THE HOLOCAUST: WE MUST REMEMBER
Roger Fredinburg Host
30-Hour Series of Interviews broadcast on the Roger Fredinburg Radio Program
10-27-1997 – First Program in Series
Guest: Dr. Michael Berenbaum, author
The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
ISBN-10: 080188358X and ISBN-13: 978-0801883583
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
100 Raoul Wallenberg Place Southwest, Washington, DC, 20024
Roger: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! I am Roger Fredinburg, radio’s “regular guy and I’m glad to have you here with us this evening. First and foremost, ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank my good friends, Chey Simonton and Kelleigh Nelson, for their hard work and endurance in helping me put together what will become an approximately 20 week investigation and exploration of the whole subject of the Holocaust that we must not forget.
As I’ve been in talk radio these many, many years, one of the things I have learned, and it’s and unfortunate discovery, is that the American people are totally and completely without knowledge on the subject; easily manipulated, easily dragged off into some of these so-called patriot camps which are nothing but Nazi cults, Hitler-loving groups. You don’t know that going in. It takes time to work you up to that. In my opinion, and I think many of you share the opinion, that ignorance is not good.
So we will set out on a journey over the next twenty weeks. We’re going to talk with people who survived some of the most incredible atrocities man’s conceived. We’re going to talk with people covering every aspect of this holocaust issue because We Must Remember.
Joining us this evening is Dr. Michael Berenbaum, one of the foremost authorities. His book is, The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It’s a wonderful book that takes you on a journey through everything! You need to order this book and I’ll explain later how to do that. First, I’d like to welcome our guest. Dr. Berenbaum, welcome!
Dr Berenbaum: Thank you so much! It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Roger: It’s a pleasure to have you aboard, sir! I know you are traveling and it’s not the most convenient circumstances for you. You are, whether you know it or not, the first guest in a series of about twenty where the whole subject of the holocaust will be covered so that people won’t forget.
First of all, I’d like to ask about the Holocaust Museum. What is the goal of the Holocaust Museum?
Dr. Berenbaum: Well, the goal of the Holocaust Museum was two-fold; one, to memorialize the victims; but, more importantly, to be a living memorial, to teach the current generation the story of the holocaust, to transmit the story to this generation and all future generations. So it’s task was to commemorate the past, to educate and thereby transform the future.
Roger: The message is clear, that we must never forget.
Dr. Berenbaum: That’s one of the messages. What we deliberately did was not to be a propaganda machine; but, to literally tell you the story. The remarkable thing is that once the story is told the messages are multiple to many people. The remarkable thing we found in the first years of the museum was that message was also deeply and profoundly American. By that I mean that here was an account of an essentially European event that underscored the importance of fundamental American values; the idea that all persons are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights that the state can’t take away, the notion that absolute rights and separation of powers and checks and balances which, after all, are the antitheses of dictatorship. They are the guarantor of all these freedoms.
Roger: I concur. I want to ask you to help me with something because who knows how many listeners are in the audience this evening. Many of them will never get to see the Holocaust Museum. I thought what you might do, as best you can, is simply take us on a tour. What will we see there?
Dr. Berenbaum: Let us begin, first of all, with the setting. The setting of the Holocaust Museum is adjacent to the National Monuments, adjacent to the National Mall. One of the very interesting things is that we were asked, why did we put this museum in the center of the National Mall that celebrates all the great triumphs of American democracy and accomplishment in art, literature and technology, the power of government. The Holocaust represents what happens when the power of humanity is detached from moral responsibility.
Enter the museum and you will get an identification card of someone who went through the holocaust so you have a companion on your trip through the museum. The companion will be a person whose life story is unfolding before you as you enter the ethical historical event.
You ride the elevator, and in the elevator you meet an American liberator who’ll say to you what he said then, ” we don’t know what it is, people are dying, they’re starving everywhere. People don’t do this to other people!”
Then the elevator doors open and you see what the American soldiers experienced on the day of liberation, the shock! The catastrophe of all the dead bodies, piles of bodies and bones! You begin there and then conclude at the little section from Dwight David Eisenhower who said, ” I made the visit (to these camps) deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.” That section will conclude with a question which how could this happen?
The rest of the museum is literally an answer to that question…. not why, but how?
On the top floor we took you through the evolution of Nazi policy; through the rise of Hitler, to the beginning of terror, the creation of concentration camps, to the boycott of Jewish businesses. On May 10, 1933, literally Hitler’s 100th day in office, they burned books. You will read a statement by Heinrich Heine who said, “a people who burn books, in the end, will burn people.” The distance from book burning to people burning in the Holocaust was eight years!
You will then ask the question, “How did the nation of Goethe, Schiller, Bach and Beethoven become the worshiper of the mad corporal and would see the power of propaganda, would see the ideology of race and the science of race? 400 laws were passed that isolated, segregated and stigmatized the Jews and removed them from the heart of society and made them a segregated minority.
Then we’d see the power of technology by seeing the granddaddy of the computer; the card sorter, showing the degree of technology that powered this regime.
We’d see the indifference of the world that is a form of antisemitism, then we’d go to a turning point in the holocaust which was called The Night of the Broken Glass, “Kristallnacht,” November 8, 1938. On November 9, 1938 eleven hundred synagogues were burned in Germany and Austria, 7,000 stores were looted and 30,000 Jewish men and boys were arrested. It would seem that was the end of German Jewry.
We’d continue on to see the Nazi assault against other victims. We’d see the triumph of Hitler in which he not only created a Nazi state but a police society and the desperate attempt to convince the refugees to leave.
Finally, we’d see the beginning of killing, the beginning of war against the Polish nationals and the first mass murders which didn’t happen to the Jews; but, the first mass murders happened to the mentally retarded, to those who were an embarrassment to the myth of Aryan supremacy.
We’d cross a bridge and see what did America know and when did it know it? What was the response of the United States between 1933 and 1939?
We’d descend a floor, and this is the floor that’s most difficult. This is a floor of death! As you move through I can take you through to the ghetto, to all the killing units, all the mobile units that went out and shot Jews; 1,250,000 jews shot, one by one by one!
Roger: Now what was the mobile killing unit? What did it look like?
Dr. Berenbaum: The mobile killing units consisted of a series of SS officers and personnel. Their job was to come into a town and round up Jews, some gypsies and communists, bring them to the edge of a valley or a gulch and literally shoot them one by one by one. They murder 90,000 people in the first four and a half to five weeks of duty! How do we know that? They sent back reports indicating the dates and the numbers of people they killed. At Babyar they murdered 32,000 people within a three day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 1941, the High Holy Days! It would seem that these were ordinary soldiers who acted as part of an extraordinary unit. We’d look at their pictures and even see the films that they took! When you look at the films they strike you, primarily, because even though you know what happened they seem surrealistic. Your eyes can’t believe what they are seeing!
We go from there to the decision of killing. The decision to kill was taken January 20, 1942. It was taken at a beautiful villa on a lakeside area in Berlin. It was taken by 15 men, what we of the Viet Nam generation would call “The Best and the Brightest”.
We then see the ghetto resistance in Warsaw and we’d walk right to the railroad train that was used to transport Jews from Austria to Treblinka. With the idea that the mobile killing units were the first stage of killing, the first state of killing was to take the killers to the victims. But, that became too difficult; psychologically, they couldn’t kill all day long and still handle the rest of their humanity. So they reversed the order; that is, if you can’t send the killers to the victims, you have mobile victims and stationary killing centers. The instrument of that was the railroad car.
If you were in the museum you’d learn that Auschwitz had 44 parallel railroad tracks. I didn’t know what a parallel railroad track was but I’d once been trained as a journalist. I called Amtrak and asked, “How many parallel railroad tracks do you have a Pennsylvania Station?” Then I fell off my chair when the guy answered, 21! I realized that Auschwitz was chosen because the infrastructure was in place; 44 parallel railroad tracks which meant they needed intersecting railroad lines for this to work. That’s why they created the death camps of Birkenau and Auschwitz.
Roger: So the railroad provided the nucleus!
Dr. Berenbaum: It was the nucleus of the transportation system. The idea was to have stationary killing centers. Therefore, you have places like Treblinka. Here again, I can give you statistics; Treblinka 850,000 Jews were killed in about 18 months. They were killed by a staff of 120 of whom 30 were SS and the rest were Ukrainians and Lithuanians.
Then you walk into the actual barracks of Auschwitz and see the unfolding of the world of the death camps. Within the barracks you see the way people slept. You see the medical experiments that were done. You see the slave labor efforts. Then you see the crematoria that was the epicenter; the undressing room, the gas chamber, the elevators, the dissecting rooms and the ovens.
Then you cross the bridge and walk face to face with death. You’d see a room full of shoes, a room of human hair and tattoos.
Finally, you’d get to a room about three stories high in which you’d see about 1,800 faces of people who lived in the village that died one day.
Instead of presenting you with dead bodies, we present you with wonderful pictures of living people; kids on an outing, a father with his daughter, a grandfather with his grandchild, two lovers in bathing suits at a beach party, soccer practicing. We show you the presence of the people and you begin to sense their absence.
We descend again and then you see people in difficult attempts at rescue; Denmark which saved their Jews, Poles who tried to assist Jews. We see resistance then we see liberation again.
Walk and then see on one side the ultimate crime;that the killers which were the children and on the opposite the side the attempt of the world to address this crime that involved the trials of Nazi war criminals, then see the struggles of the people to recover from this, their attempt to rebuild their lives in the United States and Israel.
Finally it concludes in a very incredible way, by listening to the voices of those who were there, who lived in that world and spoke to all the world. We listen to a film of survivors talking with the idea that each fragment of memory is the embodiment of the total experience.
Roger: How long does the tour take?
Dr. Berenbaum: That’s a very interesting question. It’s a self-guided experience. We thought we were building the museum for a two hour visit. We normally told our people we were building it for an hour and a half visit because our idea was that most people would only spend about 45 minutes in the museum. When I left the museum about six months ago, the average stay was about 3 hour and 15 minutes. One in 4 visitors spend six hours or more! So in the experience of the museum they see something very deep and very profound and they’re willing to give what’s most valuable to them which is time.
Roger: You mentioned earlier that there is a section about what did America know and when did she know it. What did America know?
Dr. Berenbaum: I’m going to be pedantic for a second. America had early and retrospectively accurate information about everything that was going on. What historians know is that there is a difference between information and knowledge. It’s only when information reaches a threshold of attention and enters your being that you begin to gain that as knowledge.
Let me give you examples of non-historical information. People reject bad information. We all know very intelligent women who walk around for months with lumps in their breasts and pretend not to know. We all know smart men and smart women who have shooting pains up and down their arms and don’t take themselves to hospitals. People dismiss bad information.
What is remarkable in retrospect is that we knew everything and we knew it early and accurately. We had the information but it didn’t seep into the sense of being where it changed the way in which people perceived the world. Let me give you a concrete example.
Roger: Okay,but first I’ve got to take a commercial break. Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Berenbaum will talk to us more about this incredible terrible tragedy. We must never forget the holocaust. As I said, we’re going to be spending the next number of weeks, one night a week, going into the subject with a number people, survivors. So hang in there!
Roger: Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen! I’m Roger Fredinburg, radio’s regular guy! Tonight Dr. Michael Berenbaum is with us. He has a book, “The World Must Know” that you can order at any book store. I highly recommend it as one of those additions to your library that will forever be there to remind you to remember the incredible atrocities, but more than that, a great expose’ of everything that happens at the Holocaust Museum. Dr. Berenbaum, welcome back!
We were talking about the United States before we went to break. As I recall, you were talking generally that we didn’t want to believe it maybe?
Dr. Berenbaum: Not only that they didn’t want to believe it, they didn’t want to pay attention to it at a certain level. I can give you example after example. Let me try to give you a very interesting one. There’s a man by the name of Dino Guccioni who is a photo analyst, one of the great photo analysts in American history. He’s the man who in brought us the Cuban Missile Crisis because he’s the man who brought the photographs to the attention of his superiors when he was with the CIA. That ultimately brought it to President Kennedy’s attention. It was on the basis of his understanding of photographs that we understood exactly what was going into those silos. Guccioni hypothesized that there were films of the concentration camps in the photos of that American intelligence took in 1944. He proceeded to develop all those photos, albeit he developed with the technology of 1978, not of 1944. What he found was remarkable! Visually you could see the camps and visually you could see what was going on in the camps. America never developed those films because it never paid attention to the camps.
Even when I show in other books of mine that we did know where they were located and what they were doing. We had the accurate information but we never cared enough because we’d made a policy decision very early on in the war, a decision that we were going to win the war. Once we’d won the war we’d worry about the current refugee problem. The dilemma was that it became clear by 1942 and absolutely clear by 1943 that by the time the war was over there would be no refugees to worry about. We never re-examined our policies as to whether we should do anything against the targeting of individuals, of Jews. We never changed our policy because we set policy, we were going to win the war, then take care of refugees. When it became clear there would be no refugees, nobody re-thought the policy. Part of that is not caring enough. Part of that is the old argument that human rights should not have a particular role in the creation of foreign policy. Part of that is indifference and part of that is we could not fully comprehend what was happening even when we knew it was happening!
Roger: Propaganda was the driving force behind Hitler’s success.
Dr. Berenbaum: He was a master!
Roger: What I would like you to do for this audience, because it’s so very important, is describe what types of propaganda, what kinds of rumors were put out to convert people’s thinking that this was okay?
Dr. Berenbaum: Let’s go a little bit earlier than that. Two politicians understood the power of radio.
We had a politician in the United States, President Roosevelt, who understood the power of radio and he used it in a fairly benign way and we had something that Roosevelt called “The Fireside Chat” in which the president spoke to the nation from the White House. It was his means of contact with the American people.
Hitler changed radio use from 25% to 65% of all German households within the first couple of years that he was in power. He created something called the “Volksradio” which was the equivalent of the Volkswagen, namely an affordable radio that everyone could have. Those radios only transmitted German radio broadcasts. He ultimately controlled all of the media. There was no alternate media and he had the press and the radio on his side. He was an enormously charismatic speaker. Speer, who was his architect and minister in his government, once said, “I walked into a rally thinking he was a fool and I walked out thinking this man was the savior of Germany. Everything I’d seen two hours before that looked foolish, then looked enormously impressive.”
Hitler targeted multiple people. Some people were targeted for their political beliefs; trade unionists and political dissidents. Some were targeted for what they refused to do. Jehovah’s Witnesses wouldn’t swear allegiance to the state and say the words, ” Heil Hitler!” Homosexuals were persecuted because of their sexuality. Jews were persecuted because Hitler felt they were “life unworthy of living” they were the enemy of humanity, they were a cancer on the body politic of Germany and what you had to do in order to save Germany was to cut out the tumor, to eliminate this group of people. He ultimately convinced large parts of this nation, at least to go along with it, if not to support it. He used all of the instrumentalities of propaganda; from films to radio broadcasts to print media, posters. It’s virtually a tremendous study in the use of propaganda to understand precisely how he did it.
Roger: What kinds of things would he say about the Jews that would eventually cause people to go along with his thinking?
Dr. Berenbaum: The most remarkable thing is that Hitler never lied in the sense that he told people what he was going to do. They didn’t believe him. Hitler believed Jews were to be eliminated from the face of the earth; that they were strangling, dominating and destroying German culture, that their destruction was essential to the creation of a secure German state, the Thousand Year Reich.
Roger: What did he say the Jews were doing that caused him to believe that?
Dr. Berenbaum: They were essentially preying on the economic life, destroying the foundation of values, destroying morality, that they were conniving, controlling, conspiratorial, destructive, cancerous. I could go into every epithet imaginable in which he described Jews.
Roger: Does anybody know, have any kind of feeling about what percentage of the population, at that time, actually openly and full-heartedly supported Hitler?
Dr. Berenbaum: You have to begin by saying, when you say “that time” you have to ask “when”? In 1933 the Nazis received about 1/3 of the vote. They were never elected by a majority. Hitler, when he came to power, enjoyed a little greater support. He then eliminated his enemies and gradually enjoyed the effective support of his nation. Whether all these people wanted to go along with every iota and sign on to every aspect of his program, that’s doubtful. But, they did not effectively resist the implementation. He did have, not only a fanatical group of supporters; but, you have to understand that he created instrumentalities that were the machinery of death. Let me give you an very simple example.
He created something called mobile gas vans. So, the original assignment to create mobile gas vans went to the motor pool in the army. The motor pool in the army then went to a factory and said, “this is what we need and this is the way you need to re-design and re-configure the engines and the body of the gas vans.’ Gradually he had a whole team of engineers working on how to create effective mobile gas vans. Were these guys originally Nazis? Who knows? Were they, in essence, the technological masterminds of the new modality of killing? Absolutely! These mobile gas vans were not perfected technologically so they had to go to even greater gas vans…the crematoria at Auschwitz, designed by very sophisticated engineers, built by some of the great manufacturers of Germany, designed by very competent architects and engineers and guaranteed to last 25 years by one of the very most “respectable” companies in Germany!
So, by that time you’re not dealing with a small cadre of believers; but, you’re dealing with a wide circle of people who participated in the destruction process! We’re not talking about thousands, we’re talking about everybody from engineers, to architects, to mechanics, to designers and that’s only on the gas chamber aspect of it all.
Roger: By controlling the flow of information to the people…. In my mind, I’m trying to rationalize, how you could witness people being taken to the outskirts of the city to be killed, and not having outrage in the community? I’ve got to take a break, Dr. Berenbaum.
Roger: Dr. Michael Berenbaum joins us this evening and, folks, I would recommend that you go down to your local book store and get “The World Must Know,”. I think you will find it to be a fascinating read. Dr. Berenbaum, you are laying a foundation for a journey we’re embarking on over the next 20 weeks. We’re going to talk to a lot of survivors. I want these folks to have an opportunity to tell their story before it’s too late.
I wonder, as you look across the landscape of the world political scenarios as they develop, do you see any possibility that these kinds of conditions might recur?
Dr. Berenbaum: The holocaust was a singular event; but, events that are analogous, not equivalent but analogous, occur with frequency in the world.
I was in Rwanda the first couple of months right after what occurred, the genocide. I had a sense of being the equivalent of an anthropologist because I had seen this event in terms of the way survivors of the holocaust behaved in the immediate aftermath. In Rwanda I was able to see precisely what had happen; but, 50 years later. Rwanda had an echo of it! Bosnia had an echo of it! Cambodia had an echo of it!
The problem in our world is that ethnic hatreds and rivalries, the struggle to accept the ideas of pluralism and tolerance, the multiplicity and diversity of cultures, this is going to be one of the formative issues of the 21st Century for humanity! We live in a period of dislocation and every once in awhile charismatic figures come along who have the easy ability to scapegoat individuals. Will that create The Holocaust? Perhaps not; but, will they create events that are tyrannical and destructive, that are mass-murderous and genocidal? There is that capacity.
I believe that in the United States, if we remain faithful to the core American values; the idea of the equality of humanity, the separation of powers, checks and balances, absolute rights….. then bad things can happen in America; but, not a holocaust.
Roger: If you were to define three or four primary warning signs that something like this might be in the beginning stages, what would the warning signs be?
Dr. Berenbaum: The warnings would be the significant erosion of human rights and human liberties, the idea that societies pull against each other instead of toward each other.
You know, it’s a very interesting thing; between 1929 and 1932 America lost 40 % of Gross National Product, as did Germany. Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to power and told the American people that we need to turn toward each other and work with each other to get out of this morass. Adolf Hitler cam to power and said we can blame it all on one party, let’s get rid of them and everything will be alright. In times of dislocation, if you turn toward each other you get a very different response than if you turn against each other.
Let me tell you about what I’ve done in my post-museum life because I think that will also be of interest in the journey that you and your listeners are about to make. I work with the survivors for the Shoah Foundation. What we are doing is taping the testimony of 50,000 Holocaust survivors. We’re taking video testimony and making it accessible in repositories throughout the country and, indeed, throughout the world. Thus far, we have taken the testimonies of 36,500 people which is the equivalent of 8-1/2 years worth of testimony of Holocaust survivors with the idea that each and every one of them has a very important story to tell. Only by hearing the stories do you begin to piece together the magnitude of the event.
Roger: Those will be available when?
Dr. Berenbaum: They’ll be available within a year in Washington at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, in Los Angeles at the Simon Wisenthal Center, in New York at the Museum of Jewish Heritage , in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, and at the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University in New Haven.
Roger: Will they be catalogued in a way that people can select issues?
Dr. Berenbaum: They’ll be catlogued in a way that you can even access them through natural language. You can ask a question and get a variety of answers.
Roger: That’s wonderful!
Dr. Berenbaum: The idea is to take all of this testimony and make it into a living language by which we can educate future generations.
Roger: Dr. Berenbaum, I want to thank you very much for sharing this hour with us! It’s been quite informative and you’ve kicked off something that I hope will be very special to people in this country and I greatly appreciate it! Have a safe trip, my friend, and God Bless!
Dr. Berenbaum: Thank you! Goodbye!
Roger: Alright, folks, that was Dr. Michael Berenbaum! You can get his book and I hope you will. It’s a fascinating book that really dispels a lot of the rumors that are creeping up on you in these really weird political circles. Don’t fall for propaganda, people! Stick with the facts, you’ll always do better!
I want to thank again, Chey Simonton and Kelleigh Nelson, for all the hard work and effort that they put into helping us find the right people to bring on this program. I want to thank the Holocaust Museum. Stay tuned for this series. I think you’ll find it fascinating!
(Transcription is from MP3 file converted from original cassette with minimal editing by
Chey Simonton- Errors, if any, may be due to unintelligible sections of original 1997 audio technology. Unknown/unintelligible words are spelled phonetically.)