About 10 days ago, I had the privilege of listening to Mr. Elly Gotz, a Lithuanian Jew who survived living in the Dachau concentration camp. I thought I would share some of the points from his talk and then give my own response.
Introduction to Lithuania
Gotz started his talk by sharing some background on Lithuania. When the Germans invaded Lithuania in 1941, Lithuania’s elected government was disbanded, leaving Lithuania in a state of anarchy. Quickly a group called the Lithuanian Activist Front, nicknamed the “White Armbanders” declared that Jews were stripped of their rights, including the right to live, and went door to door massacring every Jew in their path. Quickly, a provisional government (Soviet puppet government) was established encouraging the execution of Jews, just not in public. There were three general opinions inside the provisional government regarding Jews:
1. “We must kill them all, every last one,”
2. “They must expiate for the sins they have committed against the Lithuanian people” (Gotz asked, “What sins?”)
3. God decides the fate of all mankind.
So there was no proactive protection of Jews, just proactive extermination, or lackadaisical indifference. Luckily, Gotz was able to hide away in his home and avoid extermination. Between July and December 1941, Lithuania murdered 137,346 of its Jews, roughly 75% of the Jewish population, marking Lithuania as the only country to murder its own Jews prior to German forces starting an extermination program. Note that these murders, though they occurred while under Nazi occupation, were not conducted by the Nazis since the Wannsee Conference that concocted the Final Solution did not occur until 1942.
In the Kovno Ghetto
Gotz and his family were then cast into the Kovno Ghetto, part Kaunas much like Polish Jews were sent to ghettos in Warsaw and Kraków. At that point, Gotz and his family were stripped of all their valuables, they were also instructed to dump their books in the middle of town. This upset Gotz’s father because he had brought a rather extensive library to the ghetto. At first, he only took some lesser books that he didn’t care for much in a wheelbarrow. When they arrived for the first time at the book dump, Gotz and his father noticed that were no guards supervising the area. They found a lot of beautiful books that were just being thrown away including the complete works of Alexander Pushkin, one of the great Russian poets. Gotz and his father decided to dump the books they had brought and gather up the masterpieces that they did not have and take them back to their home, disguising them by covering their wheelbarrow with newspaper. And they did that seven times. In order to hide the books, Gotz hid them in the rafters of a shed near their home in the ghetto, that way if the books were discovered by the Nazis, the collection couldn’t be traced back to them. So, for the three years he was in the ghetto, Gotz had a magnificent library to read from.
Concerned individuals got permission to start a school in the Ghetto and Gotz did very well in metal shop and eventually became an instructor the following year at just age 15. When Gotz was 16, he was thrown onto a train from Kaunas to Dachau, the infamous concentration camp, in southern Germany. According to Gotz, everyone in Europe knew the word “Dachau” since it was originally built to hold Hitler’s political prisoners captive. It was amazing that he even got on the train since he and his family had gone into hiding in the cellar of the building in which they lived since Nazis were walking up and down this streets mercilessly killing Jews.
During the War, German engineers were having a difficult time building fighter jets because of the constant bombings of Germany’s industrial centers. Around 1943, the German powers that be decided to build a gigantic underground bunker-factory at Dachau to build these jets that could withstand an allied bombing campaign. Gotz was ordered to assist in building this factory by operating one of the pumps that powered the cement mixers. His responsibility was to repair the pump each time it malfunctioned so as to keep the construction moving. He quick to point out that though many of the camp guards would get angry at him every time the pump broke down, his direct supervisor–presumably an S.S. guard himself–was actually kind to him, and even took the rap for some of Elly’s mistakes. The unfortunate thing about the construction of this factory was that many Jews involved in the construction actually fell into the cement and drowned in it because no one would stop to save them. Today, those bodies still lay in the walls of that building.
At the close of the war, the Commandant at Dachau Martin Gottfried Weiss was ordered to level the concentration camp as Germany surrendered the War. Weiss decided not to do so, saving many Jewish lives in the process. He was still executed for the other war crimes he committed.
In one of the days after the close of the War, Elly’s sick father requested a bowl of soup. As Elly went to retrieve the soup for his father, Americans arrived to liberate Dachau. As Elly returned to his father’s side, he joyfully mentioned the American arrival. Elly’s father response was “have you got the bread?” Elly described this moment as his father’s “moment of liberation.”
When the Americans arrived, the first thing that the Jewish prisoners asked for was obviously food. The soldiers distributed tins of beef to the prisoners. Gotz’s father advised Elly not to eat the beef because they would die since their digestive systems were so weak that the beef would overwhelm them. Elly and his father weighed 70 and 65 pounds respectively. Instead, they boiled the beef with some water over a fire and drank the broth that emerged and survived until the next day. All of the Jews who did eat the beef straight out of the can, according to Gotz, died the next day, proving his father prophetic.
After the War
Gotz was fortunate to have both his parents survive the War. Gotz felt extreme guilt and embarrassment overt his since many of his friends and associates were left with only one, or no parents at all.
After the close of the war, Gotz and his father–like many other Lithuanian Jews–were hesitant to return to Lithuania because the violence toward the Jews that had occurred previously. He travelled to many places (Norway, South Africa, Rhodesia, and Canada) obtaining an education and gaining experience, eventually ending up pursuing a career as an electrical engineer and entrepreneur.
After the war was over, he became extremely embittered toward the German people and said that all he wanted to do was “kill Germans.” Over time, and at the urging of his family and peers, he was able to forgive his captors and persecutors, and not blame a whole nation for his hardships. He described holding a grudge as “drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” I can’t overstate how remarkable those words were to hear from someone who had every right to be bitter. I was also impressed by Gotz with how he was able to recognize good people among his enemies, like his supervisor at the concentration camp.
Toward the end of his talk he shared a message of both tolerance and forgiveness. He spoke out against the hunt for Nazi SS members since many of them would now be in their 90s and not have the mental capacity to legally defend themselves. Besides, what will jail time do to a man in their 90s? What lessons could he possibly learn? On a related note, he spoke out against a bill that is being discussed in German parliament that could make individual members of the S.S. guilty by just being at the concentration camps (guilty by association). Gotz asked, referring to some members of the SS, “what if he’s a good guy? What if he didn’t kill anybody?” He felt strongly that people needed to be tried on an individual basis in court with solid evidence against them prior to being convicted, and warned against what a scary legal precedent that could set.
He finished his talk hypothesizing how genocide could occur. He figured that three things needed to come happen:
- Personal prejudice for a minority;
- A government that encourages hatred and prejudice; and,
- A political leader that supports prejudice and encourages hatred.
I count it a great privilege to have heard this man speak. It gave me a unique perspective of the Holocaust and challenged some of my preconceptions of the War in general.