International Holocaust Memorial Day is celebrated annually on 27 January, in accordance with a decision by the UN General Assembly.
This date was chosen because on 27 January 1945, Russian forces advancing towards Germany reached the extensive Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration, labour and extermination sites in occupied Poland.
They first entered Auschwitz III, the IG Farben camp at Monowitz: a soldier from the 100th Infantry Division of the Red Army entered the camp around 9 am on Saturday, 27 January 1945.
The 60th Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front (also part of the Red Army) arrived in Auschwitz I and II around 3 pm.
They found 7,000 prisoners alive in the three main camps, 500 in the other subcamps, and over 600 corpses. The rest had been dragged onto the infamous death marches, on which many were killed or expired, though some survived.
The total number of victims can never be determined precisely. 6 million is the generally accepted total of Jewish victims deliberately murdered in the Holocaust; up to 5 million others (non-Jews) is often suggested – brutally starved, deliberately worked to death, shot or gassed.
For some background to Nazi Germany’s advance towards this nightmare, see the two immediately previous posts here.
We are encouraged to put a lighted candle (if safe to do so) in in our windows on the night of 27 January.
The UK Commemorative Ceremony for HMD 2022 will be broadcast online on Thursday 27 January 2022 at 7pm. The narrator will be Sandi Toksvig OBE. We can register to join the Ceremony by clicking here.
This blog not normally a platform for non-local historical or political musings. So feel free to look away if you’re not in the mood for this – or if it becomes too painful to read. But I’m giving myself permission to make an exception, provoked by an important and partly-personal coincidence of dates.
Also, it’s in two parts, because of the length.
An infamous date – 20 January 1942
Yes, before most readers of this blog were born.
20 January 1942, 80 years ago this week, saw the holding of the infamous Wannsee Conference in the gracious western suburbs of Berlin. The house was a luxurious villa acquired by the Reich Security Main Office, mainly the SS, for use as a guest house and conference centre. The meeting was summoned and chaired by SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich.
Aimed specifically at dealing expeditiously with the ‘problem’ of Europe’s Jewish communities, this highly secret meeting of senior bureaucrats was called to agree and accelerate the logistics and timing of the Holocaust – the Final Solution – in a manner sadly typical of the highly bureaucratic and efficient Nazi state. Thereafter the senior officials and state authorities attending the meeting were implicated in its decisions and consequences: there could be no turning back.
And the personal coincidence? 1942 was also the year in which I was born in wartime England (though not in that January; not in fact until October). Perhaps because I was born then, around the midpoint of World War II, but also because I lived for a short time in Berlin in the 1960s, I’ve perhaps been more preoccupied than many of my generation with the tumultuous events of that era, which of course for many people alive today is of mainly historical interest, if that.
I guess some outlines of the Holocaust are taught in UK schools, but the details are probably left to professional historians and, of course, Jewish and other groups representing and remembering those who were massacred so brutally. It would not be surprising if many people today struggled to get their heads round the scale of what happened. (Though there have of course been subsequent holocausts on a much smaller scale (Bosnia, Cambodia and some of the less blessed parts of Africa) – smaller but no less terrible.) A quick survey tells me that many people alive now, including the highly educated, haven’t heard of Wannsee at all, or only vaguely.
The point of Wannsee?
It was sometimes thought that the conference, convened on the orders of Himmler and with the approval of Hitler, instigated Nazi government plans for the Holocaust. (The term “Holocaust” is normally applied just to the killing of Europe’s 6 million Jews; but is often stretched to include other deliberate victims like gypsies. It is not normally used to encompass the millions of others, such as Russian and Polish civilians and prisoners of war who were caught up into the same process.)
But … Wannsee did not launch the systematic murder of the Jews – that policy had already been decided and the early steps had been taken.
By the end of 1941, it was already being implemented in a deliberate but only partly coordinated fashion, along with the imprisonment and ultimately killing of other unfavoured people – Poles, Gypsies, Russian military and civilians, disabled people, political opponents from within Germany, resistance workers from the occupied territories, and of course thousands of others. The Jewish community inside the Reich was already enduring savage persecution.
But the capture of Poland in late 1939, and later (in summer 1941) the invasion of Western parts of the Soviet Union, immediately placed millions more people – combatants and civilians, and particularly Jews, as well as other nationalities – under the brutal regime of the German forces, notably the SS and its murder squads. In the end, some 3 million Polish Jews – approximately 90% of Poland’s pre-war Jewry – and between 1.8 and 2.8 million ethnic Poles were killed during the German occupation of Poland.
Mass shootings in Poland, Ukraine, Russia and the Baltic states were initially the method used to eliminate Jewish and other victims, to be followed by mass displacement where the Jews transported from the West joined those in Poland, Russia and the Baltic regions. Here, “special treatment” methods could be devised and tested. The scale of the ‘problem’ now required better methods.
By late 1941, before Wannsee, some more “efficient” killing centres and methods had already been set up in occupied Poland, the Baltic states and elsewhere. The first small-scale gassings at Auschwitz took place in early September 1941, when around 850 inmates—Soviet prisoners of war and sick Polish inmates – were murdered.
Another infamous example was in the Western part of Poland which had been formally incorporated into the Reich. Chełmno, 30 miles northwest of Łódź, was the first of the pure extermination centres and had been set up in December 1941 in order to annihilate the inhabitants of the ghetto in that town. It was the first stationary facility where poison gas – in that case, carbon monoxide in enclosed trucks – was used for the mass murder of Jews. Other similar extermination camps that quickly followed in 1942 (Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka) used fixed gas chambers fed by large carbon monoxide engines. All four existed purely for the purpose of murder, chiefly of Polish Jews. They paved the way for the much bigger extermination facilities that were quickly established in mixed labour/extermination camps and their numerous satellite sites across Poland and other territories, fed by an elaborate rail transport system from all over Europe. Notably, of course, Auschwitz-Birkenau and its vast complex of industrial workshops and extermination facilities: over 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives here. But there were many other sites.
What Wannsee did achieve for the Nazi regime, on that day 80 years ago, was that it brought together a representative group of very senior officials and military/SS officers (including one, SS-Standartenführer Dr Rudolf Lange [see below], who had personally developed the killing methods at Chełmno just a week or two earlier) to decide and impose an enhanced, ambitious and accelerated method of moving Jews out of the Reich and the occupied territories, assembling them in ghettos where necessary, and then exterminating them in large numbers in dedicated sites. The meeting also discussed different treatments for different levels of ‘Jewishness’; but any categories that were thereby spared were later included anyway, on Heydrich’s orders.
The proceedings at Wannsee were deemed particularly secret. Only a limited number of copies of the highly-redacted and deliberately vague 15-page minutes (“Protocol” in German) were typed and circulated under the authority of the secretary of the conference, SS-Obersturmbannführer (= Lieutenant-Colonel) Adolf Eichmann. All but one set of minutes were deliberately destroyed, or lost in the chaos of 1945.
But one set survived in the archives of the German Foreign Ministry and was discovered by the US occupying forces after the war.
Only then did the existence and significance of this key historical event come to light.
In these minutes and on countless other occasions when the subject arose, orders to assemble and kill Jews were generally issued verbally, not written down. If on paper, the language was kept deliberately vague, but used well-understood phrases and hints that all would have understood.
For example, Wannsee minutes Chapter III (English translation):
“III. Another possible solution of the problem has now taken the place of emigration, i.e. the evacuation of the Jews to the East, provided that the Fuehrer gives the appropriate approval in advance.
These actions are, however, only to be considered provisional, but practical experience is already being collected which is of the greatest importance in relation to the future final solution of the Jewish question.”
Participants and later readers of the minutes will have understood “evacuation to the East” to mean deportation to labour camps and/or killing centres in occupied Poland, designated as the epicentre of the Holocaust. They will also have understood the ominous realities behind the innocuous term “practical experience”. Another circumlocution used in many documents and conversations about the same topic was “special treatment”: it simply meant systematic mass murder, usually by units of the SS.
After January 1942, as agreed at the conference, the extermination campaign gathered pace and became the “final solution”, pulling in Jews and other victims from all over the Reich and the conquered territories. It only faltered when the allies invaded Germany from both East and West and the programme collapsed in the final months of the war in 1945 as the concentration and labour camps in the East and in the Reich itself were progressively emptied – by hasty summary executions, by starvation and ill-treatment or by forced ‘death marches’ of prisoners (many directed towards Bergen-Belsen in Germany itself) which also resulted in thousands of deaths.
So there can be no doubt, once its existence had been revealed, that the Wannsee Conference opened a new and decisive chapter in the Holocaust. As one of the first great historians of this catastrophe, Professor Sir Martin Gilbert, wrote in his book “The Holocaust – the Jewish Tragedy” (1986): “What had hitherto been tentative, fragmentary and spasmodic was to become formal, comprehensive and efficient. The technical services such as the railways, the bureaucracy and the diplomats would work in harmony, towards a single goal.… By the end of January 1942, the Germans needed only to establish the apparatus of total destruction…”.
The total number of victims can never be determined precisely. 6 million is the generally accepted total of Jewish victims of the Holocaust; up to 5 million others is often suggested, probably without counting the millions of Russians and Poles – civilians and prisoners of war – who were brutally starved, deliberately worked to death, shot or gassed.
The aftermath: Heydrich &co
SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, who summoned and chaired the conference on the orders of Himmler, had been head of the RSHA (the Reich Security Main Office) since 1939. A leading architect of the Final Solution, he was directly answerable to Heinrich Himmler in Himmler’s dual capacity as Chef der Deutschen Polizei (Chief of German Police) and Reichsführer-SS, the head of the Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel (SS). Earlier, in autumn 1941, Heydrich had been appointed acting ‘Protector’ (i.e. Governor) of occupied Bohemia and Moravia, a task which he executed with deliberate brutality. Five months after the Wannsee conference and back in Prague, he was mortally wounded in an assassination attempt by UK-trained Czechoslovak resistance operatives. The Nazi reprisals in Czechoslovakia were extraordinarily savage, while Heydrich was given a state funeral in Berlin. At the end of the war, HeinrichHimmler escaped from Berlin under assumed identity but was caught by the British forces in northern Germany and committed suicide.
And RudolfLange, the most junior official at the Wannsee gathering? From occupied Poland he went on to Riga to supervise mass killings in Latvia. By the end of the war he had been promoted to SS-Standartenführer (colonel) and, back in Poland, was head of the SD in Poznań, shortly to be captured by the oncoming Russian forces. His fate is unknown, but he probably died during the conflict or committed suicide. After the Conference, AdolfEichmann and his staff became responsible for Jewish deportations to extermination camps, including the deportation of most of Hungary’s Jews. When the war ended he eluded capture and escaped to Argentina, whence he was abducted by the Israelis in 1960 and ultimately, after a long trial, hanged.
And today the villa in West Berlin, Am Großen Wannsee 56–58, after some prevarication by the German authorities, is a Holocaust commemoration centre.
There have been one or two films about the conference of which probably the best is “Conspiracy” (2001), written and directed by Frank Pierson and featuring Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich, Colin Firth as Dr Wilhelm Stuckart (Interior Ministry legal counsel) and Stanley Tucci as Eichmann. The dialogue in the film is of course invented, as the minutes of the meeting were deliberately not verbatim or, for the most part, attributed to particular speakers. But it sort of rings true.
This note is of course only a non-specialist’s attempt to pick out some key points and consequences of this extraordinary moment in European history. The Holocaust, and the significance of this Wannsee meeting within that narrative, have been researched, examined, debated and interpreted in recent decades by probably hundreds of professional and conscientious historians – British, American, French, German and Jewish and of course others.
The Final Solution, and the parallel killing of millions of non-Jewish people, was the greatest human catastrophe: to grasp the historical facts, let alone sum up in a few lines, is almost impossible. But this is hopefully a useful reminder of something that can never be forgotten or ignored.
Holocaust Memorial Day: 27 January
in accordance with a decision by the UN General Assembly, International Holocaust Remembrance Day is celebrated annually on 27 January.
This date was chosen because on 27 January 1945 Russian forces reached the extensive Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration, labour and extermination sites. They first entered Auschwitz III, the IG Farben camp at Monowitz: a soldier from the 100th Infantry Division of the Red Army entered the camp around 9 am on Saturday, 27 January 1945. The 60th Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front (also part of the Red Army) arrived in Auschwitz I and II around 3 pm. They found 7,000 prisoners alive in the three main camps, 500 in the other subcamps, and over 600 corpses. The rest had been dragged onto the infamous death marches, from which some survived.
We are encouraged to put a lighted candle (if safe to do so) in in our windows on the night of 27 January.
The UK Commemorative Ceremony for HMD 2022 will be broadcast online on Thursday 27 January 2022 at 7pm. The narrator will be Sandi Toksvig OBE. We can watch the Ceremony by clicking here.
As some neighbours have learned to their cost, it is expensive to ignore these temporary parking restriction notices – not having seen them, or even innocently misinterpreting them, is no defence when you get a parking fine.
These new ones start at 08:00 hours on 20th January – tomorrow, Thursday! – and continue until 18:00 hours on Monday 24th January.
On these days, parking is suspended on both sides of the street outside numbers 56 – 60, and equally outside numbers 81 – 83.
The reason for the parking suspension is not clear: no doubt all will be revealed.
As the bays mentioned do not necessarily correspond to the house numbers, there is probably room for ambiguity in interpreting these rules, but I would be tempted to play on the safe side and avoid overlapping into road space close to these areas – we know that the parking attendants (sorry, Civil Enforcement Officers) will only be doing their job if they are hyper-diligent.
This is all a nuisance as it takes out quite a lot of parking at a time when the street is already busy with tradespeople’s vans and trucks. You may want to warn them as well as any other visitors and neighbours.
‘Sunset over Herne Hill’, an absorbing & very readable exploration – by local writers (including one of our Fawnbrake neighbours) and published by the Herne Hill Society – of the great John Ruskin’s South London (indeed, Herne Hill) roots, is featured in the current issue of the bi-weekly South London Press.
“Ruskin was one of the first people to question the self-confident and assured capitalism of the 19th century – what he referred “the Great Goddess of Getting-on” – and to foresee the destructive physical and social consequences of unfettered industrial and urban growth. In the 21st century, with the same concerns, we have much to learn from him. What is more, the destruction and damage that he started to observe around him, became more and more focused on his immediate surroundings in South London. Around Herne Hill he finds confirmation of his antipathy to railway building, uncontrolled suburban growth and the consequent destruction of the landscape. The Crystal Palace, glittering on his skyline, came to exemplify the philistine commercialism of Victorian capitalism for him. …”
Some much-needed cheerful news: The Cambria pub down on the corner of Cambria Road and Kemerton Road is scheduled to reopen next spring under new and competent management.
The Victorian pub closed two years ago but had been in decline for longer, lacking capital investment and experienced managers. Following repossession orders, it was acquired by Star Pubs & Bars, the pubs management wing of Amsterdam-based global beer brand Heineken.
The new owner indubitably brings a safe pair of hands and access to the sort of investment capital needed to refurbish this poor rundown institution, which might now once again offer joy, refreshment and a welcoming meeting space to the residents of this quiet and attractive corner on the cusp of Herne Hill and Loughborough Junction, as well as to those visiting Ruskin Park.
Star in turn have let the premises to experienced pub operators Prospect Pubs & Bars Ltd who will now be taking this forward, supported by the marketing, financial and technological experience of Star Pubs & Bars / Heineken.
We should expect major refurbishment and some expansion, for which Lambeth have already granted planning permission. Work on the ambitious redevelopment, including the back yard of the pub, has been entrusted to Vidette UK, specialists in pub refurbishment, and has already started.
As well as the refurbished indoor bars, the new plan offers a 40-cover garden room with retractable roof and sides, as well as indoor dining and liquid refreshments.
The core beer brands on the bar will be those supplied by the Brixton Brewery – hardly surprising, since they are now wholly owned by Heineken.
The Brixton Blog reported this news yesterday, and has obtained an cosy-looking artists’ impression what the pub might look like when the refurbishment is finished.
We are fortunate in having several nice schools within easy walking distance and now it’s almost Christmas (which seems to have crept up on us more quickly than usual this year), St Saviour’s School have announced a clever way to support their fundraising campaign and also help us get a Christmas tree in a highly convenient & hopefully stress-free way. The school earns £10 per tree ordered.
Prices vary of course according to the size of the tree but seem reasonable.
Orders have to be placed and paid for online by close of play on 26 November, so not long to go. Trees will be ready for collection from the school playground on Saturday 4 December. Probably within walking distance unless you order a giant tree.
I’m afraid I have shamelessly lifted this article from a recent Spectator website. It attracted a very high number of interesting comments, which I cannot begin to reproduce.
But the many problems of electric vehicles – including not just the initial cost but also their weight, the environmental impact of the raw materials, their high demands on the electricity network and of course, as mentioned below, the obvious problem of where they can be charged especially in a crowded city – are beginning to dawn on people. True, some houses on Fawnbrake Avenue have been able to convert their front gardens to a parking space, thereby solving one of the problems. But a majority of residents don’t have that option. And lamp-post charging sets off a whole number of other complications.
“With their private jets and gas-guzzling mansions, delegates at Cop26 have been widely criticised for an elitist attitude towards the environment. Nothing better demonstrates the gulf between policymakers and ordinary people than over the charging points for electric cars. It is one thing to install a home charging point for your car if you own a large house up a crunchy gravel driveway – indeed, according to the property website Rightmove, owners of such properties have been fitting charging points with great enthusiasm, with a 541 per cent increase in the number of homes being advertised with such a facility over the past year.
But what do you do if you live in one of the 43 per cent of homes which do not have off-street parking? In fact, you don’t necessarily have to be of modest means to live in such a house – there are plenty of city centre homes, in Belgravia and such places to boot, which open straight onto the pavement. Owning a car in a city has not been easy ever since controlled parking and traffic wardens started to appear in the 1960s, but it is just about to get a whole lot more difficult. Even if you can find somewhere to charge an electric car the electricity is likely to be several times more expensive than plugging it in to your home supply.
That said, there have been some trials with on-street recharging points, which may be coming to a street near you soon. Under the Go Ultra Low City Scheme, 1000 on-street charging points were installed in London in 2019 – utilising existing lamp-posts. You are not going to get a rapid charging point from the electricity supply to a lamp-post – they are limited to 3.7 kW – but it is enough for an overnight charge. Reading, too, has been experimenting with fixing sockets to existing lamp-posts.
But there are still many problems to overcome. In Reading, many street lamps proved to be unsuitable because there are installed on the nearside of the pavement, which would have required a cable to be dangled dangerously across the footway. Pedestrians face enough obstructions without having to step over an electric cable every few yards. That problem could be overcome by excavating small channels beneath the pavement so that a cable can be run across without tripping people up. One company, Greenmole, in association with Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Salford has been installing just that: channels which lead from a motorist’s own home to the roadside, to enable charging. It comes at a price – such an installation will cost you around £3000. But there is a bigger problem, too: very few people have a reserved parking place directly outside their home – even where parking permit schemes exist they tend to allow parking on a street-by-street or area-by-area basis, not to individually-designated parking spaces.
As more electric cars come into use, there are going to be intense battles over this. Should homeowners be allowed to claim parking spaces directly outside their homes so they can charge their vehicles more easily – and if so, what should they be charged for the privilege? After all, the public highway is supposed to be a facility for all, not for bits effectively to be privatised for the exclusive benefit of nearby property-owners. In any case, reserving parking spaces outside homes is not going to help everyone. If you have a house, say, divided into three flats, who, if anyone, gets to bag the single streetside parking space?
One thing is for sure, until the problem of charging electric vehicles on the streets is solved, properties with off-street parking are likely to command an even greater premium than they already do. The Battle of Cable Steet is long remembered as the struggle between communists and fascists in the 1930s. The Battle of Street Cabling has yet to come.”