The Other Holocaust: Many Circles of Hell
A Private War: Surviving in Poland on False Papers, 1941–1945
Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation, 1939–1944
Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933–1945
It is by now reasonably well known that six million Jews died as a result of the policies of Adolf Hitler, but far less so that the total number of nonmilitary victims of Nazi genocidal policies was probably between fourteen and sixteen million. The discrepancy between the two figures has led some students of the Second World War to question current usage of the term “Holocaust” which is usually taken to mean the destruction of the European Jews, and the Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz has expressed concern lest this exclusivist usage tend to make people forget that millions of Poles, Russians, and prisoners of other nationalities suffered the same brutal end.
One can acknowledge that too little attention has been paid to the fate of these other victims without ceasing to believe that there are sound reasons for treating the Final Solution as a special case. More Jews were killed than members of any other national group. The destruction of the Jews was longer premeditated, more systematic and continuous, and accomplished by a more fiendishly ingenious combination of technological and scientific means than was true in the case of other victims. And, above all, no other group (except perhaps the Gypsies, whose extermination the Nazis did not in the end pursue with the assiduity and obsessive thoroughness that characterized their Jewish policy) was condemned to death by definition. In their desire to destroy Poland as a nation, the Nazis set out to kill the elites that might preserve it, but not all Poles were marked for death. The Jews were condemned without regard for their status, occupation, or politics; they were killed because they were Jews.
The policy that was intended to accomplish this ghastly result was of long gestation, and its first germs were probably planted in Hitler’s mind during his days in Vienna before the First World War. From the virulence with which he writes about the Jews in Mein Kampf, it is clear that anti-Semitism was never a mere matter of tactics to him, as it was to his first political model Karl Lueger, but was passionately felt. Long before Hitler came to power, the elimination of the Jews from German society had become a basic objective of his movement, although the means of accomplishing it had not been defined. The boycott of Jewish shops after 1933, the Gleichschaltung process that deprived Jews of positions in the civil service and the professions, the Nuremberg laws that destroyed their civil rights, the various plans for forced deportation were stages in the process of definition, all of which were soon felt to be inadequate as Hitler’s successes in foreign policy encouraged visions of a Greater German Reich, extending far into Eastern Europe and purged of all non-German elements. The excesses of Reichskristallnacht in November 1938 hinted at the efficiency and psychological satisfaction of violence as a means of solving the Jewish question, and the coming of the war a year later removed the last inhibitions upon its use.
During the Polish campaign and the subsequent occupation of western Poland, as many as thirty thousand Jews perished, many almost inadvertently as the result of unplanned actions and more than two thirds as a result of starvation. It was only when the invasion of Russia began, however, and Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen got down to work, that the destruction of entire Jewish communities took place, a process that was systematized and made European in scope at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942, where it was decided to put the full resources of the Reich behind the effort to deport and exterminate eleven million Jews, including those living in neutral and still unconquered countries.
“What had hitherto been tentative, fragmentary and spasmodic,” Martin Gilbert writes,
was to become, formal, comprehensive and efficient…. By the end of January 1942, the Germans needed only to establish the apparatus of total destruction: death camps in remote areas, rolling stock, timetables, confiscation patterns, deportation schedules…and then to rely upon the tacit, unspoken, unrecorded connivance of thousands of people, administrators and bureaucrats who would do their duty, organize round-ups, supervise detention centres, coordinate schedules, and send local Jews on their way to a distant “unknown destination,” to “work camps” in “Poland,” to “resettlement” in “the East.”
The end result—Hitler was entirely candid about this in his speech in the Berlin Sportpalast on January 30, 1942—would be “the complete annihilation of the Jews.”
The execution of this grandiose scheme has been the subject of many books, notably those of Raul Hilberg and Lucy Dawidowicz, and Mr. Gilbert does not attempt to compete with them. His book, he says, is “an attempt to draw on the nearest of the witnesses, those closest to the destruction, and through their testimony to tell something of the suffering of those who perished and are forever silent.” In writing it, he has been the beneficiary of all of those in the ghettos and the camps who obeyed the injunction of the dean of Jewish historians, Simon Dubnov, whose dying words, after he had been shot during a raid on the Riga ghetto in December 1941, were “Schreibt un farschreibt!” (“Write and record!”), for Mr. Gilbert has interviewed hundreds of them and read their diaries and postwar depositions and smuggled notes. He is aware of the difficulty of transmitting a sense of their collective experience to modern readers, for the repetition of stories of atrocious acts is bound to have a numbing effect. But it is the historian’s duty, he feels,
through the records and stories that have survived, to give an insight into the many ways in which individuals met their death. Those who remembered such stories, and who retold them, did so in order that the fate of individuals would not be forgotten.
Inevitably, then, this is a book replete with horror, but it is also a book filled with tales of heroism and love. On the one hand, Mr. Gilbert puts before us eyewitness accounts of acts of inhumanity that would be incredible were it not for the obvious honesty and authority of the reporters—descriptions of such things as the massacre in September 1941 of the Jews of Kiev at Babi Yar (and, even worse, the disinterment and burning of the corpses two years later by a column of Jews and Soviet prisoners of war under SS guard); the Purim massacre in Minsk in March 1942, in which children from a nursery were thrown into a deep pit and SS officers threw handfuls of sweets to them as they were being covered by sand; the dreadful days in the summer of 1942, when 265,000 people were deported from the Warsaw ghetto to the gas ovens of Treblinka; the “children’s action” in Kovno in March 1944, when several thousand children were rounded up, driven off in trucks, and shot; and the liquidation of the Lódz ghetto in June 1944, during which the deportees were told that they were on their way to work camps near Leipzig but found written on their railroad cars “You are going in the carriages of death!” and were taken to Chelmno and gassed.
On the other hand, Gilbert’s pages are strewn with examples of nobility and defiance in the face of terror, like the story of the elder of the Theresienstadt ghetto, Jacob Edelstein, saying his prayers on the morning of his death and answering the SS lieutenant who was screaming at him to hurry up with the calm words, “Of the last moments on this earth, allotted to me by the Almighty, I am the master, not you”; and that of Mala Zimetbaum, a Jewish girl from Belgium who succeeded in escaping from Birkenau with a friend but was recaptured because she would not abandon him, and who, when dragged off to be hanged, slashed her wrists with a razor blade that she had concealed, crying out, “I know I’m dying, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are dying, too, and your gangster Reich with you.”
Why there was relatively little collective Jewish resistance to the Nazi oppressors is a question that troubles Gilbert, and he points out that it was hotly debated in the ghettos and the camps. Emanuel Ringelblum, who faithfully kept a detailed record of life in the Warsaw ghetto until his death in March 1944, once wrote:
This question torments all of us, but there is no answer to it because everyone knows that resistance…may lead to a slaughter of a whole community…. Not to act, not to lift a hand against the Germans, has…become the quiet passive heroism of the common Jew. This was perhaps the mute life instinct of the masses…and it seems to me that…it is impossible to fight a mass-instinct.
The Jewish will to survive and the German policy of deception, which obscured the real purpose of deportation and resettlement, were linked, Mr. Gilbert writes, in “a tragic magnetism,” in which survival always seemed possible as long as the utmost restraint was observed. And, when the mask finally fell, it was the Germans who had the guns.
Even so, there were attempts to resist. A small band of young men and women in the Warsaw ghetto, troubled by the burden of passivity and conscious of the fact that “our history also contains glorious and shining pages of heroism and strength,” felt obliged to “join those eras of heroism” and to oppose further deportations. In January 1943, SS troops rounding up victims were attacked by Jews throwing grenades, and after sustaining significant losses were forced to withdraw. In April, when they returned with greater force and determination, they were met by organized resistance by twelve hundred Jewish fighters which it took three weeks to overcome. “We fought back,” one of the rebels wrote later, “and it made our lot easier and made it easier to die.” Mr. Gilbert reminds us, moreover, that in addition to this convincing example of the will to collective resistance, “hardly a day passed without some act of defiance,” and, “despite the grotesque savagery of reprisals, Jewish resistance was never crushed in its entirety, even in the death camps.”
Meanwhile, as the Jews died, their fate was shared by other peoples, and it is the unique service of Dr. Bohdan Wytwycky that, in a monograph of less than a hundred pages, he has for the first time brought together in English the basic facts about the horrors suffered by Gypsies, Poles, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Russian prisoners of war, and Ostarbeiter sent to Germany, as well as a list of useful sources for further study of this other Holocaust. Dr. Wytwycky is clearly appalled by the story that he has to tell, which will be understandable to anyone who reads his description of the terrible scenes that accompanied the final liquidation of the Gypsy camp at Auschwitz in 1944, of the brutalities of Erich Koch, the Nazi commissioner for the Ukraine, who told his staff in April 1942, “Strictly speaking, we are here among Negroes,” of the arbitrary nature of Nazi terror in the villages of Byelorussia, and of the deliberate mistreatment of Soviet prisoners of war, who were worked to death on a regimen of one ladle of beetroot water a day.
“One cannot even begin to understand how or why any of this was possible,” Dr. Wytwycky writes,
without first recognizing the central role played in this madness by the dynamics of dehumanization…. [This] expels some category of people from the family of man…. In the pronouncements of the Nazis, Jews and Gypsies and Slavs were explicitly described as “subhumans.” Codes of behavior normally applicable to fellow humans…were deemed inappropriate. As a result, social and psychological inhibitions which normally operate to restrain men’s savage impulses were unleashed, and millions of Jewish, Gypsy, and Slavic innocents were victimized.
Dr. Wytwycky estimates that as many as fifty thousand Gypsies may have perished as a result of this process, three million Polish Christians, including half of the educated classes, three million Ukrainians, plus nearly a million Ukrainian Jews, and one out of every four persons in Byelorussia, including at least 1.4 million civilians, exclusive of the Byelorussian Jews.
Poland’s ordeal under Nazi occupation is described in greater detail in Bruno Shatyn’s A Private War and Richard Lukas’s Forgotten Holocaust, the first of which must be almost unique in Holocaust literature, since it is a story with a happy ending. Shatyn was a Jewish lawyer practising in Kraków when the war broke out in 1939 and, unlike the vast majority of his fellow Jews, was sufficiently Polish in speech and appearance to escape detention and sufficiently daring, if not foolhardy, to bluff his way out of situations that might easily have led to his death. Through Polish friends he secured papers that identified him as Aryan and was subsequently able to establish his wife and daughters in a Kraków suburb and to secure employment as estate manager on a farm leased by the Potocki family near Skawina, about twenty-five miles from Auschwitz. From Jewish workers assigned to the estate, he gained the reputation of being an anti-Semite, a cover that he used to rescue a Jewish childhood friend of his wife from the SS and to place relatives in positions of security.
When it was published in Poland in 1983, Shatyn’s book had enormous success, partly, one supposes, because in large part it reads like a thriller (readers who notice the author’s prefatory remark that he has “left many incidents out of [the] narrative, considering them too wild and improbable,” may feel that this principle of exclusion was not carried far enough), more probably because of the evenhanded way in which he treats the difficult question of relations between Poles and Jews. In a more general sense, the value of the book lies, as Norman Davies writes in his foreword, in the picture it gives of the wider realities of life, not in the ghettos and camps, about which a great deal is now known, but in the towns and countryside of occupied Poland.
It is impossible to say what the ultimate fate of the Polish people would have been had Hitler won his war and been allowed to erect his new order in Europe. There is no doubt, however, that from the very beginning of their occupation the Nazis were intent on destroying Poland as a nation, and in his absorbing account of wartime Poland Richard Lukas outlines the variety of means that they employed for that purpose. Chief among these was the systematic elimination of Polish elites, an objective that Hans Frank, the sadistic commissioner of occupied Poland, told his collaborators had been specifically assigned to him by Adolf Hitler, who had also ordered him to “watch out for the seeds that begin to sprout again, so as to stamp them out again in good time.”
In practice, this meant that the Nazi dragnet swept up physicians, lawyers, leading businessmen, journalists, intellectuals, teachers, and—because the Polish church had always been a center of Polish nationalism—priests and bishops. Mr. Lukas tells us that during the war Poland lost 45 percent of its physicians and dentists, 57 percent of its lawyers, 40 percent of its professors, 15 percent of its teachers, 30 percent of its technicians, and more than 18 percent of its clergy. Party leaders, municipal officials, former members of parliament, and journalists were automatically targeted for arrest and liquidation.
Nor did the process end there, for “the extirpation of the Polish intelligentsia was part of a systematic program to destroy Polish culture.” As far as the Nazis were concerned, the Poland of the future would have no need for universities or secondary schools, or for libraries and laboratories, and they saw to it that the institutions of higher learning were closed, as well as scientific, artistic, and literary institutes. Of their ruthless destruction of archival collections a Polish historian has written, “No Tartar invasion of the Middle Ages had resulted in such devastation”; and the looting of the country’s treasures of art for the benefit of German galleries and private collections was no less thorough. A concerted attack was launched upon Polish history, marked by the confiscation of history books and the destruction of monuments and memorials. Finally, in those areas of Poland annexed by Germany, a vigorous policy of de-Polonization was pursued which changed not only the complexion of society but the very appearance of towns and cities.
Against this attempt to destroy Polish identity and the policies of terrorism and deportation that accompanied it, the Poles fought back. The story of the underground resistance is a complicated one because of the existence of a bewildering number of secret armies and fighting groups that sometimes cooperated and sometimes fought against one another. Mr. Lukas does the best he can to give clarity to a very murky picture, but what emerges from his account is that the efficiency of the umbrella organization called the Home Army (AK) was greatly hampered by imperfect communication with the exile government of General Sikorski and by its own internal strife, which affected questions of tactics and strategy and was complicated by the intense anti-Semitism of some of its component groups. The fighting wing of the National Democratic Party, the NSZ, for example, frequently engaged in operations against Jews, communists, and democratic elements in the AK. In June 1943, it killed two officers of the AK high command who were Jews, and a year later members of the NSZ abducted two others and handed them over to the Germans.
Mr. Lukas does not deny the strength of anti-Semitism in Polish life and politics, and he admits that it was strong enough in the Polish Army in exile to attract considerable attention in Britain in 1944. But he insists that it has been exaggerated and argues, for example, that the reason that more Polish Jews did not join the AK was not the imputed anti-Semitism of the Home Army but the fact that most AK members were civilians who held jobs and went about their daily tasks unnoticed, which the Jews, who were largely unassimilated, could not do. So that, if they escaped from the ghettos, they had to go to the forests and join partisan units organized by the Soviets and the communist resistance force, the People’s Guard, which many of them did.
Moreover, while there were roving bands of youths, the so-called szmalcownicy, who hunted down Jewish fugitives from the ghettos and blackmailed and denounced Poles who protected them, the fact is that Jews did find protectors, despite the fact that their appearance made them hard to conceal and the additional circumstance that assistance to them in any form was punishable with death. One of Bruno Shatyn’s greatest concerns was the thought of what might happen to the family of Count Jerzy Potocki if it were discovered that a Jew was working as their estate manager, but when the Potockis discovered this for themselves they proved perfectly willing to accept the risks. Mr. Lukas cites Szmul Zygielbojm, a Jewish member of the Polish National Council in London, as paying tribute to Polish Christians for the sympathy and help that they gave their Jewish compatriots, and he describes the courageous actions of individual Poles, like Staszek Jackowski, a former carriage maker, who saved thirty Jews in the town of Stanislawów by building three bunkers in his cellar, equipping them with beds, plumbing, and electricity, and concealing the fugitives there for long periods.
He points out also that the Poles were unique among countries under occupation in forming an underground organization specifically designed to aid Jews, the Council for Aid to Jews, or Zegota, which had its headquarters in Warsaw and regional councils in Kraków, Lwów, Lublin, and Zamosć and which sought to provide fugitives with food, shelter, medical assistance, and forged documents. It is impossible to estimate how many Poles, either as members of such organizations or as private citizens, aided Jews at the risk of their own lives, but a recent estimate has put the number as high as a million. Many of them died for their humanitarian work, one thousand from Lwów, for example, who died in Belzec, and perhaps as many as fifty thousand altogether. But the destruction of the archives of underground organizations during the Warsaw rising of 1944 has made any exact calculation of the price paid by Poles for their efforts in behalf of those whom the Nazis had marked for destruction impossible.
Finally, the Poles were among the first to inform the Western allies of the Nazi program of exterminating the Jews and to ask for action to stop it. At the end of 1942, a young member of the Polish underground who had observed conditions in the Warsaw ghetto and even managed to penetrate the Belzec death camp visited England and the United States and reported to government officials. This so-called Karski Mission briefly impressed Western leaders but had no lasting effect. When the Polish government in exile suggested that German cities be bombed mercilessly and that leaflets be dropped telling the German people that this was in retaliation for what they were doing to the Jews, the proposal fell on deaf ears. One influential Foreign Office official said that there was “no reliable evidence” of what the Germans were doing to the Jews, adding that the Poles were “always glad of an opportunity…to make a splash as leader of the minor allies and…to show that they are not anti-Semitic.”
The problem of persuading people to believe reports of what was happening in the death camps was always difficult. After all, the prospective victims themselves found intimations of what lay ahead of them incredible. Gilbert’s book is filled with examples of this. In September 1943, Jakub Poznanski in the Lódz ghetto wrote,
Persistent rumours circulate about the liquidation of the ghettos in various Polish cities. In my opinion, people are exaggerating as usual. Even if certain excesses have taken place in some cities, that still does not incline one to believe that Jews are being mass-murdered. At least, I consider that out of the question.
Lilli Kopecky, a deportee from Slovakia, testified that “when we came to Auschwitz, we smelt the sweet smell. They said to us, ‘There the people are gassed, three kilometres over there.’ We didn’t believe it.” When those most intimately concerned could not absorb the fact that such colossal barbarities were indeed possible, it is perhaps understandable that Western governments and peoples would find it equally difficult to do so.
But why did it take them so long to begin to believe? Reports of anti-Jewish atrocities in Germany were fairly continuous in the years between 1933 and 1939; the first reports of the policy of extermination and the existence of the death camps arrived in London and Washington in the fall of 1942; and from then until the end of the war there was a steady stream of reports filled with corroborative detail. Yet none of this seemed to make much of an impression upon Western minds, and when Allied troops entered the camps in 1945 people reacted with almost as much surprise as horror when they learned what they found there.
Why this happened Deborah E. Lipstadt has undertaken to explain in an extraordinary book about the way in which the Holocaust was treated by the American press. Her conclusions, which are based upon skillful analysis of headlines and size and placement of stories in a wide range of newspapers and journals, are devastating, for she shows that, while these publications told the American people about the development of the Final Solution, they did so in such a way as to elicit doubt and disbelief and to discourage any inclination to call for retaliatory action.
In part, this was because the press reflected and played to a public mood of skepticism that was rooted in vague memories of the First World War, of atrocity stories that were proved later to have been concocted, or propaganda that had drawn the United States into a conflict that was not really its concern. Thus, as late as August 1944, when a group of respected American journalists entered the death camp at Maidanek and sent home detailed descriptions of the gas chambers, the crematoria, the piles of bones, and the storehouses for the personal belongings of the victims, The Christian Century reproached the American press for headlining this story and wrote that the “parallel between [it] and the ‘corpse factory’ atrocity tale” of World War I was “too striking to be overlooked.”
But the attitude of the press was by no means determined solely by its awareness of public feeling. In Miss Lipstadt’s view, it bore a major share of the responsibility for public skepticism because of its reluctance to accept reports from sources that it did not trust (Germans, communists, Jews) even when they were supported by other persuasive evidence. Kenneth McCaleb of the New York Daily Mirror admitted at the end of the war that he had not taken reports of German atrocities seriously because they had always come “from ‘foreigners’ who, many of us felt, had some axe to grind and must be exaggerating.” The policy of The New York Times, according to reliable members of its staff, was based on the desire to avoid appearing to be “too Jewish,” and it expressed this by downplaying stories or burying them in the inside of the paper. In February 1943, a report of the World Jewish Council on the imminent intensification and speeding up of the extermination process was relegated to page 37, and in April, when the Inter-Allied Information Committee in London reported that two million Jews had already been killed and five million more were threatened with extermination, the Times gave the story twenty-three lines on page 11, and its example, because of its national influence, was widely followed.
The grudging manner in which much of the press printed news it could not entirely reject Miss Lipstadt calls the “Yes but” pattern.
At first it argued, Yes, bad things may be happening but not as bad as reported. Subsequently, it was willing to acknowledge that Yes, many Jews may be victims but not as many as claimed. Yes, many may have died, but most probably died as a result of war-related privations and not as a result of having been murdered. Yes, many have been killed but not in gas chambers. Yes, some Jews may have died in death camps, but so did many other people.
Most of the press, moreover, seemed to have no memory. Every report of the German atrocities, every confirmation of some aspect of the Final Solution was treated as if it were the first, so that Life could write, after the Allied capture of the death camps, “For the first time there was irrefutable evidence” of the extent of the German crimes against humanity. In fact, such evidence had been accumulating since 1942; the press had simply refused to accept it.
The result of these attitudes was that, even when the war was over, much of the press seemed confused about what had been going on during it, a state of mind illustrated by their failure to distinguish between concentration camps like Dachau and extermination camps like Belzec or “to link Maidanek, Babi Yar or the fact that in every place reached by the Allies the Jews were gone with a plan to destroy the Jewish people.” There was a persistent belief that those Jews who were killed had been treated that way for oppositional activities or other crimes against the Reich. The press suffered from what Raul Hilberg has called “functional blindness,” which Miss Lipstadt describes as a malady that “obliterates both the particular character of the German action against the Jews and the particular identity of the victims.”
This kind of blindness, in more exaggerated forms, still exists. There are in this country well-printed journals with respectable numbers of subscribers that claim that there was no Holocaust at all, and such charges figured in two court cases in Canada last year. With credulous minds lending themselves to that kind of poisonous nonsense, there is a crying need for books as circumstantial and moving as Mr. Gilbert’s and as judicious and disturbing as Miss Lipstadt’s.