Plans are in the works for a $5 million Holocaust memorial in the town of Niskayuna, Schenectady County, to be completed in 2023 on a two-acre site donated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.
The Capital District Jewish Holocaust Memorial is being designed as an educational tool to eliminate anti-Semitism and boost the teaching of the Holocaust, which gets only a passing mention, in public schools.
“The memorial is going to be a very attractive, interesting and educational memorial,” said Dr. Stephen Berk, a history professor at Schenectady-based Union College and expert in all things related to the Holocaust. “I think people will make their way to see it. School districts will come, word will come out and I think people who are traveling in the vicinity of Schenectady will make sure to see the Holocaust memorial. This memorial will last long after you and I are pushing up the daisies.”
In a series of webinars Berk hosts, the latest one focused on the Jewish resistance during the 1940s.
“There was a great deal of resistance,” Berk firmly noted. “The resistance involved hundreds of thousands of people. We have got to throw this idea, this concept, of the Jews went like sheep to the slaughter into the trash bin of history. It simply is not true. The memory of these people – men, women and children – who faced an apocalypse the likes of which the world had never known, facing incredible odds in absolutely desperate circumstances. We must remember them and we must let their memory inspire us to deal with what may be some very difficult days ahead.”
“The difficult days ahead” that Berk alluded to include “a digital clock in Tehran that counts down from the year 2040 because it says Israel will be destroyed and must be destroyed…. Israel is the only country in the world that is designated as a country that is to be destroyed by another country.”
That was true in the 1940s as well.
“In the words of Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (SS), in a telegram he sent to SS Commanders in the Ukraine, he said, ‘We must kill them [the Jews] down to the last child in the cradle.’”
Berk spoke in stark detail about the resistance most people do not remember or never knew about.
“We know now, 76 years after the Second World War, we have memoirs, we have the testimony of thousands of Holocaust survivors, we have diaries, we have German documentation,” Berk told a virtual audience. “In at least 100 of the ghettos there was armed resistance. The iconic ghetto resistance [came] in Warsaw: April 19th, the first night of Passover, 1943, 700 young men and women from various organizations possessing very little in the way of weaponry, 30 rifles at the most, one machine gun and probably 50 pistols. Arrayed against them are several thousand Ukrainian and German soldiers with tanks and flame-throwers and a multitude of machine guns. The people who rise and revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto know they don’t stand a chance in hell. Not one chance in a million. What they are trying to do is to continue the way they lived.
“The slogan in the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940 down to its destruction in the late spring of 1943 is ‘to live with honor and to die with honor.’ Those men and women, nearly all nearly very young, from various organizations, fought to enhance the reputation of the Jews. Their revolt was unlimited.
“Many of them thought it is better not to fight in the ghetto where it is hopeless – so let’s go out to the forest. The forest of Lithuania, Belarus, eastern Poland, and many were told there would be 20 to 30,000 Jews fighting in the forest of Eastern Europe,” Berk added.
There is more to tell than the armed revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto.
“There are different kinds of resistance,” Berk said earlier this moth. “The Nazis did not allow any educational facilities to function in the ghettos. Yet, the Jews in the ghettos created underground schools for teenagers, for young people. There was even a Jewish underground medical school in the Warsaw Ghetto. They tried to stage cultural events. Then there were the religious people who clung to their religion. I told you about some religious people who were too passive but others were not. At all levels, rabbis resisted the Nazis in their own way. It wasn’t armed revolt. They did what they could. They clung to their faith.
“When one looks at the obstacles of resistance, one is astonished that there was any resistance at all. The obstacles confronting the Jews in the ghettos, in the concentration camps and in the extermination camps, to say was formidable would be a great underestimation. Jews were fighting in the ghettos. The most remarkable thing of all were the Jewish revolts in the three extermination camps.”
Berk made a point that the revolts included women as well.
“In 1943, in [the death camps of] Sobibor and in Treblinka, the Jews revolted. In Sobibor it was a Red Army soldier who had been captured and was put in Sobibor. This was Alexander ‘Sasha’ Pechersky, the man who led the revolt. Pechersky was a Jew.
“In Treblinka the Jews led the revolt. The most famous of those revolts, that becomes almost iconic, is the revolt in Auschwitz. On October 7, 1944, the Sonderkommandos revolted – [they were] a special group of Jews. They were not volunteers.
“These were people who came off the train. Always men, always Jewish men. In the eyes of the Nazis they looked like they were in fairly good shape. They were put in the vicinity of the gas chambers. Their jobs were to take the Jews and undress them, move them into the gas chambers and then once the murders had taken place they go into the gas chambers, pull out the victims – the Jewish men, women and children – shave the hair of the women; then there was a subgroup known as the dentists, some were actual dentists, opened up the mouths of the victims and pulled out the gold and silver fillings.
“This is a very efficient apparatus on the part of the Germans. Some of the Sonderkommandos were killed, sometimes every 90 days. Then in late September, early October 1944, the Sonderkommandos said enough is enough. We have to save ourselves and we have to somehow stop the killing.
“On October 7, 1944, the Sonderkommandos in Crematorium IV attacked the Germans who were stationed there. They killed several of them and destroyed the crematorium and the gas chamber. There were five crematoria and gas chambers in Auschwitz. One was in Auschwitz I and the other four were in Auschwitz II.
“This was not an all-male endeavor,” Berk continued. “All sorts of men are involved in it but so too are the women. The women are very much involved. The women are the couriers and make munitions and pass the munitions on to people. The Auschwitz revolt was only made possible because of a group of Jewish women working in a German munitions factory in Auschwitz. They smuggled out the black powder. One of the heroic women was Róża Robota, a young woman from the eastern part of Poland. She smuggled the black powder to the Sonderkommandos, and that was used to blow up the crematorium. There is a good deal of female participation in the resistance movement.
“We’re talking about revolts in a number of places: The killing field that is in Birkenau. The revolt is a massive one. In the end there is a massive breakout. It doesn’t end well. The Nazis hunted down all of them. There were no Jews who escaped from that revolt. Some managed to escape from Treblinka and Sobibor. From the Auschwitz revolt no one really survives. Again, this is a heroic act.
“The idea that the Jews went like sheep to the slaughter is absolute nonsense. Narishkeit, foolishness. The Jews did fight back. We all know about Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Yitzhak Zuckerman, people in Bialystock, people in Vilna.
There were some branches, however, within the Polish underground movement that spent more time in hunting down and killing the Jews then they did hunting down the Nazis.”
Berk also discussed the Soviet incursion at the end of the war.
“The Red Army liberated Auschwitz and most of the other concentration and extermination camps. The contribution of the Red Army still gets mired down with residual anti-Russian sentiment. You have to talk about Stalin, who was the leader at the time and called the shots. One thing is for sure. Stalin did not give a damn about the Jews. He was an anti-Semite. If the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, it was not done deliberately but because Auschwitz was in the line of advance. Nonetheless, it was the Red Army that liberated Auschwitz and took the casualties. It was the Red Army that put an end to the gassing.
“Most of the people in Auschwitz had been forced out in December 1944 and January 1945. On January 27, 1945, when the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, there were 7,000 Jews. They would have died had the Red Army not come. Credit should be given where credit is due.”
Dr. Michael Lozman, an orthodontist and president of the Capital District Jewish Holocaust Memorial, said, “The Holocaust memorial is designed to honor the six million Jews who were killed by the Nazis and to teach about the Holocaust, about the effects of hatred, bigotry and prejudice and about the importance of remembering what our responsibility is to help make this a better world. Our mission is strongly committed to education because education is a key to make change happen.”
To contribute to this memorial, send a check made out to CDJHM to P.O. Box 9410, Niskayuna, NY 12309.