Fort McCoy News May 8, 2015

Holocaust speaker: History made by action, inaction

Public Affairs Staff

No study of human behavior and ethics is better than the Holocaust, according to Stephen Feinberg.

Feinberg, former special assistant of educational programs for the National Institute for Holocaust Education at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., was the guest speaker at Fort McCoy's April 16 observance of the Holocaust National Days of Remembrance. The topic was ethics and decision-making during the Holocaust.

Stephen Feinberg, former special assistant of educational programs for the National Institute for Holocaust Education at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, speaks to Fort McCoy community members during the installation's observance of the Holocaust National Days of Remembrance April 16 in building 905. Photo by Scott T. Sturkol

Feinberg began the lecture with an overview of the history of the Nazi party, including its ideology and its rise to power, and events leading up to the Holocaust. More than 6 million European Jews were killed, mostly from 1939 to 1945, by the Nazi regime. While Jews were the primary victims, others, such as Roma (also known as Gypsies), Poles, people with disabilities, and many more, also were targeted for ideological reasons.

Feinberg said some people think World War II and the Holocaust were inevitable. "History is not inevitable," Feinberg countered. "History is made by people who act or who do not act. It is made by institutions that act or do not act."

Feinberg cautioned people not to lump members of the Nazi party or German citizens into categories. Instead, he said, people should think of individual people and the things they did leading up to and during the war.

"It is very difficult to talk about the Nazi regime in generalities," Feinberg said. "You have to look at the actions of individuals."

As an example, he mentioned Karl Plagge, a German commander stationed in Vilnius, Lithuania, who helped 1,240 Jews by claiming the men were essential workers and giving them permits to keep them and their Families out of concentration camps. On the other hand, Feinberg said, residents of Hanau, Germany, came out in droves to buy seized Jewish possessions at auction.


"Not Adolf Hitler, not Heinrich Himmler, not any of the big-name Nazis you know," Feinberg said. "Oskar Schmidt, Brunhilde Braun were buying things that were taken from their neighbors."

There were Roman Catholic priests who supported and those who opposed the Nazis' actions, Feinberg said. Ludwig Kaas, for example, helped solidify power for Hitler and the Nazis by convincing his party to help pass the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler and the Cabinet the power to enact laws. Kaas did so, Feinberg said, because he was promised the new government wouldn't interfere in Catholic education or youth groups.

Clemens August von Galen, the bishop of Munster, condemned the T4 program (which authorized doctors to end lives if the patients had incurable illnesses) in a series of sermons, Feinberg said. Von Galen said allowing "unproductive" humans to be killed opened the door to killing others. The sermons enraged Nazi leaders.

"But (von Galen) said this in August of 1941. Russia had just been invaded. The last thing the Nazis wanted to do was to attack the Catholic Church because … more than a third of their soldiers were Catholic," Feinberg said.

"So you always have individuals taking actions, which puts the lie to (the idea that) if you didn't obey the Nazis, you were killed." It depended, he added, on the time and place.

Governments and institutions made their own choices that affected the Holocaust. Only one government withdrew its ambassador after Kristallnacht in November 1938, Feinberg said. During Kristallnacht, also called the "Night of Broken Glass," Nazis and Hitler Youth members destroyed Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues throughout Germany and Austria. About 30,000 Jewish men were arrested in the aftermath.

After Kristallnacht, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recalled the U.S. ambassador and extended visitors' visas for about 12,000 German Jews in the U.S. But, Roosevelt also said the U.S. immigration quota of the time would remain in place, Feinberg said. The quota, enacted in 1924, severely limited immigration from most of the hardest-hit countries in Eastern Europe.

Jews had to make their own ethical choices during the war, too, Feinberg said. Religious Jews would ask their rabbis if it was acceptable to purchase Christian baptism certificates for girls or if they should allow their sons to fight against their oppressors.

Feinberg also discussed Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski, the leader of the ghetto in Lodz, Poland. When the Nazis told Rumkowski to bring them Jews for deportation, "he basically went in front of the people of the ghetto and said, 'Give me your children,'" Feinberg said. Rumkowski thought the Jews of Lodz could survive by being useful workers and outlasting the war.

Feinberg held up Dr. Adina Blady Szwajger, a physician in the Warsaw ghetto, as another example of Jews' moral dilemmas. Szwajger gave lethal doses of morphine to elderly patients and children when the Nazis, who sometimes killed sick patients by throwing them out of windows, arrived to clear out the ghetto.

Such dilemmas didn't end when Jews reached concentration camps. "(Dr.) Gisella Perl … saved the lives of hundreds of women by aborting their pregnancies at Auschwitz," Feinberg said, "because if they had been known to be pregnant, they would have been sent immediately to the gas chamber."

Feinberg said people often ask what the Nazis had against Jews. "According to Nazi racial theory, if you believe that history is a struggle of races, Jews are a race like any other; they want to dominate," he said. The Nazis thought Jews were an "unnatural" race because they had not assimilated or disappeared after the last Jewish kingdom fell.

"If you believe what the Nazis believed, it was a good thing to prepare for war. ... It was a good thing to separate races," Feinberg said. "If you believe in this perverted ideology, your moral universe flip-flops."

Studying the Holocaust teaches the dangers of remaining silent and being apathetic, Feinberg concluded. "If you learn anything (from the Holocaust), it's that you have to act, and you have to act in a way that is consistent with what you feel is morally and ethically correct behavior," Feinberg said.

"There is no better study, I think, in (the) history of human behavior than the Holocaust because you see all varieties of behavior, from the most barbaric to the most altruistic."

For more information about observances at Fort McCoy, contact the Equal Opportunity adviser at 608-388-3246.