find out what had happened to his little brother.  He himself had been out as part of a forced labour gang, and, one day, when he returned to his barracks, his brother and three other little boys had disappeared.  He said that he knew they must have been murdered, but part of him had never quite stopped hoping that his brother was alive somewhere: you hear these occasional stories of miraculous reunions.  And there was the man with the school photo of his class in Prague, taken in 1942.  He’d made it his mission to find out what happened to all his classmates, and had labelled the photo with stickers – red for those killed in the Holocaust, blue for those who’d survived.  There were a lot more red stickers than blue stickers.

Another man had kept trying to draw his murdered mother and sister: he had no photos of them.  He’d managed to produce a likeness of his mother, but said that he couldn’t get his sister’s face down on paper, so he’d drawn an abstract picture as a representation of him.  A well-known sculptor said that most of his sculptures had the face of his murdered father.  His younger sister had died in a concentration camp, and their elder sister had had to take her body outside and leave it on a pile of other bodies: there was nothing else to be done.  And no justice to be sought.  A man remembered seeing the flames from the chimneys at Auschwitz and, having seen his mother being taken away to the gas chambers, wondering which flame was her.

Why would anyone think that people would make this up?  And what is thing in Poland about trying to make it into some sort of competition?  Yes, there is an issue in that not much has been written about some of the groups affected by the Holocaust – the Roma and Sinti communities, gay men, people with physical and mental disabilities, for example.  More research and greater awareness is badly needed.  And no-one is denying the fact that the Nazis murdered many Poles who were not Jewish.  But what’s going on in Poland has a lot to do with the manipulation and misrepresentation of history, and it just shows how frighteningly easy it is for things to reach that stage.  This demonstration only numbered around two hundred people, but … that’s still two hundred people.

Many of those interviewed, although not all, were the only survivors of their families, and had presumably also been separated from friends, neighbours, and anyone else from their childhoods.  Most of them had married British partners, and had children and grandchildren.  How does that work, when someone close to you has been through such horrific experiences, and you’ve lived an ordinary life?

The partners seemed to cope quite well.  Or maybe they just didn’t want to say much, being of the stiff upper lip generation.  But the children were obviously struggling.  One woman said that she’d felt resentful as a child, because her mother had been too focused on trying to rebuild her life.  Another woman got frustrated with her father, whilst they were actually visiting Auschwitz, because he wasn’t expressing his emotions and he kept saying that part of the reason he was anxious was just that he was bothered about missing the coach.  She obviously adored him, and she then got tearful and hugged him; but she was obviously finding it frustrating.

The children and grandchildren seemed keener on expressing emotions about what had happened.  The survivors themselves said that that was something they couldn’t do.

It was interesting that several of them were involved in the arts, either as professionals or as amateurs – could that be a way of letting emotion out?  Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was defiant, saying that she wasn’t going to let people see her spilling her emotions all over the place.  Another woman said that she didn’t dare to cry, because, once she started crying, she’d never be able to stop.  The man who went back to Auschwitz said that he was crying inside, all the time.

There certainly seemed to be a consensus that, afterwards, they’d focused on rebuilding their lives and moving forward.

And also that they hadn’t wanted to revisit the places of the past – until now.  There were three return journeys.  One was the visit to Auschwitz, with the man whose daughter wanted him to express his emotions more.  His young granddaughter also accompanied them.  One of the women said that she found it difficult to see adverts for sightseeing trips to Auschwitz – on the hotel noticeboard, along with adverts for sightseeing trips to the Wieliczka salt mines.  It’s a difficult one.  I suppose it has sort of become a tourist attraction, and I remember being quite shocked to see people taking photos of themselves and their travel companions there.  I did take some photos of the site, but I certainly didn’t want any photos there with myself in them, and the fact that anyone did made me quite uncomfortable.  But I think it’s a very educational experience, and I do think it has to be open for people to visit.  There was nothing there that I found disrespectful or sensationalised.  I wish I could say the same of the Warsaw Ghetto: there was a souvenir stall there which was selling things that were in extremely poor taste.  Hopefully that stall’s not there any more.

Another was the visit by the man whose brother had disappeared, to consecrate memorial stones in his home town of Kassel.  It was the first time that he’d actually said memorial prayers for his brother, acknowledging that his brother was gone and saying that he was at least thankful that his brother had had a few years of a happy and loving childhood.  He also said that he hoped that people would stop to look at the memorial stones, but accepted that they wouldn’t.  You don’t, do you?  Names on park benches.  Blue plaques on buildings.  War memorials.  Statues in city centres.  But they’re there.  And Kassel was acknowledging what had happening.

There are a lot of Holocaust memorials in Germany.  The main one’s in Berlin.  This is the main German memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, I should say: there are also memorials to other groups.  They shouldn’t be separate: there should be one memorial to all the victims.  But there isn’t.  Anyway.  It’s an odd-looking memorial – a lot of concrete blocks.  Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, visiting it on the third of the return trips, her visit to Germany to address the German parliament, said that she’d rather have had a garden as a memorial.  But it’s there.

There was a lot of talk about “Germans”.  I know that sounds like stating the obvious, but … is that a hallmark of the wartime generation?   Things said or written now tend to refer to “Nazis” rather than “Germans”.  Neither term is entirely accurate, when talking about the perpetrators of the Holocaust.  In the immediate post-war era, every country other than Germany was presented entirely a victim, which was certainly not entirely the case.  And this is part of the Polish right-wing issue again.  And, conversely, all Germans were stigmatised – look at the carry-on when Bert Trautmann signed for City.  I don’t know what the right term is.  We haven’t really got one.

She spoke so well, saying that it’s understandable that today’s Germans do not want to identify with what happened.  Why should they: it wasn’t their fault.  But that it must never be forgotten.  There’s a lot of talk about “never again”, but look what happened in Cambodia, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Darfur …

At the end, we saw one of the women dancing round her house.  She said that she’d been denied her youth, her teenage years, so she was having them now.  That was lovely.  The whole programme was very watchable.  Moving rather than harrowing.  I don’t know what the viewing figures were, but I hope they were good.  It’s just very unfortunate that the people who most needed to hear what was being said won’t have been watching.