Ben and Bernice Muler: Classroom Discussions

Ben and Bernice Muler (34 minutes)

Historical notes:

For centuries Poland was a major European power, but in the late eighteenth century it was partitioned among Russia, Austria and Prussia (later Germany).  The Polish people were strongly nationalist and fought for their freedom, but did not achieve it until 1919.  The Versailles treaty created an independent Poland, but also gave it a section of Germany’s coastline so it would have an outlet to the Baltic Sea.  This was called the “Polish Corridor” and, as it was inhabited mostly by Germans, it was a source of anger in Germany between the world wars.  Hitler made it his first military objective to recapture the lost territory.  In August 1939 he made a non-aggression pact with the Soviets, agreeing that they could take the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) if they allowed Germany to take much of Poland.  As a result the Soviets looked the other way when the Nazis overran Poland and began sending its large Jewish minority to concentration camps.  In the meantime, the British had promised Poland support if it were attacked; when the invasion came on September 1, 1939, Britain responded, thus beginning World War II.  Within a month most of Poland was under German occupation.

A vast number of Poles, many of them not Jewish, went to Nazi concentration camps.  Perhaps six million Poles (Jewish and non-Jewish) died, and millions more fled or were forcibly removed to create Lebensraum (“living space”) for the Germans.  About 2.5 million Poles were transported to Germany or other Nazi-occupied areas to be used as slave labor.  Poland today has still not recovered from Nazi occupation, and the Polish government (both the former Communists and the current pro-Western regimes) have purposely kept the memory of the Holocaust alive.  In 1939 and 1940 most Jews were rounded up and forced into ghettos, particularly in Warsaw, Łodz and Vilnius.  By 1943 most of these had gone to the death camps as the ghettos were “liquidated” one by one.  Throughout the war a Polish government-in-exile functioned in London and an active resistance movement greatly aided the Allied cause within occupied Poland.  More than a hundred thousand Poles fought in Allied armies.  After the German attack on the USSR in June 1941, the Soviets occupied parts of Poland and rescued many Jews and other victims of the Nazis.  Hundreds of thousands were transported deep into Russia for safety, but many of these were also conscripted into Russian labor battalions.  At the end of the war the Russians liberated Poland and installed a Communist government there.


For discussion purposes:

1.  What was it like to be a Jew in Poland before World War II?

(Several million Jews lived in Poland; they had the most active and vital Jewish community in the world, and were an important factor in the country’s life and economy.  In general they were tolerated but in the Nazi era an ugly native anti-Semitism appeared – not only Germans, but Catholic Poles also victimized Jews.  In contrast with Germany, most Polish Jews were farmers or small businesspeople; not so many were professionals or lived in big cities.  Many thousands of them were quite poor.  They were generally more religious and conservative than their German kin and not quite so well assimilated.


2.  What are some examples of oppression on a small and personal scale in Germany and the regions occupied by the Nazis?  When the oppressor meets no resistance, what is s/he likely to do next?


3. In what ways did the Russians help Jews escape the Holocaust?

(Discussion can focus on students’ preconceptions and misconceptions about the Soviets and Communism.  Marxist ideology strongly condemns racism and prejudice, and many founders of the Soviet state were Jewish.  But the Russians also badly needed workers for their labor battalions, and any Jewish labor they could take away from Germany would hurt the Nazi cause.  To complicate matters, there is a long history of anti-Semitism in Russia, though it was never as virulent as in Germany or even Poland.  Also ask the students to consider why the United States did so much less than the Russians to help Holocaust victims.)


4.  If Russia offered a “way out,” why didn’t more Jews go there?

(Think about what it would take for your family to pull up stakes on very short notice and move to a foreign country, especially during wartime.  Also discuss the ideological and historical distrust German and Polish Jews might have felt toward Russia.)


5.  Discuss this statement: Poland itself was a major casualty of World War II, and the fate of the Polish Jews was only a small part of that larger tragedy.

(Discuss the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, and Poland’s long history as a pawn in the great-power struggles of Europe.  How does Poland today deal with that past?)

6.  How did the Nazis decide whom to arrest and send to camps, whom to kill outright, and whom to leave free?

(Those who could contribute to the economy were left free, and some were used as slave labor.  The very old and very young, the sick or weak, and political prisoners would go to concentration camps, and probably not survive long.  They were put to work until they died, or were killed when no longer useful.  Ben and Bernice might have survived even if captured, as they were both strong healthy teenagers capable of working.  Discuss the reasons for gassing Ben’s father in the railroad car.)


7.  What happened to retarded or handicapped people?

(They were among the first Nazi victims, both because they were unproductive and Hitler did not want their genes passed on to the next generation.)


8.  What kind of personal characteristics would you need to survive an ordeal like that of Ben and Bernice?


9.  Why did some Germans sneak into displaced-persons camps after the war, pretending to be Jews?


10.  Why is it important to hear about the Holocaust directly from people who were its victims?

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