Simon Malkes. The Righteous of the Wehrmacht. Trans. Lilyana Yankova. Reference Library of Jewish Intellectual History Series. Brighton: Academic Studies Press, 2014. 114 pp. $20.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61811-449-5.
Reviewed by Grant Harward (Texas A&M University)
Published on H-War (July, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
This slim volume is a memoir of Simon Malkes, born into a Jewish family in what was then Polish Wilno (modern-day Vilnius), whose family survived the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Lithuania through a mixture of skill, chance, and assistance from an unlikely source: an officer in the Wehrmacht. While Malkes’s memoir recounts his life before, during, and after the Second World War, the narrative also focuses on the person of Karl Plagge, a major in the Wehrmacht who helped protect the Malkes family, and Malkes’s efforts later in life to have Plagge recognized as one of the “Righteous among the Nations.” This is an award given by Yad Vashem in Israel to those who helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust. Malkes’s memoir contains many issues linked to the general trends in recent Holocaust historiography, which focus on Eastern Europe, Jewish resistance, and memory.
The Righteous of the Wehrmacht is representative of the remaining Holocaust survivors, who were mostly children or adolescents during the war and are now producing first-hand accounts of their experiences. Malkes was a teenager during the war. He recounts his prewar childhood in the new Polish state and the successes of his father, a skilled electrician, who eventually oversaw the construction of a power plant outside of Vilnius. It is clear that Malkes’s family was a modern and culturally assimilated Jewish family; nevertheless, they were still religious and participated in the vibrant Yiddish culture of interwar Poland. Although not emphasized in the memoir, the skills and assimilation of the Malkes family were crucial factors in their survival under Nazi occupation. Lithuania was one of the first regions declared Judenrein, “free of Jews,” in 1941 after all the Jews who were perceived as “backward” or “not useful” as skilled laborers were murdered by SS Einsatzgruppen in mass shootings. Malkes recounts the terror of the liquidation of the majority of the Vilnius Ghetto. Interestingly, he includes a short chapter on the period during which Vilnius was under Soviet occupation between 1939 and 1941, which allows the reader to make some comparisons between Soviet and Nazi policies toward Jews as well as see that the Jewish community in Lithuania had already been placed under great pressure even before the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, in Operation Barbarossa.
As Serge Klarsfeld, one of the famous French “Nazi Hunters” of the 1960s and 1970s, observes in his introduction to Malkes’s memoir, one of the main strengths of this work is that “it does not end when freedom comes to replace tyranny, but rather goes on to tell us what the seventeen-year-old boy did with his life” (p. 10). After relating his experiences in the Vilnius Ghetto and the eventual liberation by the Red Army, Malkes moves to a discussion of his postwar life. He got an education in Germany and then found a job in the growing technology industry in France. These chapters illustrate the common desire of all groups in Europe to forget the war and move on with their lives, an attitude that delayed any search for “Righteous among the Nations” by the survivors of the Lithuania ghetto. Importantly, he also emphasizes the important impact of Wiedergutmachung, or “compensations” from Germany beginning under Korad Adenauer in 1953, which allowed impoverished survivors, such as his parents, to live more comfortably in postwar Europe (p. 69). Malkes’s memoir contains a narrative of progress centered on technological optimism in the chapters focused on his postwar career. His own life story becomes intertwined with the story of the postwar “economic miracle” in Western Europe.
The last part of the narrative focuses on the issues of memory and commemoration of the Holocaust. Malkes recounts how with the passage of time the remembrance of the Holocaust took on increasing importance, and, fittingly for his technology-focused narrative, the Internet allowed him to find, contact, and coordinate with other survivors from Vilnius. Malkes shows an inside view of the new focus on memory in the changed context of the 1990s: the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, new prominence of Holocaust studies, and a generational shift among survivors and their families. This new community and discussion of the Holocaust resulted in the efforts of Malkes, along with other survivors of the Vilnius Ghetto, to work to get Plagge recognized for his efforts on behalf of the Jews during the war. The memoir looks into the policies of Yad Vashem and the politics of getting someone recognized as a “Righteous among the Nations.” Malkes includes a biographical chapter on Plagge and a few letters reproduced in an appendix. The memoir ends with Malkes’s feelings about the contribution of Jews in world history and the passing of the generation of eyewitnesses of the Holocaust.
This memoir presents the reader with many interesting themes and a look into the life of one Holocaust survivor. It could be a good book to use with high school students or undergraduates in a course on the Holocaust. It is a short but interesting read that offers a complex view of interwar Jewish life, the Holocaust, postwar Europe, and memory that an instructor could use to effectively tease out constructive discussions from students.
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Grant Harward. Review of Malkes, Simon, The Righteous of the Wehrmacht.
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