After the Reichstag fire in January, 1933, a decree was issued by German President Hindenburg that severely limited German civil rights (free speech, free assembly, freedom from unwarranted search, etc.), all done in the name of national security and peace. That decree allowed the Nazi Party to round up political opponents, ransack their headquarters, interrupt their meetings, and create general havoc in anticipation of the national election to be held on March 5. With the help of the Nationalists, the Nazi party won a majority by 17 seats out 647. In the days following the election, the Nazi Party brutally manhandled their political enemies and imprisoned them in abandoned army barracks, factories, and various remote sites.
That was the beginning of concentration camps. Most initial camps were close to Berlin, but others soon sprang up across Germany. Used at first to imprison political opponents, they soon hosted a spectrum of Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and persons accused of “asocial” or socially deviant behavior, as well as Jews. All were viewed by Hitler as enemies of the German people. Jews were added because it was generally accepted that they had helped engineer the disgraceful surrender of Germany at the end of WWI.
During the Third Reich, the persecution of Jewish people had four general phases. The first phase was legalized discrimination, where laws were passed demanding that Jews publicly self-identify, that Jewish businesses be openly marked, that Germans were forbidden to buy Jewish goods, that Jewish citizens were forbidden to go into public places, forced to wear the infamous yellow Star of David, not go to certain locations, report their finances and property, and other public humiliations. There was considerable pressure for Jews to leave their homes and emigrate outside of Germany.
On the night of November 9, 1938, Krystallnacht took it into a second phase. Jewish businesses were broken into, looted, and burned, while Jewish citizens were drug into the streets and beaten. Synagogues were burned. German citizens endorsed and participated in gangs, rallies, and open violence, resulting in Jews being killed, degraded, arrested, confined, and their businesses, property and money confiscated. Wanton killings of Jews were carried out, typically at the moment of perceived disobedience, or in groups to align with strategic political visions. Those suspected or arrested were taken to concentration camps.
The invasion of Poland in 1939 brought on a third general phase of Jewish persecution: Jews in Poland were systematically forced into ghettos, as were Russian Jews after the invasion of Russia. It soon became obvious that ghettos were not meant to be permanent places of settlement, but round-up centers to make it more convenient to move the occupants to forced labor camps, concentration camps and extermination camps.
Researchers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum have found that the Nazis established 42,500 camps and ghettoes between 1933 and 1945. The count includes 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettoes; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 POW camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm. Berlin alone had nearly 3,000 camps.
In addition to the creation of ghettos, the third general phase included mass killings, primarily those of Jewish descent, but also including Poles and Slavs, Soviet POWs, and isolated groups of civilians in conquered countries.
For example, when the German army invaded Poland in 1939, twenty-six hundred members of an SS task force followed behind the regular army and carried out “security activities” in the conquered areas. That translated into taking groups of typically Jewish men, women, and children into the countryside, making them dig large pits, and then standing in the pits as they were shot. The preferred target was the back of the head so the firing squads would not see their faces.
When the German army invaded Russia in 1941, four major groups of three thousand men each followed the army to hunt down Russian Jews wherever they could find them. Typically, they would round up Jews in the larger towns, march them outside the town, and shoot them alongside ditches or antitank trenches. They also massacred groups of Russian civilians.
The culmination of mass shootings came in 1941 at Babi-Yar on the outskirts of Kiev where thirty-three thousand Jews were murdered in a single event. It is estimated that a total of 700,000 Jews died in mass killings.
However, the men of the special killing units were physically and psychologically affected. Many became alcoholics, or chronically ill, while others committed suicide. The Reich leadership sought a better method for maintaining the pace of the killing and even to expanding the eradication of the remaining European Jews using more efficient and less personal methods.
On January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, second in command to Heinrich Himmler, called a meeting of fifteen high-level Nazi leaders in a villa in a posh Berlin suburb located on Lake Grosser Wannsee. Briefing them of recent developments, he posted a graphic that summarized the intent of Operation Reinhard, an effort that had begun the previous fall that was regarded as the “final solution” needed to address the “Jewish problem.” The graphic had two lists of names, each followed by a number.
The first list had the names of countries over which the Third Reich had command, followed by the estimates of the number of Jews in each country. For example, Germany proper had 131,800; Austria had 43,700; the General Government portion of Poland had 2,284,000; Occupied France had 165,000; and so on.
Those numbers were the estimates of the Jewish population in each country, the population that Reinhard Heydrich had been sanctioned by Hitler to exterminate. Operation Reinhard was created to develop the means and then carry out the killings.
Six special extermination camps had been, or were going to be, created exclusively for the purpose of killing people on a large scale: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobidor, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, all located in central Poland, which had the largest Jewish population in Nazi-controlled Europe.
When all six were operating at full capacity, the Reich would be able to kill twenty-five thousand people every day. The purpose of meeting with the high-level Nazi leaders was to initiate the coordination of the pickup and delivery of Jewish men, women and children to the killing centers, plus the materials, troops, trains, and schedules to meet the needs of the program.
Chelmno had been used in Hitler’s euthanasia program. The camp developed the techniques and procedures for using poisonous exhaust fumes in killing large groups of people, using the physically and mentally disabled as test patients. Started in 1939, the program would eventually result in the deaths of 70,000 people.
For Operation Reinhard, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobidor, and Treblinka would use exhaust fumes from internal combustion engines to poison its prisoners, while the killing centers of Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau would use the new cyanide-based Zykon-B capsules. Bodies would be disposed of either by burying or cremation.
When it became apparent that Germany might lose the war, the SS made considerable effort to disguise or hide the purpose of the extermination camps. Excavations were done to find buried bodies and burn them on funeral pyres made from oil-soaked railroad ties; they even created a machine to grind up the bones. Afterwards, the ashes were scattered across fields.
The SS also destroyed large amounts of camp records, making it now impossible to know the exact number of deaths caused through Operation Reinhard. It was, no doubt, a large percentage of the quoted WWII total figure of six million Jewish deaths.
Remember that there were two lists on Heydrich’s graphic? The second list was of countries in Europe not under Nazi control, with the estimated number of Jews in each. For example, he listed:
England – 350,000
Ireland – 4,000
Italy – 58,000
Portugal – 3,000
Spain – 6,000
Switzerland – 18,000
USSR – 5,000,000.
How he expected to exterminate the Jews in those countries, I don’t know. Regardless of the reality, Reinhard Heydrich’s vision was such that he (and the Third Reich, in general) had been sanctioned to eliminate 11,000,000 Jews from Europe, and he was quick to take up the challenge.
He was assassinated a few months later.
A TRAIN IN WINTER
At three o’clock on the morning of the 15th of February, 1942, sixty French police inspectors set out across occupied Paris to make pre-planned arrests. Over the next forty-eight hours, they banged on doors, forced their way into houses, shops, offices and storerooms, searched cellars and attics, pigsties and garden sheds, larders and cupboards.
They found notebooks, addresses, false IDs, explosives, revolvers, propaganda tracts, expertly forged ration books and birth certificates, as well as blueprints for attacks on trains. There were dozens of torn postcards, train timetables and tickets that would serve as passwords when matched with those held by others working in the Resistance. Their haul included three million anti-German and anti-Vichy tracts, three tons of paper, two typewriters, eight duplicating machines, 1,000 stencils, 100 kilos of ink and 300,000 francs.
One hundred and thirteen people, of whom thirty-five were women, were arrested and imprisoned in a fort outside of Paris. Nine months later on the snowy morning of January 24th, 1943, thirty of those women joined two hundred others like themselves, arrested from all parts of occupied France, on the only train, during the entire four years of German occupation, to take women of the French Resistance to their final destination—Auschwitz. Only forty-nine would return.
Among the women were teachers and secretaries, students, chemists, farm workers, housekeepers, writers and housewives; a singer at the Paris Opera, a mid-wife, a dental surgeon. They had distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, printed subversive newspapers, hid resisters, secreted Jews to safety, transported weapons, and conveyed clandestine messages. Strangers to each other, hailing from villages and cities, these brave women were united in hatred and defiance of their Nazi occupiers.
In 2008, Carolyn Moorehead, renown writer and biographer whose works include biographies of Martha Gellhorn and Bertrand Russell, went on a search for the women who had huddled together on that train. She found seven of the women still alive, but only four who could sit and talk; three were too frail to welcome visitors. Beginning in 2009, Moorehead began looking for those who did not return from the Nazi camp or who had died since. Covering the length and breadth of France, the descendants, some now in their seventies, produced letters, photographs, and diaries that gave intimate pictures of the women’s lives and their captivity.
Moorehead published A Train in Winter in 2011, drawing on interviews with the women and their families, as well as the families of others; German, French, and Polish archives; and documents held by World War II resistance organizations. It uncovers a dark chapter of history that offers an inspiring portrait of ordinary people, of bravery and survival, and the remarkable, enduring power of female friendship. I found A Train in Winter in a public library for-sale shop and could not keep from buying it. I have already found the story compelling.
Moorehead has a paragraph in the preface about the story she tells:
“This is a book about friendship between women, and the importance that they attach to intimacy and to looking after each other, and about how, under conditions of acute hardship and danger such mutual dependency can make the difference between living and dying. It is about courage, facing and surviving the worst that life can offer, with dignity and an unassailable determination not to be destroyed. Those who came back to France in 1945 owed their lives principally to chance, but they owed it too in no small measure to the tenacity with which they clung to one another, though separated by every direction of class, age, religion, occupation, politics and education. They did not all, of course, like each other equally: some were far closer friends than others. But each watched out for the others with the same degree of attention and concern and minded every death with anguish. And what they all went through, month after month, lay at the very outer limits of human endurance.”
WHEN SOLDIERS WOULDN'T FIGHT
I would have made a terrible soldier during the American Revolution. I can imagine staring in disbelief when my infantry commander told me to stand upright, shoulder-to-shoulder with the other soldiers, march out into an open field in a straight line, the British doing the same, and then, when within 30 to 50 yards of each other, shoot a muzzleloader at the soldier across from me, after which I was to reload while the other side fired back. I just wouldn’t have done it. I’m no coward but I can recognize a low percentage of survival. I would have suggested hiding behind a tree or something.
It would have been the same at Gettysburg, when General Lee lined his soldiers up and told them to march a mile across open fields to attack Union troops crouched behind a stone wall, all the while under cannon fire. It looked noble and impressive in the movie Gettysburg, but I ain’t agonna do it.
Or maybe I would have; it would take being there to know the truth. Either way, to die needlessly is a travesty hard to accept.
In reading about the First World War, I found a story of when a great number of soldiers were told to attack and then refused.
The Battle of Verdun, in 1916, was a battle of the French Army versus the German Army in a relatively small area of land northeast of Paris. The Army was first commanded by Marshall Philippe Petain, then by General Robert Nivelle. Fought from February 21st to the 18th of December, it was the longest battle of World War I (302 days) and one of the most costly in human history. There were about 377,000 (163,000 dead) French casualties, while the Germans had about 337,000 (143,000 dead) casualties. It was eventually a French victory because the Germans gave up first, and the battle came to symbolize the determination of the French Army.
There were, however, lasting consequences. Fighting in such a small area devastated the land, resulting in miserable conditions for troops on both sides. Rain and constant artillery bombardments turned the clay soil into a wasteland of mud full of debris and human remains; shell craters filled with water and soldiers risked drowning in them, not to mention the sodden trenches in which they lived. Forests were reduced to tangled piles of wood by artillery fire and eventually obliterated. The effect of the battle on many soldiers was profound and accounts of men breaking down with insanity and shell shock were common. There were many desertions.
As much as Verdun has to tell, my story happens a few months later, in April of 1917. It was the memories of Verdun that brought about the disobedience in the battlefield.
The situation was again northeast of Paris and was again the Germans versus the French, with the French now on the offensive. In briefing his troops before the battle, General Nivelle promised a war-winning decisive victory that would be accomplished in 48 hours and cost no more than 15,000 casualties.
At the start, morale among the French troops was high and the initial fighting brought substantial gains. They were soon brought to a halt by the newly built and extremely strong defenses of the Hindenburg Line. Nivelle persisted with frontal assaults and by April 25th, the French had suffered nearly 135,000 casualties, including 30,000 dead. Nivelle continued the offensive, but on May 3rd, the 21st Division, which had been involved in some of the heaviest fighting at Verdun, refused orders to go into battle.
They began what is called the French Army Mutinies. Within days, acts of “collective indiscipline” had spread to 54 army divisions (out of 113 total), while a record 27,000 French soldiers deserted. The vast majority of the mutineers were willing to defend their own lines, but refused to participate in offensive actions, indicating the level of distrust in the army leadership.
The French offensive was suspended on May 9th. General Nivelle was removed and Marshall Petain again took over. Petain was more concerned with the improvement of the soldiers than in punishment for the mutinous actions. He set about addressing their needs and improving the morale by talking to the men, promising no more suicidal attacks, providing rest and leave for exhausted units, and moderating discipline. Other demands by the troops included better economic support for families at home, more regular periods of leave, and more liberty when away from combat. The soldiers basically felt that their lives were being disregarded by army leaders.
Because of the low morale in more than half of the French Army, it took until the early months of 1918 for the French infantry to fully recover. Petain's strategy was to keep the line by using artillery units and wait for the arrival and deployment of the soldiers from the United States Army. He also waited for the coming of new and improved versions of the French tank, produced by Renault.
Did the German Army take advantage of the situation and drive hard against the discouraged French troops? In one of the greatest lapses of military intelligence gathering of the war, the Germans didn’t even know about the internal strife. The mutinies were not reported in the press and were not publicly mentioned by the French military. The Germans did not learn of the French Army’s situation until after the war.
CURIOSITY ON STEROIDS
In 1769, on a hilltop in colonial Virginia, a young man began building a house. It was his dream and his passion, and he delighted in its construction to the extent that he became much more interested in “putting up and pulling down” than he was in actually completing the house. In fact, he became so caught up in the design and redesign of the various parts of the structure, reworking and reimagining the materials and functionality, as well as learning the ins and outs of the various crafts, skills, and technologies required, that he would die before it was completed, fifty-four years after he had begun.
His building obsession was complicated by the colonies’ dependency on Mother England for supplies and furnishings. It took months from the ordering of various materials to the delivery of the materials to the building site. It wasn’t helped by England’s enjoyment of a captive market and relentless trade requirements. By the eve of the revolution, America had effectively become Britain’s export market. The colonies took 80 percent of British linen exports, 76 percent of exported nails, 60 percent of wrought iron, and nearly half of all the glass England sold abroad, not to mention the 30,000 pounds of silk, 11,000 pounds of salt, and over 130,000 beaver hats that were imported for everyday living. Many of the goods were made from raw materials that had originated in America in the first place and could easily have manufactured at home, if it had had the internal markets and the distribution capabilities.
Additionally, the young man had to fire his own bricks -- 650,000 of them -- but it was a difficult business and he routinely could use only half of what he produced because his home-made kilns heated unevenly. When the Continental Congress passed a nonimportation agreement, he began manufacturing his own nails.
Nonetheless, Thomas Jefferson persevered, incorporating into Monticello such innovations as its well-known dome, thirteen skylights, a dumbwaiter built into a chimney, indoor toilets, and a pair of doors that would both open when only one door was pushed, charming and mystifying experts for a century and a half. It wasn’t until remodeling efforts in the 1950s exposed a rod-and-pully mechanism hidden in the floor.
When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, he had debts of more than $100,000 and Monticello still stood unfinished. His daughter put it on the market for $70,000 but, in the end, sold it for $7,000 to a man who tried to make the plantation into a silk farm. It didn’t work out and the house and property were sold in 1836 to Uriah Phillips Levy, the sole Jewish naval officer in the U. S. Navy. At the outbreak of the Civil War, it was seized by the Confederate government, but returned afterwards. In 1923, the Levy family sold the property to a newly formed Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and Monticello went through a long program of restoration and renovation until it was finished in 1954.
I would not have learned of Jefferson and Monticello if it hadn’t been for a far more modest country home located in the easternmost part of England. A former Church of England rectory in a village in Norfolk, it was designed and built in 1851 by one Edward Tull of Aylsham for a young clergyman named Thomas John Gordon Marsham. Thomas was twenty-nine years old and unmarried, and remained that way for life. His housekeeper, Elizabeth Worm, stayed with him for some fifty years until her death in 1899.
Some one hundred and fifty years after the date of its construction, an accomplished and world-renown writer named Bill Bryson and his wife bought the Old Rectory and made it their home. Being blessed with an outsized curiosity, Bill Bryson continued a pattern set in his other books and began to research, characterize, and write about the history of the rectory, in particular, and personal houses, in general.
For your reading pleasure, I recommend Bill Bryson’s At Home, A Short History of Private Life, published by Anchor Books in 2011. It’s fascinating and engrossing, and consists of an uncountable number of stories, anecdotes, biographies, observations, and narratives concerning the structures that people live in today and why they look the way they do. It took a vibrant evolution of people and society to come up with kitchens, sculleries, larders, drawing rooms, dining rooms, cellars, studies, stairways, bedrooms, dressing rooms, nurseries, porches, and attics, not to mention our modern entryways, mud rooms, walk-in closets, exercise areas, and sun rooms.
Bryson seeks out answers for such ponderous questions as: why salt and pepper shakers are commonplace on eating tables, but not other spices; what houses looked like before hallways were invented; why the most beautiful room in Monticello was the attic; why bone ashes were added to bread; how conventions around burials came to be; why well-to-do women in the late 1700s were often forced to sit on the floors of enclosed carriages; and why the cost of sugar caused people to artificially blacken their teeth.
It is a fun read and the extent of his knowledge is staggering. Bryson endeavors to show that the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly, and he does it with humor, compassion, and genuine interest. It is a delight to see his unpretentious, wide-ranging curiosity in action.
I rarely make New Year resolutions because I’m pretty good with managing my expectations and goals throughout the year. I am mostly tactical and timely about my activities – what I want or need on a daily or weekly basis – but I do find the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve a good time to review the bigger picture: did I do what was important? did I help others in both physical and emotional ways? did I reflect a life well lived?
I also take time to sketch out my major expectations for the year to come. For 2022, I included an eleventh Mogi mystery, plus another adult book; one or more visits to my distant sons and their families; active support of family projects; a research trip or two to help me visualize my new stories; a major rafting adventure, if I get a permit; and the regular reading of a variety of books.
I also set a goal of investing more effort in writing my more-or-less-weekly website blogs. I began writing blogs in 2017 because my editor told me that it would help sell my books and allow the multitude of my readers to view me more personably. Regardless of what actually happened, I grew to enjoy writing short essays on a regular basis, passing on interesting stories, historical anecdotes, book recommendations, as well as commenting on the various aspects of my learning the craft of writing novels. If nothing else, my efforts helped keep me centered and authentic.
However, I now have a dilemma. After Teddy’s War was finished, I read a non-fiction book that dealt with the post-war activities in Eastern Europe, in 1945-46, when all of Europe was reeling from its devastation. In particular, how 40 million refugees were moving every direction throughout every countryside, trying to restart whatever pieces of their former lives they could find. I found the situation engrossing, relatively unknown, dramatic, and incredibly revealing about nation-states, which prompted me to think that somewhere in that time period had to be the material for a novel.
That prompted me to learn more about WWII and specifically about the Nazi regime. I’m currently reading a thick, scholarly, garage-sale book about Hitler, the growth of the Nazi Party, and the entrenched goals of the Third Reich. For about 700 pages (no pictures), the book covers the development of Nazism in Europe from the end of WWI to after the Nuremberg Trials, especially showing the political intrigue and manipulation in regards to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary and other nations of Eastern Europe.
The book is very interesting, has an amazing amount of historical facts, and presents a great overview of the time period, but it puts me in a quandary about writing about it. So far, the characterization of the whole era and its people has been incredibly depressing. I’ve had to go slowly to avoid a build-up of weariness and disbelief.
The detailed history has been depressing enough that it makes me wonder if I want to spend the next year writing a novel set against Europe before, during, and after the Third Reich. So far, every major player in the Reich leadership seems to be a psychopath, as well as self-serving, amoral, brutal, and downright vicious. I’m feeling stuck inside an asylum for the criminally insane, watching the inmates take over the building.
That makes it difficult to imagine writing blogs about what would undoubtably be my focus for the next several months. It might be interesting, but who wants to read depressing stuff on a regular basis?
I intend to finish the current book, read an in-depth book about Czechoslovakia, and then a history of Poland. I’m even considering signing up with a tour company for a two-week, WWII-focused trip through Poland and Germany. I’ll enjoy seeing the country and learning the history firsthand, but I’ll also be seeking a resolution to my dilemma. I need to be confident of not only my capability and dedication for pursuing this new writing adventure, but of being able to enjoy it without being compromised by its misery.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.