Here’s my latest Arts in Review piece in The Wall Street Journal:
Two Exhibitions Look at the End of World War II
By Mark Yost
Berlin and Independence, Mo.
There are two important new exhibits to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the more ambitious being “1945—Defeat. Liberation. New Beginning.” at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum. It looks at 12 European countries, each with its own mini-gallery, at the end of the war. While the histories of four of the major combatants—Britain, France, Germany and the Soviet Union—are profiled in the museum, they are fairly well known. So the real reason to come here is to learn more about the war’s immediate impact on smaller countries such as Belgium, Luxembourg and Norway.
If there is a common theme, it is the huge appetite for revenge, and we’re told through biographies, newspaper clippings, cartoons and courtroom drawings that postwar Norway was divided between the “Ice Front,” which wanted to mete out the worst punishments to those who collaborated with the Germans, and the “Silk Front,” which wanted to be more forgiving. To illustrate this, there is a biographic panel on Vidkun Quisling, the Norway defense minister who founded the Fascist Nasjonal Samling in 1933 and was a Nazi collaborator throughout the war. He was tried and executed on Oct. 24, 1945.
On the Silk Front was Jens Christian Hauge, who was gracious in accepting the German surrender in May 1945 at the Akershus Fortress on behalf of the Milorg, the Norway Resistance that was founded in 1941, began working closely with Britain’s Special Operations Executive in 1942 and trained some 40,000 fighters. After the war, Hauge argued for Norway to take a more active role in Western alliances. On display is a decorative ashtray of the first Norwegian jet fighter he helped commission, a British De Havilland Vampire.
In Belgium, postwar tribunals handled more than 400,000 collaboration cases from 1944 through 1949, with a surprising 83% of them dismissed. Of the nearly 1,700 people sentenced to death, one panel explains, Belgium executed less than 250. The Luxembourg gallery features displays that focus on the people’s resourcefulness in dealing with shortages of food, clothing and building materials after the war. Shown here is a large wooden cabinet that was made from discarded German mine casings. In the Netherlands gallery, there is a homemade grain mill that the Dutch used to grind anything they could forage during the great “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45.
In addition to displays of artwork, artifacts and other objects, there are pertinent facts printed in large type in both German and English in each gallery. Things like, “No other country lost a higher percentage of its Jewish population” than the Netherlands. The curators, Maja Peers and Babette Quinkert, have also correctly labeled Poland “The primary state of the Holocaust.”
In the Polish gallery, we learn about Rachel Auerbach, a journalist and author who secured a number of documents early in the postwar period documenting the Holocaust. Also on display is the striped concentration-camp jacket of Feliks Wojciechowski, who was interned at Stutthof. While the jacket brings to mind many images from the genocide and those who survived it, the curators remind us that, owning no other clothing in the world, many survivors wore this garment home after being liberated and, sometimes, for months until they were given or bought new clothes.
Perhaps the most moving item here is a ticket to the March 1947 Warsaw trial of Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss, the longest-serving commandant (1940-43) at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Again, the context gives it more meaning: It belonged to Jakub Bajurski, who was interned in Auschwitz and wrote on the back of the ticket, “I was there,” while Hoss was on the stand claiming he did nothing wrong.
Another little-told story here is that of Czechoslovakian Jew Jana Sindelarova, who was forced to move to Bohemia in the late-1930s, where she met and married Hans Schindler. In 1942, they were deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto, a fortress city that the Nazis turned into a concentration camp that held some 144,000 prisoners, mostly Jews. After being liberated, she heard that her husband was among the survivors being held in a Red Cross refugee center. The museum has on display the Red Cross arm band she wore to sneak into the camp and reunite with her husband.
Seven time zones away, at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum outside Kansas City, is “Till We Meet Again,” another 1945 exhibit well worth seeing. This one is focused on the end of the war in the Pacific and the decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan to force its surrender and save the lives of an estimated one million American soldiers who would have died in an invasion of the Japanese main island.
The first two galleries recap the war, both at home in the U.S. and in Europe. Among the posters declaring that “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and pitching Victory Bonds is the letter that World War I veteran and then-Sen. Truman sent to the draft board, offering his services and noting that “I still consider myself a pretty good Field Artilleryman.” Gen.George C. Marshall rejected his overture.
There’s also an oversize copy of “Mein Kampf” that was given by Hitler to Robert Ley, head of the German Labor Front, in 1938; it was confiscated in 1945 and given to Gen. Walter B. Smith, who then gave it to Truman. Also on display is one of the pens used by German Gen. Alfred Jodl to sign the surrender at Reims, France, on May 7, 1945. It was given to President Truman by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
But perhaps the most fascinating artifact here is in the Victory in the East gallery. It features the safety plug for Fat Man, the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki by the American B-29 Bockscar. Also on display here through Sept. 11 is the Japanese rescript issued by Emperor Hirohito, on loan from the National Archives, essentially telling the Japanese to stand down, the war is over. A panel here notes that not only were rescript leaflets dropped all over Japan, but the emperor himself read the statement on the radio, the first time ordinary Japanese subjects had ever heard the emperor’s voice.
Also here are the maps from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House Map Room, showing the various plans for the Allies’ island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. One map reads “Invade Jap Homeland, Fall of 1945.”
According to curator Clay Bauske, the maps were salvaged by Navy Cmdr. George Elsey, a White House duty officer who walked by the Map Room after the war had ended and saw workmen tearing them off the walls. He called Mr. Bauske several years ago and said, “I have these maps . . .”
After verifying who he was, and what they were, Mr. Bauske sent the maps to the Pentagon to be declassified. They are now on display for the first time.
Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago.