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The Incomprehensible Holocaust: An Exchange

In response to:

The Incomprehensible Holocaust from the September 28, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

If another document is needed to prove what already seems indisputable, that the destruction of Europe’s Jews was intended well before the Final Solution was promulgated at the Wannsee Conference in January, 1942, I offer this savory declaration of premeditated genocide from a Top Secret memorandum written by Secret Service Brigadenführer Friedrich Uebelhoer in ordering the concentration of the Jews of Lodz, Poland, in a ghetto:

It is obvious that the establishment of the ghetto is only a transitional step. I reserve for myself the decision of when and how the city of Lodz will be cleansed of Jews. In any case, the final aim must be to burn out entirely this pestilent abscess.

The memorandum was written on December 10, 1939.

Istvan Deak’s insightful review [“The Incomprehensible Holocaust,” NYR, September 28] of the underlying questions concerning the Holocaust as they are reflected in recent books contains a significant mistake concerning the Lodz Ghetto and its leader, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, however. Deak states that Rumkowski ordered the execution of members of the Jewish resistance. To the best of my knowledge, one of the few powers which the Nazis did not confer on the Eldest of the Jews of Lodz was the right to carry out executions. Instead, Rumkowski used the power of deportation to consolidate his power, placing on the lists the leaders of widespread labor unrest and critics of his policies—of whom there were many. These so-called trouble-makers were put to death in the gas vans at Chelmno. And the ghetto, which was fraught with dissent during 1941, remained quiescent until its final liquidation in 1944. While the Jewish leader constantly railed against the rumor mongerers who always warned that the entire population would be deported, even vowing in a public speech: “I would like to murder them!” any such intentions had to be carried out through the Germans.

Lodz Ghetto, which Professor Deak found so heartbreaking, departs from the Rumkowski administration’s officially sponsored Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, compiling excerpts from the diaries of more than a dozen ghetto residents, nearly all of them viewing the Jewish leader and his police force with deep criticism and resentment.

The film which Kathryn Taverna and I made from these same diaries is entitled Lodz Ghetto, just as the book which is its companion. Mr. Deak’s footnote gives the title as “Dark Music,” not a bad suggestion but a phrase which he evidently took from the caption of a picture published with The New York Times‘ laudatory review of the film.

Alan Adelson

Executive Director

The Jewish Heritage Project

New York, New York

To the Editors:

Professor Deak’s encyclopedic review and essay contains some of the most powerful of rhetorical questions I have had the pleasure of considering. My students in Humanities courses will receive his extraordinary monograph for years to come.

Some of his questions cause me as a Catholic to examine my religious culture for intrinsic dangers which may loiter unexamined in the alley of current political and scholarly cooperation and appreciation. I take only one exception to Professor Deak’s lengthy scholarship. Pius XI made a different impact on the history of Vatican-Nazi affairs than Pius XII. I believe I can be proud of his efforts, as opposed to those, or lack of them, made by Pius XII. I do wish I had been taught Pius XI’s position stated on September 6, 1938, in the Vatican:

Anti-semitism is a movement which is repulsive, a movement in which we as Christians can have no part. No, it is not possible for Christians to be part of it. Anti-semitism is not permitted, we are spiritually Jews through Christ, and in Christ, we are the children of Abraham (cited in L’Allemagne Nazie et le Génocide Juif, Gallimard, Le Seuil, 1985, p. 384) (trans. mine).

A minor objection can be observed about the superfluous addition of the line, “[the Holocaust] is the only true genocide of our times” (p. 69). As one who lives in a community with tens of thousands of Armenians and several Native American scholars, I cannot understand the rationale for the argument, especially when a self-serving definition of “genocide” is presented as in Professor Deak’s article. The perpetrators of the genocide against the Ohio Indians intended and succeeded in killing the entire nation. Whatever justification does exist, I wonder if the sacrilege inferred to the innocent victims of other massacres is worth it. I do believe with Professor Deak that the Holocaust was “unique.” I believe each genocide is unique and each demands our examination. I do not think, when you’ve examined one, you have examined them all. I am not accusing Professor Deak of having argued that we should only study the Holocaust because it is the only true genocide. I am offering a minor suggestion of decorum in the hope of optimizing the important work of Holocaustologists.

Professor Deak’s high compliments regarding Marrus’ The Holocaust in History, are understatements in my opinion. This work is singular, extraordinary, and exceptional, even in the company of the other fine works reviewed.

My deepest thanks to Professor Deak and the editors of the New York Review for the courage to dedicate the ten pages required for such a profound and useful monographic review. The editors’ judgment is also lauded by this reader.

George Diestel, Ph.D.

Fresno, California

To the Editors:

I think that the participation of Lithuanians and Ukranians in the destruction of the Jews during the Second World War is a far more complicated matter than one might gather from Istvan Deak’s “The Incomprehensible Holocaust” in the September 28 issue of The New York Review. Professor Deak writes as if Lithuanians and Ukrainians engaged in the murder of Jews with great gusto and as if the Nazis had only to channel their enthusiasm into systematic and effective endeavors.

Referring to the pogroms that engulfed Lithuania in the immediate aftermath of the German invasion, Deak writes that Lithuanian partisans emerged from prison and began massacring the Jews; “the arriving Germans needed only to coordinate and expand this activity.” This account is completely belied by German documentation of the time, which shows that the Nazis directed the pogroms from start to finish and often had difficulties getting even their closest Lithuanian collaborators to go along. In his standard History of the Holocaust, Yehuda Bauer quotes a document relating to the pogrom in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania’s interwar capital. Dr. Franz Walther Stahlecker, the Einsatzgruppe commander in the Baltic region, reported to Reinhard Heydrich on October 15, 1941:

In order to fulfill the tasks of the security police, it was necessary for us to enter the large cities together with the attacking forces…. In the first hours after the entry of the forces we also persuaded, not without considerable difficulties, local antisemitic elements to start pogroms against Jews. In accordance with orders, the security police was determined to solve the Jewish question by every means and with determination. But it was preferable that in the first instance at least, the security police should not openly appear in this action, because the methods employed were extraordinarily harsh, and might have caused reactions even in German circles. It was desirable, outwardly, to show that the first steps were made by the local population on its own initiative…. The commander of the partisans, Klimatas, who was especially recruited for this action, succeeded in organizing a pogrom in accordance with the instructions he was given…. (pp. 184–185)

Later on in his review article, Deak writes: “No doubt the Germans would have had little difficulty in recruiting Poles as camp guards, just as they had no difficulty in recruiting Ukrainians, Russians, Lithuanians, and Latvians. The fact is, however, that the Germans judged the Poles unworthy of even such a task.” The real fact is that the former peoples were taken as Soviet POWs in 1941–1942 and the Poles were not; and it was from the Soviet POWs, of whom—as Deak notes—some three million perished in Nazi camps, that guards were recruited. And, indeed, the Germans had little difficulty in recruiting such guards. Shmuel Krakowski, in his important study of Jewish armed resistance to the Holocaust, War of the Doomed, recounts how a group of guards found their way into German service:

100,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war had been killed near Chelm Lubelski, where they had been kept out in the open in a field surrounded by a high voltage fence. The prisoners were given no food for several weeks, and many starved to death. The extreme hunger led to cases of cannibalism. Only a few hundred of the very strong survived, and they were given the option of serving the Germans. (p. 264)

As Professor Deak knows better than most, Eastern Europe is a very complicated place and the Holocaust a very complicated moment. Oversimplifications in this matter can be very painful.

John-Paul Himka

Visiting Professor of History

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

Fifty years later the Holocaust still remains “incomprehensible” to an academic like Mr. Deak—whom I must presume from internal evidence is himself of christian background.

Throughout his review of 16 books concerning the Holocaust Mr. Deak nowhere alludes to the (surely) obvious effect of 2,000 years of anti-jewish teaching conducted by Christianity. The teachings of St. John of Chrysostom, the passion plays, the writings of Luther, the unreformed stereotypes of a Cardinal Glemp, all attest to the anti-jewishness of and anti-semitism of christian teaching.

The Catholic Church shared in this, and at a profound level still does. The separation, degradation, limitation of civil and political rights, the special dress, the ghetto, the yellow star, the stereotyping—all these pre-dated Naziism, although used by them. They were christian inventions. Thus I do not share Mr. Deak’s view that, in regards to the Holocaust, the Church was guilty of “no other crime but the unquestionably grave sin of omission.” The silence of the Church, and in particular of the Pope, was a silence decided upon, committed, not omitted.

King Haakon of Denmark rode through the streets with a yellow star on his breast. Why did the Pope not do the same?

There remains a fearful ambivalence on the part of the Church in forthrightly acknowledging that the root of the Nazi anti-jewish ideology has its parenthood in christian anti-semitism. It is this continuing ambivalence that makes it clear why the current Carmelite convent at Auschwitz dispute is still a dispute. By presenting the Holocaust as a christian martyrdom as well “Not only you, but us” the responsibility is shifted and more importantly, denied.

Given this strong history of anti-jewishness—which the Church is still internally grappling with as manifested by the struggle of the conservatives and “liberals” within the Church—I, for one, do not find the Holocaust at all incomprehensible. I find it totally expectable.

When the Church acknowledges explicitly its own long history of responsibility for anti-jewish hate teaching; when it institutionalizes that teaching vigorously in its teaching; when it vigorously pursues and takes steps to change the lingering anti-semitism in its flock; when it addresses immediately and vigorously the unreformed beliefs of a Cardinal Glemp (publicly and privately); when it expunges the modern performance of medieval passion plays with their messages of hatred; when it reiterates “Nostra Aetate” in less veiled language; when it recognizes the State of Israel; when it rejoices in the return of the sovereignty of Jerusalem to Jewish hands; when it joins the fray against the obscene outpourings of modern anti-jewish hate propaganda dressed as anti-zionism; then, perhaps, another Holocaust might become less expectable.

If the Holocaust remains incomprehensible to some it is because they do not wish to understand.

Michael Nelson, M.D.

Dunstable, Massachusetts

Istvan Deak replies:

Why do these and all the other letters sent to the editors or to me concentrate on the Catholic Church and the East Europeans? Some complain that I have been too harsh on the Church; others that I have not been harsh enough. Some come out in defense of one or another East European nation; others indict all East Europeans. One would have expected at least a few letters on the dilemma of Hitler’s responsibilities or the problem of German bureaucracy or the relationship between the Holocaust and Germany’s Eastern campaign. Such controversial, German-centered issues were central to many important books discussed in my review. The letters have made me wonder whether German National Socialism still fires the public’s imagination and whether attention is shifting to the problem of East European fascism. This might explain the recent Auschwitz controversy, which was mainly concerned not, for example, with the long-range implications of the cooperation of German science and industry with Nazi military and bureaucracy at that place, but the choice of a few Polish Carmelites to say their prayers there, on the assumption that the presence of nuns in the immediate vicinity of the compound desecrates the holy shrine of Jewish martyrs. I find it difficult to feel much sympathy for such criticism, but overall it is good for the American public to concern itself with East European affairs. Today’s bloodless revolution in that region will profoundly affect our lives, and as both the Pax Sovietica and the Pax Americana inexorably come to an end, it is time to break with the old habits of blissful ignorance and anachronistic prejudice. The Western nations will have to choose between willing support for the East European liberation movements, no matter how confusing they seem to us now, and the denial of moral and economic assistance because of these nations’ alleged historic crimes. The former might help to integrate the region in a future European community; the latter could bring about a chaos of incalculably dangerous proportions.

We have been conditioned to like or dislike particular East European nations. Czechoslovakia, for example, has consistently enjoyed the favor of history textbooks because of its democratic policies between the two world wars, and because of the Western world’s guilty conscience for having abandoned that country to Naziism in 1938. But Western historians rarely if ever combine the morally uplifting story of interwar Czechoslovakia with that of Slovakia in World War II. The Slovaks, by and large, enthusiastically supported Hitler’s decision to make Slovakia an independent country and they supported as well the pro-German regime he installed. Nor are we often reminded that the Czech part of Czechoslovakia harbored not only brave freedom fighters but also plenty of collaborators, and that without the Czech munitions factories, staffed by well-paid and well-fed workers, the Nazi war machine might have ground to a halt.

Poland, on the other hand, has had an infinitely worse press because of its undemocratic policies between the wars, and its more consipicuous tradition of popular anti-Semitism. Yet Poland never surrendered to Hitler; many hundreds of thousands of Poles died fighting the Nazis, and German soldiers and officials could not feel safe there. Very few Poles collaborated with the Nazis. For that matter, the largest single group represented in the Garden of the Righteous in Jerusalem are Poles.

It has become a habit to compare Poland unfavorably with Czechoslovakia or some Western European country, often Denmark, whose virtues Michael Nelson extols in his letter. But Denmark allowed the German army to cross its border in 1940 without firing a shot, and it joined the Anti-Comintern Pact, thereby legally becoming a German ally. True, an admirable resistance movement developed there, and brave Danes saved the lives of most Danish Jews. Yet we must ask: which country was more useful to the anti-Nazi cause during World War II, Denmark, or the Czech Protectorate, where German troops were sent for rest and recreation, or Poland, where the Germans got killed? As for good King Christian X (not Haakon VII, who was king of Norway, and who fled to England in 1940), he did not ride the streets with a yellow star on his breast, Michael Nelson’s claims notwithstanding, although he did despise the Nazis. It would indeed be worth investigating how this heart-warming legend has come into being, and why it looms so large in American folklore. Certainly, the legend has helped to distort our understanding of the phenomena of collaboration, resistance, and the Holocaust.

What should be clear by now is that no country was without its minority of heroes and scoundrels, or a majority of people who simply sought to get by. Unlike John-Paul Himka, I strongly doubt that all Ukrainian and Baltic camp guards and other Nazi auxiliaries had come from POW camps, where the choice had truly been between starvation and service under the German enemy. There were also plenty of genuine volunteers recruited from among civilians. Besides, several hundred thousand Russian, Ukrainian, Baltic, Cossack, Caucasian, and other former prisoners of war as well as civilians voluntarily formed entire SS divisions and other units within the German armed forces in order to fight the Bolsheviks. For them, Stalin’s henchmen were the more dangerous enemy, not the Germans. And I am still convinced that the Germans would have found it easy to recruit some Polish volunteers as well, except for the fact that, to the eternal glory of Poland, the Nazis did not, so far as we know, dare to trust any Pole with weapons. It is another question what benefit, if any, the Poles derived in the long run from their unrelenting heroism.

Lest I be accused of ignoring events in my native Hungary, let me say that I witnessed brutal deportations there. One particular scene stands out in my memory: a railroad station in the central part of the country where Hungarian railwaymen were selling water, at an astronomical price, to Jewish deportees crammed into boxcars. Yet I also saw the heroism of many a Hungarian in saving Jewish lives. In that country, as everywhere else, there was for every fascist a decent human being such as the conservative Minister of Interior Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer, who quietly sabotaged the anti-Semitic laws, and himself ended up in a German concentration camp.

Professor Himka believes that I have been unfair to the Lithuanian nation, and he quotes from the famous Stahlecker report to prove that, in the summer of 1941, the Germans encountered great difficulties in persuading the Lithuanian anti-Semites to initiate pogroms. But SS commander Stahlecker also reported that the Lithuanian Partisan leader Jonas Klimaitis “succeeded in setting off a pogrom without any discernible German order or instigation,” and that “during the first pogrom in the night from June 25 to 26 [1941] more than fifteen hundred Jews were removed by Lithuanian partisans.”

It would be easy to marshall many more examples, both favorable and unfavorable, yet what counts is that Lithuanian-Jewish relations have been marked by the same ambiguity as relations between Jews and nearly all other European ethnic groups. Following World War I, when an indepedent Lithuania was created, the new democratic government recognized the right of the largely unassimilated Jewish community to ethnic distinctiveness and cultural autonomy. There was a minister of Jewish affairs as well as a Jewish national council, and Jewish deputies were allowed to address the national assembly in Yiddish.

Later, however, a new nationalist policy under the strongman Antanas Smetona gradually diminished the autonomy of ethnic minorities and, hence, of the Jews as well. Several anti-Semitic groups arose, and the new Lithuanian intelligentsia waged a concerted struggle to wrest virtually monopolistic control of certain occupations from the Jews. Still, official anti-Semitism never became violent. When the Soviet occupation forces arrived, in June 1940, many Jews joined the Communist party and served the Soviet authorities. Other Jews were deported by the Soviets or were expropriated. Because for most Lithuanians the Soviet occupation had meant unrelenting terror, they saluted the arriving Germans in June 1941 as liberators. Meanwhile, fascist groups had conditioned a part of the population to anti-Semitic ideology, so when the Partisans emerged from prison and began killing Jews, there was no public protest. Nor, it must be admitted, did the Lithuanian Catholic Church hierarchy lift a finger on behalf of the Jews; some bishops went so far as to send telegrams of thanks to Hitler. Later, however, many Lithuanians joined the anti-Nazi resistance movement; others protected the lives of Jews, whether for money, to insure their future, or because of humane impulses. There were among these Righteous Gentiles a number of liberals, Communists, apolitical individuals, nationalists, and former anti-Semites. The situation in Lithuania resembled that in the rest of Europe; is there any use in pretending that things would have been very different in the United States?

I thank Alan Adelson for reminding me that the Germans never permitted a Jewish leader directly to order an execution; selection for transportation to a death camp achieved the same purpose.

I am also most grateful to George Diestel for his thoughtful comments and am ashamed to admit that I knew nothing of the fate of the Ohio Indians. But I still feel that the annihilation of thousands of Indians, no matter how horrible, should be treated differently from the extermination of five million Jews and the planned annihilation of the entire Jewry. The American Indians had warriors in their ranks and were able to carry out their own destructive attacks; the handful of Jews who took up weapons against the Germans did so only after most of their people had been killed. As for the Armenian massacres, we must still remember, despite everything, that the Turks were fighting against Russian invaders at the time, and that the latter had the support of armed Armenian partisans.

Finally, I agree with George Diestel that one ought to distinguish between the policies of Popes Pius XI and Pius XII, but he, in turn, may want to agree with me, and here I am in accord with Mr. Nelson: Christian anti-Semitism is virtually as old as the triumph of Christianity. Just as there always have been good and bad East Europeans, there have also been good Catholics and bad Catholics, murderous Popes and admirable Popes. The recent Auschwitz affair has made me wonder whether this unimaginative truism will ever be accepted. I have been frightened by the sudden outpouring of prejudice and ethnic hatred which, curiously, does not seem to have been originated by the accusations of survivors. In fact, I have never found a blanket indictment of any nation or of the Church in the written testimonies of those who were in the camps. Those who have not hesitated to characterize the Polish people as a whole as goons and murderers did not, to their good fortune, know the Holocaust.

The one thing that internment in a labor camp under fascists taught me was that, when the test of humaneness came, an inmate’s pre-camp behavior and political ideology meant absolutely nothing. There is, I believe, a silent international of those who endured blows while digging ditches, carrying sacks of cement, or lifting cruelly heavy railroad ties on their shoulders. They learned that one cannot remain pure in a concentration camp or under a ruthless occupation, and they have developed at least some sense of compassion for the failings of others. But when the generation of former victims is gone, what then? I would rather not share a bunk with any of the new fanatics.

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