Bystanders to deportations

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Extracts from the Diary of Berlin journalist, Ruth Andreas-Friedrich

Extracts from the Diary of Berlin journalist, Ruth Andreas-Friedrich

Sunday February 28, 1943

‘Since six o’clock this morning trucks have been driving through Berlin, escorted by armed SS men. They stop at factory gates, in front of private houses; they load in human cargo – men, women, children. Distracted faces are crowded together under the gray canvas covers. Figures of misery, penned in and jostled about like cattle going to the stockyards. More and more new ones arrive, and are thrust into the overcrowded trucks with blows of gun butts. In six weeks Germany is to be “Jew-free”.

We race around, we telephone, Peter Tarnowsky, gone. Lichtenstein the publisher, gone. Our Jewish dressmaker, gone. Our non-Aryan family doctor, gone. Gone, gone, gone! All of them! Without exception. Only yesterday I was talking to Tarnowsky on the telephone.

“I shall cling to the categorical imperative”, he said. “They won’t overstep the fundamental laws of morality.”

They have overstepped them. They have simply trampled them underfoot. Apparently the SS has no ear for Immanuel Kant, and does not stop to ask whether Peter Tarnowsky is a man of honor, a man of honor from head to foot.

Are we to go out and confront the SS – attack their trucks and drag our friends out? The SS is armed; we aren’t. No one is going to give us weapons, either; and if anyone did, we wouldn’t know how to use them. We just aren’t “killers”. We revere life. That is our strength – and our weakness.’

February 4, 1944

‘Already there is muttering about new deportations of Jews. We hear they have made a clean sweep in overcrowded Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. “Two thousand going out of here every week”, a man from the Security Service boasted the other day when he was riding a suburban train with us.

Two thousand a week. That makes over a hundred thousand human beings murdered annually by the State in one single camp. During the first deportation they still bothered to cover their mass murder with a slight humanitarian cloak – chiefly when the victim was survived by Aryan or foreign relatives. “Your father, Mr. Paul Israel Braun, succumbed to lung inflammation on October 23”, would be laconically inscribed on half a sheet of paper, or perhaps a post card. Whoever got the message suspected what the “lung inflammation” was like, not in a sickbed but in the poison chambers of the ghettos, in gas-filled railway trains, before the bullets of firing squads, or under the murderous tread of tanks.

“They make them dig their own graves”, people are whispering. “They take their clothes away – shoes, shirt. They send them to their death naked. They go naked to eternity.”

This horror is so inconceivable that imagination rebels at grasping it as a reality. Some sort of contact is broken here, some conclusion is simply not drawn. It isn’t Heinrich Muehsam that they’re sending to the gas chamber. It can’t be Anna Lehmann, Margot Rosenthal, or Peter Tarnowsky digging a grave in some remote desolation under the whiplash of the SS. And certainly not little Evelyne who was so proud of having once eaten a pear in her four years of life. […]

Is it cowardice that makes us think so, ostrich behaviour, a shunning of responsibility?

Perhaps so. But if it is, then that cowardice and that ostrich behaviour are among the primitive instincts of mankind, the ineradicable basis of self-preservation.

[…] Tidings of the massacre of the Jews have gone all over the world. Did a single soul lose his appetite for breakfast? […] Were they unable to go on living because the agonies of the victims stopped their breath, lacerated their consciences, and set the furies at their heels?’

[…] We who are in our eleventh year under Adolf Hitler’s dominion have little cause to boast. But if ever anyone risked his life for his Jewish brothers, it has been the German Aryans – hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, risking their necks every day and every hour for a few wretched bread stamps, a lodging for a night or two. A little bit here, a little bit there, and still a little bit, scraped together out of their own need, fought for among bombs, forced labor, failing communications, and personal hardship, gained by defying every prohibition, law, and propaganda decree.

No one who has not seen it himself can imagine how difficult even the simplest act of assistance may be under such circumstances. What are you to do if a person you are hiding in your apartment dies of heart failure one fine day? Are you to burn him in the stove, send him up in smoke, blow him out the chimney? What do you do with a corpse that hasn’t been registered with the police? “We put it in our laundry basket, covered it with sheets and carried it out of the house at night”, we are told by acquaintances who suffered this particular embarrassment, “In the Tiergarten [//] we fetched it out and put it on a bench.” They smile distractedly; they are not pleased with their solution. For forty years they have been respectable citizens.’

  1. What do these extracts suggest about the common postwar defence, ‘we knew nothing about it’?
  2. What were the risks of helping people survive ‘underground’?
  3. How distinctive do you think conditions for rescue in Berlin might have been, in contrast to other areas of Germany (towns and country areas)?

Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, Berlin Underground 1938-1945 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1947) Transl. by Barrows Mussey, pp. 90-1.

Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, Berlin Underground 1938-1945 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1947) Transl. by Barrows Mussey, pp. 116-19.