<<INDEX << back  |  next >>

Article 12
Kingston Daily Freeman, Sunday, July 6, 2003

A personal Holocaust commemoration
John J. Neumaier

In late May I returned once more to my birth place, Frankfurt on Main, accompanied by my wife Sally, my three children, and a daughter-in-law. The occasion was an exhibition commemorating the life and death of my mother, and the millions of other victims of the Holocaust. Sponsored by the municipal Jewish Museum of Frankfurt, the exhibition was entitled: "Zum Verstummen gebracht... (A Voice Silenced) - the Frankfurt Opera Singer Leonore Schwarz-Neumaier (1889-1942)". The art exhibition was created by my daughter Diane Leonore Neumaier, a professor of art photography at Rutgers University, with my collaboration.

The launching of the exhibition in the city of Frankfurt, where my Viennese-born mother spent the last half of her life, and where I spent my youth, was an experience full of emotion and memories. The Germany of today is a quite different country from what it was during the terrible time when so many of its population fell under the spell of the fanatical and cruel Führer Adolf Hitler and his murderous henchmen. Indeed, many of the citizens of Frankfurt whom we met showed a far greater knowledge of the Holocaust and the Nazi past than one generally encounters here in the United States.

In part, the willingness of Germans to look back at the gruesome period of German fascism is due to the feeling of national responsibility felt by many for the heinous crimes which were committed during the twelve years of the "thousand-year Reich". It is especially among the second and third generations that one finds Germans who have taken to heart what they learned about the Holocaust, in school and from newspapers, books, and the electronic media, and who remember, commemorate, and tenaciously work to build a society where the evils of the past can not be repeated.

Of course it is difficult, especially for one who has spent only a few days in one city of Germany, to know whether these views are widely held. Indeed, I fear that extreme nationalism, fanatical religious and other sectarianism, the temptation to adopt indiscriminately conformist attitudes and to diffidently and uncritically follow any leader or mis-leader, are by no means just a Nazi phenomenon. These are dangers that threaten societies which are, neither geographically, nationally, or religiously, confined to any part of the world.

In a speech to a packed hall at the Frankfurt Opera house, I emphasized that a contributory reason for the tragic fate of my mother and the persecution of hundreds of thousands of German Jews (who constituted less than one percent of Germany's population) and other opponents of the Nazi regime, was that all too many of the Germans were silent and did nothing. This is not to deny how dangerous it was to oppose the dictatorship. Still, it was possible to find ways of aiding or at least comforting the victims, but to do so was the rare exception. Furthermore, since Hitler had, from early on, openly advocated a vicious program of anti-Semitism, along with the anti-democratic doctrine of fascism, curtailment of civil liberties, and reliance on military might, it was possible for Germans to have opposed him during the last years of the Weimar republic, and thus to have prevented his coming to power.

I also reminded the audience of how the Nazi ideologues embedded their virulent anti-Semitic campaigns within the framework of flag-waving nationalist propaganda, which stressed an ethnic mythology of "Germanism", based on "blood and soil". I gave some of my eye-witness observations of the Kristallnacht pogrom, which started on the night of November 9-10, 1938. I had seen the burning of our synagogue (half a block from our house), the arrest of my father (a decorated World War I veteran who fought for the German "fatherland" for over 4 years at the Western front), the physical attacks on Jewish people and the destruction of their property by Nazi storm troopers, while German onlookers not only didn't dare to intervene but all too often demonstrated approval.

I recounted the heightening of the persecution of Jewish men, women, and children that began that night throughout Germany. Tens of thousands of Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps which were unprepared for such numbers, with unheated barracks, lacking in bunks, toilets, medical facilities, and food. The prisoners were mistreated, and many lost their lives during the freezing temperature through illness or torture.

After weeks or months of imprisonment, release from the camps was granted first only to those who could show they had emigration visas. These were difficult to come by since most of the world, including the United States, was unwilling to accept additional immigrants seeking to escape Hitler's persecution of Jews, especially since Hitler permitted them to take no more than10 Marks ($2.50) out of Germany. None of the Kristallnacht concentration camp prisoners were released until they had signed a document alleging that they suffered no physical harm during incarceration.

Many of my audience were familiar with the widely accepted view of Holocaust historians that Kristallnacht foreshadowed the final extermination plans of the Nazi regime, which were formalized at the Wannsee conference in January, 1942, and resulted in the slaughter of six million European Jews. Nor did I fail to mention the millions of other human beings who were among the Nazis' victims -- political opponents of Hitler's fascism, religious and ethnic groups, and the mentally handicapped.

Given the virulent nationalism that constituted the core ideology of National Socialist propaganda, I felt it important to stress that just as we must not ignore the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust, in which a third of the world's Jews were systematically exterminated, we must recognize the uniqueness of the genocides and inhuman persecution of other groupings, including, for instance, the Native Americans, the Maya Indians, and the uncounted millions of Africans who were so cruelly killed and enslaved in the Americas. I expressed my strongly held view that competition between, or minimizing of other, horrors in human history is regrettable and counterproductive. Each is unique and must be remembered if there is ever to be a more humane existence.

Of course I spoke too of my mother, her career, and her arrest and deportation from Frankfurt, in June, 1942 to the Nazi death camp Majdanek in Poland.

My daughter's exhibition includes family snapshots I took during the 1930's, and portraits of my mother in various opera roles, opera and concert programs, and many other documents and memorabilia. It gives viewers a sense of Leonore Schwarz Neumaier's time as a girl, young woman, celebrated artist, wife and mother, and the happy environment of her life until her years of suffering under Nazi persecution, and how she finally became one of the millions of Jewish victims of Hitler's "Final Solution".

The exhibition also provides the social context of the period, through historical documentation, statistical tables, and other data. The warm response of visitors to the gallery and of the Frankfurt newspapers, all of which covered the opening days of the exhibition, was for me a reassurance. For I believe that such an exhibition helps to create a deeper and more personalized understanding of the Holocaust and may strengthen people's resolve to work for just and equitable relations between people, regardless of nationality, religion, or ethnic background, and for a more peaceful world for all of us.

Poughkeepsie resident Dr. John J. Neumaier was president of SUNY New Paltz from 1968-1972 and of Moorhead (Minn.) State University from 1958-1968. He is philosophy professor emeritus of Empire State College, New York City. His column appears in the first Sunday Freeman of each month, and is broadcast by short-wave station Radio for Peace International.