Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Death of Joseph Schmidt

                                              The Death of Joseph Schmidt

     Joseph Schmidt was a Romanian Jew who became a cantor in the Czernowitz Synagogue. His talents were recognized at an early age and he aspired to a career in opera.  In 1929 he went to Berlin where he sang on the radio. Because of his short stature, he only appeared on stage for one or two performances.  In 1933, he made a semi-autobiographical film called, “My Song Goes ‘Round the World”.  The movie was a smash hit.  The premiere was attended by a number of high ranking Nazis, including Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda.  The response was overwhelming and when it was discovered that Joseph Schmidt, himself, was in attendance, the audience demanded that he come out on stage and reprise some of the songs from the film.  He did this to enthusiastic applause and when someone pointed out to Goebbels that he was applauding a Jew, Goebbels turned to him and said, “we will decide who is and isn’t a Jew”.
     In 1939 he went back to Czernowitz to visit his mother. When the war broke out he was caught in France. He attempted to get to the United States, and failed.  He did manage to make his way to Switzerland, where he was interned in a labor camp.  While in the camp he complained of chest pains. The Swiss camp guards told him to stop malingering and sent him back to work. He died later that day of a heart attack.

                                  The Myth of Swiss Neutrality

     During the war, the economy of Switzerland was so closely tied to that of Germany, that even though the Swiss did not supply troops to the German army; they were in fact de-facto allies.  During the war, German companies were still doing business with companies under allied control, and Switzerland acted as a clearing house for these transactions.   A good example of this is Royal Dutch Petroleum.  The British part of the company sold oil to the allies, the Dutch part to the Nazis, and they cleared accounts through Switzerland. Swiss banks were also instrumental in helping the Germans launder the gold and other valuables that they looted from the countries they conquered.  Also, at the end of the war, Alan Dulles was sent to Switzerland as the OSS chief of station so he could assist his German industrialist friends in getting their money out of Germany and into Switzerland before the German war machine collapsed completely.  (The post-war “economic miracle” in Germany was largely financed by these funds.)
     Joseph Schmidt was quite fortunate to be interned by the Swiss.  At that time Swiss policy was to relieve Jewish refugees of their assets and then turn them back over to the Nazis.  In fact, it was the Swiss who suggested to the Germans that Jewish passports be stamped with the letter J, so fleeing Jewish refugees could be stopped at the border and handed back over to the Nazis.  As has been well publicized over the years, the Swiss had no problem with accepting Jewish assets as they knew what fate awaited their owners; which meant they would never have to be returned.

                                           The Allies

     The main reason Joseph Schmidt had to escape from France is that the French had no qualms whatsoever about handing over both Jewish refugees and native French Jews to the Nazis.  Even before the war began, any Jewish refugees who went to France were promptly interned in camps, so that when the Germans arrived, they wouldn’t have to go to the trouble of rounding them up.  The record of French collaboration with the Nazis and their enthusiasm for ridding themselves of their Jewish citizens, speaks for itself.  Like the Swiss, they had no intention of letting survivors or collateral relatives lay claim to assets confiscated from their former Jewish citizens.
     On the other hand the British were far more humane than the Swiss and French. They may have relieved fleeing Jews of their assets, but instead of sending them back to mainland Europe to almost certain death, they simply put them in camps.  Being alive and penniless is much better than being dead and penniless.  (Given British policy, I’m reasonably sure that the reason Jewish refugees weren’t put on boats and sent back to Europe is that they couldn’t afford the shipping, and it would have been rather bad press.)
     Unlike the Americans, I think the British deserve some credit for their lack of hypocrisy.  The British stated in no uncertain terms that so far as they were concerned, “every Jew killed by Hitler means one less refugee trying to get into Palestine when the war ends.”
     In the United States, FDR and the State Department worked together to make sure that almost no Jews would be admitted into the United States.  The few who were admitted were very high profile people in the arts or sciences.  It seems that Joseph Schmidt might have qualified, but although he was very well known in Europe, this might not have been the case in the states.
     When the death camps were first being established in Poland, the Polish underground sent representatives to the allies to inform them about what was going on.  In an interview on film, Jan Karski, one of the representatives, describes his meeting with FDR. In the most contemptuous and cynical manner, FDR made it abundantly clear, that it would never be allied policy to interfere with Hitler’s death factories.
     Since there is a rather exhaustive literature dealing with the topic of “trading with the enemy during wartime”, I am not going to go into the subject in any depth. However, let’s look at some of the highlights:
1)      German rearmament was largely financed by the U.S. One of the key companies in financing German armaments was Brown Brothers, Harriman which employed direct ancestors of two U.S. presidents; George Bush Sr. and George Bush Jr.
2)      In the 1930’s, the German establishment tried to bankrupt the Nazis through frequent elections. They succeeded.   The election that put the Nazis in power was financed by the Bank of England with Norman Montague approving the loan.
3)      American companies, most notably Dupont and Esso, supplied the Germans with formulas for the manufacture of artificial rubber, converting coal into gasoline and with direct shipments of tetra-ethyl lead, aviation fuel, and diesel fuel for U-Boats.
4)      During the war, GM owned Opel which made tanks and trucks for the Nazis. IT&T owned factories that made bombers for the German Air Force. (After the war, IT&T actually sued the US for damage done to their German bomber factories during allied air raids. Instead of being executed for treason, they actually collected taxpayer money for this.)  In return for the contracts to supply the German army with communications equipment, IT&T became the largest funding agency for the Gestapo.

     Contrary to the popular mythology of “Swedish Neutrality”, Sweden in fact was another de-facto ally of the Germans.  Although the Sweden never raised an army to fight alongside the German army, the economies of the two countries were very closely tied together and the Swedes did their best to assist the Germans throughout the war.
     The best example of this occurred when Churchill decide to bomb the ball bearing factories in Hamburg Germany.  For some reason, the Swedes seem to have an international monopoly on the manufacture of high quality, stainless steel ball bearings. (Or they did at that time. Whether it is still true, I don’t know.)  The Swedes did not appreciate having their factory bombed, and felt that until they could get it running again, the allies would have an “unfair advantage”. So they informed Churchill and the allies that unless they supplied Germany with ball bearings from factories located in allied territory; they would cut off all shipments of ball bearings to the allies.  As a consequence of this, American workers in Philadelphia manufactured ball bearings which were ostensibly shipped to South America and then rerouted to Germany.
     This brings us to the case of Raoul Wallenberg.  The Wallenbergs were major bankers and industrialists and a very powerful family in Sweden. During the war they engaged in major business dealings with the Nazis.  They also did business with the Soviet Union and thus had influence with all sides.  Raoul was in Hungary during the war, and is justly famous for helping as many Jews as he possibly could escape the Nazi death camps.  After the war he was imprisoned by the Soviet Union and spent the remainder of his life in prison camps.  After the fall of communism, researchers were able to go into Russia and interview former KGB agents about various cold war matters.  One researcher said he was interviewing a high ranking official in the KGB and asked him about Wallenberg. The KGB official said that Wallenberg had been held in Soviet prisons and that on many occasions they offered to exchange him for captured Soviet spies, but the Swedes always refused.  Logically, this only makes sense if he was being held at the request of his family.  It seems quite likely that given Raoul,’s known sympathies for the Jews that his relatives did not want him back in Sweden and finding out about just how much business they had done with the Nazis during the war.


     I think it is safe to say that from a moral perspective the allies were marginally better than the Nazis.  Right now, the United States and Western Europe have in place the same economic system that prevailed in Germany and Italy in the years before WWII; state supported capitalism.  One might call it, “fascism in a velvet glove”.  The western propaganda apparatus is so strong, most people can’t even conceive of how to challenge the system that is currently in place.  In the west, people aren’t taken away in the night, or interned in camps, because it is unnecessary.  If the time ever came when the populace was no longer willing to cooperate in its own economic demise, it would probably be shocking at just how quickly those accouterments of bald power would suddenly reappear.
     I think Arthur Koestler said it best in his description of World War II. “We are fighting against a total lie in the name of a half-truth”.

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