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The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town (2014), by Helmut Walser Smith – Reaction Essay

In The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town (2014), Helmut Walser Smith uses the murder of Ernst Winter in Konitz in 1900 as a lens through which to examine the historical place of the Jews in German and Christian society. The narrative is constructed like a murder-mystery novel that contains analysis both of the event itself and historical anti-Semitism. Smith does an excellent job of interjecting his analysis into the narrative in a way that maintains the pace and “action” of the story, with the exception of Chapter 5, “Performing Ritual Murder,” which is necessarily more abstract, but feels out of place, as if it just happened to find itself in the middle of an otherwise fluid narrative.

Through his examination of Winter’s murder and the reaction of the people of Konitz, Smith touches on the idea of nations, nationalism and state formation. Who gets to be German? What are the criteria? In a period of crisis, clear lines were drawn between “us” and “them,” with the Jews being clearly placed outside of German society. Based on Smith’s work, the majority of the Jews in Konitz led what might be called average lives. Many did not see themselves as very different from their neighbors. Some rejected Judaism and Jewishness altogether, like the boy that incriminated his father in an 1882 trial regarding a ritual murder charge in Tisza-Eszlar in Hungary (Kindle location 1801). Reform Judaism was on the rise. Most Jews clearly wanted to separate themselves from their past and become German, to one degree or another. What stopped them was latent anti-Semitism that continued to come to the fore during times of crisis.

Another important force that buttressed anti-Semitism during the early 1900s was the press. Because of Germany’s high literacy rates and the apparent freedom to publish uncensored material, “journalists” like Bruhn were able to cater to a demographic that craved news that satisfied their existing world view that supposed Jews really did commit ritual murders. Bruhn, and others like him, leapt on every opportunity to publish sensational stories, much like modern tabloids, invariably making the situation for Jews worse. It makes one question how free the press should be allowed to be. Why does the free press work in the modern US, but so obviously failed in Germany in 1900? One possibility is that the people were not so far removed from natural, learned behaviors imparted to them by their religious affiliation and past.

Smith attempts to explain this by looking at the history of ritual murder accusations and their relationship to the idea of host desecration. The idea that Jews might desecrate the “host” through desecrating a cracker perpetuated the image of Jews as Christ-killers, as people beyond the pale of civilization. Ritual murders were supposedly re-enactments of the murder of Christ. In a period of secularization, where highly educated people were denouncing ritual murder as a myth from an age of barbarism, average people were still by-and-large defining themselves based on religious affiliation. It is interesting that when it came to Jews, Christians in general united in hatred against them, regardless of their personal denominational affiliation.

One of the weak points of Smith’s work is the failure to more clearly link the events that happened in Konitz with Hitler, whom he discusses in the opening of the book as representing the fringe, rather than the mainstream of German society (Kindle location 152). In fact, Smith’s narrative, which shows a nearly united Christian front, ready to accept and lie to support ritual murder charges, seems to contradict that statement. Like the ritual murder charge, anti-Semitism in general did not die out, but rested “in repose,” both among Catholics and Protestants and served as the unifying factor that excluded Jews from belonging to the nation, which in turn constituted the imagined state (Kindle location 1552).

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Conversation with a Descendant of Nazis

Today was the first day of a series of Thursday afternoon lectures and special events in the Jewish Studies department at the City College of the City University of New York. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but it certainly sounded interesting. The event was a Skype call with a woman in Germany named Barbel Pfeiffer who had discovered that her family had worked closely with the Nazis and had made serious contributions to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

Barbel spoke to us via Skype in German, while a translator on our end here in New York related her story to us bit by bit. She began by giving us a brief overview of antisemitism in Germany, starting in the 1300s. That part was a bit dry, but when she began to tell us about her family’s personal involvement in the Holocaust, the tension in the room increased. Her story was riveting.

She began by telling us that she didn’t know about this part of her family’s history and only found out through a series of discoveries and revelations prompted by direct questioning of relatives, including finding correspondence between her deceased great-uncle and Adolph Hitler. Her great-uncle had requested permission to make Hitler an honorary citizen of the town as a reward for being the first “Jew-free” town in Germany. I forget the name of the town, but according to a little Internet research, thousands of towns gave Hitler honorary citizenship and, as that fact comes to light, many town councils are voting to rescind that honor. Some people argue that removing Hitler’s honorary citizenship is an attempt to whitewash history and hide the crimes of the past, while others argue that keeping him on the rolls is an insult to the people that he tried to destroy and glorifies his crimes.

Barbel also spoke about her grandfather, who built the electrified fence around Auschwitz that many Jews threw themselves onto in order to commit suicide. She related a story to us about children taken from the camp for experimentation by Joseph Mengele and how, when the children were returned to their mothers damaged and barely alive, many of those women commit suicide on the fence that her grandfather built. Her grandfather also designed and installed the tubing that carried Zyklon B gas into the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Barbel talked to us about how this impacted her personally. She said that it was a terrible thing to find out and she said she wasn’t sure for a while that she was going to be able to live with this knowledge in her head. Even though she herself didn’t take part in the Holocaust, she feels that she has an obligation to try to do something about it, to make up for it and make sure that people do not repeat the actions of the past.

As a way of atoning for the sins of her ancestors and to try to build bridges between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Germany, she participates in speaking events, talking about the history of her family, what it means for her, and asks for forgiveness from those who her family had a direct role in harming. She said that times were different back then, but people all made choices that led them to do the things they chose to do. So now, she’s choosing to try to heal those old wounds the best way she knows how.

In addition to speaking engagements, Barbel takes part in an event called the March of Life, a program that brings people to Holocaust remembrance sites, like Auschwitz, in an effort to keep the results of the Holocaust in the public mind and to say that anti-semitism is not ok.

At the end of her story, Barbel took questions from the audience and in response revealed a bit more about herself, her family, how speaking out has affected her personally and how it affects others. According to Barbel, admitting to having a family history that involves the Nazis is a taboo for some families, because it is a source of shame. Barbel said that it is important that people not be silent about the past, however, because anti-semitism is still very embedded in the culture.

Overall, I was really impressed with the event. It was difficult to listen to her story at some points, but it was informative and encouraging. The world is full of people who think nothing of engaging in genocide or even promote it as something honorable and righteous, but in Germany there are people who are very aware of the past and are trying to ensure that something like the Holocaust never happens again.

For more information, I found an article on the Times of Israel about Barbel Pfeiffer and the March of Life Event: “Grandpa, who helped install the gas chambers