Refusing draft since he is being involuntarily held in “relocation” or “concentration” camp by his own government, based on his race.
‘Clothes Don’t Just Make the Man, They Can Save the Man’
In his memoir ‘Measure of a Man,’ Martin Greenfield recalls how he survived Auschwitz to become an iconic tailor to the stars
Martin Greenfield is a legend in men’s fashion. He has hand-tailored suits for President Obama and President Clinton, as well as for such celebrities as Michael Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal, Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Pacino, Jimmy Fallon, and Johnny Depp. His Brooklyn-based company—Martin Greenfield Clothiers, which he runs with his sons Tod and Jay—creates custom suits for labels like DKNY, Rag & Bone, Ovadia and Sons, Band of Outsiders, and Brooks Brothers. Greenfield has even made his mark in Hollywood, creating suits for the TV shows Boardwalk Empire and The Knick, as well as blockbuster films including Ben Affleck’s Argo and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
But if Greenfield’s suits are famous, his personal story is less well-known. Now, in his new memoir Measure of a Man, Greenfield goes back to the beginning of his life—before he got his start in the American garment industry, to his childhood in Czechoslovakia and his time in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Greenfield—then known as Maximilian Grunfeld—grew up in Pavlovo, a quaint Czechoslovakian village near the Hungarian border, overlooking the Carpathian Mountains. His father was an electrical engineer, his grandfather well known for building the synagogue, and the tight-knit town of some 50 families would eat Shabbat meals together every week.
The Nazis surrounded Pavlovo on the second day of Passover in 1944 and gave the Jews an hour to pack their belongings before they were stuffed into cattle cars and shipped to a ghetto in the Ukrainian town of Mukacevo. From there, Greenfield’s whole family was sent to Auschwitz, where he lost his parents, grandparents, brother, and two sisters—when Dr. Josef Mengele selected him to go right (life) and his relatives to go left (death). Greenfield remembers Mengele precisely because of the quality and shine of his black leather boots.
It was in Auschwitz, of all places, that Greenfield first learned how to sew. He worked in the concentration camp’s laundry room, where he stitched up a ripped SS shirt that had been thrown in the trash and wore it under his camp uniform. With his first stitch, Greenfield learned the power that clothing possesses. The shirt, he found, provided him with an unspoken elevated status, and as he writes in his book, he realized that “clothes don’t just make the man, they can save the man; they did for me.”
“Nobody in the concentration camp had a shirt, and it was a crazy thing to do but I put the shirt on,” Greenfield told me in his office on a recent visit. He sat in front of a wall filled with framed newspaper clippings, awards, and pictures of him shaking celebrities’ hands; a photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe stood discreetly in the corner. “The shirt taught me that I had to be tough. Everyone thought I was important because of the shirt, and I was treated more nicely.”
Greenfield’s autobiography details the physical, psychological, and emotional abuse he endured under the Nazis. Morning call in Auschwitz was 4:30 a.m., when the prisoners stood in line for hours, freezing; they had hardly any food to eat and worked under horrible conditions with the constant fear of the smokestacks from the crematoria nearby. Prisoners were beaten frequently and shot at random. After Greenfield took a particularly gruesome lashing several months into his Auschwitz imprisonment, a merciful German reassigned him to the sub camp, Buna. Once the camp was bombed by the Americans in December 1944, the Nazis forced the most physically fit of Buna’s 10,000 prisoners on a death march, where they trudged 50 miles in the snow to the Gleiwitz concentration camp. Greenfield was then transported to Buchenwald, where he remained until the war ended.
Greenfield’s punishing experiences helped him develop an armor of gallantry—and an unprecedented level of chutzpah. In one incident soon after the war, a recently liberated Greenfield traveled back to Buchenwald’s neighboring town of Weimar to seek revenge on the mayor’s wife; when Greenfield had been assigned to do repairs on the mayor’s house after it was bombed, she had ratted him out to the SS for stealing pet food. Greenfield returned to her house with the intention to kill her, but once he pointed a gun at her head, he changed his mind. Instead, he stole her Mercedes Benz.
Greenfield wandered around Europe for two years after liberation, searching for a family he’d never find. Eventually, in 1947, he boarded a ship to America to live with wealthy, long-lost relatives. He changed his name, and with the help of a fellow immigrant he found a job at Brooklyn’s GGG Clothing, where he started his career as a floor boy, running items like fabrics around the shop to the factory’s hundreds of employees. The owner, William P. Goldman, took a liking to him and showed him the ropes. Greenfield made sure to learn every aspect of suit-making—hand-blasting, darting, piping, lining, blind stitching, pressing, fell stitching, armhole work—and quickly worked his way up the food chain. He was promoted, from blind stitcher to assistant supervisor, then to supervisor, then to head quality inspector, then to an executive.
GGG had a long roster of A-list clients. Everyone in the entertainment industry wore GGG suits, including such celebrities as Eddie Cantor, Paul Newman, and Walter Cronkite; so did major political figures. Greenfield had the chance to design suits for President Eisenhower in the 1950s, he felt a special connection to Eisenhower, who had liberated Buchenwald as a general in the U.S. Army. To offer the president unsolicited advice on how to end the Suez Crisis of 1956, Greenfield slipped notes into the pockets of Eisenhower’s suits.
“He’s got total confidence and has this amazing amount of trust in himself,” his son Tod mused inside the factory, shouting over the loud hum of sewing machines. “Rightfully so, he trusts his own feelings. He’s made it through all these things.”
In 1977, after 30 years at GGG, Greenfield bought the East Williamsburg factory from the Goldman family, renamed the company Martin Greenfield Clothiers, and continued serving a superstar clientele. He had developed an impeccable reputation by then and continued to work with big-name celebrities and political leaders. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, he established relationships with department stores like Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York, and Saks Fifth Avenue to make their suits. He also mentored some young fashion talent in the ’80s, including Alexander Julian, Perry Ellis, and Isaac Mizrahi.
Greenfield returned to the White House once again to design clothes for President Clinton. (He snooped through the president’s closet, he recalls in his book, gasping at the number of track suits.) By this point, his notes to Eisenhower had become somewhat notorious in the White House, so Clinton told him when they first met—before Greenfield had the chance to slip any notes in any pockets—that if he had advice to offer, he should send him a fax.
Despite experiencing difficult financial times throughout the years, an advantage to keeping his near-century-old factory open in Brooklyn is the ability to boast “made in America,” which is a credit most retailers who flock to foreign countries for cheap labor cannot brag about. A suit made at Greenfield can retail for up to $2,700 because of its handmade craftsmanship.
Greenfield explains in his book why his suits cost so much: “I refused to compromise. We would only use the highest quality materials and methods. My suits would feature hand-shaped full-canvas fronts, Italian and English woolens and cashmere, handmade horn buttons affixed with a smart button stance, endless hand-pressing to mold the jacket’s form, hand-stitched and functional buttons and collars with a gorge done right to ensure a snug fit around the collar shirt. And above all, only over my dead body would any suit made by Martin Greenfield ever feature fused or glued interlining.”
Between designer lines, assignments from Hollywood, and private clients, Greenfield’s operation is making 15,000 suits a year for some very dapper clientele. His approach has won him accolades from customers and fellow designers alike. Scott Sternberg, the celebrated founder of fashion line Band of Outsiders, wrote to me in an email: “Martin taught me everything I know about classic tailoring, in his kind and colorful and story-infused way. What’s wonderful about Martin is that he’s not stuck in the past. We’ve always maintained a healthy dialogue about the classic, ‘right’ way to do things, and my desire to try something new—a shape, fabric, technique. He has a respect for both history and the need to innovate and move forward.”
Ariel Ovadia, one of the twins behind men’s luxury brand Ovadia & Sons, told me: “When we first started, Martin took out the time to work with us on developing our clothing. His knowledge and expertise is a lost art and we are grateful to have the privilege of working with him and his sons.”
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who’s been a longtime client, said of Greenfield: “Frankly, I’m in awe of him. We’re talking about a man who fought to survive some of the worst mankind has ever shown, came to New York with nothing, worked hard, thrived, and took care of his family. Martin is some of the best we can offer. His is not just an only-in-America story, in many ways this could only happen in New York. And I don’t buy my suits anywhere else.”
Greenfield’s memoir explains not only his spunk and desire to persevere, but also the rich array of impossible characters who appear throughout his life. In one moment, he’s standing in line next to Elie Wiesel in Buchenwald and shaking Eisenhower’s hand. Several chapters later, Greenfield is having a drink with Frank Sinatra in Manhattan and then meeting Lana Turner on a movie set in Los Angeles. Shortly afterward, he’s mentoring fashion icons like Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. He wears a gold watch on his wrist with biblical images of the 10 Tribes’ signs on the front and an inscription that reads “Am Yisrael Chai” on the back; the watch, given to him by legendary Cadillac salesman Victor Potamkin, used to belong to Golda Meir. These fleeting characters demonstrate the incredible scope of Greenfield’s journey.
He ascribes these larger-than-life experiences to the opportunities America has to offer. “When I came here at the age of 19, and they gave me a green card and told me I was an American, I thought there was no other place in the world,” he told me. “The opportunities that are here! If you are willing to take time and study, be brought up by your parents the right way, you can be president! You can become whatever you want to become.”
Greenfield told me it was not easy to write the book. His son Tod noted that his father’s past was not something he often talked about—that is, until he spent hours divulging his story to a yeshiva student who had to interview a Holocaust survivor for a school assignment.
“After that day, he was much more open,” Tod said. “He told us and my mom his story, and when someone would ask [about his past] he would tell them. Also, he used to have nightmares and would wake up screaming almost every night. But after he told his story, he was much more peaceful. I guess it’s therapeutic to share after so long.”
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The Nazi Romance With Islam Has Some Lessons for the United States
Two new important histories look at Hitler’s fascination with Islam and Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey
Both Hitler and Himmler had a soft spot for Islam. Hitler several times fantasized that, if the Saracens had not been stopped at the Battle of Tours, Islam would have spread through the European continent—and that would have been a good thing, since “Jewish Christianity” wouldn’t have gone on to poison Europe. Christianity doted on weakness and suffering, while Islam extolled strength, Hitler believed. Himmler in a January 1944 speech called Islam “a practical and attractive religion for soldiers,” with its promise of paradise and beautiful women for brave martyrs after their death. “This is the kind of language a soldier understands,” Himmler gushed.
Surely, the Nazi leaders thought, Muslims would see that the Germans were their blood brothers: loyal, iron-willed, and most important, convinced that Jews were the evil that most plagued the world. “Do you recognize him, the fat, curly-haired Jew who deceives and rules the whole world and who steals the land of the Arabs?” demanded one of the Nazi pamphlets dropped over North Africa (a million copies of it were printed). “The Jew,” the pamphlet explained, was the evil King Dajjal from Islamic tradition, who in the world’s final days was supposed to lead 70,000 Jews from Isfahan in apocalyptic battle against Isa—often identified with Jesus, but according to the Reich Propaganda Ministry none other than Hitler himself. Germany produced reams of leaflets like this one, often quoting the Quran on the subject of Jewish treachery.
It is not surprising, then, that there are those today who draw a direct line between modern Jew-hatred in the Islamic world and the Nazis. A poster currently at Columbus Circle’s subway entrance proclaims loudly that “Jew-hatred is in the Quran.” The poster features a photograph of Hitler with the notoriously anti-Jewish Mufti al-Husaini of Palestine, who is erroneously labeled “the leader of the Muslim world.” The truth is considerably more complex. The mufti made himself useful to the Nazis as a propagandist, but he had little influence in most Muslim regions. Few Muslims believed Nazi claims that Hitler was the protector of Islam, much less the Twelfth Imam, as one Reich pamphlet suggested.
The Nazis’ anti-Jewish propaganda no doubt attracted many Muslims, as historian Jeffrey Herf has documented, but they balked at believing that Hitler would be their savior or liberator. Instead, they sensed correctly that the Nazis wanted Muslims to fight and die for Germany. As Rommel approached Cairo, Egyptians started to get nervous. They knew that the Germans were not coming to liberate them, but instead wanted to make the Muslim world part of their own burgeoning empire. In the end, more Muslims wound up fighting for the Allies than for the Axis.
Hitler’s failed effort to put Muslim boots on the ground still stands as the most far-reaching Western attempt to use Islam to win a war. Such is the judgment of David Motadel, the author of a new, authoritative book, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War. Motadel’s detailed and fascinating explanation of how and why the Nazis failed to get Muslims on their side is a must-read for serious students of World War II, and it has an important message as well for our own policy in the Middle East.
To grasp why the Nazis had such high hopes for Muslim collaboration—and why their hopes failed—we need to go back to the great war that made Hitler the fanatical monster he was. One hundred years ago, a few months into World War I, Germany looked like it might be in trouble. The German offensive had failed to break through at Ypres after a month of bloody fighting. The waves of German soldiers stumbling through no-man’s land slowed to a stop. The kaiser’s army was exhausted, and its commanders suddenly realized that the quick Western Front victory they had dreamed of was impossible. Meanwhile, Russia was massing troops around Warsaw, and the tsar had just declared war on the Ottoman Empire.
There was one bright spot, though. On Nov. 11, 1914, the highest religious authority of the Ottoman caliphate, Sheikh al-Islam Ürgüplü Hayri, issued a call for worldwide jihad against Russia, Britain, and France. Suddenly, the Great War was a holy war. Surely, the Germans dreamed, Muslims would join their side en masse and turn the tide of battle.
In the early years of World War I the German Reich caught Islam fever: Muslims became the great Eastern hope against the Entente. Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the German general staff, planned to “awaken the fanaticism of Islam” in the French and British colonies, making the Muslim masses rise up against their European masters. Max von Oppenheim, the German diplomat and orientalist, described Islam as “one of our most important weapons” in his famous position paper of October 1914. Oppenheim wanted to spark a Muslim revolt stretching from India to Morocco that Germany could use for its own purposes. Germany just needed to get the message across, Oppenheim insisted: Russia, Britain, and France were the oppressors of Muslims, whereas the Germans would liberate them.
The German strategy didn’t work. Instead, Britain and France won the game when they capitalized on the Arab uprising against a crumbling Ottoman Empire. T.E. Lawrence, rather than the kaiser, inspired the Arabs. After the war, Britain and France sliced up the Middle East pie between them in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.
Germany tried once again to mobilize Islam in WWII. Astonishingly, in 1940 Oppenheim, at that point 80 years old, championed the same plan that had failed so badly in the previous war. Even more surprising, Hitler and Himmler warmly embraced the part-Jewish Oppenheim’s idea: They too thought that Islam would help bring about a Nazi triumph.
“German officials would always refer to global Islam, to pan Islam,” Motadel told me over the phone from his home in Cambridge, England, where he is Research Fellow in History at the University of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College. The Nazis spoke of the Muslims as a “bloc” that could be “activated” against the British, the French, and the Soviets. Their belief that Islam was monolithic led them to ignore differences of region, sect, and nationality, which helped to ensure the failure of their efforts.
As Motadel documents, those efforts were indeed considerable. Germans sought out imams who would issue fatwas for their side, and they told their soldiers to be especially careful of religious sensibilities when traveling through Muslim territory. They gave special privileges to Muslims who joined the Wehrmacht: The Nazi leadership even allowed them to follow Muslim dietary laws. Astonishingly, German forces in the East permitted Muslims to practice both circumcision and ritual slaughter, proving more liberal on these two issues than many Europeans are today. At the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans murdered many Muslims because they were mistaken for Jews: They didn’t realize that Muslims were also circumcised. But Berlin soon corrected the error and cautioned troops in the East to make sure to treat Muslims with respect, since they were Germany’s potential allies. In December 1942 Hitler decided he wanted to recruit all-Muslim units in the Caucasus. He distrusted Georgians and Armenians, but the Muslims, he said, were true soldiers.
The Germans assumed that the Muslim world would naturally flock to the Nazi banner, since Muslims like Germans knew that Jews were the enemy, and since Germany was offering them freedom from France, Britain, and Russia. But for the most part, they were wrong. Muslims only embraced the Nazi cause in places where they were desperate to arm themselves against local persecutors, the Crimea, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. In most of the Muslim world, Hitler failed to attract a large following.
North Africa was a miserable failure for German recruitment. “230,000 Muslims fought for the Free French against the Axis from North Africa,” Motadel pointed out to me in our interview, far more than those who enlisted with Germany. The Germans had their millions of leaflets, but they were not the only propagandists in the field. “The Free French mobilized them with anti-colonial rhetoric. The British and French were the ruling powers; they had much more control over propaganda.”
The East was much more favorable than North Africa to the German recruitment drive. The Muslims of the Caucasus and the Crimea had many reasons to choose Germany over Stalin’s Soviet Union. “In the East the Muslim population had really suffered under Stalin, economically and religiously,” Motadel remarked to me. They had nothing to lose, they thought, by siding with “Adolf Effendi.” The Crimean Tatars took a notorious place among Germany’s most loyal and ruthless battalions, fighting both in the East and, near the end of the war, in Romania. The Tatars made the wrong choice: Stalin mercilessly deported many of them to his gulags after the war.
In the Balkans many Muslims turned to Germany in the middle of a brutal civil war, fleeing the rampages of the Croatian Ustase. The infamous all-Muslim Handžar battalion of the SS, organized in the Balkans late in the war, committed many atrocities. In Serbian areas, noted one British officer, the Handžar “massacres all civil population without mercy or regard for age or sex.”
The Nazis made sure, with few exceptions, that the Nuremberg laws could be applied only to Jews, not to those other Semites, the Arabs, nor to Turks and Persians—which paradoxically allowed certain communities of Jews in Muslim regions to also survive the Shoah. In Crimea, two puzzled officers of the Wehrmacht, Fritz Donner and Ernst Seifert, reported on “Near Eastern racial groups of a non-Semitic character who, strangely, have adopted the Jewish faith,” while also noting that “a large part of these Jews on the Crimea is of Mohammedan faith.” What to do? In the end the Reich ruled that the Karaites, traditionally seen as a Turkic people, could be spared, while the Krymchaks should be murdered as Jews, though both these Crimean tribes followed Jewish law. In the northern Caucasus, the Nazis decided that the Judeo-Tats, a tiny Torah-observant island in a sea of Muslims, had only their religion in common with Jews. In effect, they became honorary Muslims and were saved from death. The Karaites were close to the Muslim Crimean Tatars, and the Judeo-Tats also had deep ties to their Muslim neighbors. It was their supposed affinity to Islam that saved the lives of these observant Jews. In these cases the Nazi wish to cultivate the Muslim world even affected to a small degree their anti-Semitic policy—to the Jews’ advantage.
Hitler cultivated many parts of the Muslim world, but he was fanatically enthusiastic about only one country: Turkey (the Nazis officially decided in 1936 that the Turks were Aryans). Stefan Ihrig’s brilliant new book Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination demonstrates convincingly that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s conquest of Turkey was the most important model for the Nazis’ remaking of Germany, far more so than Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome, which is usually cited as Hitler’s main inspiration. Turkey had taken control of its destiny in manly fashion, in proud defiance of the international community—if only Germany would do the same! So argued many on the German right, including Hitler, during the 10 years between Atatürk’s victory and the Nazi seizure of power.
The victorious Entente had vastly curtailed Ottoman territory under the Treaty of Sèvres after WWI, just as the Treaty of Versailles shrank German territory. But the new nation of Turkey threw off the victors’ shackles and, after Mustafa Kemal (later renamed Atatürk) marched from Ankara westward, the Turks won the right to a homeland in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The Weimar Republic’s newspapers obsessively celebrated the Turks’ victory and endorsed their claims to the disputed region of Hatay (the Turks’ Alsace-Lorraine), portraying the Turks as more advanced than the Germans, trailblazers on the path to strong nationhood. “If we want to be free, then we will have no choice but to follow the Turkish example in one way or another,” the right-wing military man and journalist Hans Tröbst announced in the newspaper Heimatland in 1923. Nearly every item in Hitler’s playbook can be found in such Weimar-era endorsements of Atatürk: All Turkey had mobilized for the war; strong faith in their leader had saved them.
Ihrig argues that the Turkish treatment of minorities, both under Atatürk and earlier, was the true precursor for Hitler’s murderous policy in the East. Those “bloodsuckers and parasites,” the Greeks and Armenians, had been “eradicated” by the Turks, Tröbst explained inHeimatland. “Gentle measures—that history has always shown—will not do in such cases.” The Turks had achieved “the purification of a nation of its foreign elements on a grand scale.” He added that “Almost all of those of foreign background in the area of combat had to die; their number is not put too low with 500,000.” Here was a chilling endorsement of genocide, and one that surely did not escape Hitler’s eye. Shortly after his articles appeared, Hitler invited Tröbst to give a speech on Turkey to the SA.
From 1923 on, Hitler consistently praised Atatürk in his own speeches as well. Berlin, like Istanbul, was cosmopolitan and decadent. Munich, site of Hitler’s beer-hall putsch, was the place for a German “Ankara government.” When Hitler seized power in 1933 his Völkischer Beobachter cited Atatürk’s victory as the “star in the darkness” that had shone for the beleaguered Nazis in 1923, after the putsch’s failure. Turkey was “proof of what a real man could do”—a man like Atatürk, or Hitler.
The Third Reich produced many idolizing biographies of Atatürk. Six years after the Turkish leader’s death, in late 1944, a delusional Hitler was still dreaming of a postwar alliance between Turkey and Germany. He never got his wish. During the war, Turkey, as a neutral power, kept its distance from the Nazis until it finally declared war against Germany in February 1945.
In Turkey, criticizing Atatürk can still get you three years in jail, though the country’s increasingly unhinged President Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke the law himself last year when he called Atatürk a drunkard. While Erdogan wants to reverse his predecessor’s program for secularizing Turkey, he appears to be imitating Atatürk’s extravagant cult of personality along with his habit of demonizing his enemies. But while Atatürk disdained Hitler’s anti-Semitism, Erdogan is obsessed with Jews. The 2014 Gaza operation, he has remarked, was worse than anything Hitler ever did, and the Israelis have been committing “systematic genocide every day” since 1948. Perhaps if Erdogan had been in power in the 1940s, the Nazis would have found the Muslim ally they so desperately sought.
Weaponizing Islam has often been a temptation for the United States, just as it was for Germany. In its battle against Moscow, Washington recruited Islamic leaders after WWII, most famously Said Ramadan, a major figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States even smiled on Saudi Arabia’s funding of radical Islamist organizations, hoping that religion would serve as a bulwark against Soviet Communism. Then the Muslim Brotherhood killed U.S. ally Anwar Sadat, and its follower Ayman al-Zawahiri became, along with Osama Bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaida. We supported the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, until the Mujahedeen turned into the Taliban.
We are still trying to turn the Muslim world to our own purposes, but this time by supporting Shiite against Sunni. In addition to courting Erdogan, President Barack Obama hopes to make use of Iran as a stabilizing regional force. In his most recent personal letter to Ayatollah Khamanei, Obama seems to have made a promise: We will repeal sanctions, fight against ISIS, and preserve the rule of Iran’s client Bashar al Assad as long as Iran agrees to a deal on nuclear weapons. But what will the United States get in return? In the best-case scenario—which is far from assured—Iran’s bomb-making abilities will be hindered by the deal they sign. But even an Iran without the bomb cannot be relied on to make the Middle East less conflict-riven, unless we are aiming at the kind of stability famously mocked by Tacitus: They make a desert and call it peace. Iranian actions speak for themselves: support for Hezbollah, with its hundred thousand weapons aimed at Israel, and support for Assad, who has massacred his people endlessly and thrown massive numbers of them into concentration camps. Anyone who looks at the Syrian defector “Caesar” ’s photographs of the thousands of starved, mutilated bodies produced by Syria’s bloodthirsty optometrist-in-chief, which are now on permanent exhibition at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, a few blocks from the White House that has refused to grasp their meaning, will ask the same question: Don’t these Arab bodies, resembling so exactly the bodies of Jews at Auschwitz, have the same call on our conscience?
One thing is certain: If Khamanei and Rouhani are given a larger role in the Middle East, they will not serve U.S. interests, nor those of the majority of Muslims. They will serve their own interests, which are inimical to ours. We still have not learned the major lesson of 20th-century history so adeptly conveyed by Motadel and Ihrig: Western leaders who try to get Islam on their side through propaganda and favors will be unpleasantly surprised.
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No Banality in This Evil
A new documentary and a new book look at Himmler and Eichmann through newly discovered letters
In 2006, a prominent Israeli psychiatrist named Dr. Nathaniel Laor received a telephone call from American real-estate mogul and philanthropist Leon Charney. Laor, a professor at both Tel Aviv University and at Yale’s Child Study Center, was told that a friend of Charney’s knew a man who had come into possession of a remarkable trove of papers. Would he care to look them over and assess their historical value?
Soon Laor visited Chaim Rosenthal’s apartment in the leafy Ramat Aviv neighborhood of Tel Aviv, where a battered suitcase lay on the floor under the bed. He opened the suitcase and discovered hundreds of letters written by Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the SS and Nazi minister of the interior, to his wife Marga and his daughter Gudrun, and their letters to him. There were also family photographs, diaries, and notebooks detailing familial expenses. A near-complete record of the personal life of one of the most infamous Nazi war criminals had been in the State of Israel, unbeknownst to anyone, for decades.
“To come into a three-room apartment in Tel Aviv to find an old suitcase containing these pictures of the architect of the Holocaust and his family, with his steady type of calculations, his diaries, his letters, for me it was a shock,” said Laor, the descendant of Holocaust survivors. Laor skimmed through the documents and knew that he had found something remarkable that needed to be shared with the general public and that someone would have to be brought in to shape the material. “I realized that it’s a gold mine,” said Laor.
After visiting Rosenthal’s apartment, Laor called Vanessa Lapa, a Belgian-Israeli television producer whom he had met when she had worked for the Channel 1 and Channel 10 news. By the time Laor and Lapa encountered Rosenthal, he was a broken man, his spirit worn down by the perverse responsibility of the Himmler papers. Rosenthal had reached out on numerous occasions to German newspapers in the past in the hopes of piquing their interest in his cache but had been unable to attract their attention. “[Rosenthal] knew the enormity of the find, and somehow he couldn’t get the attention of the world,” said Laor. “Something with these documents was bothering [him], it was like a bone stuck in his throat. He needed to clear his house.”
Now Rosenthal, in his late sixties, wanted to sell the papers—not to make a profit, but simply to pass the burden on to someone else. “It was clear that the man was under stress while selling these documents,” said Laor. “It was a sale, but for him it was getting rid of these documents.” Above all, Rosenthal was worried that the papers would fall into the wrong hands, winding up in a neo-Nazi flea market somewhere, or worse, in the hands of Holocaust denialists who might somehow use these domestic letters as proof of Himmler’s innocence. Lapa’s father wound up purchasing the letters for his daughter’s production company, Realworks, for a relatively nominal sum.
Lapa was tantalized by a single question: How had Rosenthal acquired Himmler’s personal correspondence? Lapa spent the first year digging for answers about the letters’ provenance. The papers had been, at war’s end, at the Himmlers’ home in Gmund-am-Tegernsee in Bavaria. Marga Himmler had been questioned by American forces in September 1945 and had testified that all of her husband’s papers were in the safe.
Where had they stopped along the path from Gmund to Tel Aviv, and who had held them along the way? Rosenthal, who had been a painter and a cultural-affairs officer for the state of Israel, had told different stories at different times about how he had acquired the Himmler papers. He had originally stated that he purchased the papers at a flea market in Brussels in the 1960s. In a 1982 New York Times article, Rosenthal claimed to have purchased 700 letters and two diaries for $40,000 from a former Nazi officer living in Mexico.
Rosenthal had also served as a cultural attaché in the United States in the 1980s and had possibly acquired them at a flea market in Los Angeles during his term of service. Or he had borrowed the letters and diaries from a couple at the Mexican-American border and then neglected to ever return them. Rosenthal was now too frail to remember, or had jumbled up the contradictory stories he had told in the past about the letters. Having hit a dead end, Lapa decided to regroup and look to the contents of the letters, and not just the story of their owner. “Only then, I realized that maybe there is a bigger story or a more interesting story,” said Lapa.
The Himmler papers were the private record of an eminently public man, his musings on his horrific work, and the mundane details of his family life, echoing his pronouncements as one of the highest-ranking officials of the Nazi Party. Their discovery would be part of a larger process of finding or revisiting the private words of prominent Nazis, separating out the fictions they peddled in public from their personal beliefs. For while Lapa and Laor were sorting through their find, a German philosopher was visiting archives around Germany, painstakingly assembling the complete text of a series of conversations, held after the war in Argentina, that she believed might help her understand the mental world of none other than Adolf Eichmann. The two discoveries would ultimately offer, as we see in two recent artistic works, a perspective on high-ranking Nazis—and the way they thought of themselves and their work—unavailable from any other source. Himmler’s letters and Eichmann’s transcripts offer a privileged view inside the personal lives and thoughts of Nazi leaders otherwise intent on maintaining an unflinching public pose, allowing us to glimpse not only their actions, but also their motivations
The Decent One, the film Lapa ultimately made, is an epistolary documentary, drawn entirely from the Himmler family’s letters and diaries. It begins when Himmler was still a child, enthusing about a visit to see a Passion Play, but picks up steam shortly after his graduation from university, when Himmler joined the Nazi Party and began corresponding regularly with Marga Boden, a clinic owner seven years older than him. Their tone is initially playful—he suggests a ceremonial pact in which she must exercise twice daily and cook him soup—but even during these early years with Hitler, he bristles at any questioning of his devotion to the Nazi cause. “Why are you going to a Hitler rally,” Marga wonders in one of her letters which are read in voice-over by actors in The Decent One, “when you know what he will say?” Himmler frostily responds, “I must go to Hitler’s rallies, because I organize them and am jointly responsible for them.”
The prewar letters (the precise Himmler numbered his correspondence) are the missives of a traveling salesman, constantly on the road, and checking in on his family back at home, with the only notable distinction being that the product Heinrich Himmler was selling was Nazism.
Himmler’s daughter Gudrun was born in 1929, and the most haunting story told by the family’s correspondence is the record of the cozy relationship between a murderous father and his admiring daughter. On the occasion of Gudrun’s first birthday, Himmler draws the outline of her hand into the “bang journal” he and Marga kept about Gudrun’s development. Marga writes to her husband about how a worried Gudrun had asked her whether “Uncle Hitler” will ever die. Their humdrum domestic life stands in marked contrast to Himmler’s bloodthirsty brutality elsewhere.
Current events become familial triumphs. Shortly after the Austrian Anschluss, Gudrun was still thrilled by her father’s Viennese trip: “At this time yesterday, Daddy went in!” Himmler’s rigid sense of Nazi morality affects his domestic life. He tells Marga that a “healthy marriage” requires at least four children. The Himmlers wound up adopting a boy named Gerhard, whose unruly behavior presumably prompted some of Heinrich’s disquisitions on the need for order in his letters: “Order creates the nation, the culture, and order creates the state.” Later, Heinrich cruelly suggests to Marga that she should not sign her letters to Gerhard “Mother,” but could resume doing so if his behavior improved. (Gerhard was eventually sent to join the SS at the age of 15 after being caught smoking a cigarette, and became the youngest German prisoner of war in the Soviet Union before being released in 1955, 10 years after the end of World War II.)
On first impression, Himmler seems a doting father, at least to Gudrun, but Lapa and her co-writer Ori Weisbrod soon found jarring notes intervening. Gudrun was invited to tour Dachau with her mother and aunts in 1941, and writes with enthusiasm of the trip: “We saw everything. The vegetable patch, the mill, the bees.” What sort of father brings his 12-year-old daughter to visit a concentration camp? “This is what I mean when I say he was not that amazing, loving father,” argues Lapa. “Because an amazing, loving father would protect his own child from this.” Even his outlining of his 1-year-old daughter’s fingers is followed by the comment that she would not hold her hand still. “He’s educating, judging. She’s not good enough,” observed Lapa. “You always have the perverted twist, the nastiness. This is what amazed me time and time again. I knew that it would come at a certain point.”
We are reminded time and again in the letters that the extermination of the Jews was the daily business of the Himmler family. Marga writes of purchasing ten thousand bars of chocolate as a Christmas gift for the soldiers of the SS. Heinrich tells his wife that “despite all the work, I am doing fine and sleeping well.” All his assurances to the contrary, the business of genocide took a physical toll on him. He had dismissively mentioned an officer who had had to have his bowels manually emptied after his experiences killing Jews but goes on to talk about some “intestinal issues” he was himself experiencing.
Himmler liked to present himself as the iron-boweled, unbending, morally upright paragon of Nazism, but the letters tell a subtly different story. “We have a moral right, an obligation, to our people, to take the people who want to kill us, and kill them,” he wrote in 1942. “But we have no right to enrich ourselves with a single fur, a watch, a single mark, a cigarette, or anything else.” Mass murder was allowed, but theft was a shocking criminal act—or so he claimed. In the next letter, Himmler mentions a gold bracelet he was sending along, with a fur coat that was on its way—both presumably booty from some of the Jewish inmates he encountered.
Himmler insisted on believing in himself, and the SS officers who carried out the genocide of the Jews, as fundamentally upstanding people. In a 1943 speech quoted in The Decent One, he told a crowd of SS men in Posen, “Most of you will know what it means when a hundred corpses lie side by side, whether there are five hundred or one thousand, and to endure that and, apart from a few exceptions, to remain decent, has made us tough, but it is never mentioned, and will never appear in the glorious annals of our history. We can have but one desire as to what is said about us. ‘These German soldiers, these German generals: they were decent.’” The Decent One is unnerving for its demonstration that Himmler truly believed he was, at the very last, a decent man.
Lapa proceeds chronologically through Himmler’s life, telling his story in his family’s own words, her carefully selected suite of images serving as a bitterly ironic counterpoint, and a reminder of everything left unsaid. A letter from Himmler to his daughter Gudrun about a package for her is illustrated with an image of prisoners being shot by a firing squad. He writes to his wife, apologizing for having missed their anniversary, pleading how busy he has been the past few days, over images of Jews being clobbered with two-by-fours, Jews being shot, dirt being piled into mass Jewish graves.
The film is intensely disturbing for the ordinariness of the exchanges; as Himmler plans the genocide of the Jews, he is also offering advice about his children, bantering with his daughter, and flirting with his mistress. We are through the looking glass, seeing the Holocaust from the perspective of not only the perpetrators, but those who looked after the perpetrators. Lapa has expertly pared down the Himmler material into a spare narrative whose silences are often as expressive as its words.
The Himmler papers are not the only previously hidden or ignored sources about the inner lives of Nazis to recently re-emerge. German philosopher Bettina Stangneth’s powerful new book Eichmann Before Jerusalem (Knopf) uses the so-called Argentina Papers—transcribed records of a postwar South American study circle composed of Adolf Eichmann and other unregenerate Nazis—to transcend the clichéd cog-in-the-machine stereotypes about Eichmann. Like the Himmler letters, Eichmann’s Argentina Papers offered the chance to hear a confirmed Nazi present his version of the truth. This was not court testimony, but opinions and observations shared with the assurance that no one other than true believers would ever hear them
The Argentina Papers were never lost, but they might as well have been. During his trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann had claimed that the interview transcripts were the result of an encounter with an unscrupulous Dutch journalist named Willem Sassen, who preyed on the drunken Eichmann in a local pub. None of it could be admissible, he argued, and the panel of Israeli judges agreed. After all, even if the transcripts were genuine, how could they be proved to correspond with actual conversations when, in many cases, the original tapes were nowhere to be found? Many researchers took Eichmann at his word, and ignored or downplayed the significance of the Argentina Papers as mere drunken boasting.
In reality, Eichmann and Sassen had been friends, both members of a group that met regularly in Sassen’s living room to discuss and debate Nazi ideology and history. Eichmann had been invited as the Argentinean Nazi known to have the most firsthand knowledge of the war against the Jews. Sassen and his friends, many of whom vociferously supported the Nazi cause without having themselves fought in the war, hoped Eichmann would prove what they believed to be true: that the Holocaust was a myth. Instead, and much to their horror, Eichmann proudly and at great length detailed his central role in the Final Solution, citing evidence from books his friends procured and taking copious notes.
“Every weekend, they sit together for four or five hours, Saturday and Sunday, talking on a very high level about books about the Holocaust,” Stangneth said of the Sassen circle. For Stangneth, these transcripts provided an incomparably intimate look at the mindset of one of the architects of the Holocaust—one that had been overlooked or downplayed by other researchers for decades. When Stangneth began her research, she found a jumble of disorganized pages scattered across numerous German archives. She might come to the end of one page and discover that the next was in another archive, 100 miles away. Previous scholars had shown little interest in even assembling a complete transcript. “I’m astonished that there was so [little] curiosity about these papers,” said Stangneth.
After Eichmann was arrested, his friends took the transcripts of the Argentina Papers. “The original papers were divided by friends of Eichmann to save them, because Eichmann’s friends knew very well that these papers were dangerous for Eichmann in Jerusalem,” said Stangneth. “So, they tried to separate the dangerous pages from the not-so-dangerous pages.”
Stangneth is also intent on situating the Argentina Papers within the unsettling world of postwar Nazi revanchists. Eichmann and his friends firmly believed that, suitably cleansed of its tainted leaders (Himmler in particular was singled out as being beyond redemption), Nazism could be revitalized as a political force. “You can lose the world war, but you can be a winner if you are able to write books,” said Stangneth. “And this was the plan. To make the propaganda for the next hundred years.”
The Himmler and Eichmann papers are valuable in reorienting our understanding of these prominent Nazis’ interior lives. They were men of action, to be sure, but they were also men of ideas, peddling their toxic notions of race and genocidal self-defense against the Jewish people. Their letters and interview transcripts provide an unfiltered look at not only what they did, but what they thought about their actions, and how they justified their nightmarish work to others.
The Himmler letters and the Argentina Papers are primary sources reminding us, in case we ever forgot, that these propagandists were committed with undying ferocity to their own propaganda. Defeat was not an option, even when the war was nearly lost—even when the war was long over. They are privileged glimpses of true believers, reminding us that Nazis were not only murderers and torturers, but also devoted followers of a totalitarian ideal. Doubt simply did not exist.
One of the true believers, convinced that Nazism was not yet spent, was Gudrun Himmler. After the war, she became a prominent force in an organization called Stille Hilfe (Silent Aid), which helped Nazis escape Europe and provided financial and moral support to convicted war criminals. Silent Aid fought to free convicted Nazis and to prevent accused Nazis from being extradited for trial. Himmler was neo-Nazi royalty, her lineage granting her elite status within the airless world of unreconstructed fascist ideologues.
Gudrun Himmler, now Gudrun Burwitz, is now 85 years old, still living in a suburb of Munich. She remains active in Silent Aid’s work, presumably as a tribute to her father’s memory. “The way you want to assess someone is, what does she do when she comes to adulthood? What does she do afterwards?” wondered Emory historian Deborah Lipstadt, when we spoke “What does she do as the truth comes out? Is she busy defending her father, or is she acknowledging that her father was responsible for mass murder?” The papers that spent decades in a suitcase in a Tel Aviv apartment document, among other things, the irreversible warping of a young mind. They are a record of a life—make that three lives— permanently devoted to the propagation of evil. By saving Heinrich Himmler’s papers, Chaim Rosenthal did us all a service, preserving documentation not only of Nazi ideology’s calamitous effect on the Jewish people, but on Himmler’s own family, too.
World War II AJA veterans to receive top French honor
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Nov 09, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 02:33 a.m. HST, Nov 09, 2014
It’s been 10 years since the French government began honoring Japanese-American World War II veterans with the country’s most prestigious award — the Legion of Honor.
On Veterans Day, two members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — Harold Kudo and Shiro Aoki — will be given the award during a ceremony at the Maunalani Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where they now live.
Honorary French Consul Patricia Y. Lee said Kudo, who served for three years with the 442nd in Europe, asked to receive his medal before a planned awards ceremony early next year because “he fears he will not make it because of his frail health and health issues.”
Lee said she was told Kudo, 91, was “in tears when he received the letter from the (French) consul general,” about the award.
“Because they are all between the ages of 90 and 96, I’m happy to do this for him,” Lee said.
Kudo, who graduated from Farrington High School in 1942 and enlisted in the Army when the 442nd was formed, said that receiving the French medal will be a very emotional moment.
“It brings back memories of France and things that happened there,” said Kudo. “It reminds me of the people that are buried there.”
Aoki, 92, said he was honored that the French government recognizes the soldiers who liberated the country.
Since 2004, when 442nd veteran Barney Hajiro was bestowed the rank of chevalier, or knight, 72 AJA veterans — members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion — have received the award.
Aoki and Kudo are among the 60 Legion of Honor medal recipients approved by the French government this year, Lee said.
Both Aoki and Kudo were assigned to M Company of the 442nd, organized in March 1943 in response to the War Department’s call to form an all-Japanese-American Army combat unit.
Aoki and Kudo met when the Army unit was formed in 1943 and have remained friends for 70 years.
About 200 nisei soldiers were in M Company when it was formed, said Aoki, a 1940 Kohala High School graduate. “There are now only a very few active members,” Aoki said. “Maybe five or six active members.”
Aoki graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1950 and went to work for Pan American World Airways and retired as director of food service in 1985. Kudo worked for the federal government and retired as chief of the supply division for the Army.
Lee said the French government is working with the Maui Nisei Veterans Memorial Center to honor the 18 AJA veterans from Maui with a special ceremony in January on the Valley Isle.
The Legion of Honor was created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte. The French award is the country’s highest civilian honor and consists of five classes.
In descending order of distinction, they are grand cross, grand officer, commander, officer and chevalier. The order is conferred upon men and women, either French citizens or foreigners, for outstanding achievements in military or civilian life.
Among the Hawaii veterans to receive the award was the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who also was a recipient of the Medal of Honor for his service with the 442nd in France and Italy, where he lost his right arm in combat. Inouye received the award from French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011.
American servicemen who fought in one of the four main campaigns of the liberation of France — Normandy, Provence, Ardennes, or Northern France between D-Day, June 6, 1944, and May 8, 1945 — are eligible.
The French government said there are approximately 93,000 Legion of Honor recipients. American recipients include Gens. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur and Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, former chief of naval operations.
“Although France does not approve applications posthumously,” Lee said, “the families of those who have passed away after the award was approved can still receive the medal on behalf of his or her deceased father or spouse.”
The screening process can take as long as a year, Lee said. It took more than two years for the French government to approve medals for Aoki and Kudo.
Veterans or their family members can apply by writing to the Consulate General of France, 88 Kearny St., Suite 600; San Francisco, CA 94108.
VETERANS DAY EVENTS
>> Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor: Hawaii premiere of “With Their Voices Raised,” 2 p.m. The documentary performance with stories of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima survivors was created by Kate Morris based on research done in Japan and is performed by T-Shirt Theatre, a project of the Alliance for Drama Education. Followed by Q&A with researchers Ryutaro Takahashi, vice president of the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, and Patricia Liehr, a professor in the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University. A reception follows in Hangar 37. Free with museum admission and to museum members; $5 for performance only. Visit http://www.pacificaviationmuseum.org.
>> National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Punchbowl: Keynote speaker is Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., U.S. Pacific Fleet commander. Ceremony begins at 10 a.m.; gates open at 8 a.m. Parking available on first-come, first-served basis. Call 532-3720.
>> Wahiawa Lions’ 68th Veterans Day Parade: Led by a joint service color guard and the Royal Hawaiian Band, along California Avenue from Kaala Elementary School to the district park, 10 a.m. Grand marshals are Military Intelligence Service veterans Glen Arakaki and Yoshinobu Oshiro and 100th Battalion veteran Mitsuo Hamasu. The theme is “Commitment, Honor, Sacrifice — Our Proud Veterans.” A program at the park follows with a flyover by World War II aircraft, massing of colors, speech by Brig. Gen. Sean M. Jenkins of the 25th Infantry Division, display of military equipment, bounce houses and food sales. Call Carolyn Hayashi, 522-5149, to participate or for information.
>> Governor’s Veterans Day Ceremony: Gov. Neil Abercrombie gives the keynote address at the event, 1 p.m. at the Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe. Musical prelude by the 111th Army Band of the Hawaii Army National Guard. The Office of Veteran Services will honor secretary Jennifer Aina, who has served since the office was established in 1988. Call Jayme Nagamine, 433-7683.