Latest Reading: Norman Davies “No Simple Victory: WW II in Europe 1939-1945

fter our Christmas holiday trip to Poland, I wanted to learn a bit more about World War II. In Krakow we saw Schindler’s factory and the Jewish Ghetto, and this piqued the curiosity of our children. We explained the war and the Holocaust to them in the long car rides and watched Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List to reinforce their learning.

I chose the Davies book because it concentrated on Europe and it gave an outsider’s view to the war. I grew up with stories from my Dad, who was a boy during World War II and was fascinated with the war and what we were taught in school. I had an American-centric view of the war. Living in Eastern Europe has opened my eyes to a broader view of events.

Most of the war took place in Eastern Europe, specifically Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. The two major combatants were the Fascist, Nazi Germans against the Communist Red Army of the Bolsheviks. It was a conflict of two great armies led by evil men, Hitler and Stalin, and the results were the deaths of millions of people, both soldiers and civilians, and the loss of opportunities for a good life for several generations of people.

I always thought that it was the Americans who came in and saved the day! I understood that the USA arrived to Europe to save the UK and France and landed on the beaches of Normandy and fought their way to Berlin. And then went on and defeated Japan as well. Davies however, shows with facts and his research and the research of others, that America only played a minor role in Europe. The Soviet Army did the hard work and won the war, not the USA. Most of the 16 million soldier deaths were suffered by the Soviets (9 million) and Germans (4 million). The biggest casualties were on the Eastern Front of the war with Barbarossa, Stalingrad, Leningrad, having over 10 times more deaths than say the Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle the Americans were involved in. The turning point of the war was not D-Day, but the huge tank battle at Kursk in the Ukraine. From that point on, the Germans were on a retreat that would not end until the Russians reached Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. America only contributed to 15 percent of Germany’s war deaths.

The reason most of the war was fought in Eastern Europe, is that the Germans wanted “room to live” and felt that the area east of Germany was meant for them and was filled with a “mix of subhuman and filthy” Slavs and Jews. Being of Slavic origin, I am glad Hitler and the Nazis got what they deserved. The Bolsheviks, the “74-year experiment that wasted tens of millions of lives” also wanted to expand into the area to take Communism to the world. The result were Poland being split into two by the Germans and Soviets, and Belarus suffering the most civilian deaths per capita and Ukraine most civilian deaths total of any country in the war. One example of the cruelty Poland faced was when the Nazis occupied Krakow, they immediately went in and executed the entire faculty of Jagiellonian University, because they felt Poles didn’t require universities, secondary schools, or educated leaders.

Stalin in my opinion was worse than Hitler. His internal purges and war tactics killed many more people than Hitler and the Nazis, even including the 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. In fact, the Stalinist Terror in the 1930s had roughly the same death toll rate (18 million estimated non-military deaths) as during the war in 1939-1945 (6 million non-military deaths). The Red Army used its numbers to win many battles, sacrificing millions of soldiers. Soldiers actually felt freer on the front lines in many cases, facing executions if caught of desertion or cowardice, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Davies describes many atrocities and the disgusting conditions of the Red Army and Soviet policies with civilians. The GULag concentration camps in Russia and Siberia were much larger than Auschwitz or the other big Nazi camps.

I don’t want to downplay America’s contributions to the war too much however. They supply both Great Britain, the Western Allies and the Soviets. They also did keep Germany occupied on two fronts, although I think Russia could have defeated Germany on their own. The USA also defeated Japan in the Pacific theater, which had much less deaths than Europe, and used their superiority in the air and water. However, the US before 1941 did not have much of a military and it took a long time to build up their armed forces to match the Soviets or the Germans. It is ironic today that the US has the largest military in the world. It would be nice to spend the American GDP on something rather than maintaining the military.

I highly recommend No Small Effort. It gave me a better understanding of World War II and the impact of the war on Eastern Europe. I would like to read a similar book (s) on the Pacific Theatre of the war as well.

Remembering the Holocaust in Belgrade

 

Last week we recognized Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27) at my school, the International School of Belgrade. The Israeli Ambassador to Serbia, Arthur Koll spoke to the student body about the Holocaust and mentioned the atrocities that occurred here in Belgrade. He refered to the first systematic use of a “gas van” to kill the Jews of Belgrade. I did a bit research and found a website put together by UK professor Jovan Byford and funded by the British Academy. Professor Byford, with the help of Serbian researchers, has put together an informative web site about the Nazi concentration camp in Belgrade.

The camp, called Semlin Judenlager (German for Zemun Camp for Jews), is located in New Belgrade, right on the banks of the Sava River. In the 1930’s, the Belgrade government drained a swampy area on the other side of the Sava, and established a fair and exhibition grounds. It was a popular place for theater, cinema, etc. and one of the first areas developed on the north side of the river. Today, much of New Belgrade, as the north side is referred to, is developed out to the airport, several kilometers away from the river.

The Nazis took over Yugoslavia in 1941 and occupied the city. Semlin was technically in the part of Yugoslavia administered by the fascist Croatian movement, the Ustase. Belgrade itself was officially in German-occupied Serbia. The fairgrounds were used to round-up all of the Jewish people of the city (around 15,000) as part of the genocide campaign of the Nazis. It was supposed to be a temporary camp, but when a permanent facility couldn’t be found, it became one. It differed from the more famous concentration camps like Auschwitz, in that it was very close to the city. A photo of the camp in 1941 is below. Yesterday, I stopped at the site and photographed the original tower as it looks today (above).  The camp is significant in that it marks an escalation of the systematic elimination of the Jewish people in Europe. Ustase officials were proud to report to Hitler that Serbia was the first area to be “Jewish-Free” in WW II. Today I am not aware of a Jewish community in Belgrade.

The Semlin Camp - Circa 1941

After the elimination of the Jews, the camp also processed Partisan and Chetnik prisoners, Communist sympathizers, political opponents, Romas, etc. Most were used as force labor and many died in the camp because of inhumane conditions and disease. The camp was kept open for several years, eventually being the target of Allied bombing in 1944 during the liberation of the city.

It is sad that it is not a protected landmark. Thousands of people perished at the site and the camp is a very important part of World War II history. I was surprised to see people living in the tower. It has been converted to apartments. The other former pavilions are also now apartment buildings. I wonder if the people living in them know about the atrocities and terror that occurred here. I recommend the web site about the camp. It is gripping reading, especially the letters from a Serbian-Jewish nurse who perished in the camp.

The Fairgrounds Today - February 2

There are a couple of monuments in the area, which I visited when we held an art exhibition in  a hall near former fairgrounds. If I had the resources, I would buy out the current tenants and restore the grounds to its original state and make a museum and educational center. Serbia and the rest of the Balkans would benefit from the tourist attraction in addition to being a center of tolerance, which will always be needed in the ex-Yugoslavia.

I can’t imagine the horror that took place here. Entire families murdered. Tragic. There are several other Holocaust sites in Serbia that I plan to visit before I leave the country. There is an excellent museum in Banjica about the prisoner camp there.