I was born just before the outbreak of WW2 and have early memories of our home help saying, “If the Germans come into this country you will be sent away to a concentration camp.” I would have been between the ages of 4 and 7 years when I heard this mantra, and although I did not understand what it meant, what I did understand, or sense at least, was some profound insecurity. On looking back I am unable to articulate which taboo must have been prevalent in my family, as I did not even consider verifying this statement with my parents.
Remembering the Holocaust
Stories of the Holocaust started to be discussed in public from the 1970s onwards, and in the 1980s I attended a one month course at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem when I studied the history and the impact of the German policy to eradicate the Jewish population of Europe.
I am aware of the concept of Holocaust fatigue, which describes an attitude amongst many people that the horror stories of this atrocious period of history have been sufficiently aired, and that it is time to move on. However, I was introduced today to a new angle of Holocaust History when Arthur Shostak addressed a small audience at the Cape Town Holocaust and Memorial Centre.
Whilst Shostak’s early academic career as a Sociologist and Futurist earned him many accolades, more recently he has relentlessly pursued a new angle to history, which has not been spoken about until recently. In introducing the topic, the presenter elicited the attention of the audience by claiming that he was going to share ‘a secret’ with us. He has travelled with his wife to 48 different countries over the past few years addressing the public not on the horrors of Holocaust Memory but on what he calls Holocaust Compassion. Whilst The Righteous Among the Nations, Non-Jews who assisted Jews in Nazi Germany and often saved many lives, have been recognised; Jews who risked their lives to save others of their faith have been overlooked by the records.
The Orchestra Saved a life
Illustrating this news angle, the presenter told the story of a Jewish Prisoners Orchestra who had come to the camp to entertain the SS. Talented victims of the Holocaust had their lives spared if they could be of value to the German Regime. The members of this orchestra saved the life of Eva Brown aged 16 whose job it was to extract gold teeth from Jewish victims when their bodies were collected from the gas chambers. She was desperately thin and overworked but perceived an opportunity to save herself when she heard about the presence of this musical ensemble. Eva managed to make her way to the rehearsal area and sat herself down amongst the flautists. As soon as the conductor came to the rehearsal he noted that an unknown person had placed herself amongst the woodwind players. “I am starving and overworked and need to escape from this awful existence. Kindly give me a place in your orchestra,” she timidly requested. If it was discovered that members of the orchestra had shielded a prisoner, each and every member would have been sent to their death. However, on consultation, it was unanimously decided that this fugitive would be given a place in the orchestra. This was indeed an act of selflessness and compassion.
Sharing Forbidden Information
When truckloads of Jews arrived by train to the Death Camps which they had been lead to believe would be re-development programs, the arriving passengers would go through a selection process. Eli Wiesel tells the story of how he was standing next to his father awaiting his fate when he heard a gruff voice asking him his age. “I am nearly 15 he declared.” The voice responded, “No, you are 18, and don’t forget that.” The questioner then asked Eli’s father with the same question. I am 50 .” responded Mr Wiesel. The voice insisted, “Just remember when they ask that you are 40 years old.” This Jewish recruit whose allocated job was helping to organise the selection process was not allowed to converse with new arrivals. If he were to be observed, certain death would follow. However, this guard was aware that those between the ages of 18 and 40 would be sent for slave labour. Those under 18, or over 40 were allocated to extermination camps. We do not know what would motivate someone to risk their lives in this way, to save the life of unknown arrivals. Truly an act of selfless compassion.
It is well known that whilst living in the Ghettos, Jewish leaders would be selected to do administrative jobs. If they tried to deceive the Nazis, they knew that it would mean not only their own death but the death of their families. However, many stories have emerged which show that these leaders risked their lives by giving inaccurate tallies to the Germans, thus managing to save numbers of people being sent to their death.
One Man’s Mission
The presenter was passionate about making the knowledge of these many acts of compassion known to a wider audience. He travels around the world publicising an aspect of history which has been neglected until now and has been effective in bringing new stories to light which have been incorporated into displays at Holocaust Museums around the World. Arthur Shostak has become an envoy for recognising that this era not only was an example of ‘Horror’ but also demonstrated opportunities for “Help”