Leo Baeck 2


Nov 2012 Journal

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Brave young people (review)

In the days before the Berlin Wall came down, the East Berlin Museum of German History on Unter den Linden displayed several anti-Nazi leaflets printed and distributed by the Herbert Baum group during the Nazi era. What the exhibit did not spell out was that this group was predominantly - though not entirely - Jewish.

The reviewed book focuses on this group of brave young people. Most were Berlin members of the Young Communist League of Germany, the youth association of the Communist Party. Some, however, came from the Social Democrats and others from the left-wing Zionist Hashomer Hatzair. Some emphasised their Zionism and studied Hebrew, but the majority opted for anti-religious Marxism and wanted to carry on the fight in their German fatherland.

In the early years the group confined themselves to ‘ideological schooling’, reading and debating as well as hiking and camping - activities unlikely to rock the Nazi regime. Later they printed and tried to distribute anti-Nazi leaflets, some of which simply said ‘Hear the voice of truth. Tune in to Radio Moscow.’ Leafleting was dangerous. Bundles were thrown by riders from speeding bicycles. The Berlin public showed little sympathy and was likely to denounce them. The group then decided to pack leaflets into buckets or into flower boxes with a small explosive charge and a timing device - they could then be far away when the leaflets were scattered.

Most distributions were in working-class districts but one of the leaflet showers descended on an audience being addressed by Goebbels himself. When the explosive went off he had to duck under a desk. Later they were considering more active resistance but the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact paralysed and perplexed them. The German invasion of the Soviet Union relieved them of their ideological quandary: they could now go in for more active resistance. In 1942 the Nazis organised a photographic exhibition, ‘Soviet Paradise’, to show the poverty and misery of life in the USSR.

The group’s charismatic leader, Herbert Baum, decided on sabotage even though some members thought this too risky and feared reprisals with respect to the Jewish community. They borrowed a manual from the city library to learn how to make an incendiary device. Things went wrong immediately. One of the briefcases in which they carried their device started to burn prematurely. They quickly discarded their explosive material - leaving incriminating evidence in the hands of the Gestapo. A few visitors to the exhibition sustained minor burns. Goebbels recorded the sabotage in his diary but a few days later could report the arrest of ‘five Jews, three half-Jews and four Aryans’.

Almost the entire group had been rounded up. One of them had ‘sung’ and given away his comrades. A few survivors believe him to have been a spy. Others think he collaborated only to try to save his wife. Virtually all the group were executed, including the suspected traitor. When an Allied bombing raid damaged the only available guillotine the rest were hanged. Ten were executed in a mere 37 minutes!

The activities of the group were certainly amateurish but one has to respect their courage. Some of their actions appear doubtful. They undertook ‘expropriations’ against wealthy Jews - ‘capitalists’. They pretended to be Gestapo officers and confiscated paintings, cameras and carpets, which they sold to finance their activities. No doubt they thought that if they did not grab these assets, the Nazis would.

Eric Brothers describes their activities in great detail. Some of this material is based on his interviews with a handful who survived, but most is retold from the astonishingly large number of previously published accounts - East German, West German and in the Yearbooks of the Leo Baeck Institute.

When the author tries to set events into their wider context he errs repeatedly. A few examples: The Baum family came from Posen/Poznan, which Brothers describes as ‘handed over to Poland as part of war reparations’. Not true. Both the founders of the German Communist Party are described as Jewish. Rosa Luxemburg was; Karl Liebknecht was not. Even the title of the book is misleading: the Nazis never established a formal ghetto in Berlin. One might have hoped for better editing from the History Press.

Peter Fraenkel

previous article:The Association of Jewish Refugees/British Academy Appeal
next article:Tripping up the conscience (review)