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Victims of Nazism

Victims of Nazism

When one thinks of suffering and victimization during World War II, one immediately thinks of the Holocaust. I hardly need to remind you of the genocide that occurred at the hands of the Nazis of Germany. In an effort to exterminate inferior races—including Jewish, Roma (gypsies), and disabled people—the Nazis were responsible for the systematic murder of more than six million people. [1] This section of the site is meant to provide a comprehensive picture of the suffering that occurred as a result of the “Final Solution.” Two testimonies (Rivka Yosselevska and Alexander Kimel) relay the horrors of direct contact with death: Yosselevska and her miraculous survival from a Nazi blow to the head and Kimel in Auschwitz. Eva Galler describes her close escape from a train headed towards a death camp, and the way that she dealt with the pain of her experiences years later. Oreste Maina provides a fresh perspective to Nazi persecution as an Italian man who was deported to the Dachau camp. Karen Gershon suffers from the guilt of surviving when her parents, who sent their daughter abroad to safety, perished in the war.

If you would like to know more about the Holocaust, I would recommend visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website, located here.

Please note: For your convenience, the headers of each section are links that lead directly to the page being discussed.

Memoir: Eva Galler

I chose Eva Galler’s story for two reasons: one, because her account of escape is thrilling and inspiring, and two, because she directly addresses her experience with passing down trauma to the next generations.

The first reason is relatively self-explanatory, for Galler’s description of her narrow escape from the train heading towards a death camp speaks for itself. She presents her anecdote with incredible clarity. I admire how Galler was able to evade the Nazi bullets, and later, after discovering that her brother and sister laid dead in the snow, she was able to pull herself together and survive the attack and the rest of the war.

The second reason—the transmission of trauma—clearly recalls the work of scholar Gabriele Schwab, whom my fellow classmates and I had the pleasure of meeting this past April (4/2011) at Middlebury College. Her book, Haunting Legacies specifically addresses the social and political problems of trauma from World War II Germany. Her main point is that it is imperative to start a dialogue about the traumatic past to ensure that it does not negatively affect the victim and the future generations. Schwab says, “Finding a voice—whether it is speaking up or writing a narrative, a poem, or a memoir or simply telling one’s sotry—is crucial in this culture of memory and testimony… Claiming a voice… becomes part of a larger staging of words to relieve the phantom effect of trauma.” [2] Though Schwab refers to the children of perpetrators in her argument—those who commonly remain silent about the wicked actions of the past—I feel that the statement also holds weight in the necessity for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Galler makes it clear that her new-found ability to talk about her horrific past has alleviated the pain that she feels, even though she explicitly mentions that it is impossible to forget it. She states, “It was my children that made me talk. In the beginning I did not talk to anybody. I did not tell anything. My daughter had to write a paper for school, and she got me to talk. Now, Henry and I go to schools to talk with students about the Holocaust. That is how life goes on.” [3] Galler’s testimony also relates to Schwab’s discourse on transgenerational trauma; she is making an effort to transmit the knowledge of her past to her daughters, though she was initially hesitant to do so. Galler says that she was afraid to tell her children about her past, and was overprotective of them, but now she is open with them and with others as well.

As an end note, I would like to comment upon the portion of Galler’s testimony, titled “Only the Bad Laws Applied to Us.” She says, “The people turn into animals. People get demoralized in a war. You can’t trust anybody. The neighbors turned into enemies. The neighbors who weren’t Jewish didn’t want to know us anymore. They were friends before. During the war when everybody tried to kill us, nobody helped.” [4] This description of the cold-hearted German people directly contrasts with Horst Stein‘s experiences with the villagers in Civitella del Tronto while detained at a Fascist internment camp. Stein remembers that the people of the town were inviting and friendly to the Jewish prisoners. He says, “We had contact with the local people, who were extremely cordial, helpful, and respectful, as were the carabineri, the police.” [5] The disparity between the Italian and German perception of the Jews is, at least in the comparison between these two stories, unmistakable.

Diary: Oreste Maina

Oreste Maina’s story is unique in this collection of personal accounts from World War II. Maina was an Italian man from the south of Italy who was forced into a Nazi concentration camp, Dachau. Maina’s situation is not well-documented or widely known, but in fact an estimated 500,000 Italian men were similarly taken from their homes and forced into Nazi camps. I wanted to include excerpts from Maina’s diary to highlight the Italian-German connection in World War II.

I was moved by Maina’s simple yet clear account of his life at Dachau; from his diary I was able to truly visualize life under Nazi supervision. I found his accounts of experiences in the hospital—how, for example, he used to falsify his temperature with the thermometer so that he could evade discharge—very interesting. I enjoyed Maina’s story because it was very real; Maina was, in essence, a father torn away from his family and exploring every possible method to ensure his return to them. Maina tells us of life at the labor camp, but above all he reveals to us the fundamental nature of familial love, persistent throughout his trials at Dachau. The end of Maina’s story speaks to this truth:

20 meters away I see a little boy running toward me, at first I think he’s Carluccio, Peppino La Vecchia’s son, he certainly has grown… but then I realize it’s my little Antonio and I embrace him with all the affection and love of a father who has been away for so long and with such little hope of returning home alive to his loved ones. People pummel me with questions, they all hug me, and together with them I walk toward my home. I reach the doorway of Via San Pasquale #14 where my family lives, there are so many people around me I can’t even enter. They are all shaking my hand, asking me how my fellow townsmen are, I assure them they are all well, then I push through the crowd and go inside. Here I can finally embrace my dear wife, my daughter, my father, and everyone. The good Lord answered my prayers. This is and will always be the most beautiful day, the most beautiful moment of my life. My diary ends here. [6]

Maina’s story, coupled with Rudolph Höss‘ letter to his children before his execution, both highlight that family is most important. Under trauma and stress, one forgets to live for oneself; one’s entire existence revolves around securing the well-being of others. One seeks solace from loved ones in the times of suffering, which plays a direct role in the transmission of the past to future generations.

Memoir: Rivka Yosselevska

From Yosselevska we have a story of incredible trauma, one that truly highlights the atrocities of the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. She recounts her near-death experience—the absolute closest that one can ever come to death—as part of a group of Jews who were lined up and routinely killed by Nazi soldiers. She was somehow able to survive a blow to the head, wriggle herself free from the corpses of friends, family, and members of her community, escape from Nazi detection, and survive the war.

Her story also recalls the survivor’s guilt displayed also in the work poet Karen Gershon, whose parents sent her to England to safety during the Holocaust. Yosselevska mentions in her testimony that as she was attempting to climb into the pile of corpses to die she cried out to parents, “Why did they not kill me? What was my sin? I have no one to go to. I saw them all being killed. Why was I spared? Why was I not killed?” [7] Similarly Gershon says, “Sometimes I think it would have been/easier for me to die/together with my parents than/to have been surrendered by/them to survive alone.” [8] Though both women are fortunate to have survived the Holocaust, each feels cut off from the fate of their fellow Jews, and feels doomed to bear the burden of survival.

Yosselevka’s account also provided me with the opportunity to include a testimony from the various trials of Nazi perpetrators. Yosselevka testified against Adolf Eichmann, Nazi Lieutenant Colonel in charge of organizing the mass deportation of the Jews to the camps, who was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death. [9]

Poetry: Alexander Kimel

Kimel’s site, Holocaust Understanding and Prevention, was the first useful site that I found when I started research. The site itself contains a rather extensive list of memoirs, poetry, biographies, histories, and more. I chose Kimel’s poem “We Will Never Forget – Auschwitz,” because of the vivid language he uses to describe his experience in Auschwitz. The images he invokes are as clear as those from memoirs, and explain the full detail the trauma of the camps. The poem almost reads like a story of prose; the metaphorical language that was prevalent in other poems, like Giuseppe Ungaretti’s “You Too Are My River,” was not present in Kimel’s work. “We Will Never Forget – Auschwitz” is a testimony in poetic structure.

Kimel’s invective against the Germans in the last two stanzas is especially powerful. It is the only narrative that I found from Germany that specifically addresses the German perpetrators. Kimel uses the idea of the “Jackal” to describe the Nazis, saying that they do the “Devil’s work.” [10] Kimel takes the religious theme further, citing the contradiction between their evil ways and their devotion to the Catholic faith: “Sunday is the day of rest, the day/When the Jackals ride to the Church, to praise God/And assure the Salvation of their pious souls.” [11] In the last stanza, Kimel addresses another contradiction between the Nazi “Kingdom of Evil” and the “Righteous,” whom I understand to be the Jewish victims. [12]

Kimel’s strong denouncement of the Nazis makes me wonder about how people who visit his site, as well as those who have discussed the Holocaust with Kimel, think about the Holocaust. Do they associate the trauma more with grief or with anger? How does remembering the past in anger impact the future? I would characterize Kimel’s reaction to his experience at Auschwitz as overwhelming anger instead of overwhelming grief. In this way, I feel that Kimel departs from the canon of Holocaust literature, of which the majority of works focuses on dealing with grief. Kimel’s aim with his website is to educate people about the Holocaust and pass on the memory of victims and survivors. However, can education be beneficial when it contains such an angry message?

Kimel’s poetry reminded me of Segre’s lamentation of the Fascist government’s betrayal of the Jews in his narrative, Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew. However, the two texts certainly differ in their source of anger. While Segre’s invective against the Fascists derives from personal frustration with and persecution from the regime, Kimel’s invective derives from deep emotional trauma.

Poetry: Karen Gershon

I included two of Karen Gershon’s poems, “To My Children” and “Cast Out,” to illuminate the problem of survivor’s guilt. Karen was not a direct survivor of the war—meaning that she did not suffer from the trauma of physical violence like victims Rivka Yosselevska and Alexander Kimel. She spent the war years in England, for her parents had sent her there to England to ensure that she would escape Nazi persecution. Though Gershon remained safe, and also helped other German children escape Germany, her parents died in the war.

Because of the fact that she was located in England during the war, I find it fascinating that she says in “To My Children” that the “appalling Jewish experience” is her own. [13] Gershon demonstrates that indeed the idea of a collective memory does exist: a memory that is shared and remembered by two or more people. In the context of my seminar, we have used the term “collective memory” to describe the experiences of an entire culture or nation, with specific reference to its importance to the formation of a cultural or national identity. Though Gershon did not directly experience the terror of the war in Germany, she still claims to be a part of those who were directly and physically victimized. Furthermore, Gershon cites the source of her past in the “unknown victims” that are her father and mother, and says, “Be proud of the beginning you have in me/be proud of how far I have wandered with this burden.” [14] Does Gershon have a claim to sharing this past even though she did not directly experience it? If we deny her that right, how will she identify?

She addresses her problems with identification in her second poem, “Cast Out.” I personally find this poem both incredibly tragic and also frustrating. Gershon is essentially lamenting that she is lost in grief and in identity—like the lamb of Ungaretti‘s poem, “You Too Are My River.” I am completely moved by the fact that she is adrift amongst the trauma of her people because she feels disconnected from the past. However, what I find frustrating is that she seems to overlook the incredible sacrifice of her parents to keep her alive. She grieves that she cannot truly identify with her Jewish roots because she did not experience the trauma of her people. Aha! So my speculations of her misidentification that I derived from the first poem are true! However, what is the greater evil: not having an identity or not being alive? I feel that Gershon forgets that this duality exists, and argues for the former without understanding the weight of the latter. However, I certainly believe that her claim to trauma is legitimate. The burden of survival she bears is a burden that is shared by many survivors of the war, like Rivka Yosselevska: the guilt of being fortunate enough to live through World War II, when others were not.


[1] “Introduction to the Holocaust.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Web. 04 May 2011.

[2] Schwab, Gabriele. “Trauma in Children of Perpetrators.” Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma. New York: Columbia UP, 2010. Print. 81-82.

[3] Galler, Eva. “Survivor Stories: Eva Galler.” Holocaust Survivors. Web. 30 Apr. 2011.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bettina, Elizabeth. “Chapter 19: I Am 86 Years Old Thanks to Italy.” It Happened in Italy: Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011. Print.

[6] Maina, Oreste. Diary of an Italian Deportee. Web. 30 Apr. 2011.

[7] “Testimony of Rivka Yosselevska.” HEART: Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team. Web. 30 Apr. 2011.

[8] “Karen Gershon—German.” Voices Education Project. Web. 02 May 2011.

[9] “Adolf Eichmann.” The Nizkor Project. Web. 02 May 2011.

[10] ”Holocaust Poetry, Prayers, Lamentations.” Holocaust Understanding and Prevention by Alexander Kimel. Web. 19 Apr. 2011.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Karen Gershon.” Voices Education Project. Web. 02 May 2011.

[13] Ibid.

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