Sunday, December 18, 2005

M is for Monopoly, Murder, Monowitz....and Monica

"Our friendship with the SS is proving very profitable". Otto Ambros, expert in synthetic rubber and poison gas, writing to Fritz Ter Meer. Sentenced at Nuremberg for war crimes they were soon back in business. (picture from 'The Crime and Punishment of IG Farben', by Joseph Borkin, published by Andre Deutsch, 1979).

M is for Monopoly, Murder and Monowitz...

I watched the final episode of the BBC2 series on Auschwitz last week. There's a follow-up discussion promised in the new year. In the final episode there was a bit about the survivors who lost everything, family, health, and whatever possessions they had owned.
Their difficulty or lack of material compensation was rightly contrasted with the way their persecutors and those who had gained from their suffering could continue to do well.

The SS veterans had their pensions, and shared the affluence of the "German Miracle". Shots of SS veterans rally, and of waiter serving prosperous bourgeois gentlemen at restaurant.

There was a wry vignette about an Auschwitz survivor returning to his native village and finding someone living in his house, with his furniture, denying he'd done anything wrong in acquiring things. The new occupant was convinced the Jew must have hidden some wealth about the place.
When the survivor returned some time later he found the house in ruins, and learned from neighbours that the late occupant had become obsessed with this belief, and stopped working, spending all his time tearing the home to pieces looking for this treasure that never existed.
It was a charming tale of justice.

But I was disappointed by this episode, because it did not mention IG Farben. This was the big German chemical monopoly combine that set up its own concentration camp at Monowitz alongside Auschwitz, exploiting slave labourers for its Buna factory. "Our new friendship with the SS is proving very profitable," wrote Otto Ambros of IG Farben to colleague Fritz Ter Meer. Many prisoners were worked to death, or weeded out in "selections" for the death camp at Birkenau. Zyklon B, the form of prussic acid used in the gas chambers was produced by Degesch, an IG Farben subsidiary.

After the war, IG Farben directors went on trial, and the combine was broken up. But IG Farben had enjoyed strong links with powerful US interests like Standard Oil and their friends in high places. Besides, the Cold War meant rebuilding capitalist industry in West Germany.
Soon men like Otto Ambros and Fritz Ter Meer who had been directly involved in the crimes at Auschwitz were out of jail and back in the boardrooms. By the 1950s each of the IG Farben constituents -Hoechst, Bayer, and BASF -was bigger and more profitable than the combine had been.

Perhaps a bit much to pack into that final episode. But having made a remark about those who did well from the concentration camps, the documentary makers led me to think we would hear at least a mention of IG Farben. Even if it's not as amusing as the deluded peasant who ripped the house to pieces. I've dropped a line to the BBC on this. Maybe we'll see something in the discussion programme.

Monica and her Unknown Soviet Soldier

AMONG our group of mostly British-born young Jews, Monica, who went out with Alan the youth leader was different. It wasn't just her accent.

One day, someone - it might have been me - must have said something critical of the Soviet military in eastern Europe. This was a few years after the Hungarian uprising.

"I don't want to hear anything against the Russians", said Monica, unexpectedly. "I was an eight-year old child when the Russians liberated us at Auschwitz. A Red Army soldier gave me my first piece of chocolate from his rations".

Before that I had known nothing about Monica's background. I don't think she said much else. We did not ask her any questions. This was not just one of those sentimental Stalinist fellow-travellers you heard singing how we should all be grateful to the Soviet Union. I don't remember Monica ever talking about politics, or telling us about her experiences. I think she married Alan and they settled on a kibbutz in Galilee, probably Amiad or Kfar Hanassi.

Just occasionally over the years, perhaps when watching some documentary with old grey newsreel clips of the Red Army marching in ranks, I've remembered Monica and her soldier. Was he a Russian, or maybe a Jew, Ukrainian or Uzbek or Armenian? (Did you know Soviet Armenians had the highest percentage of posthumous awards for gallantry?)

I wouldn't have thought the Soviet troops had many bars of chocolate. This wasn't your jeep-born GIs liberating Europe with chewing gum, nylons and Hershey bars (sorry to friends Stateside for that stereotype). This bit of chocolate must have meant all the more. It certainly meant everything to an eight-year old girl from behind the wire getting her first taste of human kindness.

I thought about Monica and her soldier again last week, watching the final episode of the BBC 2 series on Auschwitz. They interviewed a woman in Israel, who had also been a little girl in Auschwitz, and remembered fleeing with her mother from brutalised Russian soldiers intent on raping every woman or girl, including those they had just liberated, as though these had not suffered enough from the Nazis.

I don't doubt this woman was telling the truth. So I'm sure was Monica. I'm glad the BBC film included the woman's testimony, because it's right to remember these things, even if they upset those who prefer simplified pictures of good and evil to facing the complexity of the real world and human behaviour.

But I wish they had also interviewed Monica. For the sake of that unknown, kind, Soviet soldier, who did not dishonour his red star badge.
"Out of the strong came something sweet".

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