THE TERROR OF SILENCE
Every time I watch a video of WWII-era German soldiers marching in goosestep, my hips hurt. I can’t imagine why anyone would march that way. On the other hand, I do feel its intended effect—a display of relentless, threatening, and dominating force. It’s not just the visual: a thousand hobnailed boots slapping against a cobblestone street made a thunderous noise.
In the spring of 1939, to a ten-year-old girl named Renee, that thunderous noise meant impending terror. She was the ears of her family: her mother, father, and eight-year-old sister, Herta, were all deaf. When Renee heard any approach of Nazi soldiers, she ran to warn her family using sign language. She did so because they were Jews.
Renee’s family lived in the city of Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, right after it had been declared a “protectorate” of the Third Reich. A city with 15,000 Jews out of a population of 120,000, Jewish citizens had already been restricted to a specific part of the city, been forbidden to assemble or worship, and were required to wear yellow stars on their clothes.
Renee’s father moved the family to Brno, a town seventy miles to the west that had a larger community of Jews, but it wasn’t long before Hitler showed up in a parade. The family moved back to Bratislava and continued to live in the Jewish ghetto. In 1943, her father paid for his daughters to live on a distant gentile farm. Renee had blonde, curly hair (she looked remarkably like Shirley Temple), so the girls removed their yellow stars and lived as gentiles. Everything worked well, except for when it came to eating pork sausage.
While they were away, their father and mother were taken to Auschwitz.
Several months later, in 1944, because the payments had stopped, the farmer took Renee and Herta back to Bratislava and left them on a street. The Jewish area where they had lived was empty. Not only were their parents missing, but everyone else had been forced to leave. Living on the streets for a few months, begging for food, sleeping in abandoned apartments, and taking advantage of a few non-Jewish friends, Renee finally asked the German guards to help them join their parents.
They were shoved into a cattle car of a train to Auschwitz. After problems with railroad tracks being destroyed by Allied aircraft, the train was rerouted from Poland to the Bergen-Belson concentration camp in the north of Germany. Even though it was not an official death camp like Auschwitz/Birkenau, it would eventually bring death to 50,000 prisoners.
Renee and Herta lived for a year at Bergen-Belson, working as prisoner-slaves. Every day they walked in front of a death house where bodies were stacked inside until they overflowed onto the sidewalks. Herta was repeatedly asked to go the “hospital” because the doctors wanted to experiment on a deaf child. When she refused, the doctors left her alone and did not tell the guards; perhaps she would change her mind. Herta’s hair was shaved off because of typhus-carrying lice (lice routinely covered the inside walls of their barracks). Renee contracted typhoid and suffered greatly, but refused to die because Herta would be left alone. When the crisis had passed, Renee was an eleven-year-old with the weight of a three-year-old. During this time, Herta became mute.
Whether living at the farm, wandering the city alone, riding on trains, or being prisoners, Renee held Herta’s hand. Were Herta to wander off, were Herta to be taken or separated, Renee knew that her sister could not survive. No one else could sign to her, no one else could speak for her. The Nazis considered deaf people to not be deserving of life, so if she was discovered to be deaf, Herta would be shot.
The sisters managed to fade into the camouflage of thousands of other children. It was 1944 and the guards were distracted by the Russians on one side and the Allies on the other.
On April 15, 1945, the two sisters watched a truck with strange markings come into the compound, followed by men in strange uniforms. It was the British Army and the concentration camp was being liberated. Working their way through the camp, the British found 60,000 starved and sick prisoners, and 13,000 corpses. Another 14,000 inmates died in the weeks following liberation.
The International Red Cross placed the sisters with a coastal family in Sweden. It was there that they learned their parents were dead.
Later on, Herta attended a school for the deaf in Stockholm while Renee stayed to go to the local school. Renee had had only one year of education, but it helped that she could speak five languages. During the summers, Herta returned and the two were together again.
The sisters remained in Sweden for three years. Only by chance did distant relatives in New York City hear their names called out in an American Red Cross broadcast of abandoned war children. In 1948, Renee and Herta found themselves riding in their first plane and were soon stepping onto a sidewalk in New York City. Renee was fifteen, Herta was thirteen.
They still held hands wherever they went.
Herta would go on to marry Harold Rothenberger and have three children, each of whom was deaf. He died young, however, and she married Richard Myers, who died four months after their wedding. How does that feel when there is only silence? Herta raised her children alone, and now lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Renee married a Yale professor and, between the two of them, established the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University. It is a video compilation of more than 4,000 witnesses to the atrocities and oppressions of the Third Reich. It is from her and Herta’s interviews in 1979 that their journey found its way into a book.
Renee’s husband died in 2016; she still lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Renee and Herta returned to Bratislava in the late 2000s and then, in 2009, returned to what is left of the Bergen-Belson concentration camp. They remembered their year there, and found photos in the museum of children they recognized, but could not find nor could they provide any explanation—religious, philosophical, ideological, or otherwise—for why they and all the others had suffered so brutally.
For more details of their journey, see the book, Signs of Survival, A Memoir of the Holocaust, by Renee Hartman with Joshua M. Greene, printed by Scholastic Press, 2021.
POLAND AND EAST GERMANY IN THE FALL
I’m not obsessed with World War II, but I have found it interesting enough to sign up for a WWII-oriented tour of Poland and East Germany in September and October. I probably have a 50/50 chance of it actually taking place, given the political situation, but I will proceed until something becomes officially canceled.
You can view the trip offering listed on GlobusJourneys.com. I’ve traveled with this tour company before and I like how they do things.
The tour begins in Warsaw, Poland, where the greatest number of Jews in Europe lived in 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland. I’ll go next to Krakow and see Auschwitz, then to Wroclaw and Dresden to see the museums. I’ll spend a couple of days in Berlin seeing the typical tourist spots, and hope to also see the model of Germania that Hitler designed. Next is the city of Weimar, to see the Buchenwald concentration camp. I’ll spend a day in Nuremberg, where I’ll see the stadium where the Nazis held giant rallies, the documentation museum, and the courtroom where the trials were held.
It will then be on to Munich, where I’ll visit the Dachau Concentration Camp and SS Training Center, plus the town structures built during the Third Reich. I’m staying two extra days to visit Salzburg and Berchtesgaden, where the Third Reich established its southern center of government (Hitler’s home) and the Eagle’s Nest.
Along the way, I’m sure to eat more than my share of sausage.
I want to see the country and get a broad view of what happened in the two years after the war – 1945 and 1946. There were 40 million “displaced persons” frantically wandering around Europe after the war and getting them resettled was difficult, at best. It became even more complicated by the vengeance-minded governments who rolled “ethnic cleansing” into the efforts.
On the home front, I have the resolution of The Biggest Cowboy In The World. This was my adult fiction book manuscript that I submitted to my publisher in May of last year, and then retracted it because my editor thought it was awful (she was right). After I rewrote the story, removing about 40k words, I resubmitted the manuscript in October. It was significantly better, but the senior editor still didn’t like it. In January, I retracted it a second time and tossed it back into the drawer. There must be something that I’m missing, but I have since moved on. I’ll try again sometime in the future.
Moving on to my current research for my next writing adventure, I mentioned in a previous blog about being wary of involving myself too deeply in the history of the Third Reich and the atrocities that occurred. It didn’t take as long as I expected to get depressed about the whole mess. In January, I began reading the secret diaries of young women imprisoned in the work camps, concentration camps or in the ghettos of the larger cities.
The diaries describe the horrors of daily living and are hard to read; there’s no emotionally-neutral academic prose to shelter me from their abuse. When my four-year-old granddaughter started showing up in my nightmares, I decided to quit for a while. I’ll get myself balanced out by looking at other sources and then go back to reading the diaries a little at a time.
I’m still not sure what kind of story I want to write, but getting a greater understanding of the situation has shed a lot of light on what’s happening in today’s world. That is, in itself, profitable.
I’ve received feedback that sometimes my blogs are not easy to find on Facebook. I understand—I once posted a blog, then looked for it fifteen minutes later. In that time, more than fifty other posts had shown up; my post was way down in the clutter. I’ve also found that my posts will occasionally just disappear, which is one reason I post not only to the Mogi Franklin site, but to my main site; it seems to help.
If you want to skip Facebook altogether, you can go directly to DonaldWillerton.com and go to the listing of my blogs. You will see not only the current post, but the previous posts, if you want. I post regularly every Sunday afternoon or evening, if able.
On the evening of November 8th, 1923, three key Bavarian government officials were together at a meeting in Munich: Gustav Ritter von Kahr, the Kommissar of Bavaria (commissioner general), General Lossow (head of the Bavarian branch of the German Army), and Colonel Seisser (head of the Bavarian State Police). The commissioner held near-dictatorial powers, while the two officers represented the official military strength of Bavaria.
The meeting was a public gathering at the Burgerbraukeller Beer Hall, where Kahr was giving a speech. Beer halls were the venue of choice in 1920s Munich for town meetings, as well as for drinking and eating. Invitations had been sent to the business community, leading politicians, city officials and parliamentarians, academics, the top newspaper editors, justices, and even members of the royal house of Bavaria. Three thousand patrons now filled every space.
Hitler and the Nazi Party had been planning an insurrection, a putsch, to replace the government at some future date, but this opportunity was too good to pass up. He and his closest confederates set out in a whirl of secret preparations—retrieving weapons, mobilizing and distributing troops, making assignments, deploying resources, setting schedules.
At 8:30 that evening, after Kahr had begun his speech, Hitler and a platoon of uniformed men pushed their way inside the beer hall. He jumped onto a table, fired a pistol at the ceiling, got everyone’s attention, and announced that a “national revolution” had begun and that the building was surrounded by troops; people should not attempt to leave.
As the audience stood stunned, Hitler forced the three officials into a backroom, convinced them to become co-conspirators in the putsch, assigned them high-level leadership roles in the new government (with himself as the new dictator), and demanded their utmost allegiance. With Hitler holding a pistol to their heads, the men agreed.
The crowd grew restless and rowdy, jeering at the soldiers. Hitler returned to the podium, and, sensing the hostility of the crowd, delivered a stirring patriotic, personal, and nationalistic speech that turned the crowd into a rousing, enthusiastic, and vocal group of supporters. When his new co-conspirators joined him on the podium and declared their allegiance to the New Order, the crowd erupted with excitement.
The Nazi Party was well prepared for inciting an insurrection—several militarized groups had been placed to take over government buildings (the putschists had about four thousand armed men) and subdue the existing military forces (which, in Munich, numbered about twenty-six hundred). They expected to take government officials hostage, capture key Jewish businessmen to show their resolve, and had a number of Nazi members ready to take over important government positions as soon as the current occupiers were dethroned. Wall posters, a main method of spreading news, had already been printed and posted, proclaiming the new government. Most importantly, the stately General Ludendorff, a renown and universally admired military hero of World War I, appeared at the Burgerbraukeller, endorsed the takeover, and then helped lead the uprising.
Unfortunately, the Nazis did not capture the communications systems, a requirement for any modern-day insurrection. Within hours, anti-putsch forces had used the telephone and telegraph systems to mobilize forces outside of Munich, send out warnings and instructions, and to order all Munich newspapers to refrain from reporting the event. Without publicity, the putsch could not succeed.
Hitler had left the beer hall to assist in the takeover of the Bavarian military headquarters, leaving his three new co-conspirators in the hands of General Ludendorff. They gave their word of honor that they needed to see to the duties of launching the new government, walked out of the beer hall, and then reversed their pledges of allegiance. They resumed their previous roles and ordered the regular German Army and the Bavarian Police to arrest the insurrectionists. They would soon officially ban the Nazi Party.
Returning to the beer hall and finding levels of despair and discouragement, Hitler greeted the dawn by eating breakfast—two eggs and a slice of meat loaf, with tea—then assessed his situation.
Faced with inevitable defeat, Hitler gave the putsch one last chance and organized the fighters (along with some hostages taken during the night) to march from the beer hall to Odeon Square, a Munich landmark in the inner city. At noon, following their leaders linked arm-in-arm, two thousand men formed into loosely organized parade columns and marched into the heart of Munich. They sang rousing songs, waved flags with swastikas, and shouted slogans all the way to the famous Field Marshals’ Memorial. The public along the route clapped, saluted, and cheered.
Reaching the Memorial, the marchers were suddenly blocked by a line of Bavarian State Police.
It was never established who fired first, but someone did, and chaos broke out. It took only a half-minute of violence to leave four policemen dead, while the marchers lost thirteen men. Hitler was pushed to the ground for protection, covered by a loyal bodyguard (who took several bullets, but would survive). His only injury would be a dislocated shoulder. He escaped to a friend’s villa.
The marchers fled and the putsch was over. Hitler and the Nazis had stormed the gate and failed.
Hitler was found two days later and taken to a state prison in Landsburg, a small town about thirty minutes west of Munich. A state-of-the-art penitentiary that could house five hundred convicts, its compound included several large wings, four stories high. Another wing was special. Called “the fortress”, it was a two-story, rectangular, white-washed building with an orange tile roof, and had been built to house high-level, political prisoners. Inmates there served an “honorable imprisonment”, which translated into having minimum security rules and a few “perks” not given to regular prisoners.
Much like a one-star hotel with bars on the windows, Hitler was placed in the fifth “cell” on the second floor. Two large windows overlooked the prison yard, an ordinary door served for privacy instead of a steel gate, and the inmate was allowed to freely move about the different cells, hallways, and central areas. Hitler’s room had a simple white metal bunk with mattress and blankets, a wooden writing table, two chairs, and a wardrobe. The food would be regular and good. He would later be given a typewriter.
It was, however, still a prison, and Adolf Hitler was a prisoner—angry, disappointed, and in deep anguish. He initially tried to starve himself to death, causing him to be moved to an isolated hospital cell, but was encouraged out of it by a slew of friends and well-wishers. His return to eating did not cause him to be a better prisoner—he still raged against the aborted attempt at an uprising, the three men who had betrayed him, the guards, the gate-keepers, the warden, and especially the lawyers who tried to interview him. A stream of visitors helped substantially, including Ludendorff, who was also facing trial, and his dog, Wolf, who was brought in by special request.
The trial of the high-level prisoners began almost two months later, on a snowy day, February 26, 1924, at a Munich military academy where the security had been beefed up to resist possible attacks. There were three jurors, called “lay judges”, and two professional judges, all led by a chief judge, Georg Neithardt. The trial process called for the defendants to be called first and given time to explain their actions, and then would also be asked to speak again at the trial’s end, in rebuttal if needed. In between, prosecutors, defendants, and lawyers interviewed witnesses and made their arguments.
When he learned that the judges were all Bavarian and that Neithardt was decidedly a nationalist, Hitler sensed an opportunity.
The trial was a major news event even beyond Germany. The trial attendees included not only a corps of German newspapermen, but nearly fifty foreign journalists, including the New York Times and the London Times. Some local newspapers put out two editions a day while covering the trial. It was the largest audience Hitler could have ever dreamed of.
Giving his opening speech (it lasted four hours; he had prepared 52 pages of notes) and ending with a final rebuttal a month later (it was much shorter), Adolf Hitler freely confessed to the charges laid against him. He portrayed himself as a fiercely loyal, patriotic, full-blooded, wounded army veteran who passionately wished for Germany to be reborn as the Great Nation that it had once been.
He decried the betrayals that brought Germany’s loss in WWI, the illegitimate and humiliating sanctions of the Versailles Treaty, the gutless intervening German governments, the degradation of race and culture brought about by the mixing of diverse peoples, and the utter destruction of German society brought about by the Jews and the Bolsheviks. If he acted through rebellion, it was because of his desire for the return of honor, dignity, purity, national strength, and national pride. He foretold of a new Germany, one of international prominence and respect, and was ready to leap forward to make it happen.
He used the trial as a “bully pulpit” to lay out his understanding of the past and present, while he painted the image of a glowing, powerful, and righteous future Germany. The German attendees (even the prosecuting attorneys), as well as the judges, were swept up in the heroic language of his descriptions and the artistry of his images; there were often rounds of applause. He addressed their fears, their resentments, their hopes, telling them what they so wanted to hear. He convinced them that no true German would have performed any differently than he, and that he had acted in all their names as well as his own.
Even framed by clear statements of his role in the history of Germany, Hitler could not escape a guilty verdict (he had confessed, after all) and received the minimum mandatory sentence of five years imprisonment. However, Neithardt made him eligible for parole in six months, making his conviction for high treason a veritable slap-on-the-wrist.
More importantly, the international political community now knew his name and had witnessed the power that he possessed. Adolf Hitler had made it clear that he and his principles were not only a force in Germany’s future, they were Germany’s future. It was a position he never relinquished.
Remember the movie Chariots of Fire? Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, both world-class runners in the 100 meters were competing at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Because of his Christian beliefs, Liddell refused to run in a 100-meter qualifying heat that took place on a Sunday, making it impossible for him to compete any further. However, a fellow teammate offered his place in the 400-meter race to Liddell, who had never competed at 400 meters. Liddell accepted and went on to win the gold in the 400-meters, while Abrahams won the gold in the 100-meters. It was a great movie.
In 1924, my father was four years old, my mother three; the Wrigley Building in Chicago was completed as the headquarters of the Wrigley Gum Company; two U. S. Army planes completed the first round-the-world flight, taking 175 days; and the first Winter Olympics were held in Chamonix, France, in February, with Norway winning 17 medals and Finland coming in second with 11.
In 1924, the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company changed its name to International Business Machines Corporation (IBM); Simon & Schuster published the first crossword puzzle book; Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming was elected the first female governor in the United States; and the Loeb brothers committed murder.
The most important event of 1924, however, was that Adolf Hitler was tried in a People’s Court of Bavaria, a state within Germany, and was found guilty of high treason.
Yeah, that wasn’t in my Top Ten, either. I knew that Hitler had spent a few months in jail, but didn’t remember anything specific about it. For all that is associated with Hitler, I never considered that any particular year was more significant than others.
But 1924 was more significant--unbelievably significant. Being arrested for attempting to overthrow the Bavarian state government was crushing to him at the time (first, that it had failed; second, that the common sentence for high treason was hanging), but the trial afterwards made Adolph Hitler into everything he wanted to be, and set the context for everything that we remember him for.
Looking at Hitler’s attempted coup, its failure, his arrest, his trial, his imprisonment, and the subsequent fallout made me interested in reading about Hitler, his beliefs, and his personality traits. I can only read what other people have said, but I have found him more dimensional than the typical caricature--the moustache, the slick-backed hair, the penetrating eyes, the shouting, the salute, the intense anti-Semitism, the pervasive evil, the psychopathic behavior.
He had, in fact, rather ordinary personality traits that sound familiar to me. He was socially clumsy, had lower class sensitivities, heavily resented the upper class, was embarrassed by body odors (he apparently farted a lot and took medicine for it), became a vegetarian and a hypochondriac, and was inept around women (maybe because he considered them inferior, but maybe because they made him feel small; I know that feeling).
He made jokes, but was more amused by other people’s jokes. He sometimes belly-laughed until he lost his breath. He had little regard for schedules and was habitually late for meetings (he would later require a full-time secretary to guide him through his day). He would stay awake most nights because he couldn’t sleep and then routinely stay in bed past noon. He wasted considerable time in idleness and caused others to waste their time as well. He was a famously bad dresser—wearing the same overcoat for years, using a tie until it frayed, having few clothes, never buying a new hat.
His best friend was his dog, a German Shepherd named Wolf. He was amazingly harsh and vindictive towards his companions, making him a solitary figure while still being desperate for attention. Not counting his mother, he was never emotionally close or even open to anyone. Even Eva Braun lived life at a distance. She was isolated until she was called for, kept apart from visitors, could only be around Hitler at his discretion, and was allowed few friends of her own. He wanted her focus to be on him only.
Rather than marching through his personal history, I have summarized some of his personality traits. As inadequate an approach as this is, you’ll see how the traits factor into his trial and imprisonment.
I want to emphasize:
“I can recall the gaunt, pale-faced youth pretty well. He had definite talent, though in a narrow field. But he lacked self-discipline, being notoriously cantankerous, willful, arrogant, and irascible. He had obvious difficulty in fitting in at school. Moreover, he was lazy; otherwise, with his gifts, he would have done very much better…But his enthusiasm for hard work evaporated all too quickly. He reacted with ill-concealed hostility to advice or reproof; at the same time, he demanded of his fellow pupils their unqualified subservience, fancying himself in the role of a leader.”
[He dropped out of school after the eighth grade. That was the extent of his formal education.]
There are more traits, but these reflect the foundations of his behavior by 1919 and will resonate with what is said at his trial in 1924.
In the following four years, 1919-1923, Adolf Hitler would go from being a loner and “an oddball” to becoming one of the most powerful political figures in German politics.
He had learned radical political concepts while living in poverty in Vienna for five years, then moved to Munich and joined the German army, swept up by the fervor of WWI. He fought four years in the trenches of France and Belgium, then continued in the army until he visited a meeting of the German Workers’ Party. He was intrigued, supportive, and then obsessed with forming a new government based on Socialism.
His ability to debate the political leaders and to mobilize the group members was far beyond the capabilities of the others and he was asked to be their spokesman. The group changed the name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party--Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Arbeiterverein--abbreviated in German as the “Nazi” Party. Hitler accepted and soon rose to the leadership position.
The Nazi Party became the venue by which he catapulted himself into being a widely recognized, gifted speaker.
Meanwhile, Germany was readying itself for someone just like him.
In 1923, Germany was in economic, social, and political chaos. In the few years after 1918, the German government [now a democracy, as demanded by the Treaty of Versailles] had changed eleven times; frequent elections brought heated clashes between the more than forty political parties trying to gain seats in the German parliament; inflation had made a single egg cost 80 million marks, a pound of butter, 6 billion, a glass of beer, 150 million; millions of men were out of work; rampant violence filled the streets; the Communists were infiltrating the various levels of society; and then France suddenly occupied the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial center. It infuriated the German people, while its government only begged for their restraint.
Something had to be done. The humiliation had gone on long enough and things had to change. Mass demonstrations were held in Munich, demanding revolution; a coup was needed. The rumors began flying that one of the political factions was about to seize power.
On the evening of November 8th, 1923, one of them did.
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.