“the German War is at an end”

This is how Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced the end of World War II 75 years ago today. On May 8, 1945, after six years at war in which millions of young lives were lost, the guns finally fell silent over Europe. The Allies defeated Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and the day became known as VE – Victory in Europe – day.

75 years later the generation that fought this war remains undoubtedly the greatest generation. The sacrifices made by the young men and women of this generation defy understanding, and we owe them an unpayable debt of gratitude for the freedoms we all take for granted. The men that fought this war, those that are still alive, continue to inspire and amaze us to this day. One such hero is World War II veteran captain Tom Moore who turned 100 years old on April 30th.

Captain Tom celebrating his 100th birthday

War veterans like Captain Tom know how to inspire – they have seen the worst of humanity, they have lived to tell about it, they choose to see the positive instead of dwelling on the negative. Captain Tom has singlehandedly brought the UK – perhaps even the world – together at this time – across generations and across all financial and racial boundaries. Captain Tom, a lifelong fan of Britain’s Health system (NHS) decided to walk a 100 laps of his garden by his 100th birthday to raise $1200 for the NHS.

Captain Tom completing his 100th lap for charity
Captain Tom as a young man in the army.

A world dealing with a pandemic found its hero – and Captain Tom raised $40 million. He received 125,000 cards on his birthday, a Royal Air Force flypast, and a possible knighthood. And like all people of his generation, Captain Tom told the world to remain positive and hopeful: “For all those finding it difficult: the sun will shine on you again and the clouds will go away.” What an amazing man!!

As the world battles with an enemy of a different sort, on this day when six years of darkness ended, we should pause and remember the heroes of World War II that sacrificed so much, and learn to live life with the same grace that they showed during and after the war, and continue to show to this day.

Dresden: Phoenix Rising

Before World War II

February 13 – 15 , 1945 – the Allied bombing of Dresden

Aftermath & Rebuilding of Dresden – brick by brick

Dresden as part of communist DDR – the city lay in ruins until the 1990s

Dresden is rebuilt to its former glory after reunification

(All images courtesy of AP, loc.gov, Dresden tourism sites)

Auschwitz – 27 January 1945

75 years ago today, on January 27, 1945, over 7000 prisoners of the German Nazi camp were liberated by the Soviet Army. It was day 1,689. Nazis had deported 1.1 million Jews, 150 thousand Poles, 23 thousand Roma, 15 thousand Prisoners of war and 25 thousand others to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945. 1.1 million Jews were murdered. ( All images:@AuschwitzMuseum)

Sunday Seven – Liberation of Auschwitz

Arbeit Macht Frei – Work makes You Free. The sign was made by an inmate who put the upside down B as a gesture of defiance.

On Jan 27, 1945 – 75 years ago – the Soviet Army liberated over 7000 prisoners at Auschwitz. These quotes are from survivors of Auschwitz, with the exception of the first quote that is so powerful that I wanted to include it in this list.

  • Wenn es einen Gott gibt muse r mich um Verzeihung bitten. (If there is a God, He will have to beg my forgiveness). Unknown, Mauthausen Concentration Camp prison cell wall.
  • All of a sudden you are told to leave it all and walk out with a single suitcase. Irene Fogel Weiss, Survivor
  • I realize that loss of faith in people is more devastating than loss of faith in God. Irene Fogel Weiss, Survivor
  • I had survivor’s guilt. Edith Eger, Survivor.
  • So, let us be alert – – alert in a twofold sense. Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake. Victor E Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.
  • No matter what I accomplish, it doesn’t seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz. Art Spiegelman, Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began.
  • To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all. Elie Wiesel.
  • Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. Elie Wiesel.

Bergen-Belsen – A Son Remembers

Today, I read a series of incredible tweets by Daniel Finkelstein (@dannythefink) about his mother’s release from Bergen-Belsen Camp 75 years ago. I am sharing them here exactly how he tweeted them.

“This week I will be tweeting about my mother’s release from Belsen, 75 years ago.

75 years ago today, my grandmother Margarethe Wiener appeared before German medical examiner at Bergen-Belsen to prove she was medically fit to be used in a prisoner exchange. She was almost too weak to stand but with freedom at stake for her girls she somehow managed to pass. 

The Germans wished to avoid the allied countries seeing how ill and weak the Belsen prisoners were. 20 January 1945.

At 9 am on the 21st January 1945, my grandmother and her three girls, Ruth and Eva (my aunts) and Mirjam (my Mum then 11 years old) are taken from their barracks and placed in a quarantine area. Then they were taken for a shower. The stood waiting not knowing what would come out.

It was water. They are given a meal. It is soup as usual, but it had “actual bits of potato in it” my mother remembers. It’s a proper train not a cattle truck. Their false Paraguayan passports, even though they have expired seem to have done the trick.

The documents have made them eligible for exchange with Germans who wish to return from allied occupied countries. 50,000 people died in the supposed exchange camp of Belsen. But little more than 300 people are ever exchanged. This train carries some of these few.

But the story isn’t over yet.

January 22nd 1945. My Aunt Ruth had been keeping a diary. She’d won a pocket one in a magazine competition just before arrest. So she made little short entries, just a few words because the pencil was tiny and if it ran out she wouldn’t be able to get another one.

She had recorded camp events such as “special meal: peas soup” or somehow making a homemade belt for my mother’s 11th birthday. Days of sickness and many punishments are recalled. On 20 December 1944 through the barbed wire Ruth notices friends in the next door camp section.

She writes in her diary. “Margot and Anne Frank in the other camp”.

On this day, 22 January 1945 as the train heads to freedom, she writes only “train trip via Berlin”.

On 23rd January 1945 there is a calamity. The Germans decide they have too many people on the train. More than half will have to leave the train before freedom in Switzerland. My Aunt records them in her diary as being at Ravensbruck camp on this day.

My mum remembers it as bitter cold and that expulsion from the train surely meant death for them all.  By this point my grandmother was desperately weak and ill. An SS Guard comes through their carriage and says to the “Off!”.

Ruth (the oldest sister) says they cannot get off. Their mother is too ill to move. They cannot move her. The guard pauses, shrugs, says “Stay then” and passes on to the next carriage. In this moment their lives are saved.

24 January 1945. There is one more day before the train reaches freedom. Today some more of the prisoners are moved to a civilian internment camp, where many survive the war, but some do not. The Wiener family continues to the border. Tomorrow will come the end of the story.

25 January 1945 the train crosses into Switzerland. Margarethe has sacrificed everything, given every scrap of food to her children, protected them against all but she has seen her girls to freedom.

My grandfather is in New York securing the supply of his library on the Nazis, which is to provide one of the main sources of evidence at the Nuremberg trials. A telegram has been sent to him carrying the news.

Margarethe died at 1:15 am on 26th February (I think Daniel Finkelstein meant January here). Her daughters sail to America and all remember the moment they see the Statue of Liberty. Mirjam meets my father, a survivor himself of deportation to Serbia. She becomes a maths teacher and together they have a happy and long life.

She was never bitter and neither was he. They loved life and freedom and this country. So it’s traditional to finish a thread with the word ends/. But at this moment of freedom I finish the thread with begins/.”

(NOTE: Daniel Finkelstein’s grandfather is Dr. Alfred Wiener, founder of the Wiener Library (London and Tel Aviv)).

Enigmatic England: Bletchley Park

Eighty years ago on August 31, the German army invaded Poland and started World War II.  I was watching some movies about World War II and came across “The Imitation Game,” which was about scientists and mathematicians that worked at top-secret Bletchley Park. As a student in London, my sister was lucky enough to visit Bletchley Park, and wrote the following vignette:  

The really striking thing about England, particularly to an outsider, is how much of its national character is shaped by the two world wars, particularly World War II. It seems that no family was left untouched by the war, and every sacrifice, great and small, that can be made for a nation, was made. The number of young lives lost is incomprehensible, and the number would have been much larger but for the brilliant people who worked at Bletchley Park. 

It is often said that truth is stranger than fiction – it is at least true in the case of Bletchley Park.  If you put all the spy movies, thrillers, and novels together, they would still not match the intrigue of Bletchley Park, its intense secrecy, its brilliant people, and the unbelievably intelligent decoding and deciphering work that was done here during World War II.  The fact that toward the end of the war over 8000 people worked here and yet its existence was not disclosed until decades later, gives an inkling of the level of secrecy maintained, and the characters of the people that worked here.  The mathematicians at Bletchley Park were deciphering Germany’s war time communication codes, and to do this they built the world’s first computers.  These brilliant people were able to decipher Germany’s supposedly indestructible codes and in the process saved many lives including at Dunkirk, D-Day, and were instrumental in finding Germany’s most powerful warship Bismarck so the British Navy could drown it. 

Women at Bletchley Park (image courtesy of http://www.bletchleypark.org)

After the war, Bletchley Park and its brilliant people all went home, and never spoke a word because of the oath of secrecy they had all taken. Many had parents that died without knowing their son or daughter’s immense contribution to the war effort.   Clearly this was a generation of greatness. How did we get from there to our current generation of selfies, Facebook, Instagram – we can barely drink a cup of tea without informing the whole world about it. Over 8000 people. Over three decades.  Not one word.  Let that sink in, and perhaps one begins to understand England.

(Both images from http://www.bletchleypark.org)