The Other Holocaust: Many Circles of Hell
A Private War: Surviving in Poland on False Papers, 19411945
Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation, 19391944
Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 19331945
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.