Murray Weisman: Classroom Discussions

Murray Weisman (43 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:

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 was it like to live in the Warsaw Ghetto before and during the war?

(This was a large Jewish neighborhood, dating back to medieval times, consisting of hundreds of apartments and small houses mixed in with shops and schools in a maze of winding streets.  Prejudice had long forced Jews to congregate in certain neighborhoods, but they were free to come and go and usually worked elsewhere in the city.  Before the war about 160,000 people lived here.  When the Nazis occupied Warsaw, they built a wall around the ghetto and forced an additional 340,000 Jews – most but not all from Poland – into the small area.  Food and fuel were extremely scarce and a barter economy quickly developed.  Since Jews could not leave and non-Jews could not enter, almost all shops and businesses closed.  A few of the residents were put to work in armaments factories outside the walls, but most were virtual prisoners.  In July 1942 three-fourths of the population was shipped off to concentration camps, mainly to Treblinka.


3.  Discuss the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

(Note that Murray was already gone by the time this extraordinary event happened.  In January 1943, when only about 60,000 starving Jews remained in the walled ghetto, Himmler ordered all the remaining residents shipped out to death camps.  The Jews resisted fiercely with homemade weapons.  In April a full-scale attack by the German army captured the ghetto.  Nearly everyone inside was shot, including woman and children.)


4.  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, at least until prisoners of war from other conquered nations could be brought in to replace them.  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.  Murray was able to stay alive because he claimed to be older than he was and that he had skills the Nazis needed; he worked hard and was healthy enough to survive the lack of food and brutal conditions.)


5.  Upon arriving at a camp, how were the prisoners deliberately degraded and dehumanized?

(Discuss the psychological reasons for doing this: it is easier to hate and kill an enemy if you first convince yourself that he is evil and/or less than human.

Clothes, jewelry, all personal possessions and even false teeth are confiscated; gold fillings are removed from the mouth; heads are shaved and drab uniform clothing is issued, your name is ‘replaced’ by a number, often tattooed on the body, etc.; you are treated like livestock or inventory.

Discuss another psychological issue: if you have a highly organized and efficient system for “processing” large numbers of people, those taking part in the process can reassure themselves: “I’m not persecuting these Jews; the system is.”)


6.  Why did Murray lie about his age and claim to be a carpenter?

(Those too young to work, or without skills, were quickly executed.)


7.  What were living conditions like at the camps?

(Piles of straw and/or multi-tiered wooden bunks for sleeping; SS men with dogs searching tents or barracks at unpredictable intervals; constant harassment and bullying; never enough food or water; ill-fitting clothing; no heat in cold weather; sometimes no toilets and never any privacy; families separated by sex; most of all, the psychological effect of never knowing what to expect next.)


8.  Murray says that his most difficult time was in 1942 at Auschwitz.  There he was a slave laborer for the I. G. Farbenindustrie plant set up at the camp.  What psychological abuse took place there?

(Destroying the will to live or resist by taking away all self-esteem.  Here you might also discuss the fate of such multinational corporations as I. G. Farben and Bayer, who produced chemicals and weapons for the Nazis and today are thriving multibillion-dollar players in the world economy and a major source of Germany’s current economic strength.  Should these companies have been allowed to survive and profit after the war?  Should they now be financially liable for what they did to Jewish and non-Jewish slave laborers?)


9.  What kind of personal characteristics do you think a person needs to survive an ordeal like Murray’s?


10.  Why did so few Germans resist Nazi tyranny?  What would you have done if you had lived in Germany then, and did not agree with Nazi ideology or tactics?


11.  Why is it important to hear the story of the Holocaust from an actual survivor like Murray?

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