A canvas too small
Maybe Altman's book, in which she captures the butterfly of the White Rose group, is so moving because of the paucity of Israeli discourse on German resistance.
"Havered halavan" ("The White Rose") by Yanina Altman, Pardes Books, 485 pages
Yanina Altman's book about the White Rose (Die Weisse Rose), a student resistance group in Nazi Germany, consists of two parts. The first is a detailed history of the academic context and the institutions from which this remarkable group sprang, moving on to a discussion of how Jewish academics in Germany were dismissed from their jobs. The second is a meticulously researched and beautifully written history of the group itself, which met secretly to organize anti-Nazi activities beginning in the summer of 1941.
These activities continued until 1943, when the members of the group were arrested and put to death. On the morning of February 22, 1943, sitting in a prison cell along with others awaiting execution, Sophie Scholl, 21, told Else, her communist cellmate, of a dream she had: "It was a sunny day, and I was carrying a child in white robes to be baptized. The road to the church passed through the mountains. Suddenly, an iceberg split open. I had just enough time to put the child down in a safe place before I was swallowed up in the abyss." Scholl's brother, 26, followed her to the guillotine. Their friend, Christoph Probst, 24, was next. His cries of "Es lebe die Freiheit" ("Long live freedom") resounded in the prison corridors.
Portrayed as a German resistance movement, the White Rose is liable to be seen as another link in the network of resistance described by Karl Dietrich in his book "The German Dictatorship." But the greatest achievement of this network, as described by Dietrich, was the pedantic, pathetic, and ultimately failed effort of a group of generals to kill Hitler in an assassination attempt that cost them their lives - and Hitler, a mere burst eardrum. The White Rose was "less serious." It was a "nonviolent" group, and its members were young people who could easily be branded eccentrics, especially if love of nature, love of poetry and love of mankind are considered eccentric. But as you go deeper - the more you read their diaries, the more you read the letters they wrote when they were sent to the eastern front during the summer break, the more you read about their lives, between the first leaflet and the last - you become amazed, and cannot help but admire them.
A day before Sophie Scholl was arrested, after traveling all over Germany with the group's militant leaflets and dropping them in mail boxes, she wrote to a friend: "I have put on a recording of the Trout symphony. Listening to the andantino makes me want to be a fish myself. Even when the heart is sad, one cannot stop the surge of joy and delight at the sight of spring clouds in the sky and tree branches in bud ... Oh, how I long for spring again." The very next day, she was taken away by the Gestapo, together with her brother, Hans. Neither of them ever lived to see the spring.
Altman's descriptions are marvelous. She conjures up a cultural evening outside Munich in the spring of 1941 at the home of the singer and pianist Gertrude Mertens. The repertoire: reading literary works and critiquing them (even if this were not Germany, and not 1941, it seems disgusting entertainment, but imagine it - May 1941, chatting about culture ... and about the destruction of cultural values ...). Gertrude has 25 guests in her salon, among them a Prof. Huber, whose classes on Leibniz enjoy nationwide fame.
Altman writes: "To the distress of the hostess, a political debate was soon raging ... In vain she tried to put a stop to it, as Prof. Huber listened in silence. In the midst of all this, someone asked what could be done to stop the rapid deterioration of cultural values."
When the argument reached the subject of what action should be taken, Hans Scholl comments sarcastically: "Why not rent ourselves an island in the Aegean Sea and hold classes there on philosophies of life?" The silence in the room is broken by the revered philosophy professor, who had said nothing until then: "Something must be done, and we had best get started today."
So these virtually anonymous young people - Sophie and Hans Scholl (whose parents had already been arrested for their criticism of the regime), Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst and others - set out then and there to print up and mail out thousands of leaflets. Altman, as we have said, brings dozens of diary entries written by them. She translates their letters from the front. Some of the group members passed through Warsaw and witnessed the Jew-hunting and the murders. They befriended Russians and Ukrainians (one of them the son of an emigre who spoke Russian).
Their leaflets were intellectual in character, with quotes from Schiller, Goethe and Lao Tse. They sent them to people they found in the telephone book. They argued over the content of these leaflets like a bunch of youth movement kids. They traveled all over Germany to get the leaflets to more and more people, hoping to make an impact. Some of them made contact with the resistance movement in Berlin (isn't it about time we learned something about this movement?). As Germany's defeat became more resounding, the tone of their pamphlets became angrier.
After the surrender at Stalingrad, the White Rose group wrote: "Hitler cannot win the war. He can only prolong it!" The text continues: "But what do the German people do? They see nothing and hear nothing. They allow themselves to be blindly led by seducers who are leading them to perdition." The group managed to publish and distribute only six leaflets. Another resistance group, a Communist one, working along similar lines was caught and executed first. Their paths met one night when both groups went out to write graffiti on the walls.
In July, the remaining members of the White Rose were sent to the guillotine together with their venerated professor. But the action doesn't end here. News of the arrest and executions spread like wildfire. More students and more professors joined the circle of leaflet-distributors, in Munich and Hamburg.
One of them, Falk Harnack, was arrested during his military service in Thessaloniki, but at the airport, before flying to Munich to stand trial, a sympathetic officer let him escape. On the road, Harnack met a German soldier who had deserted and joined the Greek communist underground. Harnack began to write leaflets for this underground. One of them read: "The choice is yours: to be killed for the sake of Hitler and his gang - or to live for the sake of a free Germany."
In her net, Yanina Altman captures the movement's most beautiful butterfly: young students whose hearts would not let them sit by quietly. Her canvas is too small to convey the drama in full. Maybe the book is so moving because we never knew about any of this. Prof. Moshe Zuckerman, in his introduction, offers two reasons for the paucity of Israeli discourse on German resistance. First of all, he writes, there was very little resistance ("I am not talking about those who were clear opponents of Nazism from the start, such as the communists and certain social democratic factions"). And second, it goes back to how Israeli ideology coped with the Holocaust: There was no place for other aspects of Nazism and its war against its enemies.
I believe there are at least two other important reasons for this phenomenon: First of all, the reduction of the hangman-victim conception developed by West Germany. It is much easier to deal with representation of the past when the executioners are 100 percent German and the victims are 100 percent Jewish. Any other depiction complicates the German identity, stirs up accusations about the Communist past and is accompanied by silent hatred for those who dared.
In short, resistance is absent from the discourse. There are no streets (or at least not important streets, not in West Germany) named after opponents of the regime, and there is no commemoration of those who were killed for their outspokenness. (Israeli professors who sit in institutes funded by Germany also stay away from this sensitive topic: Former SS officers receive a state pension while deserters are on the verge of starvation).
A Jewish friend of mine, a certified kosher "second-generation" Holocaust survivor, who has been living in Berlin for a while now, took up my challenge of conducting a kind of mini-survey and asking people: "How did Rosa Luxemburg die?" (in light of the fact that the Germans have not dared to change the name of sites bearing her name after the unification of Germany, as they have for other German revolutionaries). The most popular reply was: "She died in the Lager" (she was a Jew and the Germans killed her, so she must have died in a concentration camp).
But maybe there is one other reason for the lack of knowledge. The culture of resistance has become increasingly alien to us. How many of us have taken part in the arrest and interrogation of people whose clandestine leaflets say: "Support the resistance movement - distribute these flyers"? Widerstand, resistance, is not, how shall we put it, much loved in these parts.