Newsletter: October 7, 2013

Last Survivor of Chełmo
     Walking with his father on the streets of the Łódź Ghetto in Poland during the summer of 1943, thirteen-year-old Shimon Srebrnik suddenly heard gun shots ring out.
     “Papa, please … talk to me. Are you hurt?” Shimon shouted, but to no avail. His father’s lifeless body slumped to the ground, murdered by Nazi soldiers.
     Months later, after the incomprehensible shooting of his father — for no reason other than he was Jewish — Shimon was deported to the Chełmno death camp. He was not even allowed to notify his mother of his fate.
     In a rural forested area of central Poland near the town of Chełmno (Kulmhof in German), the Germans built their first extermination camp for mass murder by gas. Between December 1941 and January 1945, more than 300,000 Jews and 5,000 Roma-Sinti from Łódź and the vicinity were murdered in Chełmno.
     Upon arrival, Shimon was sent to join a small group of slave laborers. The pastoral setting of the Chełmno camp deluded the people in the doomed transports into a false sense of hope, as they had come from disease-infested ghettos.
     When we got to Chełmno, the older people said, ‘What a beautiful place! We will be happy here! It’s green, birds are singing. A real health resort.’
     The Nazi guards shackled Shimon’s ankles, something they repeated with every prisoner. The restraints made an escape into the dense woods virtually impossible. To Shimon, the shackles — connected by a short length of heavy chain — served as a constant reminder of the hopelessness of his situation.
     The Chełmno prisoners were forced to wear their chains twenty-four hours a day. They slept in the camp granary on a bare cement floor.
For the first two or three months, Shimon put up tents and prepared the crematorium where his own mother’s body would be reduced to ashes. Once the transports of Jews from the Łódź Ghetto began arriving regularly, Shimon was assigned the task of extracting gold from the teeth of the victims who had been exterminated in the gas vans. He was also involved in general sorting operations, before being assigned to bury the dead. ...
     One day as Shimon sorted through victims’ personal possessions, he found some pictures belonging to his mother. Only then did he realize that she too had been murdered at Chełmno. ...
     When the victims arrived in Chełmno, they were gathered in the camp courtyard and told they were being sent to a work camp. They needed to wash up. Guards then escorted groups of fifty to the basement of the camp building, where they were told to remove their valuables and undress — men, women, and children together.
     During their walk to death, the victims were constantly reassured by signs reading To the bath house, or To the doctor. In fact, they were walking down a long ramp into a parked gas van. After the van was completely filled, the driver locked the doors and turned on the motor. About ten minutes later, the gas fumes had suffocated everyone inside.
     In his vivid testimony, Shimon details how the prisoners were killed at the camp.
     There were three gas vans. The exhaust gas from the engine entered the van through a gridiron on the floor. Each van held eighty people. There was a bigger van that held one hundred people. The distance from Chełmno was four kilometers. During the ride, gas entered the van.
     When the doors opened, you could see that all the dead were injured. Everyone wanted to survive, wanted to live, so they scratched each other. It was terrible. When the van reached the furnace, two people entered. The furnace was already lit.
     What a fire! There was a railway gridiron in the furnace. They put a layer of wood on top of it and lit it and then a layer of people, and a layer of wood. This happened every two days. They pulled out gold teeth along with the flesh. I sat and removed the gold from the flesh.
It smelled awful. I collected the victims’ teeth. It wasn’t only my mother. I handled thousands of mothers. My heart ached for them and for my mother. But there were thousands like her
. ...
     Shimon Srebrnik (also known as Szymon Srebrnik) died on September 18, 2006. But his memory and his tale of survival live on.
     -Rita Whitman Steingold.

To read the entire article, especially regarding Shimon's gut-wrenching escape at the end (and the Polish farmer who saved his life), click here. Questions or comments? Leave a comment here! We will share your comments with Rita.

All God's Children

Anna Schmidt. All God's Children. Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, 2013.
     Full disclosure: Anna Schmidt was a board member of the Center for White Rose Studies for our fiscal year 2012/13. We provided feedback during the writing process to help her get the "White Rose" parts of her book as accurate as possible.

     When Anna Schmidt asked us to read her YA historical fiction novel before it went to her editor, we were skeptical. She said she wished to incorporate White Rose resistance into a story about a young Quaker woman living in Munich in the 1940s. There are so many ways that a good idea like this can go terribly wrong.
     Then we started reading and quickly became fans. Schmidt takes advantage of two basic facts associated with the history of the White Rose. First, that the professors in the Natural Sciences department and the culture of medical studies at the university in Munich were critical to the thought processes of those students. Sophie Scholl (though not a medical student) majored in Natural Sciences, enrolling in courses taught by professors like Sommerfeld and Gerlach, who had exercised a bit of backbone and did not always toe the Party line.
     The second White Rose "gap" that Schmidt exploits centers on the nameless faces of the group. Even Gisela Schertling, who betrayed fringe of the fringe participants in her damning interrogations on March 31 and April 2, 1943, was unable to recall all the names.
     Schmidt uses these two Givens to create a fascinating fictional universe. The male protagonist is a medical student, son of a Gestapo agent, who doubts his father's politics (or does he?) and moves in with the family of a professor of Natural Science. That professor and his  American niece (shades of Mildred Fish Harnack, since the niece hails from Wisconsin) happen to be Quakers.
     All God's Children should not be read as a historical treatise about the White Rose. But Schmidt's story provides an interesting perspective - that of outsiders viewing the White Rose friends almost at arm's length - on a story we otherwise know quite well. Schmidt's Quaker "eyes" allow us to appreciate what Elisabeth Hartnagel nee Scholl described as a group of friends where all were equal, all had equal say. For a Quaker, that aspect of White Rose friendship would have been most appealing.
     Schmidt also focuses most of her attention on Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorell, and Lilo Ramdohr. She chose these friends not because they were more important than anyone else, but because of everyone in the core group, they were the most accessible in real life. She used Willi Graf's actual contemplations in his discussions with the fictional Josef, even incorporating Bach Chorale and a mutual love of music as a major plot point.
     This is an unapologetically religious treatment of the Shoah in general and White Rose resistance in particular. Schmidt frequently invokes the faith and values of the Society of Friends (Quakers) in her story. Readers who are uncomfortable with religious literature probably should not read All God's Children.
     But as an example of plain old-fashioned historical fiction where the "history" part is well-written? Schmidt shows how it's done.

Questions or comments about this book?  Leave a comment here! We will share your comments with Anna.
You may have noticed above that we linked directly to Gisela Schertling's March 31 and April 2, 1943 interrogations - online. We've written about in this space before, but we'd like to take this opportunity to remind you about that resource.
     We now have approximately 1,000 entries uploaded, with about 6,000 more to go. Although we're less than 15% finished, it already represents a well of information that is not available anywhere else. So far, we've completely uploaded the Gestapo interrogation transcripts for Alexander Schmorell, Hans Scholl, and Sophie Scholl, along with almost everything for Gisela Schertling and Katharina Schüddekopf. You can keep track of our progress here.
     To get a tiny taste of how much richer the real story is, start with the first entry on February 18, 1943. After you read it, then click on the red box at the bottom right-hand side of the screen (as of this writing, it says Hans Scholl, February 18 beginning). Keep reading and clicking the red box at the bottom right-hand side of the screen, which will always take you to the next consecutive post - it's ordered chronologically.
     Even without the interrogation transcripts of Traute Lafrenz, Willi Graf, the Hirzels, Falk Harnack, Kurt Huber, and the rest, what you will read will transform the way you view White Rose resistance. Especially if your only contact to date has been either of the Breinersdorfer or Verhoeven movies.
     You can also filter the "blog" by person, by type of document, by date, and the whole thing is searchable. Want to see every mention of the Catholic priest named Przywara, alt. Przyvara? In the search box, type that name, or part of the name (Przy works), and you will see every statement made regarding that man. As of October 7, 2013, only one person has answered a question about him, but by the time we're finished, you will learn a bit more about that priest. Same with Zichte or Hermann Tröltsch. Or Dachau. Or Spetzgart.
     We've uploaded a complete how-to guide directly in the blog, so you don't have to look up this newsletter later. Also, we've explained how we approach this work, how we define dates (including time) and the manner in which we create "placeholder dates" for important events not linked to a single date. For example, we use May 31, 1942 at noon to collect all comments regarding the reasons they specifically chose leaflets as their means of passive resistance, while February 9, 1943 at 11:30 a.m. is the placeholder date for general political beliefs they held.
     The placeholder dates generally make sense within the larger framework of White Rose history. May 31, 1942 was not only the date of the 1000-plane air raid on the city of Cologne, it was also a turning point in their decision to do something. And we chose the February 9 date for political notions because we know that they debated politics during the Huber-Harnack meeting.
     You may post questions or comments to the blog, same as any other blog. We try to answer your queries within 48 hours, or as quickly as possible. It's a work table, where observations and input are always welcome.
     Finally, we've shared our timeline (created in Microsoft Excel) [to be uploaded]. We will periodically update this document as we upload more transcripts and sources.

     Once all entries are completely incorporated into our online database, we will begin the task of uploading Volumes I and II of our White Rose Histories, linking to the actual primary source materials.
     We only ask that when you use this resource, you cite it properly. If you are publishing an article or a book, we do expect attribution; please contact Exclamation! Publishers for permission.
     Of course, if you would like to underwrite this effort, and our other archive projects, we welcome your support. It is greatly needed, and even more greatly appreciated. Contact us at Center for White Rose Studies to learn more about how you can underwrite our efforts.

Alternate Celebrations
      Too often in the "world" of Holocaust education, we focus on the Really Big Events: Yom Ha-Shoah Day or Holocaust Remembrance Day, roughly associated with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, 27 Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. Some institutions like universities may hold their Holocaust Remembrance services on April 19, the Gregorian date connected with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. November 9 is another date for solemnity, for Kristallnacht.
     Drilling down to White Rose resistance, we're more likely to hold commemoration ceremonies on February 18 (day of initial White Rose arrests), February 22 (first White Rose trial and executions), April 19 (second White Rose trial), or July 13 (third White Rose trial and second set of executions.
     Yet, any teacher or professor who wishes to expand their Holocaust and German resistance curriculum can make almost every day of the year a day of remembering, a teachable moment. What they did, who they were - it is defined by more than a couple of highlighted dates. Recalling the lives (and deaths) of the whole circle? Fills it out, enhances the edges, turns their words into vibrant song.
     Tomorrow, October 8, 2013, we will note the 70th anniversary of the arrest of Hans Conrad Leipelt on October 8, 1943.
     In four days, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lieselotte ("Lilo") Fürst-Ramdohr's birth - October 11, 1913 (to her death on May 14, 2013).
     In five days, we will remember Willi Graf's utterly noble death - Born January 2, 1918 to his execution on October 12, 1943.
     In six days, we will remember the death sentence handed down to Hans Leipelt on October 13, 1944. - He was born July 18, 1921, executed on January 29, 1945.

     To help you remember, we've re-added our White Rose calendar to our catalog. It's available in traditional twelve-month wall version, or as a daily planner. It could change the way you view the Shoah. It will assuredly affect your understanding of the White Rose friends.

(c) 2013 Exclamation! Publishers and Center for White Rose Studies. All rights reserved. Please contact Exclamation! Publishers for permission to quote.