October 28th, 2021
Luers' presentation probes Holocaust history as well as individual experiences 'Hitler's Wrath: When Hatred Takes Root' is latest JCLS event
Statistics – starting with the more than six million Jewish men, women and children killed – are important in documenting the Holocaust. Yet the individual stories of Holocaust survivors are just as integral to understanding the Holocaust's impact.
Retired Professor Beth Luers addressed both facets Wednesday night in Hitler's Wrath: When Hatred Takes Root, the latest installment of the Joan Crawford Lecture Series at Garrett College. While the broad context of her lecture was centered around historical research, Luers' own connection with Holocaust survivors provided personal context.
"Every man, woman and child had a name, they had a family, they had hopes and dreams for their futures," said Luers. "They weren't just numbers."
Luers gave moving examples in Holocaust survivors Leo Bretholz, Halina Silber, Martin Gray, and Thomas Buergenthal. She said one thing all of them had in common was a determination to make sure the lessons of the Holocaust are never lost.
"They continue to tell the story of what happens when hatred takes root," said Luers.
All of the survivors lost a shocking number of family members to the Holocaust – Gray estimated over 100 members of his family were killed, while Bretholz said more than 50 members of his family died. And the survivors Luers knows – "who all cheated death, some many times"– could easily have endured a similar fate.
"Leo's most audacious escape was from a boxcar on its way to Auschwitz," said Luers, who also reported that Buergenthal as a child only survived the Auschwitz death march because he fell back toward the end of the line.
"When the columns stopped, he [Buergenthal] was in the back," said Luers. "The Nazis took the children who were up front to a church and shot them."
Luers reported that Silber was #16 on Schindler's List and was "saved more than once by Oscar Schindler."
Luers said Silber accepted the irony of Schindler's good works.
"Schindler was a Nazi, a womanizer, a drunk," said Luers, "but Halina said, 'You don't have to be a saint to do saintly things.' "
Luers balanced the fascinating individual stories with the sweeping historical record, including Hitler's ascent from homeless aspiring artist to decorated World War I German soldier to German chancellor and eventually Führer (German for "leader").
Hitler took advantage of unsettled German times – most notably the loss of World War I, post-war economic challenges, and the Great Depression of the 1930s – by blaming the country's ills on the Jewish population.
"Hitler would grab people's fears and worries, and manipulate them to his own end," said Luers, who noted his role in writing the Nazi party platform. "The state came first and individual rights be damned. Only those of pure German blood could be citizens of Germany – no Jews allowed."
Luers said the Nazi Party gained influence throughout the late 1920s and early '30s as the economy worsened, going from 12 seats in the Reichstag – essentially Germany's parliament – to 230 of 607 seats by 1932. An ailing President Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor in January 1933 – allegedly prompted by a threat to expose his son's improper use of state funds. Just two months later, Hitler – backed by the paramilitary storm troops (called the "SA") – declared himself to be Führer.
Under Hitler, Germany worked to achieve his two overarching goals - taking over Europe and eliminating Jews, gypsies, the disabled and the mentally ill in a mass extermination called "The Final Solution".
Germany was initially able to dramatically advance its territorial objectives, annexing Austria, seizing Czechoslovakia, and overwhelming Poland in the September 1939 Blitzkrieg that led directly to World War II. German troops would eventually reach the outskirts of Leningrad and Moscow in late 1941, but that was the high-water mark of the German advance.
Meanwhile, Heinrich Himmler's SS (the successor to the SA) expanded the number and efficiency of the death camps, with the Auschwitz camp the most prominent. The extermination camps continued through 1945, until Allied liberation.
"Every territory he came into, Hitler enacted his racial policies," said Luers. "Hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced into ghettos, especially in Poland, where poverty, homelessness, and unemployment prevailed.
"From 1942 to 1945, Jews all over Europe were sent to killing centers," continued Luers. "There were gassings, firing squads, beatings, and medical experiments, with others dying of hunger, disease, or being worked to death."
While many lessons can be drawn from Hitler's reign, Luers said Bretholz believed one lesson stood out among them all.
"Leo," said Luers, "would always emphasize, 'Silence in the face of injustice is consent.' "
Notes: Susie Crawford – Professor Joan Crawford's daughter – introduced Luers' presentation. She noted that her mother was the "oldest of four daughters in a German-American family."
Susie said Joan's father – who wasn't sure women of that time needed college degrees – issued her a challenge based on the University of Pittsburgh's scholarship program, which provided a scholarship to the top graduate in each of the city high schools.
"Her Dad said, 'If you want to go to college, win that scholarship,' " said Susie, "and darned if she didn't."
Joan Crawford decided to join the Navy shortly after the American entrance into World War II.
"After listening to President Roosevelt's 'Day of Infamy' speech . . . she wanted to go do her part," said Susie Crawford. "She graduated early and joined the Navy as a Wave dispersing officer. She had three great loves in her life – her family, her country and Garrett College."