Monday, June 23, 2014

New Findings on the Herbert Baum Group

by Eric Brothers (C) 2014

Herbert Baum (1912-1942) circa 1935.
This essay includes the most recent scholarly findings on the history of the Herbert Baum group.  The author of this essay, Eric Brothers, wrote the book Berlin Ghetto: Herbert Baum and the Anti-fascist Resistance (The History Press, 2012).  This research and evaluation, based upon new and existing evidence, have been undertaken since the publication of Berlin Ghetto. Anyone wishing to employ this essay as a source for scholarship or other writing is welcome to do so, providing that they cite it thus: Eric Brothers, "New Findings on the Herbert Baum Group." The Herbert Baum Group Blog.  If anyone has any comments or questions they can post them in the comments section of this essay/blog post.  This blog is being used to distribute this research to a greater number of people than in a traditional scholarly publication.  Please contact this blog if you are writing about the Baum group and/or are using "New Findings on the Herbert Baum Group" as a source.  The author wishes to thank Dr. John M. Cox for his reviewing this essay before publication.

Herbert Baum and the Communist Youth League of Germany

It has been documented that Herbert Baum and his girlfriend and later wife, Marianne Cohn, joined the Communist Youth League of Germany (Kommunisticher Jugendverband Deutschlands, KJVD) in 1931. (1) Compelling evidence, however, places them in the KJVD as early as 1926, when they were both fourteen years old.  That is five years earlier than previously thought.  A photograph of the KJVD from Neukölln in southeastern Berlin dated 1926/27 clearly shows Herbert Baum and Marianne Cohn sitting together.  Standing in the back row is the famous German-Jewish revolutionary, Olga Benario. (2) This photo tells us much, but also raises questions.  How much of an influence was the four-year-older Benario upon Herbert Baum?  Who else in the Neukölln KJVD was an influence upon an impressionable Baum?

KJVD photo from 1926/27 with Herbert Baum and Marianne Cohn circled in white.  Olga Benario is circled in gray.

This new information changes the history of Herbert Baum during the late Weimar period.  As a 13-year-old in 1925 he joined the Red Falcons, the children’s organization of the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany).  Two years later, in 1927, he was a member of the Deutsch-Jüdische Jugendgemeinschaft (German-Jewish Youth Association or DJJG). (3)  Did Herbert Baum join the DJJG in order to infiltrate it and indoctrinate members to become Communists?  In an interview with the author, Norbert Wollheim, Baum’s first troop leader in the DJJG in 1927, remembers that Herbert was a voracious reader of the works of Marx and Lenin.  Wollheim also said that Baum felt that Trotsky’s theories were an aberration of Communist thought. (4)  This statement makes more sense than previously now that it is known that Herbert Baum was in the KJVD in 1927. It is doubtful that the 15-year-old Baum would have drawn such a conclusion on his own.  The Communist Youth League was as anti-Trotsky in 1927 as was the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (Communist Party of Germany or KPD) and the Stalin-led party in the Soviet Union.

Max Abraham was one of Baum’s Jewish scouts in the DJJG.  He remembers Baum first as a scout like himself who “showed a paternal leading capacity.” Abraham said that later on Baum “started to be less Jewish and more oriented towards socialism … [and] eventually he started to form his own group with a very strong socialist leaning.” (5) That was in 1929, when Herbert was given his own DJJG group in Prenzlauer Berg. (6)  Another one of Herbert Baum’s young scouts in 1929 was Herbert ‘Rabauke’ Ballhorn, who writes that, “Judaism and Zionism played no role … Slowly, seemingly by chance and without intent we edged towards social issues …[and] had entered the mainstream of Communist thought.  Herbert … was very subtle and clever about it.” (7)

On Sunday afternoons Herbert had his DJJG group meet with member of the Red Falcons (SPD children’s movement).  Initially, the get-togethers were somewhat strained; the Jewish boys were mostly middle class and the Falcons were strictly working class.  Ballhorn remembers that the Jews dressed better and had a somewhat more selective use of the German language, which only helped to magnify the differences between them and the Falcons.  However, the rampant anti-Semitism of the day made the Jews wary of the group of working class children.  Barriers had to be broken down by Baum in order to make these two dissimilar groups cohesive.  He achieved it by putting his bourgeois Jewish boys on an equal ideological footing with the Falcons through political indoctrination.  The young socialists were shocked by the Jews’ knowledge of Marxist-Leninist concepts and theories. Ballhorn recalls that, “It seemed me that our handful of Jewish boys were better equipped and versed in socialist theory than the Red Falcons themselves.  Herbert had done a good job on us.” (8)

Herbert Baum met his death on a Pruegelbock (whipping block) similar to this one.
The death of Herbert Baum

For many years there has been a mystery surrounding the death of Herbert Baum. Was he tortured to death or did he, as the Gestapo claims, take his own life? Baum’s last weeks include his arrest at Siemens Elmo-Werk on 22 May 1942, his processing at Alt Moabit prison that day, and being brought by Gestapo to Elmo-Werk to see if he would betray any of his comrades, or if they would give themselves away when seeing him.  Then, on 11 June 1942, he died. (9) To this day the exact manner of his death, along with where it occurred, has been a great mystery.  But a “smoking gun” has been found. 

My research has unearthed a witness deposition that places Baum and a few other group members (Heinz Rotholz, Heinz Birnbaum, and Herbert Meyer) in the Police Presidium prison on Grunerstrasse in Alexanderplatz. (10)  Other Baum group members were held in the same location a different times, including Sala Kochmann (11), Hilde Jadamowitz (12), and Martin Kochmann.(13) The deposition in question does not mention these people, and no evidence exists that places them in the Police Presidium prison on 11.6.42, the day Herbert Baum died.

The author of the deposition is Willi Weber, an anti-fascist who was arrested in Berlin on 6.6.1942, and brought to the Police Presidium prison on Grunerstrasse.  He wrote his deposition on 21.4.1969, to be included in the then upcoming trial of former SS Lieutenant Colonel Otto Bovensiepen.  He was responsible for the deportation of around 50,000 Berlin Jews to Auschwitz during his tenure as Berlin Gestapo chief (1941-2.11.1942). (14)  Weber wrote his account because he wanted “the murders of the German-Jewish resistance fighters of the Herbert Baum group [to be made] a theme of the criminal proceedings currently pending against Bovensiepen and others.” (15)

SS Lieutenant Colonel Otto Bovensiepen was Berlin Gestapo Chief when Baum was arrested.
Previous research places Herbert Baum in Alt Moabit prison. (16)  Weber’s deposition, however, places Baum at Grunerstrasse 12, the address of the Police Presidium prison in Alexanderplatz.  Mr. Weber mistakenly referred to it as “Gestapo headquarters.” (17)  Nonetheless, Bovensiepen’s office was located at Grunerstrasse 12 and the Gestapo ran the police prison there.  That Herbert Baum was incarcerated in Polizeigefängnis Berlin is corroborated in a Gestapo Schlussbericht (final report) on the “Soviet Paradise” action dated 27.8.1942. (18) Weber tells us that, “Bovensiepen had the people from the Herbert Baum group interrogated under torture, and Herbert Baum was interrogated under extreme torture…by the murderer Otto Bovensiepen.” (19) The Gestapo tells us that “…Herbert Israel Baum committed suicide on 11.6.1942 by hanging in the police prison Berlin.” (20)  Willi Weber, however, reports that “Herbert Baum did not depart life by suicide, as is claimed…Gestapo officers flogged Herbert Baum to death in the ‘Special Treatment’ room.”  Weber provides more details: “…the Jews were strapped to the whipping block [Prügelbock] and beaten with a bull whip…” (21) Considering the Gestapo’s reputation for brutality and dishonesty, I consider Weber’s account to be reliable and credible.  Only one other historian, Wolfgang Wippermann, has mentioned Bovensiepen in connection with the death of Herbert Baum: “While Herbert Baum already died on 11 June 1942--whether as a result of the torture upon the command of SS Lieutenant Colonel Bovensiepen, or suicide, is uncertain…” (22) Willi Weber belonged to the resistance group around Harro Schulze-Boysen with Rainer Küchenmeister.  “The Gestapo sinned against us,” writes Weber, “as against all others: the murdered, the whipped, and those shot without a court sentence.” (23)

Gestapo investigation of the Baum group

The investigation of the Baum group’s attack on the Soviet Paradise exhibition was no small matter in the eyes of the National Socialist upper echelon.  Heinrich Himmler received a telegram about it; Joseph Goebbels wrote about it three times in his diary; the propaganda minister spoke with Adolf Hitler about it on at least one occasion; and Adolf Eichmann told Leo Baeck and other Jewish leaders the names of the leaders and threatened Berlin Jewry because of the Soviet Paradise action.  Additionally, Berlin Gestapo chief SS Obersturmbannführer Otto Bovensiepen was personally involved in the investigation.  It seems that even Reich Gestapo head Heinrich Mueller played a role in this drama.

Brochure cover of exhibition attacked by Baum group 19 May 1942.
It appears that one of the results of the early stages of the investigation of the Baum group after the Soviet Paradise action was “sharpened interrogations” by the Gestapo.  A directive by the Gestapo chief, Heinrich “Gestapo” Müller, covering that topic was issued with the date of 12 June 1942, as a “secret Reich matter.” (24)  A separate Gestapo document addressed to the Volksgerichtshof from the State Police Control Station Berlin at Grunerstrasse 12 (the same address where Willi Weber was held) states that Baum group members Heinz Rotholz and Heinz Birnbaum made “untrue statements” during interrogation about their activity and denied knowledge of “illegal organizations.” Furthermore, the document continues to tell us that Rotholz and Birnbaum “abstained from making truthful statements about their accomplices and their activities.  However a speedy solution in this matter is of great importance because state security is at stake.” (25) Müller’s directive dated 12.6.42 seems to be a direct response to the above when it states that the “sharpened interrogation may only be applied if, on the strength of the preliminary interrogation, it has been ascertained that the prisoner can give information about important facts, connections or plans hostile to the state or the legal system, but does not reveal his knowledge, and the latter cannot be obtained by way of inquiries.” (26)

Heinz Birnbaum, one of the Baum group members who was "interrogated" at Grunerstrasse 12.
The Grunerstrasse document states that with the permission of SS Lieutenant Colonel Otto Bovensiepen, the Berlin Gestapo chief, Rotholz and Birnbaum “were twice subjected to severe means of interrogation by being beaten with sticks.” (27) Müller’s directive made allowances for this method when it said that the “sharpening” could include “the resort to blows with a stick…” (28)  Perhaps Bovensiepen had a meeting with Müller to discuss “sharpening interrogations” as a result to the belligerent attitude of Rotholz, Birnbaum, and, more than likely, Herbert Baum.  The Müller document is dated 12.6.42, the day after Herbert Baum was murdered.  The State Police Control Station Berlin document says that Birnbaum “was severely interrogated [with a stick] on 30.6.1942 and 7.7.1942,” while Rotholz “was severely interrogated [with a stick] on 7.1.1942 and 7.7.1942.” (29) The dates of their interrogation all were after the 12.6.42 date of the Müller directive.  Considering the ruthless methods of the Gestapo, it seems unusual that they felt compelled to codify the use of sticks by including it in an official directive.

Another part of the Gestapo chief’s directive points to it as a direct response to the Baum group’s action: “…the sharpened interrogation may be applied only against Communists,…saboteurs, terrorists [and] members of the resistance movement…” (30)  This theme is reflected in the judge’s sentencing statement of Baum group members, including Heinz Birnbaum and Heinz Rotholz, on 10 December 1942: “…An inconsequential case this is not.  It is the death penalty…that seems correct for these defendants.  In the current struggle for existence of the German people, the defendants serve the enemy, which is also the vilest enemy of the civilised world, Bolshevism.  They prepare its way and thereby undermine the resiliency of the German people, and seek to bring it to its death. Such actions demand the protection of the people and Reich.” (31)

Deadly Consequences of “Soviet Paradise” Action

The Baum group’s “Soviet Paradise” action set off a series of events that spelled disaster for Berlin Jewry.  Shortly after the arrests of the Baum group began, Goebbels wrote in his diary: “Now I’ll accomplish … my war against the Jews of Berlin….” (32)  Goebbels was setting the stage for more Jewish persecution, but an event that took place outside of Prague sparked the propaganda minister to action.  The 27th of May saw an assassination attempt made on the life of Reinhard ‘the Hangman’ Heydrich.  That same day a few hundred Berlin Jews were arrested and brought to the assembly camp on Levetzowstrasse.  The next day 154 of them were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp where they were immediately shot dead. At evening roll call an additional 96 Jews were picked to also be shot.  Then an additional 250 Berlin Jews were shipped off to Sachsenhausen, where they were killed or deported to Auschwitz and gassed.  Therefore 500 Berlin Jews were killed in response to the “Soviet Paradise” action. (33) But the attack on Heydrich was part of the equation.  “We still don’t know the background on the attack [of Heydrich],” wrote Goebbels in his diary, “in any case we will retaliate against the Jews.” (34)

Goebbels met with Hitler to discuss the Baum group's action.
A few days after killing the 500 Berlin Jews, on 30 May, Goebbels spoke with Hitler about deporting Berlin Jewry. (35) “I don’t fancy catching a bullet from a 22-year-old Jew from the East, as an example of the murderers who are amongst the types in the anti-Bolshevik attack.  Ten Jews in a detention camp or under the ground are better than one of them who is still free.” (36) Goebbels extracted a promise from Hitler during their 30 May conversation: that the Fuehrer would speak with Minister of Armaments Albert Speer about replacing Jews in war-related jobs with foreigners “as soon as possible.”  His diary entry of that date returns to his earlier theme: “The fact that 22-year-old Ostjuden should be participants in the latest firebomb attempt speaks volumes.  I thus again plead for a more radical Jewish policy, an opinion with which the Fuehrer is in full agreement.” (37) It was only three days later, on 2 June 1942, that the deportations of Berlin Jewry, which had last occurred on 14 April, began anew.  (38)

Near the end of 1942, the deportation of German Jews had been completed in a majority of German territory.  Only 51,327 Jews remained in Germany proper, the great majority of whom resided in Berlin.  According to an SS report, 20,406 were forced laborers in war-related industries.  Jews were also found in dozens of work camps throughout Germany.  In the Reich capital of Berlin, around two hundred firms employed fifteen thousand Jews. (39) As mentioned above, Goebbels pleaded with Hitler “for a more radical Jewish policy,” with which he was “in full agreement.” (40) Goebbels would soon see his ‘war against the Jews of Berlin’ reach its fruition.

Goebbels' entries on Baum group and Berlin Jewry are in this edition of his diary.
The Fabrikaktion of 1943

The beginning of December 1942 was when Berlin industries were told the 31 March 1943 deadline for the removal of their Jewish forced laborers.  Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers began pouring into the German industrial centers monthly starting in January 1943.  Therefore the Nazi regime had sufficient replacements for the Jewish forced laborers.  Inpatient as always, on 22 January 1943 Goebbels yet again urged Hitler to speed up the deportations.  Hitler agreed and the 31 March deadline was moved up to 28 February, as written in the propaganda minister‘s diary on 18 February.  The Jews of Berlin would “first be gathered in camps” and them deported in groups numbering up to 2,000 people a day.  Two days later, on 20 February, the Reichssicherheitsamt (RHSA) issued its general “instruction for the technical implementation” of the last large deportation of German Jews.  Shortly thereafter, the RSHA issued orders to the Reich Gestapo that specified the concrete procedures for a large-scale raid in industries and factories. (41)

The raid, called the Fabrikaktion (factory action) which took a day or two in most cities in the Reich, took a full week in Berlin.  Factories that still had Jewish workers were informed of the upcoming 27 February raid.  Around 8 a.m. on the 27th, Berlin police precincts received a radio message from state police headquarters about a “Grossaktion Juden.” Police were directed to remove Jews seen on the streets or in their districts and transport them to specific collection points.  The Berlin Gestapo conducted the raid assisted by the Waffen SS. (42) An account written shortly after the end of the war described the raid in Berlin: “The Gestapo had decided on a mass raid.  The convoy of tarp-covered trucks stopped at the gate of industrial plants.  They also stopped in front of many private homes.  Throughout an entire day, one could observe them driving through the streets, closely escorted by SS armed with rifles…” (43)

“…We are finally evacuating the Jews from Berlin,” wrote Goebbels in his diary on 2 March 1943.  “Last Sunday they were brought to the concentration points by means of a surprise action and will soon be deported to the East.” (44)  But not all of the Berlin Jews were captured on that Sunday.  Around 4,000 of them fled underground in Berlin.  Warned by colleagues and foremen, they did not show up to work that day. (45) Goebbels continues ruefully in his diary entry of 2 March: “To our regret, we have again witnessed that the better parts of the population, especially the intelligentsia, do not understand our Jewish policy, and some of them even go as far as to take the side of the Jews.” (46) Most of the fugitives were eventually captured and deported. They were captured with the help of Jewish “Greifer” collaborators.  In the end, however, around 1,500 Jews did survive the war underground in Berlin,(47) including Baum group members Ellen Compart and Ursel Ehrlich. 

“I am convinced that purging Berlin or its Jews is the greatest of my political achievements,” wrote Goebbels in his diary on 18.4.1943. “Whenever I remember the sight of Berlin in 1926 on my arrival here and compare it to its appearance in 1943, after the Jews have been evacuated, only then can I do justice to the greatness of our achievement in this endeavor.” (48)

Copyright (C) Eric Brothers 2014. All Rights Reserved.


1) Pikarski, Margot.  Jugend im Berliner Widerstand.  Herbert Baum und Kampfgefährten.  Militar Verlag, East Berlin, 1978 (1981), p. 50.

2) Bundesarchiv Bild 183-P0220-309 (1926/27); also see: “Olga Benario Prestes.”

3) Kreutzer, Michael. “Die Suche nach einem Ausweg, der es ermoglicht, in Deutschland als Mensch zu leben. Zur Geschichte der Widerstandsgruppen um Herbert Baum,” in Loehken, Wilfried and Werner Vathke (eds.) Juden im Widerstand: Drei Gruppen Zwishen Ueberleberskampf und Politscher Aktion, Berlin 1939-1945 (Berlin: Hentrich, 1993), p. 97.

4) Interview with Norbert Wollheim, May 1985, in Queens, New York.

5) Brothers, Eric.  Berlin Ghetto: Herbert Baum and the Anti-fascist Resistance.  (Spellmount: Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2012), p. 14.

6) Ibid, p. 15.

7) Ibid, p. 18.

8) Ibid, p. 18.

9) Ibid, p. 175.

10) Will Weber deposition, Berlin 21.4.1969, in ‘Documentation from the Trial of Bovensiepen and others’ (pp. 55-57). The International Institute for Holocaust Research.

11) Rita Zocher (formerly Meyer) deposition; Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1979.

12) Elling, Hanna. Frauen im deutschen Widerstand 1933-1945. (Frankfurt/Main: Röderberg Verlag, 1986), p. 113.

13) Charlotte Paech-Holzer deposition; East Berlin, no date.

14) ‘Bovensiepen, Otto (1905-1979); Head of Gestapo Main Office in Berlin.’

15) Willi Weber, op. cit., p. 55.

16) Brothers, op. cit., p. 175.

17) Willi Weber, op cit., p. 55.

18) Schlussbericht, Stapo IV A 1 - 860/42g, 27 August 1942, p. 4.
19) Willi Weber, op. cit., p. 55.

20) Schlussbericht, p. 4.

21) Willi Weber, op. cit., p. 55.

22) Wippermann, Wolfgang.  Die Berliner Gruppe Baum und der jüdische Widerstand. Informationzentrum Berlin. Gedank- und Bildungsstaette Stauffenbergerstrasse, 2001 (1981).

23) Will Weber, op. cit., p. 56.

24) "Verschärfte Vernehmung" ‘The Gestapo’s Methods of Examination’

25) Stapo IV A 1 -- 1333/42 g. Rs., 5 Dezember 1942.

26) "Verschärfte Vernehmung"

27) Stapo IV A 1 -- 1333/42 g. Rs., 5 Dezember 1942.

28) "Verschärfte Vernehmung"

29) Stapo IV A 1 -- 1333/42 g. Rs., 5 Dezember 1942.

30) "Verschärfte Vernehmung"

31) Brothers, op. cit., p. 185.

32) Ibid., p. 170.

33) Ibid., 170-171.

34) Ibid., p. 173.

35) Ibid., p. 173.

36) Ibid., p. 170.

37) Ibid., p. 173.

38) Kreutzer, op. cit., p. 96.

39) Gruner, Wolf. "The Factory Action and the Events at the Rosenstrasse in Berlin: Facts and Fictions about 27 February 1943 -- Sixty Years Later."  Central European History. Vol. 36, No. 2 (2003), pp. 179-208.

40) Brothers, op. cit., p. 173.

41) Gruner, op. cit., pp. 185-186.

42) Ibid., p. 189.

43) Ibid., p. 180.

44)  “Goebbels on the Deportations from Berlin.” From the Diaries of Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda.  Source: The Diaries of Joseph Goebbels, entry of 2 March 1943.

45) “Fabrikaktion.” Wikipedia.

46) “Goebbels…”

47)  “Fabrikaktion.”

48) “Goebbels…”

Saturday, May 18, 2013

May 18, 1942: Baum Group "Soviet Paradise" Action

Poster in Berlin advertising "Soviet Paradise" exhibition in Berlin's Lustgarten.

Seventy-one years ago to the day, shortly after 8:00 pm on Monday, May 18, 1942, members of the Herbert Baum group went into the anti-Soviet and anti-Semitic exhibition entitled "Soviet Paradise" and set off several small explosives and hurriedly left.  Portions of the exhibition were destroyed and eleven people were taken to hospital suffering from smoke inhalation.   Assuming that nobody saw them enter or leave "Soviet Paradise," the Baum group continued their lives as if nothing had happened.  The Jews went to work at their forced labor jobs and the non-Jews continued their jobs.  Everyone returned to their homes each evening.  For complete details, please see Berlin Ghetto: Herbert Baum and the Anti-fascist Resistance. The Nazi government repaired all of the damage and "Soviet Paradise" opened the next day without interruption.

Herbert Baum, leader of the Baum group.

The Baum group's action had serious repercussions for the Baum group and Berlin Jewry as well.  The "Soviet Paradise" action was used as an excuse to step up the terror against Berlin's Jews.  Five hundred of them were either shot dead at Sachsenhausen concentration camp or deported to Auschwitz.  The attack on Reinhard Heydrich in suburban Prague was also used as a ruse to terrorize Berlin Jewry.  But the Nazis hierarchy were shocked that a sabotage act would take place in Berlin, the capital of the Third Reich.  They expected such actions in occupied lands, but not Germany itself.  Among those leading Nazis who were involved in one way or another in the investigation of the Baum group were Goebbels, Hitler, Eichmann, Berlin Gestapo chief Otto Bovensiepen, and Heinrich "Gestapo" Mueller, who led the entire Gestapo in Germany.  Please see my Berlin Ghetto Facebook page for more info on the Baum group.

Postcard from "Soviet Paradise" sold as souvenir.

New research since the completion of Berlin Ghetto will be published in Jewish Quarterly in 2014.  That is the publication in which I published my first original research on the Baum group in 1987.  My new research includes details on the death of Herbert Baum, the Gestapo investigation into the Baum group, and even more severe consequences as a direct response to the "Soviet Paradise" action.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Baum Group Members Executed March 4, 1943--70 Years Ago Today

It was on March 4, 1943, that nine members of the Herbert Baum group were executed on the guillotine at Ploetzensee Prison in Berlin:

Marianne Prager-Joachim

 Marianne's last letter written March 4, 1943, to her in-laws.

Heinz Birnbaum

Lothar Salinger

Hella Hirsch

Siegbert Rotholz

Hanni Meyer

The others executed that day were Hildegard Loewy, Helmuth Neumann, and Heinz Rotholz.

The above nine people were tried in court on December 10, 1942.  At the end of the trial, they rose to hear their sentencing:

The penalty against the accordance with existing legal either life imprisonment or the death penalty.  An inconsequential case this is not.  It is the death penalty, however, that seems correct for these defendants.  In the current struggle for existence of the German people, the defendants serve the enemy, which is also the vilest enemy of the civilised world, Bolshevism.  They prepare its way and thereby undermine the resiliency of the German people, and seek to bring it to its death.  Such actions demand the protection of the people and Reich.  This punishment is all the more imperative, because the defendants are all Jews and as such had every reason to keep quiet and not, as in 1918, stab Germany in the back.  Therefore the said defendants shall be given the death penalty.   (Berlin Ghetto: Herbert Baum and the Anti-Fascist Resistance.  The History Press.  2012, p. 185)

Copyright (C) Eric Brothers and The History Press 2012.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Berliner’s Thoughts on The Baum Group

By Amelie Döge 

The official opening of Soviet Paradise (May 1942) in Berlin's Lustgarten. 

Editor’s note: Amelie Döge is a social worker in Berlin, Germany.  She became interested in the Baum group when a few years ago she discovered that the apartment that she lived in had been the home of a Jewish family that had been deported during the Holocaust.  A member of that family had survived the war and moved to the United States.  The gentleman, who she came to know, is Herbert Baum’s second cousin.  In a conversation with the editor, the 92-year-old recalled Herbert Baum visiting his family apartment before 1933, and making fun of him as a trouble-making little boy.  Amelie visited him with her family, and she then came to know some members of the Baum group before they passed away.  She has done research on the Baum group and has a true passion for sharing the story of Jewish resistance and other issues surrounding the Holocaust in Germany.--E.B. 
I read the text of Peter Eisenstädter’s memoir, “My Father, Baum Group Veteran Alfred Eisenstadter,” with great interest.

From the perspective of 2013, and being aware of the total political situation of Berlin in 1942, it seems easy to condemn or judge the targeting of the Soviet Paradise exhibit and the overall political work of the Baum group.  Today it is known that even some resistance on the part of the non-Jewish population in 1933 would have made the situation for the National Socialists completely different.  Goebbels wrote in his diary that he was astonished at how easy it was to carry out the laws, rules, and restrictions against the Jews without any problems--without a mentionable opposition of the German population.

Propaganda Minster Joseph Goebbels.

No opposition movement developed to protect and defend Jewish schoolmates, neighbors, colleagues, friends. When Goebbels said he was surprised it means that the National Socialists were aware of a potential opposition movement. Therefore they tested how far it was possible to go and had in mind that it might be necessary, to stop, or at least to lessen, the repression and restrictions of the rights for Jews.  One can drive one’s self crazy, thinking about what crimes might have been prevented, if a sizable minority of the German population attempted to come to the assistance of their Jewish fellow citizens.  The majority of the German non-Jews were willing helpers and willing betrayers, greedily jumping into the empty apartments of Jews after tenants were deported.  They also attended "auctions" of the robbed furniture and property of deported Jewish neighbors and colleagues. 

Berlin resistance leader Herbert Baum (1912-1942).

What I read in Eric Brothers’s book, Berlin Ghetto, that Herbert Baum was the head of the group--the "chief"--and had the best political training and knowledge. This does not mean, however, that he decided everything on his own, especially when considering the different personalities of the members of this group.  All actions, most of which involved pamphleteering, were discussed in detail, but even  the very young members were fully aware of the dangers involved.  The groups actions were not done just to “do something," and none of them was forced to remain in that group: it was their personal decision. The group was their "home" (Heimat) as well.  It was the place for discussions among truly close friends--while the world outside the safety of the group became more and more a danger for them.

Election poster for the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

The Communists were the first to be imprisoned in 1933 in Germany. To be Jewish and a Communist was the "worst" at that time and made life more complicated and dangerous.  A member of the Communist party accepted without question what the party decided and had the confidence that the party made the correct decision. The Soviet Union, in any case, was a beacon of hope in the night for the members of the Communist party, even after the surprising Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939.  This as well has to be viewed out of the historical knowledge that we have today. I doubt that Baum or other Communists knew about the persecution of the own party members in the Soviet Union in the 1930s; the German Communists did not have the chance to get that uncensored  information.  And who in 1941 knew that German Communists might be sent to Gulags when trying to escape Germany in the late thirties, or that German-Jewish Communists were sent back to Nazi Germany from the Soviet Union instead of being given shelter?  The whole disaster of the Stalinist crimes came out decades later.

Even if any action of this group would have been considered careless, who, today in 2013, would have the right to condemn any target, any action, that the Baum group made? The members not only were politically connected to each other. They also were close friends, while others were in love with each other. And it remains speculative to think:  was there any chance to survive if the arson attack in the Lustgarten (Soviet Paradise) was not committed and the members were not discovered? In May 1942, the deportations were at their height and arresting Jews was the order of the day; they were absolutely unprotected and had to perform forced labor, they were slaves of the system.

Statue at site of former Jewish Old Age Home on Grosse Hamburger Strasse 
honoring Jews deported from Berlin during the Holocaust.

Those who were not yet deported were occupied in organizing their daily lives--pent up in Jew apartments and Jew houses. They had to share bathrooms and kitchens with other Jews, who were forced to live in those apartments with them as "roomers."  They were under never-ending stress, which included getting to the working place right on time in the early morning.  They were not permitted to use the public transportation--except when the distance was more than 7 kilometers. Life was extremely hard for Jews, especially the fact that they were always hungry and were only permitted to buy food from 4-5 in the afternoon. I read about examples when non-Jews went to the baker, the dairy, or grocery shop shortly before 5, in order to take away the opportunity for Jews to buy anything until 5 in the afternoon.

A Jewish family in Nazi Germany.

It remains conjecture if the lives of Jews could have been saved if the arson attack was not committed. Any reason was welcomed to punish Jews--and if there was no reason, a reason was created. And even if Baum insisted on the target--he and the others would never have been able to do this, if the majority was not convinced to do it. And maybe it was meant to be a sign for other people in resistance to rebel--though not many, but several resistance groups existed in Germany. Other groups of anti-fascists were upset about Soviet Paradise.  For example, on May 17, 1942, the day before the attack of the Baum group, the  Communist  resistance group Rote Kapelle distributed flyers against the Nazi exhibition Soviet Paradise.

Poster advertising Soviet Paradise in Berlin, 1942.

Eric Brothers writes that from the beginning of 1942 the members of the group knew they would be murdered either as members of the resistance or as Jews.  Therefore was there any choice since they were aware that they had nothing to loose?  These desperate people all showed a consistent courage, just by belonging to this group and doing everything  possible that could against the criminal, murderous Nazi system. I feel a deep respect towards them, to those who decided to leave Germany in time as well as towards the others who wished to remain in their "home."  The German word  for home is ‘Heimat’; this expression often has a corny or melancholic feel. Germany, however, was not a  home for them anymore. Their ‘Heimat‘ annihilated them. The members of this group were extraordinary regarding their bravery and never-ending friendship with one another.

Peter Eisenstädter has every right to be deeply proud of his father.

Copyright © Amelie Döge 2013

Friday, February 8, 2013

"pasta e fagioli" writes a review of BERLIN GHETTO

The anonymous "pasta e fagioli" wrote a review of Berlin Ghetto on its Amazon page.

"Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven," Satan's epigrammatic turn in John Milton's "Paradise Lost" would lead one to believe that Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin may have been in their youth English lit majors. Eric Brothers, in his turn, has fashioned a valuable addition to the literature that documents one of the most horrific periods in human history, the twenty years or so that span Hitler's rise and fall. Although the central figure in "Berlin Ghetto" is Herbert Baum, Brothers does a masterful job of describing Baum's world, the zeitgeist in which he finds himself and to which he responds. We see Baum, a committed, idealistic communist, struggle with issues of identity in a Germany that is becoming virulently anti-Semitic, anti-democratic and anti-communist. Ultimately Baum sees himself as a communist above all, embracing an ideology that to him provides the solutions for a corrupt, war-mongering, capitalistic world. 

 Herbert Baum (1912-1942)

The title of Chapter 11 sums up nicely what Baum and many of his associates were thinking: "Communism as a Cure for Nazism (1937)." Of course, the great irony and the great pity, is that Baum and the communists, Jew and non-Jew alike, would look to the land of Hitler's evil twin, Josef Stalin, for psychic relief, spiritual sustenance, ideological direction. In one of the strongest chapters of the book, "Living on the Edge and 'Soviet Paradise' (1942)," Brothers describes the disastrous and inept attempt of the Baum group to fire bomb "Soviet Paradise," an "expansive anti-communist propaganda exhibition" intended "to show that Bolsheviks, communists, socialists, Jews and the Devil were one and the same, out to conquer the world and destroy the racial superiority and uniqueness of the German people." Appalling and repugnant assertions, no question, but the exhibition also sought to illustrate the "grey and joyless lives" of the "miserable" Soviet worker. Even the great Nazi baloney-making machine could slice off a bit of truth now and then.

Poster advertising the Soviet Paradise exhibition in Berlin, May-June 1942.

Brothers' book is well documented, beautifully written, and powerful in its impact. We see not only the struggles of young Jews in Nazi Germany and the brutality unleashed upon them as they raged against the machine, but we see them do what young people are supposed to do: have fun, make love, fall in love, marry. Sing, dance, make merry and make babies. That they tried to live decent, ordinary, satisfying lives against such an appalling backdrop tugs more than a little at one's heart strings. Furthermore, in their youth most saw themselves as loyal Germans, good Germans who loved the fatherland, whose relatives had fought bravely in World War I, who wanted only the best for themselves and their country. They got Auschwitz instead. Brothers deftly limns their journey from optimistic beginnings to cruel, cold-blooded endings.

The guillotine at Ploetzensee prison, where several Baum group members lost their lives.

The book carries the reader along, but one needs to pay attention. The narrative is detailed and brisk, and there is an alphabet soup of various organizations (SPD, DJJG and so on); a large cast of characters with names, nick-names, married and maiden names, false names. Many dates, times, locations and the activities that go with them. But these are quibbles, actually, for they neither impede nor weaken this powerful story. Get the book and see. 

Copyright (C) "pasta e fagioli" 2013

Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Review by Dr. Arnold Paucker: Berlin Ghetto: Herbert Baum and the Anti-fascist Resistance

Arnold Paucker, OBE (born January 6, 1921 in Berlin) is an internationally renowned Jewish historian, editor and organizer of historical research.  He is 92 years old and going strong.

In Berlin Ghetto Eric Brothers has written a stirring narrative of a group of resistance fighters in Berlin. These were Jewish anti-fascists who, together with their gentile comrades, sacrificed their lives in an attempt to oppose an evil regime which was for the most part supported by their fellow-Germans. The author has succeeded in bringing to life the story of Herbert Baum and his associates, commonly called the Baum group, who fought for freedom in the very centre of Nazi power, Berlin.

The Memorial Centre for the German Resistance in Berlin has recently published a book with the title: The Other Capital of the Reich, listing those who actively opposed the regime, so many of whom were executed in the dread Plotzensee prison, including many Baum group members.

In Berlin Ghetto Eric Brothers writes movingly of this tragic end of their struggle. One of the distressing chapters of this story is the revelation of the lavish rewards given to the executioners. The death sentences were carried out on young men and women condemned for symbolic acts of sabotage and for propaganda against the Nazi regime.

It would seem that in the anti-communist climate immediately post-war neither the chief executioner,or any of his assistants, were ever brought to justice.
Dr. Arnold Paucker, OBE
The  main object of Dr. Paucker's scientific work is the Jewish self-defense in Wilhelmine Germany and the Weimar Republic, as well as the Jewish resistance against the Nazi dictatorship after 1933. A major concern to him is the refutation of the prejudice of an alleged "Jewish passivity". His -- research until the 1970s of the last century which was largely ignored -- specific research topics include the "defensive struggle" of the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (CV) from 1890 to 1933.

Arnold Paucker joined the Jewish youth movement in Berlin before 1933 and immigrated to Palestine in late 1936; he remained there until 1940. From 1941 to 1947 he performed voluntary service in the British Army, and, from 1953 to 1959, he studied German in Birmingham and Nottingham.  He finished his studies with a doctorate in HeidelbergIn 1960 he was named director of London's Leo Baeck Institute (dedicated to the study of the history of German Jews) was appointed, of which he held until the summer of 2001. During the years 1970-1992 he was executive editor of the Yearbook of the Leo Baeck Institute. Today he is an international vice president of the Leo Baeck Institute.

In June 1996 he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Potsdam. In 2011 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

My Father, Baum Group Veteran Alfred Eisenstadter

  by Peter Eisenstadter

 Alfred Eisenstadter (left) and his son Peter at Peter's wedding.

I no longer remember how old I was when I first understood that the Holocaust was a factor in my family’s history.  I do recall a day in sixth grade, in 1956, when one of my classmates gave a presentation on the Second World War.  He was talking about the Nazi atrocities, and my classmates, almost all of whom were Jewish, reacted with horror and disgust.  It passed through my mind that some of them were hearing about it for the first time.  For me, these events were already old news, and it surprised me that there could be anyone who hadn’t yet learned about them.

The Brandenburg Gate in Nazi Berlin.

Both my parents were exiles from their respective countries, my father from Germany and my mother from Austria.  They met and married here in America.  On my mother’s side I am the oldest of all my cousins, making me the first American in my family.  It is with no small sense of irony, therefore, that I realized fairly early that if the Holocaust had never happened, neither my sister nor I would ever have seen the light of day.

Vienna, Austria, in 1938.

My mother’s family had been relatively fortunate.  She, her sister, her parents, and all her cousins had managed to make it out of Vienna.  They had come over in stages, thanks in large part to the Herculean efforts of my grandfather’s brother, who made it his business to bring over all his brothers and their families (one brother, who did not emigrate, managed nevertheless to survive the war, having lived, to say the least, an adventurous existence).  My mother did lose a favorite uncle, her mother’s half-brother, but all the rest escaped.  I remember my mother as a cheerful soul, involved in a full life: her family, her craft (she was a corset-maker), her business, and eventually her grandchildren.  However, if one inquired about her life in Vienna, she would be entirely forthcoming, true, but eventually the bitterness would surface as she talked about her city, which she both loved and hated.

The good old days.  Prewar Vienna.

This did not decrease as she got older but rather augmented.  She told me once about having heard a young couple in the street speak in Viennese-accented German.  She started a conversation with them and then abruptly stopped and left them.  It had been too much for her.  I also remember hearing a tape recording on which she was being interviewed about her life in Vienna.  It was the only time I ever heard her speak in a Viennese accent herself, something I had never heard when I was growing up.  Toward the end of her life, at 88, when I pointed out how successful her life in America had been, she archly said, “But we’ll never know what kind of life I might have had in Vienna if I could have stayed.”  The feeling was undiminished.  On her deathbed, I asked her if she wanted her ashes taken back to Vienna, since some of her aunts and uncles had returned; she adamantly refused.  “They had their chance,” she said.  Having once cast her out, they did not deserve to have her back now in any form.

My father’s story was quite different.

It is no longer possible at my age (66) to be sure how I gradually became aware of my father’s past, but it may very well have begun when I noticed, early on, that I was missing a grandfather.  Only my father’s mother would come to family gatherings.  If, or when, I asked about it, my father would have told me about his father’s fate.  Unable to come to America, he had been taken by the Nazis years before I was born, even before my parents had first met.  Over the years, other parts of the story came out: how my father had left in 1941, very late, when his emigration number was changed to the same as his mother’s; how he thought he might have been on the last trainload of Jews out of Germany; how he had crossed by boat from Portugal, the Portuguese flag draped over the side of the vessel so that the U-boats would see it was a ship of a neutral country; how he had arrived at night on, of all days, April Fool’s Day, 1941.  And then how he and his sister had had desperately tried to get their father out, to no avail.  And finally how his father had disappeared, deported to the Polish border, never to be seen or heard of again.

 Alfred Eisenstadter's passport photo from the 1930s. (A. Eisenstadter)

My view of my father has changed very little over the years.  From early days, I knew him as a rational, exceptionally intelligent, fairly even-tempered man.  He was widely read in European history, philosophy, psychology, and especially well informed about politics.  He was an affectionate father (not as affectionate as my mother, but men were men in those days).  His relationship with my mother was somewhat uneven and occasionally rocky, but they stayed together, each having learned how to cope with the eccentricities of the other, until his death in 2003.  He was, I might say, consumed with the desire to better himself-not financially, but intellectually and in terms of a kind of social activism.  He had started his working life as a machinist, a tool-and-die maker, until the Nazis made that impossible.  Continuing that work when he arrived in America, he started what would be a life-long interest in his own education.  He took evening courses in psychology at The New School in New York City and was awarded his Bachelor’s degree.  As my sister and I were growing up, he was often absent in the evening at school.  My mother actually encouraged this, and he was home often enough to be a real presence in our lives.  We understood his absences when he was away, and I did not resent them.  In 1962, he left his trade after 25 years to pursue a career as a teacher and then a guidance counselor in the New York City public school system, having achieved his Master’s degree in guidance from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.  This career he followed for another 20 years.  At age 69, he graduated from Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School and passed the bar exam the following year.  He became a public interest lawyer, working almost entirely pro-bono since no law firm would hire him at that age.  Working with Legal Aid and other such organizations, he concentrated on keeping tenants who were having difficulty paying their rent from being thrown into the street by their landlords.  In one case, he restored a child to its mother when that child had been wrongfully separated from her by the city.

This, very simplified of course, was my father’s life as I knew it.  It always strikes a child as strange, or even weird, that their parents should have had a life before they were parents, and I was no different.  The fact that my father had a past life, and that that past life was connected in some way to the history of his times, was something I only gradually became aware of.  He responded to questions freely enough but only seldom volunteered information about that period of his life.  At various times, I learned about his incarceration in a forced labor camp, his best friend, Felix Heymann, and finally about the Resistance group of which he had been a member- the Baumgruppe.

Herbert Baum, the leader of the Baum group and Eisenstadter's friend and comrade, c.1935. (W. Sack)

This was a side of my father which, when I learned of it, must have struck me, young as I was, and then as now, as completely incongruous.  I could not see him as the type; he did not fit the pattern.  My version of an underground fighter was the French Resistance or the doomed warriors of the Warsaw Ghetto. My father was not a romantic. In his entire library, there were no works of fiction and only a few books of German poetry.  Neither did the circumstances of his life lend themselves to nostalgia.  He was not a fanatic, a sloganeer, a “one-party man,” or follower of any kind.  There had been a little trouble during the McCarthy period because of an organization he had belonged to, but he had long been on the “outs” with them as well.  His politics were left-of-center, but always reasoned and rational, rather than passionate.  So he had been a member of the Resistance- but what did that mean?

Of course, over time I asked the usual questions:  yes, he had owned a gun; no, he had never shot anyone or even fired it; yes, the Gestapo had been looking for him; no, he had never blown anything up, and so on.  When I asked what had happened to the group, he told me, probably morosely, that they had fallen into the hands of the Gestapo and most of them beheaded, including his friend Felix.

Alfred's best friend, Felix Heymann, while in Gestapo custody, 1942. (G. Prager)

It seems to me that I must have stopped asking questions for a while.  My father’s losses seemed to have outrun my capacity to absorb them: father, friends, cause, and country.  How I came to the conclusion that his losses were, by extension, mine as well is a process I can no longer recall.

As I grew up, these events in my father’s past life seemed to recede.  I accepted them as fact, but somewhat removed.  My father was getting on with his life in what seemed to me an appropriate and normal way.  He seemed to have set a border to that time and did not cross it unless occasionally asked for details.  I do remember a night when I was about 12, when all of us were packed into the car and took off for the docks somewhere in New Jersey.  We pulled up near a tanker and mounted the gangplank.  The captain of the ship met us there and immediately threw his arms around my father who responded, but in a more restrained manner, it seemed to me.  The rest of the evening I remember chiefly for my ragged attempts to speak French, a language I was just beginning to learn in school, to the other officers.  I was briefly introduced to the captain, but I remember little about him.  His name was Amand, I was told.  It was many years before I established the fact that Amand was Amand Vasseur, who had been a member of that same underground group and had escaped back to his native France.  We never saw him again after that night.  He attempted a correspondence with my father, but it was largely my mother who answered.  Eventually, these letters stopped.

Amand Vasseur is right, sitting holding oar.  Standing is Sala Kochmann and in the rear of the boat is Felix Kochmann.  These were close friends of Alfred Eisenstadter.

Some years later, in the summer of 1963, I took my first trip to Europe, a bicycle tour with the American Youth Hostels.  My father suggested, jokingly, that I try to look up an old girlfriend of his when I got to Nuremberg.  Amazingly enough, I found her.  She sent a beautiful, heart-felt letter to my father, which I’m sure he never expected.  But he never wrote back, and there were no other letters.

And so decades would pass before the subject came up again.

In 1993, my wife was asked to teach a summer workshop in Dance/Movement Therapy in Berlin.  She suggested that this would be a good trip for our two little boys and me to accompany her.  My parents decided to meet us there, and then my sister and her family came on board.  It became a family trip that covered Berlin, Munich, Vienna, and later on a side trip for the four of us to Italy.  In Berlin, my parents were interviewed by some officials/scholars of the new Berlin Jewish Museum.  Out of that, interest began to grow once again about my father’s role in the underground group he had belonged to, led by Herbert Baum.  The resurgence led to new articles and some books on the subject, the latest being Eric Brothers’ book, Berlin Ghetto, for which my father was a source.  Step by step, and sometimes a bit unwillingly, he was led back to the time “before.”  I know these interviews were a trial for him, but he persevered.  Gradually, his memories were put into some kind of order.  He seemed at last to want to come to terms with some of them.

But they were still not to be integrated into his American life.  A few years before his death, he took a trip to England, alone; no one else had even been invited along.  He was going to meet up with a woman he had known in his youth in Germany- that was all he said at the time.  My mother was somewhat nonplussed at “his girlfriend,” as she referred to her, somewhat caustically.  This changed when we found out that he had gone to visit the sister of his long-dead friend, Felix Heymann.  He brought back some photos of them both with her family, but what they talked about, I never learned.

Poster in Berlin, 1942, for the "Soviet Paradise" exhibition.  The Baum group attempted to firebomb it, resulting in its demise.

Eventually, my interest in the Baumgruppe revived somewhat as I began to slowly learn some of their identities, their work at demonstrations, the leafleting campaigns, the attempts to amalgamate with other groups and spread the word among the people in their workplaces.  My father’s efforts blended into these episodes, and I was able to fit the stories he had told me over the years into the larger efforts of the group and to find his place in it.  I learned how he had finally emigrated, leaving the group behind him, and of the fateful decision to attack the ironically-named “Soviet Paradise” propaganda exhibit against the advice of some, and how it doomed them all.  And I saw at last the other, younger side of my father: his idealism, his dedication to a cause, his willingness to risk his life in a dangerous undertaking in a terrible time, his desire to do something, to stand opposed to the evil that had come upon them all.  At last, he began to fit the pattern of a resistance fighter, not as I had romanticized it and not as one fitted for it, but as one who had come to it out of the necessity of the time, as had so many others in the same way.

Now, however, I began to come across another side of the story, for me.  I began to develop some equivocal feelings about the group, feelings that persisted the more I read about them.

Stalin.  The lesser of two evils?

There has never been any doubt in my mind about the courage and dedication of the Baumgruppe.  There was no question that Hitler had to be opposed, even actively opposed.  Since most in the group were Jews, they could hardly do otherwise if they were not to passively endure their fate.  Their willingness to risk their lives seems wholly admirable.  On the other hand, one must ask what it was that the group stood for.  My understanding is that the political backgrounds of the various members were quite eclectic: there were socialists, Zionists, communists, and possibly some of no particular persuasion.  But it likewise seems to me  that the leadership of the group, including Baum himself, were not just communists, but even dedicated Stalinists, devoted to the interests of the Soviet Union.  How odd, I thought, to oppose the madness of one dictator only to fall wholeheartedly for the machinations of another, just as vicious.  One of the things that crippled the group in my eyes was its insistence on coordinating their efforts with Moscow, on “waiting for instructions.”  My father had begun his activities with similar affiliations, but these were first shaken at the time of the Moscow “show trials” of the old-line Bolsheviks.  When Stalin and Hitler signed the non-aggression pact, my father abandoned the Soviets in disgust.  He began to agitate for the group to proceed on its own.  This was resisted by Herbert Baum (my mother always pointed out with some pride that my father had not been a follower, but one who thought for himself, even if it meant disputing the others).  After my father left Germany, matters got much worse.  Finally, after reading the account of the attempt on the “Soviet Paradise” propaganda exhibit, I felt a profound disappointment.  As pamphleteers and agitators, the group had shown some style and organization, even though their loyalties raised questions in my mind.  But as guerilla fighters and saboteurs, as a hard-core resistance band, the group was totally out of its element.  Why waste its resources on a completely symbolic act, one which some in the group felt would lead to an overwhelming disaster?  There were bitter arguments against the action.  Some felt they were being betrayed by others who supported it.  Baum overruled them all and insisted on the attempt.  To me, it seemed so obviously misplaced.  It would inflame the Nazis and isolate the group from the mass of the German people, now that the war with the Soviet Union had actually begun.  There would be reprisals.  No matter.  The arson was attempted, with ludicrous effect and the most terrible of consequences.  The German war effort was undisturbed, German morale unaffected, the predicted reprisals taken against the Jewish community, and the group itself almost totally annihilated by the Gestapo.  The effort had been worse than disastrous; it had been entirely useless.

The execution chamber at Ploetzensee prison, where many Baum group member perished.  The guillotine was damaged in 1943 and was never brought back.

Some mitigation of the group’s failure may be found in the bitter realization that no other group in Germany did any better, including, most famously, the students of the White Rose and the Valkyrie operation staged by elements of the German army.  But this fails to satisfy: one wants one’s side to demonstrate not only courage but right action.  Of course, it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can realize how wasteful a purely symbolic act would have been.  But would it not have been better to sabotage the war effort more directly?  If the group was doomed, why not take some of the enemy down with them?  Conversely, could they not have tried to save more innocent lives by spiriting people out of the country or hiding them as well as possible?

After the war, my father received a letter from a former member of the group, telling how many of them had died at the hands of the Gestapo.  The tone of the letter was quite bitter against Baum, whom the writer accused of thinking himself smarter than their opponents, and therefore of the final responsibility for the destruction of the group.  It hurts me personally to find that I may agree with this assessment.  I wonder whether, finally, my father may have felt the same way.

In the end, however, this judgment may be entirely too harsh.  In our own country, it has become the style to refer the American generation that fought the war as “The Greatest Generation.”  We acknowledge them for having saved not only the democracies but even the concept of  democracy.  It is hard to realize today that there was a world-wide attempt to enslave humanity, that world conquest was an actual goal.  The effort to contain and then destroy these dictatorships became the sole concern and effort of the civilized world.  In absolute terms, the choice could not have been clearer.  If the democracies did not entirely measure up to the ideal, if alliances with other dictatorships had to be established, these were matters that could wait.  First, resist the oppressor; then clean up our own act.  History has proven this course largely correct.  The Fascist enemies have become model democracies.  The Allied democracies that faced them have gradually become more representative, more attentive to the rights and aspirations of their respective minorities or even, in some cases, downtrodden majorities.  The dictatorships that we depended on for aid are gone, even discredited, their vital efforts on our behalf notwithstanding.  Nor has this effort ended; even today in many places the fight to establish democratic rule in various forms continues.

Perhaps it is not too much to say that all the sacrifice attendant on the world’s greatest war, all the blood and destruction that consumed so many, at last may have served to begin to establish right, justice, and freedom under the rule of the people.  And so it becomes possible to say that all who were involved in the effort to bring this about, those who failed no less than those who succeeded, have achieved a kind of nobility, whatever their motives and methods.  If we judge by the results, incomplete though they may still be, we derive tremendous satisfaction, great appreciation, and not a little pride in our connection to those who risked, and often lost, everything they had or were in their opposition to a very real tyranny.  The phrase “The Greatest Generation” now assumes a much wider frame of reference.

At last, with all the rest in honor, the Baumgruppe finds its rightful place--and with them, my father.  Weighed in the balance of the struggle, the mistakes and failures fade away, for who was there to show them the right and proper way to oppose the brutality they faced?  That they did oppose it is what is of primary importance.  They did what they believed to be right and resisted to the last.  Seen in this light, their deaths are heroic and fit to be placed among all the other heroes of that historic time.  They serve as examples to us, of how people can be pushed to their limits and then turn and fight back, even with nothing but the expectation of death.  They make the moral choice and follow it to its end.  And so that is why I say, as I often have over the years with respectful pride, “You know, my father was a member of the German Resistance.” 

That is the mark of their nobility.

Copyright (c) Peter Eisenstadter 2013