Victims of Antisemitism: The Anne Frank Huis and Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind

Last summer I had the opportunity to travel around Europe stopping in a number of countries. Today I will be looking at two museums I visited, the first in Amsterdam and the second in Berlin. Both museums despite being 409 miles apart due to the horrors of the Holocaust bear a similar story. The first of these museums is the Anne Frank Huis, the site of the annexe that a teenage Anne Frank hid with her family and four others hoping to avoid being sent to concentration camps, which sadly as I’m sure everyone knows failed when they were discovered by the Gestapo. The second museum is far less known, Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind. The museum is based where the German Otto Weidt had his workshop which specialised in hiring blind workers. Weidt himself was blind, and during the years that the Nazis ruled Germany Weidt hired and hid disabled Jews in an attempt to rescue them from deportation. Sadly the story ended similarly to those who hid in the annexe, with few surviving the war.

Other than the above similarities I decided to write about the two of these together for one simple reason: the story of Anne Frank is known across the world, especially in the West even by those who know little about history while Otto Weidt is not. This was true for me too. My first exposure to Anne Frank was via Anne Frank: The Whole Story, a 2001 TV adaptation, sometime around this time as I can’t find the British premiere date. I would’ve been about seven years old and despite being quite traumatized due to the depiction of the reality of the camps, I quickly became fascinated by Anne and her story. I attempted to read the diary at this age but unsurprisingly struggled and reattempted when I was about ten. I decided that one day I would visit the Anne Frank Museum, but this would not be possible until 2016. My decision to visit the Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind however does not have the same lengthy history. Throughout both my education and own research I learnt of the millions of others like Anne Frank who suffered. During my GCSEs I was given the opportunity to visit Auchwitz concentration camp, Oskar Schnindler’s factory and the Krakow Ghetto with my school. I’ve spent many hours reading about the people who tried to escape the Holocaust and those who risked their lives to help them. Otto Weidt, however, I did not find out about in any of those ways; my sister found the museum as she trawled Trip Advisor reviews when she was looking for things to do in Berlin. Therefore prior to my visit my own knowledge was what I had been told by her, a far cry from what I knew about Anne Frank.

For such a famous museum it is surprising to learn that the Anne Frank Huis only has around a million visitors a year; however once you’ve been inside it isn’t so surprising simply because how small the annexe is. Since its opening to the public in 1960 the museum has been expanded into the neighboring building and extensive works have taken place to allow footfall, but the annexe has been carefully preserved to give visitors a full appreciation of the cramped conditions the eight lived in. I’ve read the diary, I’ve seen numerous adaptations of the story and I’ve read extensively about the annexe but there is nothing quite like being in there to realise how small it was. Anne’s frustration becomes so understandable.

Otto Frank insisted that there be no furniture in the annexe and therefore each room contains a photo of each room reconstructed as how it was alongside the plaques and videos. I felt this was enough to gain an understanding of what it would have been like, although I understand some may disagree. Otto Frank’s reasoning for the lack of furniture was he wished it to symbolize ‘the void left behind by the millions of people who were deported and never returned’.  Personally I felt this did exactly as he intended, especially so in the room that Anne shared with Fritz Pfeffer which retains the original wallpaper with Anne’s postcards and pictures. For me this was one of the most moving aspects of the visit; I think possibly more than any other moment the fact that Anne was a teenager strikes you. She has been elevated to almost a mythical figure that sometimes it is very easy to forget that she was a normal teenage girl, living in horrendous circumstances. There were millions of girls just like her, whose lives were taken and destroyed, but the reason we remember her is her diary and that it was saved.  She was a young girl who never got to live.

The Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind is almost as hidden as its story. Hidden down an alley in central Berlin, the museum is easy to miss even if you’re trying to find it. Like the Anne Frank Huis, it is a minimalist museum tells the story of the relatively unknown Otto Weidt. His story has only become somewhat known because of the efforts of students to open the workshop as a museum in 1999, and the help of Inge Deutschkron, a Jewish woman who was helped by Weidt. He has sometimes been referred to as the ‘German Oskar Schindler’; however I would dispute this as unlike Schindler, Weidt never supported the Nazis or worked for them. Weidt had gradually gone blind and learned brush making and broom binding to provide for himself. He opened the workshop in 1936 and began to hire disabled Jews to protect them from deportation. By this time Jews who remained in Berlin found it easier to stave off deportation if they were in work. Weidt’s workers however were not invulnerable, and Weidt spent a great deal of money bribing the Gestapo to stop them from taking his workers. In one case, despite his protests, the Gestapo came and rounded up his disabled workers to be taken for deportation. Weidt followed and via bribes and arguing he could not produce the items required by the war effort, he managed to rescue his workers. However by the end of February 1943, with the exception of those in hiding and Jewish workers married to non-Jews, his workers were deported. Weidt did not just hire disabled Jews and financially protect them from deportation. Along with a circle of helpers he helped many Jews find hiding and provided false documents to help them avoid detection. Within the workshop itself Weidt hid a family whose daughter Alice he was in love with, and employed. When the family was discovered and deported, Alice managed to contact Weidt to let him know she had been sent to Auschwitz by throwing a postcard from the window of the train she was taken in. By sheer luck the postcard reached Weidt who immediately went in search of her, organising with a local Pole who had access to her to provide a hiding place for her when she could escape. Alice managed to escape and survived the war. Weidt survived the war but died of heart failure in 1947. In his final years he helped fund a home for orphans and elderly survivors of the Holocaust.

The two museums in their set up are similarities. Like the Anne Frank Huis, the Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind lacks furniture focusing instead on information plaques and interactive materials. However as I mentioned previously I was struck by how similar their stories were. They show how far the Nazis reach was and how many lives were destroyed, in these cases specifically those of Jews. How despite their best efforts these attempts failed to protect most of those in hiding, leaving few survivors. The sheer despair and destruction is horrendously apparent. The only comfort that both these museums provide is they show, despite when the very worst of humanity gains power, that there were many who stood up to such hatred by risking their lives to help those who were targeted.

Wade in Blood: Operation Anthropoid

Along with my fellow W.U. Hstry contributor Ellie, I recently travelled around several countries in Europe. One of our stops was in Prague in the Czech Republic. I had been browsing things to do in Prague when I came across the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror. I recognised the name Heydrich from my History GCSE but I had no idea what the memorial was for and how it related to Heydrich. Upon some good old fashioned googling, I learnt about Operation Anthropoid, the only successful assassination of a top ranking Nazi organised by a government. Despite this apparent Allied success, the reprisals from the Nazis were truly horrific. The assassins along with their accomplices and those who sheltered them were killed or committed suicide. Somewhere between 13,000-15,000 Czechs were arrested and interrogated with some sent to the camps. Around 5000 of these were executed. Perhaps most horrifyingly of all, two villages Lidice and Ležáky, had their inhabitants either executed or sent to camps before the villages themselves were destroyed. With such a staggering human cost I was shocked that I had never heard anything about this, and I have since found that several others I would expect to know about it did not either. Interestingly since learning about Operation Anthropoid, the BBC posted an article about the search for the assassins bodies and I have also learnt about a film dramatizing the events called Anthropoid which is due to be released in September.

In 1942 as the Nazis approached Moscow, the Nazi Reich looked unstoppable and governments in exile such as the Czechs came under increasing pressure to show active resistance. Czech resistance had been subdued by the brutality of the Nazi regime, especially under the rule of Reinhard Heydrich, the sadistic Nazi official placed in charge of Bohemia and Moravia (which makes up the majority of the Czech Republic today; Czech Silesia had become separate as part of the 1938 Munich agreement but would re-join Czechoslovakia in 1945 and remain part of the Czech Republic until 1993). Heydrich was not just responsible for brutality within Czech borders, he was also responsible for the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi elite death squad responsible for the deaths of around two million people, principally civilians, between 1941-1945. He also chaired the Wannsee Conference where the decision to implement the Final Solution, the formal decision to follow a policy of total extermination of Jews. Therefore it was decided that Heydrich would be a valuable target for assassination.

After several delays the assassination took place on 27 May 1942. Jan Kubiš, a Czech, and Jozef Gabčí, a Slovak, were chosen for the assassination. The plan was to attack Heydrich in his car during his commute from home to Prague Castle at a bend in the road that would make it impossible for his driver to be able to escape and also meant the car had to slow down. Gabčík attempted to use his machine gun, but it jammed, leading to Kubiš to throw a modified anti-tank grenade, causing damage to the car’s right rear bumper. This damage led to fragments of shrapnel and the upholstery entering Heydrich’s body. It was these injuries that would later kill him. The pair attempted to shoot Heydrich, not realising how extensively injured he was at the time, but neither managed to shoot on target due to the after effects of the explosion. Both were forced to flee, injuring Heydrich’s driver who tried to catch them, thinking they had failed. Heydrich was quickly aided and took to Bulovka Hospitial where he was treated. A week after the assassination he seemed to be improving after surgery, but he went into shock and died the following morning.

Hitler ordered immediate retaliation, even before Heydrich’s death. While the first priority was the assassins and their collaborators, Hitler was adamant that the Czech people should also suffer. It was only due to concerns of Himmler about how it would affect Czech productivity for the war effort that resulted in a scale back of the reprisals. Hitler originally had wanted to have 10,000 Czechs who were considered to be politically unstable, even though they were not considered to have been part of the plot, executed. Despite Hitler’s original intentions not being carried out, the reprisals were still horrendously brutal. Around 13,000-15,000 Czechs were arrested and tortured. Martial law was proclaimed and the Nazis began a large manhunt. Around 5000 Czechs were killed in reprisals, the first of whom to be executed was Alois Eliáš, who had previously served as the Prime Minister during the initial occupation while secretly working for Czech underground. He had been arrested in September 1941 but was executed as the first of the reprisals.

The most infamous of the reprisals however was reserved for the villages of Lidice and Ležáky. Both villages were incorrectly linked to the assassination. Lidice was home to several Czech officers who were in exile in England leading to the Gestapo to suspect that Kubiš and Gabčík were being sheltered there. On the 10th June 1942, the inhabitants of the village were rounded up. The men of the village were separated and shot to death. The women and children of the village were held for a further three days before being separated. A few children were spared for ‘re-education’ with German families as well as those under the age of one. The rest, however, were callously murdered at Chelmno extermination camp in gas vans. The women were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Not satisfied with the murder of the village’s inhabitants the village was destroyed and razed to the ground, including the village church and cemetery.

The village of Ležáky met a similar fate on the 24th June. A radio transmitter was found in the village which had been hidden after paratroopers from Operation Silver A, a resistance operation, had arrived in the region. Five hundred SS troops and police surrounded Ležáky, removing the town’s inhabitants before setting the village on fire. The adult inhabitants were shot to death that night or within the following several nights along with those associated with the assassins. The children of Ležáky, with the exception of two who were placed with German families, were murdered in the same way as the children of Lidice.

Kubiš and Gabčík lived to hear of the destruction of Lidice, but not that of Ležáky. The pair felt responsible but they were stopped from making a very public show of responsibility. Since the assassination they had been hidden by families in Prague before being given sanctuary in the orthodox church of St Cyril and Methodus, along with four other paratroopers. After a few days of hiding the church was stormed in the early hours of June 18th. The group were betrayed when a member of a Czech resistance group, Karel Čurda, for the price of a million Reichsmarks had gave the Gestapo the names and addresses of the group’s local contacts. Eventually a teenage boy after suffering horrendous torture, including being shown his mother’s severed head, gave up the information the Nazis desperately wanted. The boy along with his family was executed at Mauthausen concentration camp in October that year.  The church was sieged by 750 SS soldiers, with the group holding out in the prayer loft for two hours armed with only small calibre pistols compared to the soldiers’ machine guns and hand grenades. Kubiš along with two of the others assassination died after this battle. Gabčík, and the remaining three paratroopers fought on despite continuous heavy gunfire, tear gas attacks and an attempt to flood out the crypt where they hid. The foursome decided to commit suicide rather than be captured, a final act of defiance.

Even with Kubiš and Gabčík’s deaths, the reprisals did not falter. The families of those in the church were rounded up and executed. Bishop Gorzad tried to take the blame for the incident to spare as many as possible. He was tortured and later executed alongside the church’s priests and lay leaders for sheltering the assassins. Those with any connection to the assassins or the resistance were arrested, with many being sent to concentration camps or executed.

Despite the success of the assassination little changed for the Czechs. The Nazi regime managed to continue to control and force the population in manufacturing for the war effort. The Czech resistance continued their activities but widespread resistance among the population did not gain momentum until the latter end of the war with the Nazis losing their grip over the territory, allowing the Czechs an actual opportunity of success. The assassination had led to the dissolution of the Munich agreement that had led to the partition of Czechoslovakia, with Britain and France agreeing that the region would return to Czechoslovakia. Of course, in the view of many Czechs it had been a betrayal that the Munich Agreement had ever been signed with Britain and France, breaking their military obligations in an effort to stave off the Nazis.

Between 1945 and 1948, Kubiš and Gabčík were celebrated as heroes. However after the Soviets took control of Czechoslovakia in 1948 such celebration and memorials to the murdered were not tolerated, due to the involvement of the Czech government in exile and their location in Britain during the war. Finally after independence, the St. Cyril and Methodius church was opened to the public with a memorial to Operation Anthropoid named: National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, the memorial that I first learnt about on this bloody event in Czechoslovakian history. The village of Lidice was rebuilt in 1949, with some of the women from Lidice who had survived the camps returning. More permanent memorials for Lidice did not appear until the end of Soviet occupation. The decision was taken not to rebuild Ležáky, and only memorials to the victims remain on the site.

The events of Operation Anthropoid are known by every Czech, for the sheer bravery and resistance of the Czech people and the terror that befell the population. However, here in the UK, there seems to be very little known about it. Over the last five or so years I have come to realise how much of the events during World War Two are ignored outside of their respective countries (in the UK and US at least).

I find this is concerning in three regards. Firstly, we cannot accurately understand history if we ignore vast swathes of it. Secondly, at a time when Europe and other western countries are gripped with rising fascism and terrorist attacks, we must learn our lessons from similar times past. Lastly, we cannot consider ourselves citizens of the world if we continue to limit our knowledge and understanding of history to that only pertaining within our own borders. While Operation Anthropoid is only one event, I hope that as knowledge of it begins to appear in the British media, that more of us begin to look beyond our restricted knowledge of history.

The Angel of Auschwitz: Gisella Perl

Gisella Perl was one of the several million Jews to be sent to a concentration camp during the Second World War. She was one of the lucky few to survive unlike the majority of her family. Despite the death and horrors of the camps, Perl managed to save many of the lives of her female camp mates. Yet Perl’s name is largely unknown. Why? The likelihood is how she saved many of these women’s lives, by providing them with abortions.

Gisella Perl was born in Romania in 1907, graduating first in her high school as the only woman and the only Jew. Her father was initially reluctant to allow her to enrol in medical school fearing she would lose her faith, but when he relented Perl learnt the skills that saved hers and countless of others’ lives. After graduating she became a gynaecologist in Sighetu Marmației.

However her work was interrupted when the Nazis invaded this part of Romania, illegally, via Hungary. Originally placed in a ghetto, Perl and her family, barring her daughter who was sheltered by a non-Jewish family, were sent to Auschwitz in March 1944. Due to her medical training she was selected to work for the camp hospital under the notorious Joseph Mengele.

While called a hospital, it lacked the proper equipment and resources that a hospital required and could be almost as dangerous as the gas chambers. Even basic resources like anaesthesia and drugs were not available. This along with poor nourishment, and hygiene due to a lack of toilets, all made the job of staff much harder. Perl began to rely on her voice as a treatment, hoping she could at least give her patients some kind of relief:

”I treated patients with my voice, telling them beautiful stories, telling them that one day we would have birthdays again, that one day we would sing again. I didn’t know when it was Rosh ha-Shanah, but I had a sense of it when the weather turned cool. So I made a party with the bread, margarine and dirty pieces of sausage we received for meals. I said tonight will be the New Year, tomorrow a better year will come.”

However Perl, like many in the camps, did not realise the true extent of Mengele’s experiments until too late. Mengele had told Perl to send pregnant women to him, telling her they would be sent away for better nutrition. Many women upon hearing this themselves would approach Mengele telling him they were pregnant. Perl then found out that these women were used as guinea pigs in Mengele’s twisted experiments:

“…two lives would be thrown into the crematorium. I decided that never again would there be a pregnant woman in Auschwitz.”

Perl, due to her beliefs had not performed abortions prior to the war and under her own admission struggled greatly with this decision. However she believed it was better to save the life of the mother by performing an abortion before a woman could be sent away where they would die along with their foetus. Perl hoped these women would one day be able to give birth in safer conditions. Such abortions were made harder as Perl was forced to perform these with her bare hands, in the filthy barracks at night without any pain relief. It has been estimated that around 3000 abortions were performed by Perl, giving the women she performed them on a chance continue working, which in turn saved them at least temporarily from death.

Perl ended the war in Bergen-Belsen, moved with the surviving Auschwitz prisoners as part of the desperate attempts of the Nazis to mask what they had done from the oncoming Allied troops. As the camp was liberated she was delivering a baby, the first to be born not under threat of death. Perl had saved countless lives not just through abortions but her care to her fellow inmates, spending many of her nights treating them for the lacerations they suffered from whips brandished by guards. The testimony from her fellow inmates saved her from being accused of collaboration. However the death of her family in the camps; her husband, son and her parents drove Perl to attempt suicide whereupon she was placed in a convent to recuperate. Perl then moved to the US and eventually managed to open a new practice before moving to Israel. Upon entering the delivery room every time she prayed:

“God, you owe me a life – a living baby.”

Perl would go on to deliver around 3000 babies before her death in 1988. Over a hundred mourners attended her funeral with the Jerusalem Post bequeathing the title of “the angel of Auschwitz” on her.

The choice that Perl made has been subject to some debate, some have been inflexible on the position on the morality of abortion. These people believed no matter the circumstances there was no justification such as David Deutschman who said:

“there is no rational or moral justification for . . . wholesale slaughter of infants . . . whether it was done by the brutal Nazis, or by a sentimental and well-meaning female medical personality.”

However many, even those who may generally not approve of abortion, have defended Perl such as Hans Meyerhoff who said:

“[She] risked death and eternal damnation . . . and came to be hailed on behalf of ‘simple humanity’ at the price of thousands of lives which might have been, but never were and never will be. [She] was right in being what she was by committing this enormous wrong.”

Such supporters of Perl believed that she was faced with a choice of preserving the life of the mothers or losing both, Perl did her best to save as many lives as possible, which under the circumstances was only possible through the termination of the foetus. However more important than any moralist’s opinion on Perl’s actions, was the opinion of Perl’s patients who considered her to have saved their lives. One anonymous patient proclaimed:

“Without Dr. Perl’s medical knowledge and willingness to risk her life by helping us, it is would be impossible to know what would have happened to me and to many other female prisoners”.

In the opinion of this writer, whilst I am pro-choice and in support of abortion under circumstances in cases much less horrific than this, I find it hard to see how those who did not suffer under such circumstances, those who faced a choice between abortion or the death of themselves and their foetus, to judge the actions of a doctor who was just doing her best to save as many lives as possible.