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Going Beyond the Concentration Camp: A Fight for Survival in Nazi Germany

Book Essay on: Eric Boehm, We Survived: Fourteen Histories of the Hidden and the Hunted in Nazi Germany:
(Santa Barbara: Clio Press, [1949], 1966, [2003]),
362 pages. UCSB: DD256.5 .B6 1966

by Christopher Meltzer
December 5, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Preview at Amazon.com

About Christopher Meltzer

I am a third-year History major with a minor in English who will be graduating the summer of 2009 from the University of California, Santa Barbara. I have never been to Europe, let alone Germany, but I am extremely fascinated with the politics and events of German history. Like most people, I grew up becoming familiar with the Holocaust and the atrocities that occurred during it. What I never fully researched before was the stories of those who were not sent to concentration camps, but were still persecuted by the Nazi Regime. I have studied Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, both of whom were tremendous individuals and writers. However, I chose to read Boehm's book in order to gain insight into the lives of those who had to go into hiding and were hunted by the Nazis.

Abstract (back to top)

Eric Boehm's book We Survived: Fourteen Histories of the Hidden and the Hunted in Nazi Germany provides a cross-sectional account of fourteen individuals stories of survival during Nazi Germany. Each story consists of moral dilemmas and hard decisions that individuals had to make in order to ensure their and their families survival. Some are accounts of Jewish individuals who had to go into hiding, living with people they had never met before but who graciously opened their doors for them. Others include stories of individuals of pro-Nazi parents who resent everything that the Nazi party stands for and do what they can to oppose the reppressive government. Although all fourteen stories are different, there is one underlying message that is seen through all of them: a fight for survival. No matter what the background of the individual, the ethnicity, the religious preference, the age, or the gender, all the stories speak of a tremendous effort to just survive. As one can see, the desire these individuals to survive was much more influential on life changing decisions than any illegal or unbearable decision that needed to be made.

Essay (back to top)

Victims of the Nazi Regime had to undertake immoral and oftentimes illegal actions in order to survive the Holocaust. Deceit, forgery, secularism, and treason plagued the country of Germany throughout the years of 1933 and 1945. But what about the other side: the side of selflessness, love, unequivocal devotion, and trust? Eric Boehm, a retired military officer and writer, was one of the first individuals to document survivor stories of the Holocaust and collated them into his book, We Survived: Fourteen Histories of the Hidden and Hunted in Nazi Germany. The stories tell of individuals who were victimized because of their Jewish faith, because of their opposition to Nazi policy, and/or because of their aid to those who would be deported or imprisoned. With selections from this book and interview transcripts, I will illustrate how the desire to live, deceitful actions against the Gestapo, and mutual self-reliance led to various victims' survival amidst the fatal injustices of a reppressive government.

During the time of the Nazi Regime, many individuals—predominantly Jews—were forced to go into hiding in basements and attics, helped by selfless individuals, in order to escape deportation to the concentration camps. One fateful day in October of 1942, Alice Stein-Landesmann lost a sense of her own identity just as many others who went into hiding did. The only way she was able to survive was to destroy all identification papers, change her name, and live as someone else in constant fear of the Gestapo. When she recalled memories of her childhood, she realized that in order to survive she “could not live in the past…but must live in the present” (Boehm, 20). This philosophy contributed to the creation of a new self-identity. Alice quickly became known as Frau Reibe, the aunt of Claire Kochan, a young woman who worked at a munitions plant in Wilmersdorf. Claire risked everything she had, including her own life, in order to save and protect a Jewish woman she barely knew. This selflessness was seen throughout the Nazi period as individuals gave food, shelter, ration cards, and other means of survival to victims of the government. Many individuals, like Alice, had no way to survive except to give up the life they formerly led and rely entirely on someone else for survival. As a result, she became used to her “new surroundings and her new name…and [even] had to make an effort to look upon her former life as real” (Boehm, 22). Alice no longer lived with her identity as a single person, but relied on Claire to complete it. Without Claire, Frau Reibe would have still been Alice Stein-Landesmann and most likely deported to a concentration camp on account of being Jewish.

Alice was able to survive the atrocities of the Nazi Regime by relying on Claire and concealing her true identity; however, other individuals took such drastic measures as faking their own death. The Hopp family, who lived in the Friedenau section of Berlin in 1942, “left a letter in the apartment announcing [their] intention to commit suicide, and asked to be buried together when [their] bodies were found” (Boehm, 99). In order to make their ‘death' believable, they fled their apartment and left all their belongings behind. It was much harder to conceal a family of three and, unlike Alice who was fortunate enough to find a person to hide her, the family traveled from one home to another seeking shelter. After the family decided to separate, Mr. Hopp and his son Wolfgang found residence in a brothel, presuming the Nazis would not enter that part of the town because it was off limits to military personnel. News spread and the family was delighted to hear that the Gestapo “accepted the suicide story” (Boehm, 100). Similar to Alice, Charlotte Hopp was able to change her identity and take part in society partly because she did not look Jewish, and because she could pick up the dialect of those around her. While Charlotte held the family together by providing ration cards, food, and living supplies, her husband and son were forced to create new identities in case they were subject to interrogation. These new identities helped them buy time and escape into a crowd of individuals after being stopped by a Gestapo officer. Although faking their own death and creating new identities allowed them to temporarily avoid Nazi persecution, it was the familial relationship and strength between the three of them that kept them alive. As the first of May 1945 approached and the war came to and end, Mr. Hopp called for his son and exclaimed, “promise me never to forget what your mother has done for you. She has twice given you a life. You must thank her thousandfold. I will do it with my last breath” (Boehm, 116).

The Nazi period caused many Jewish descendants to question their religious beliefs and the role of God in their lives. Moritz Mandelkern was a tailor who immigrated to Berlin from Poland. In November 1938, the Gestapo came to his town in order to deport the Jewish community to a concentration camp. Instead of waiting in his apartment where the Gestapo would have immediately arrested him, he was in the synagogue relying on God for answers and hope. As “God held his protecting hand over [him]” (Boehm, 119), allowing them to temporarily avoid persecution, he achieved salvation. After this event, friends of his family told them not to go home for they would immediately be deported. Since the power of Nazi race propaganda was so strong, individuals were convinced that Jews were the enemies of the German people. As a result, the family was turned into the police along with fifteen to sixty other Jewish individuals. Although Moritz and his wife were not taken into custody, two policemen arrested Siegfried, Moritz's son, on account that he was Jewish and in good health to perform labor. The moment his son was arrested, Moritz began to question his faith and the role of God in his life. He no longer thought that God held his hand over him for protection, but rather that God was punishing him and his family (Boehm, 121). This question of faith existed among many who were persecuted during this time period, for it was thought that such atrocious and inhumane acts could not be justified under the jurisdiction of God. Nevertheless, his faith dwindled so much that he did not “want to live anymore…[he got] used to having death come down from the clouds to destroy the innocent as well as the guilty” (Boehm, 126). After this, he and his wife decided that without relying on each other and God, it was impossible to survive. They decided not to separate from each other for any reason, and he realized that a “man should not live without hope. So we continue our hope” (Boehm, 129). With liberation of the German people and the survival of himself and his wife, Moritz restored some of his faith, hoping that God would grant them another miracle and bring their son back to them.

Most individuals who did not believe Nazi propaganda desired to help protect any victim, not only Jews, despite that the risk of harm to themselves by the Nazi party. Lagi Countess Ballstrem-Solf was the daughter of a well-known government official of the Weimar Republic and was part of an anti-Nazi group known as the Solf circle. Her mother, also part of the Solf circle, attended a birthday tea party for a woman who “distinguished herself in red cross and social welfare work” (Boehm, 135). At this tea party was an undercover Gestapo agent whose task was to seek out anti-Nazi individuals and arrest them. After a series of interrogations, Lagi and her mother were separated and imprisoned in separate areas of the country. Although she and her mother managed to escape torture, “others arrested in connection with the tea party were severely interrogated, mistreated, and tortured” (Boehm, 136). But the living situation in the prison, even without being directly tortured, was not one to be underestimated. In order to come out of prison alive, political prisoners had to rely on each other for support and comradeship. It was this spirit among the prisoners that helped provide relief in the face of adversity. However, the relationship between Lagi and her mother was significantly stronger than their relationship with the other prisoners. After her mother was put on a starvation diet, Lagi refused to eat as well. Through actions like these, they “held on, and each one helped the others to bear up” (Boehm, 144), even in the utmost desperation. Although Lagi and her mother had survived the awful atrocities of the prison system, the remainder of their friends and acquaintances were not as fortunate. Seventy-six friends of the Solfs were killed, mostly during the last few days before liberation. By relying on each other they were able to induce the horrible life of imprisonment and with help from a family friend, they were given official discharge certificates and released from captivity.

Herbert Kosney did not outwardly help victims by hiding them or by supplying them with living essentials, but his strong dislike for Nazism and his firm belief in communism led to his participation in an anti-Nazi youth group. After being commissioned to hand out leaflets, he was quickly arrested by the Gestapo, harshly interrogated, and put into prison for treason. During his time in prison, the guards caused him to fault in his work, which gave them a reason to beat him even though he did not “know why they thought they needed a reason, for no one was fooled by it” (Boehm, 37). In August 1936 Kosner was released and lived quietly as a mechanic in the Mauser Works in Wittenau. As his hatred for Hitler grew more intense, he relied on his brother to develop plans for a counterinsurgency. In order to limit the number of individuals arrested if they were to be caught, they organized into small groups to discuss their plans. However, this was cut short as a co-worker reported to the head master of his workplace that Kosney was a Bolshevik. As a result, he was “transferred to the 93 rd infantry division [of the German army] at Leningrad” (Boehm, 39). When injured, Herbert was allowed to go home and meet with a Dr. Olbertz, whom he later joined with in a coup against Hitler. After the July 20th assassination attempt against Hitler, Dr. Olbertz and the rest of the men who conspired with him were interrogated and arrested. During his interrogation, a Gestapo officer found a Russian pass in Kosner's uniform and put him, like the others, on a trial before the court. However, since he had been in the army, he could not be tried in a civil court, but only in a military one. This was his salvation as he figured the war would be over in a few weeks (Boehm, 46), and going before a military court would take longer than that. Out of the eight conspirators, he was the only one to survive. While still in prison, he was shot in the neck as mass executions of prisoners were conducted; yet he survived due to his strong will and belief that “he had to save himself. He wanted to live” (Boehm, 50).

Many people look at survivor stories from the Holocaust with admiration and reverence. But what about a former Nazi's story? Similar to Eric Boehm, Milton Mayer documented stories from individuals who had been involved with and affected by the Nazi Regime in Germany. In one of his accounts, a colleague of Mayer's describes the process of becoming a Nazi and how horrible, yet seemingly undetectable it was. Hitler and other Nazis did not rise to power and immediately start executing Jews, but rather had “hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next ” (Mayer, 168). Mayer writes that since Nazi propaganda was so strong, it gave people in the country a common basis of something to think about. The problem was that the Party, the enemies, and the law provided extreme intimidation, and “you are left with your close friends, who are, naturally, people who have always thought as you have” (Mayer, 170). Because of this, there was no overwhelming desire to break away from the political beliefs of the nation. Everyone feared standing alone and the feeling of genuine uncertainty. It was only when a minor incident occurred— a baby boy saying the phrase ‘Jewish Swine'—that he realized what he had done and what had occurred right in front of him. At this new level of morality, “you have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined” (Mayer, 171). It is necessary to take into consideration survival stories from both sides of enemy lines. The victims of the Holocaust included the Jews, as well as those under the influence of Nazi propaganda. Even Herbert Kosner, a strong anti-Nazi, states, “under the constant barrage of Nazi hate propaganda it was often hard to keep from being confused and to remember that the real enemy was the Nazi government” (Boehm, 41).

Not all victims of the Nazi regime were lucky enough to survive to tell their story like the subjects in Eric Boehm's book. But through the selfless actions of others in order to help save the lives that people they barely knew, some did. Historians oftentimes look back at history to determine the sociological effect of certain political and economic policies have. We Survived: Fourteen Histories of the Hidden and Hunted in Nazi Germany is a primary source of information that describes not only the difficulties of being a Jew during the Holocaust, but also about the ways in which anti-Nazi sentiment was dealt with by the Gestapo. It offers a cross-section of different situations and personalities that aided in the survival of men, women, and children through the atrocities of the Third Reich. Although they are different, one thing remains the same: the desire to live was more influential in their survival than any illegal or immoral action they were forced to participate in.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/17/08)

Books and Articles

  • Holliday, Laurel. Children in the Holocaust and WWII: The Secret Diaries. New York: Washington Square Press, 1995.
    Holliday compiles numerous entries from children's diaries from the Holocaust time period. Each account takes an unbiased approached at describing the atrocities from the point of view of a persecuted child in the Holocaust. The children come from all areas of Europe, all suffering from the same repressive actions of the Third Reich. It talks of life in ghettos, concentration camps, fear of bombing, and a fight for survival. It consists of twenty-three different diary entries from children between the ages of then and eighteen.
  • Mayer, Milton. They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
    Mayer writes as a Jewish individual of German descent about the German people under the repression of the Third Reich. His accounts are from various German individuals and their stories on how life was like as a German during the Third Reich. Such stories include a German individual who became a Nazi official because he could not tell between the good and the bad of Nazi Propaganda. Mayer writes about what life was like as a German in the Third Reich, not necessarily just by those who were persecuted, but the persecutors as well.

Book Reviews

  • Lutz, Ralph Hatswell. "Review: We Survived by Eric H. Boehm." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 269(May, 1950): 191-192.
    This article is a review of Boehm's book in terms of historical significance, accuracy, and its relation to the German political, social, and religious spheres. Lutz mentions that the fourteen histories recorded by Boehm obviously leave out some historical facts, which leave some questions unanswered. Regardless, he states that these accounts are direct representations of what it was like to be a prisoner under the Nazis and Himmler's Gestapo. All of the accounts, according to Lutz, contribute to the list of weaknesses in the totalitarian government of Hitler.
  • Werner, Alfred. "In the Nazi Inferno." The New York Times 20 Nov. 1949: BR12.
    Werner comments on the life of a Nazi prison guard who committed suicide directly after confessing his problems with the concentration camp. It is stated that most of the Nazi officials were not as a sensitive and did not have any remorse, as did the one officer who was quoted. He then compares how the Nazi officials who were so radical treated the individuals who were persecuted. In relation to Boehm's book, Werner mentions how some individuals who survived were taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia as part of Nazi propaganda. With all of these ideas coming together, Boehm's book provides an excellent collection of stories that give readers in America insight into the lives of those persecuted under the Third Reich.

Web Sites

  1. Boehm, Eric. “Portraits of Survival” 2008. <http://www.jewishsantabarbara.org/page.aspx?id=135483>This site offers a short autobiography of Boehm's life and his motives for publishing the fourteen histories. This website is part of the Jewish Federation of Santa Barbara, where Boehm participates in various events.
  2. Mazelis, Fred. “A Survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto” 18 Feb 2003. <http://www.wsws.org/articles/2003/feb2003/pian-f18.shtml>
    Mazelis' article is a comparative account of the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman and the screenplay depicted from his autobiography, The Pianist. Szpilman was a survivor of the Third Reich by focusing on forced labor in the Warsaw Ghetto. Mazellis follows the main events of the autobiography in this article, commenting on how the atrocious acts of the Nazi Gestapo were directly featured in the film, including children being shot in the street for minor acts of disobedience. He comments on the potential that so many lives that were cut short from the Holocaust had, such as Szpilman's. The article reflects on the questions that remain unanswered by historians in regards to Poland's role in the Second World War as well as the Nazi's control over Warsaw.
  3. The Jewish Virtual Library. “The Jews in Germany” 2008. <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/manchester.html>
    This article, as part of the Jewish Virtual Library, describes the main problems with the atrocities of the Holocaust. It talks mostly about the maltreatment, elimination, emigration, and suicide of numerous people of the Jewish faith. It talks about how numerous German Jewish families had been completely devastated by the events of the Holocaust, regardless of whether or not they had been deported to the concentration camp. Even the fear of the concentration camp was enough to split entire families apart. It also talks about how the Holocaust defined the German Jewry.
  4. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Nazi Propaganda” 7 Oct 2008. <http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?ModuleId=10005202>
    The Holocaust Encyclopedia has a significant article explaining the process of Nazi Propaganda. It states that as soon as Hitler came to power he established a commission headed by Joseph Goebbels that would ensure that the Nazi message would be transmitted through all forms of media. It states that the propaganda caused two different images of the Nazi regime: Real and perceived. There were the real properties of the Nazi regime and there were the ones that were administered through the propaganda that caused foreign councils as well as German citizens to look fondly upon the Third Reich.
  5. Vashem, Yad. “How did the Jews in Nazi Germany respond to their persecution before the war?” 2004. <http://www1.yadvashem.org/about_holocaust/faqs/answers/faq_8.html>
    As part of the Holocaust Heroes Remembrance Authority, the article focuses on the reorganization of the German Jewry and the response that the Jews had in regards to their German and individual rights. It states that because the German Jewry had such a long history in Germany, it was hard for them to understand the stripping of their rights during the first years of the Nazi Regime. It states that the Jews in Germany under the Nazi Regime had a difficult time adjusting to the new measures and had to completely reorganize their structure.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/11/08; last updated: 1/3/09
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