Response to Harold Marcuse on "The Nazis Next Door" and NYT Review piece by Eric Lichtblau

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I was invited to respond to the recent commentary on h-net regarding my New York Times piece on the liberation of the concentration camps  and my book, “The Nazis Next Door.”  While I was tempted to let this issue lie, a commentary as riddled with errors, sloppy scholarship, and baffling assertions as is Harold Marcuse’s  should not go unchallenged in any academic forum. (See a sampling of the errors and misrepresentations at the bottom of this posting.) Frankly, a number of his comments, minimalizing and rationalizing the horrific conditions in the DP camps, are an insult to Holocaust survivors and their families.

Mr. Marcuse  suggests I was somehow too harsh in condemning the horrific treatment of the survivors in the months after the liberation and their prolonged confinement in DP camps for years afterward. Yet he fails to identify a single factual inaccuracy in my account. What is abundantly clear -- as evidenced in Earl Harrison’s findings to Truman, along with other postwar reports and my own interviews with survivors and their children -- is that the vast majority  of the 250,000 DP survivors lived in inhumane, barbaric conditions in the camps for months after the end of the war--kept “under guard behind barbed wire fences” (Harrison, p2) , bunked side by side with Nazi POWs, given negligent medical “attention” by the same Wehrmacht medical staff who had worked at the Nazi camps, given measly, “pathetic,” and often unlivable food rations, officially regarded as “enemy nationals,” and held in utter contempt by General Patton, a raging anti-Semite who viewed the Jews as “locusts.” Some 23,000 Jews at Bergen-Belsen alone died of disease and malnutrition (Harrison) even after the Allied victory, Jews rioted for more food and better living conditions in a number of camps, and some survivors committed suicide under Allied control in conditions that Harrison compared to those imposed by the Nazis themselves. “We felt like so much surplus junk, human garbage which the governments of the world wished would somehow go away,” wrote one DP at Foehrenwald whom I quote in my book.

The counter-argument from Marcuse, as best I can follow it, seems to be that the treatment wasn’t really that bad and lasted for only a period of months. That a professor of German history would take such a view is truly astounding to me. In my view, even one day, one week, or one month in such barbaric conditions was too long, especially when contrasted with the favorable treatment of many German POWs  under Patton and his refusal to de-Nazify the camps even after the Allied victory.  

Did conditions improve in late 1945 and early 1946 as a result of the Harrison report? Yes, thankfully. Yet almost as remarkable to me as Marcuse’s comments, Atina Grossman on this site is quick to dismiss the Harrison as “hyperbolic.” She wants it both ways: she belittles the “sensational” tone of the Harrison report, while acknowledging that it produced much-needed changes in improving the horrific treatment of the DPs. Grossman should consider how long those changes would have taken without Harrison’s report to Truman. Better yet, she should speak, as I did, with people like Menachem Rosensaft, who was born in the DP camp at Bergen-Belsen to two survivors who met with Harrison as DP representatives about the deplorable conditions there, and she should find out what it was really like for the survivors before adopting such an insensitive, Ivory Tower attitude.  

While conditions did improve by 1946, the fact remains that the bulk of the survivors remained in the DP camps for as long as three years or more, with entry denied to the United States and Palestine; one DP camp stayed open until 1957. That the survivors were able to build communities and re-start their lives in the DP camps is testamant to their own strength and perseverence, not to the propriety of the abominable US policies that kept them there.

Marcuse notes disapprovingly that students at my UCSB talk in January were “shocked” to learn of the treatment of the Holocaust survivors. Indeed, many students came up to me afterward to thank me for introducing them to a chapter in postwar history that they knew nothing about. To me, their shock speaks volumes. This shameful saga in postwar history is something students should be taught.  Instead, Marcuse accuses me, without foundation, of exaggerating the “bad conditions” at the camps; his apologia is an affront to the survivors who suffered through such inhumane treatment.

Among the specific mistakes and distortions in Marcuse’s postings:

-- Marcuse challenges one of the central points of my book: that “hundreds of thousands” of eastern European war refugees, including many high-level Nazi collaborators, were granted visas to the United States in the early years after the war, even as Holocaust survivors were left behind in DP camps in huge numbers and kept out of America and Israel.

Marcuse writes: “Hundreds of thousands? In the early years? I would like to see evidence of that.” This is really news to Marcuse? If he did not have time to check the footnotes of my book, he could have spent a few seconds googling around to find that the overwhelming majority of the 400,000 visas authorized by Congress in 1948 under the Displaced Persons Act – 80%, by the count of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum – went to “Christians from Eastern Europe and the Baltics.” The congressional record shows that this was done largely by design as a result of Cold War politics and lingering anti-Semitism, with US politicians and policy-makers anxious to bring in anti-communist eastern Europeans of “good stock” and “good breeding” from the ‘captive nations’ and reluctant to take in Jews who, as one Senate lawyer said, “expect to be cared for.”

-- Marcuse also claims that I included only a single reference in my footnotes to a 2007 internal Justice Department report by Judith Feigin on the Office of Special Investigations, when in fact I reference that report by name in the footnotes not once or twice, but 27 times. This gross error followed a similarly head-scratching moment from Marcuse on that same topic during the Q&A at my UCSB talk, when he suggested to the 300 listeners in the audience that this exhaustive 2007 report on the Nazi-hunting office didn’t actually exist, even though I had written about it on the front page of the New York Times and credited the report in the very opening of my talk as the genesis for “The Nazis Next Door.” I corrected him from the podium that night, assuring him with some puzzlement that the report did in fact exist and that my newspaper had made it public for the first time. But in case there remains any doubt even now in Marcuse’s mind, the Feigin report can be found here: ). A “correction’ that Marcuse posted on this point contains still more, equally baffling errors regarding the Feigin report, which I suppose Marcuse will see fit to go back and correct later.  

 -- Marcuse also baldly distorts and misquotes an NPR interview I did in his transparent effort to criticize my work.  He claims that the interviewer on “Fresh Air” tried to “correct” me when I described the conditions faced by the survivors in the DP camps immediately after the war. In fact, the transcript and the audio show just the opposite: far from “correcting” me, the interviewer agreed that the conditions were “shocking” and said: “We picture these starved, sick, traumatized survivors being treated well and given assistance and freedom. The picture you describe is very different.” If Marcuse’s distorted account of what was said on the NPR interview was a journalism assignnment, it would receive a failing grade.

-- Lastly, what I found most telling about the commentary from Marcuse and Grossman is their complete omission of any discussion of General Patton’s blatant anti-Semitism in the running of the DP camps after the liberation, except in passing reference to my own article. For those unfamiliar with the topic, this is what General Patton wrote in his journal in response to the criticism of the inhumane conditions at the DP camps exposed by Harrison, as I discussed it in my book:

“Harrison and his ilk believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews who are lower than animals,” Patton wrote in his diary after learning of the scathing report to Truman. Laying bare the rabid anti-Semitism that infected the American refugee effort, Patton complained of how the Jews in one DP camp, with “no sense of human relationships,” would defecate on the floors and live in filth like lazy “locusts.” He told of taking General Eisenhower to tour a makeshift synagogue that the Jews in the camp had set up to celebrate the holy day of Yom Kippur. “We entered the synagogue which was packed with the greatest stinking mass of humanity I have ever seen.” This was Eisenhower’s first glimpse of the DPs, Patton wrote, so it was all new to him. “Of course, I have seen them since the beginning and marveled that beings alleged to be made in the form of God can look the way they do or act the way they act.”

I suspect the reason for this omission by Marcuse and Grossman is simple: Patton’s hate-filled words and his own shocking observations of what transpired in the camps cannot be reconciled with the glossed-over version of the DP conditions that they provide in their commentaries. I only hope students get a more accurate and well-rounded view of this shameful saga in postwar history.

Eric Lichtblau

March 30, 2015
















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