Ten Misconceptions about the Holocaust
10 - Norwegian non-Jews wore paper clips to express solidarity with Norwegian Jewry.
In June 1940, when the Germans occupied Norway, between 1700 and 1800 Jews lived there - most of them in Oslo and all by 200 of them Norwegian citizens. Acceding to German demands, the collaborationist government immediately implemented anti-Jewish legislation. In November 1942, in response to further demands, the government rounded up more than 700 Jews. They were subsequently deported to Auschwitz, where most were killed.
Although the Norwegian resistance managed to smuggle the remaining Jews to neutral Sweden, the wearing of paper clips had nothing to do with demonstrating support for these efforts or solidarity with Norwegian Jewry. Rather, it represented one of many non-violent expressions or Norwegian nationalism and loyalty to King Haakon VII. These included listening secretly to foreign news broadcasts, printing and distributing underground newspapers and wearing pins fashioned from coins with the king's head brightly polished, from various "flowers of loyalty," from the symbol "H7" (for Haakon VII), and - for a time, after the latter were outlawed - from paper clips (also occasionally worn as bracelets).
Why paper clips? Presumably - though some dispute this - because they were invented by a Norwegian named Johan Vaaler in 1899. Although, ironically, he had to patent the device in Germany because Norway had no patent law at the time, Vaaler did nothing more with his invention, and in subsequent years, paper clips would be manufactured and mass-marketed by firms in the United States and Great Britain (most notably, the Gem Company of Great Britain - originators of the familiar "double-U" slide-on clips, which the Norwegians may very well have worn.)
9 - The Germans paved the Autobahn with crushed Jewish bones.
The Germans crushed Jewish bones in two specific contexts only. One was in the Operation Reinhard death camps (Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka) in Poland. The other was in the former Soviet territories (Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania), where SS and police detachments known as Einsatzgruppen
conducted mobile killing operations, shooting thousands of Jews and burying them in mass graves. Beginning in 1942, when the Germans were no longer sure they could win the war on the Eastern front, exhumation crews were sent into these territories to open the mass graves, burn the bodies, and crush the bones, in order to destroy all physical evidence. A special machine ground the bones into a powder of dust and very fine pieces, which were then reburied along with the ashes from the burned bodies. However, there is no evidence that ground bone was used in the construction of the Autobahn
– the system of highways intended to span Germany. Although Hitler began building the Autobahn
in the 1930s, no construction was undertaken during the war years, and it was not resumed in earnest until the 1950s.
8 - German Jews were a large proportion of Germany’s population.
European Jewry made up a very small proportion of Europe’s population. On the eve of the Holocaust, some 9 million Jews lived in continental Europe, or 2% of the total population. Of these, the largest Jewish community was in Poland – about 3,250,000 Jews or 9.8% of the Polish population. Germany’s approximately 565,000 Jews made up only 0.8% of its population.
7 - Adolf Hitler was Jewish.
Although myths about Adolf Hitler abound, this one and the next one (number 6, below) are most often cited to explain his obsessive hatred of Jews and his relentless plans to annihilate them. The idea that Hitler was Jewish (or “part” Jewish) stems from confusion about his paternal grandfather. Hitler's father, Alois, was the illegitimate son of Maria Anna Schickelgruber and a man she refused to name. This has led to much speculation about Hitler’s paternal grandfather. Some maintain that Alois’ father was a Jew named Frankenberger, a claim that probably stems from Hans Frank’s testimony at the Nuremberg Trials (1945-1946). Frank, the Governor General of occupied Poland, later executed by the Soviets, declared that Hitler's grandmother had worked as a servant for a Frankenberger family in Graz, Austria, that the head of the family seduced her, and that Hitler's father was the result. Looking into this, Simon Wiesenthal, the noted “Nazi hunter,” found no evidence of any Jewish family named Frankenberger ever living in Graz. Moreover, the Jews had been expelled from Graz in the 15th century and not allowed back until 1856, nearly twenty years after Alois was born in 1837.
What is known, is that when Alois was five years old, Maria Anna married one Johann Georg Heidler. Sometime around her death in 1842, Alois was taken in and raised by Johann Georg’s brother, Johann Nepomuk Hüttler (a variant spelling of “Heidler”). Interestingly, Alois kept “Schickelgruber” as his surname until 1855, when he had himself legitimized as the “son of Georg Hitler” (another variant spelling of “Heidler”). This was not done because of any shame about his illegitimacy, since illegitimacy was widespread in the Waldviertel – the region of Austria where the family lived – comprising nearly 40% of births in the 19th century. Rather, it seems to have been at the request of Johann Nepomuk Hüttler, who made it a condition for making Alois his sole heir. Indeed, given this and the fact that Johann Nepomuk raised him, it is entirely possible that he, rather than some putative Jew, was Alois’ biological father and Adolf Hitler’s grandfather. To be sure, Hitler took pains to conceal his birth records, but some attribute this to his fear of revealing the Schickelgruber family’s history of mental disability (retardation and severe depression), rather than any supposed Jewish ancestry.
6 - A Jewish doctor killed Adolf Hitler’s mother.
Some, like psycho-historian Rudolf Binion (Hitler Among the Germans
, 1976) claim that Hitler’s genocidal hatred of the Jews stemmed from the fact that Dr. Eduard Bloch, his family’s Jewish physician in Linz, Austria, bungled Klara Hitler’s breast cancer treatment, causing her to die a prolonged and painful death in December 1907. However, according to Bloch’s 1943 testimony to the Office of Strategic Services in the United States, Hitler considered Bloch to have treated her well and seemed to harbor no ill will towards him, despite the fact that he had been especially close to his mother. Indeed, Dr. Bloch recalled that, after her death, “He [Hitler] stepped forward and took my hand. Looking into my eyes, he said: ‘I shall be grateful to you forever.’ Then he bowed.”
In later years, Hitler demonstrated his gratitude with postcards, warm holiday greetings, gifts of his artwork, and – after he became Führer – with expressions of concern for Bloch’s welfare. In 1937, Hilter asked a delegation of Linz Nazis "for news of me [Dr. Bloch]. Was I still alive, still practicing?” adding “ ‘Dr. Bloch…is an Edeljude – a noble Jew. If all Jews were like him, there would be no Jewish question.’ ” Bloch further testified that “Favors were granted me which I feel sure were accorded no other Jew in all Germany or Austria.” Thus, “Berlin” directed the Linz Gestapo to remove the yellow star from Dr. Bloch’s apartment and office and to allow the Bloch family to remain in their home. Nor were they prevented from leaving Austria in 1938 - although they were not permitted to keep their life-savings and, as a condition of their leaving, the Gestapo confiscated Hitler’s gifts and notes and Dr. Bloch’s record book detailing Klara Hitler’s treatment (the latter surfaced after the war).
5 - The Germans manufactured soap from Jewish bodies.
Leading Holocaust scholars disavow the German manufacture of soap from human bodies, pointing to the fact that these allegations date back to French propaganda early in World War I and that specific claims regarding Jewish bodies began to surface as early as August 1942 in the concentration camps. They also point out that evidence that would prove it conclusively – such as shipping bills, physical evidence from a manufacturing plant, or receipts for economic transactions – has never been found. Whereas such evidence abounds for shipments of hair and dental gold removed from human bodies.
Moreover, these rumors also disturbed Heinrich Himmler, since the Nazis' extermination plans demanded strict secrecy. On November 30, 1942, after hearing that Rabbi Stephen Wise of New York had mentioned the soap rumors to the American press (November 24), Himmler wrote the following to Heinrich Müller, head of the Gestapo: In view of the large emigration movement of Jews, I do not wonder that such rumors come to circulate in the world. We both know that there is present an increased mortality among the Jews put to work. You have to guarantee to me that the corpses of these deceased Jews are either burned or buried at each location, and that absolutely nothing else can happen with the corpses at any location. Conduct an investigation immediately everywhere whether any kind of misuse [of corpses] has taken place of the sort as listed in point 1, probably strewn about in the world as a lie. Upon the SS-oath I am to be notified of each misuse of this kind.
Nevertheless, over the years, Holocaust survivors have presented small blue-green cakes of soap, claiming that they were made from human fat because they were stamped RIF
. Aaron Breitbart, a senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center explains that this stands for “Reich Industry Fat.” However, in the camps, some Jews believed that the I
was a J
and that the acronym stood for "Pure Jewish Fat." However, analysis of the bars turned up no evidence of human DNA. Thus, the RIF
soap allegations were a rumor, even though many people believed it at the time.
4 - King Christian X of Denmark wore a Jewish Star badge to protest German orders that Danish Jews wear such badges.
This is one of the most enduring and popular Holocaust myths, with some versions adding that the king urged all Danish non-Jews to wear the badges, or that they wore them in admiration of his gesture. This never happened, despite the stories about the king’s open support of his Jewish subjects that circulated throughout Europe, one of which has him threatening
to wear a badge if such an order were given. However, the Germans never required Danish Jews to wear badges, possibly because they realized how much resistance this would arouse, intensifying the Danes’ solidarity and rejection of Nazi thinking. However, through most of the occupation, as a gesture of solidarity with all
of his subjects, the king continued his daily horseback rides, alone and unprotected, through Copenhagen, and these rides became a focus of popular protest as scores of Danes turned out to escort him.
Moreover, on the night of October 1-2, 1943, when German police were to begin arresting Danish Jews, non-Jews reacted spontaneously to the threat by alerting the Jews and helping them reach the seashore and cross to Sweden. When the Swedish government announced that it would take in all refugees from Denmark, the Danish resistance joined in, organizing the massive flight that followed, while the king and the heads of the Danish churches protested to the Germans against the deportation. In the course of three weeks, some 7200 Jews and some 700 non-Jewish relatives were taken to Sweden. Of the almost 500 Jews deported to Terezín (Theresienstadt), all but 51 survived, due largely to the Danish government's intercession on their behalf.
3 - Jews were foreigners and aliens who controlled the economy, politics and culture of Germany and other countries.
This myth is part of a negative stereotype that emerged in the late Roman Empire, persisting through the 19th and 20th centuries and into the present. Even though, by 1939, Jews had been an integral part of Western Civilization from its earliest beginnings (5000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent – the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in contemporary Iraq) and an integral part of Europe since Roman times (1500 years of continuous settlement by 1939).
However, from the 4th century on, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Jews were vilified as Christ-killers and infidels and regarded as an inassimilable and alien “Other.” During the Middle Ages and the early modern period, European Jews were subjected to increasingly punitive measures, physical violence, ghettoization, expulsion and relentless pressure to convert. They were forbidden to own land and prohibited from pursuing most occupations except for certain types of trading (such as peddling second-hand goods), "middle-man" occupations (such as factoring, and dealing in grain, wood, and cattle), and “money trades” (money changing and lending money for interest, the latter of which the Roman Catholic Church considered "usury" and prohibited to Christians). Thus, Jews became identified with money and with two especially unsavory and persistent stereotypes: the heartless, unethical and exploitative usurer, who lent money at ruinous interest rates; and the shifty, unscrupulous, swindling peddler, who sold shoddy goods at exorbitant prices. So ingrained was this identification that medieval as well as modern depictions of Jews often showed them grasping or sitting on or chasing money.
Adolf Hitler and the Nazis augmented this with a 19th century myth that emerged as a backlash to European Jewry’s emancipation and consequent involvement in and numerous contributions to European cultural, social, economic and political life in numbers disproportionate to its numeric presence in the general population. This myth stressed the existence of a “secret” Jewish plot to dominate the world through economic and political control. In the 1890s, this was furthered by the publication of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion:
allegedly the minutes of a secret society of Jewish notables described as "learned men
[who] decided by peaceful means to conquer the world for Zion with the slyness of the symbolic serpent
" - that is, by secret conspiracy. However, it was actually a forgery that originated in France and was translated into numerous languages. In Russia, it was found among the papers of Tsar Nicholas II, and in the United States, it was heavily promoted by Henry Ford in his Dearborn Independent
. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (and into the present), this image of the Jews cut across ideological lines, finding adherents on the left as well as on the right and finding expression in the media through cartoons and posters depicting Jews as something slimy (snake, lizard, bug, octopus) and sinister with a stranglehold on the globe.
2 - Jews are a race.
Although scientists sometimes "race" to distinguish between various groups based on certain broadly shared physical features (e.g., skin color, hair color and texture, body shape and size, and eye color), they recognize that race has no taxonomic value for humans, as all humans belong to the same hominid sub-species: Homo sapiens
. However, for the general public, race persists as dubious social construct that often ascribes specific types of behavior, values, and psychology to individuals based on just such shared physical differences. Still, even in this problematic context, Jews are not
a race. On the one hand, they are adherents of a religion – Judaism – around which a culture has evolved based on laws and rituals regarding diet, the Sabbath, and customs that can vary from place to place because the Jews live in many parts of the world. On the other hand, they are a "people," with a national/ethnic identity based on a shared history and historical homeland – Israel – that extends from ancient times to the present.
However, 19th century antisemites (and it is worth noting that the term “antisemitism” was invented in the late 19th century to lend these prejudices an aura of “scientific objectivity”), tying their assertions to the new (and since discredited) “science” of race and eugenics, used writings such as Joseph Arthur de Gobineau's Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races
(1853-1855) and Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century
(1899), and the conclusions of Social Darwinism, to define Jews as a “race” and a “decadent” and “destructive” one, at that. Their work influenced many, including Adolf Hilter, who, in Mein Kampf
, lamented the “indifference" with which governments "passed by [Chamberlain's] observations.”
1 - The Jews went to their deaths like “sheep to the slaughter.”
This distasteful simile distorts the realities of European Jewry’s situation during the Holocaust and perpetuates a stereotype of “historic” Jewish “passivity” and “cowardice.”
On the one hand, history offers many examples of Jews responding assertively to persecution. Sometimes these responses were armed: the Maccabees' uprisings against the Seleucid Greeks; the Judean revolts against the Roman Empire; self-defense in medieval Spain, France, Germany and Poland; as well as during the19th and early 20th century pogroms in Russia. More often – since Jews were a minority dispersed among hostile majorities and governing regimes – these responses were unarmed and were designed to enable them to survive in a persistently hostile environment (there was often no other kind): petitions, bribes and protection payments, ransom arrangements, evasion and concealment, even a certain compliance with anti-Jewish laws and orders.
On the other hand, the Holocaust presented European Jewry with an unprecedented situation for which no historical or contemporary experience could have prepared them. Previous regimes had either not targeted every Jew for annihilation or did not had the resources to implement this goal as systematically as the Nazis. Moreover, as late as mid-1942, most Jews were unaware that the “Final Solution” was even being planned: either because they had no concrete knowledge of death camps and mass murder or because, unable to believe such atrocities could take place in the 20th century, they dismissed such information as rumor and propaganda. Without allies or support networks, facing starvation and disease, responsible for parents and siblings, wives and children, they believed what they were told - that they were going to be “resettled” to work. The reality did not sink in until it was too late.
Still, many Jews respond assertively to the Germans. Individuals everywhere struggled to stay alive and to keep their loved ones alive. Even in the worst circumstances, they never let go of their faith, hope, values and ideals, remaining determined to bear witness for the sake of the world and future generations. They also attempted evasive or confrontational responses: jumping from trains, seeking refuge in the attics, cellars, and closets of non-Jews, or attacking their captors. In the ghettos, they kept the community intact by running soup kitchens, hospitals, and orphanages and sponsoring cultural and educational events. Despite German prohibitions, they maintained clandestine schools, observed and transmitted the tenets of their religion, participated in political organizations, and maintained secret presses that served as the nuclei for armed response groups. They kept diaries and journals, took photographs and drew pictures, and maintained secret archives. They organized armed revolts in ghettos, concentration camps, and even in the death camps, and formed Jewish partisan units in the forests. Although these were a small minority, the fact that they existed at all is remarkable. As historian Lucy Dawidowicz concluded, after considering the overwhelming difficulties and extreme dangers of taking up arms against the Nazis: “The wonder…is not that there was so little resistance, but that, in the end, there was so much.
- Dr. Peter Black, Senior Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D. C.
- American Jewish Committee, The American-Jewish Yearbook, 1938-1939 (1940)
- Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide: Victims and Survivors of the Holocaust (1979)
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum , Historical Atlas of the Holocaust (CD-ROM 1996)
- Ian Kershaw, Hitler: 1889-1936 – Hubris (1998)
- Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler (1998)
- “Interview with Dr. Bloch,” Adolf Hitler Source Book and Psychological Profile ( OSS, 1943)
- The Nizkor Project
- Mark Weitzman, “Antisemitism: A Historical Survey, ” Simon Wiesenthal Center
- Samuel Totten, Holocaust Education: Issues and Approaches (2002)
- Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The Jewish Presence: Essays on Identity and History (1978)
- Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (1960)
- Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The Jewish Presence: Essays on Identity and History (1978)
- Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (1960)
- Samuel Totten, Holocaust Education: Issues and Approaches (2002)