In April, 1945, allied troops moved through Germany as the walls surrounding Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) began to collapse. His suicide on April 30, allowed him to escape justice but helped to cement his place in history as one of mankind’s most tyrannical leaders. Concentration camps across Germany and Poland were liberated, releasing thousands of Jews who had been imprisoned as the Third Reich began its Final Solution, the plan produced by the minds of homicidal maniacs such as Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) and Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942). The emaciated figures that were once lively young men and women provided allied troops with a shocking sight that no one could ever forget. Even today, images and videos of bodies stacked upon bodies produces a feelings of disgust and anger toward those responsible for the crimes and others who feigned ignorance.
I have visited Germany twice and enjoyed my experiences there. Today it is hard to imagine that less than eighty years ago, one man plunged the world into war and oversaw the deaths of millions of Jews. When Adolf Hitler seized control of Germany giving the N.S.D.A.P. the majority presence, German society was transformed and turned upside down. Many Jews fled Germany before the Third Reich began its campaign of genocide and some of them never returned. The actions of an unhinged Hitler, nearly brought Germany to the brink of collapse. Widespread famine and lack of basic necessities made life in post-war Germany close to unbearable. Some undoubtedly believed that Germans only had their selves to blame for the war and should suffer for what they did to other nations. The United States and Soviet Union stepped in to divide Berlin and the wall constructed remained in placed until 1989. It was the end of two different German nations contained within one mass of land. The division is similar to the subject of this book entitled ‘What We Knew”.
Historians have always debated what ordinary Germans knew and did not know. Surely, there were many Germans who sought to save their own lives and desperately avoided being linked in any way to Hitler’s failed regime. Many claimed that they had no idea Jews were being systematically murdered in concentration camps. For the Jews, it was hard to believe they could proclaim such ignorance when Antisemitism was a pillar of the Nazi ideology. Americans and other foreign nations always pondered the same question. This book by Eric A. Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband has attempted to take on those questions in the search for the truth about how much the German people knew about the fate that awaited millions of Jews across Europe. Divided into two parts, the first half of the book contains interviews of German Jews who either fled Germany or survived concentration camps. The second half contains interviews of non-Jewish Germans who witnesses the events that transpired. What’s revealed in these pages is both eye-opening and enlightening.
As to be expected each side has their own convictions about what each side knew. Whether they were telling the complete truth is something we will never be able to answer. But what is clear from the book is that the place in Germany in which one lived, played a role in what they knew or did not know. The authors do not attempt to make any decisions about who is to be believed or not believed. They simply present the statements for the reader to decide. From a personal standpoint, I did find that denial is apparent in many of the interviews of non-Jewish Germans while the Jewish Germans unanimously agree that their neighbors definitely knew of the systematic extermination of the Jews and used it as an excuse to plunder and seize what was left over in houses and apartments. Several of the Jewish survivors vowed never to return to Germany and believe that they never did. But they were among the fortunate who were able to survive the Third Reich and tell their stories here.
The debate about the knowledge of the Reich’s atrocities by German citizens will continue for an eternity. But what is clear is that there was much many had knowledge of but preferred not to know. The stories of what really happened cannot be lost to history and to prevent another Holocaust requires that demons from the past are confronted. These are the stories of Germany’s survivors who are here to tell you what they knew.
“To sin in silence while others doth protest makes cowards out of men.” – Ella Wheeler Wilcox