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The Incomprehensible Holocaust

Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The “Final Solution” in History

by Arno J. Mayer
Pantheon, 492 pp., $27.95

The Kraków Ghetto and the Plaszów Camp Remembered

by Malvina Graf, foreword and notes by George M. Kren
Florida State University Press, 183 pp., $22.00

Some Dare to Dream: Frieda Frome’s Escape From Lithuania

by Frieda Frome, foreword by Robert Abzug
Iowa State University Press, 204 pp., $19.95

Double Identity: A Memoir

by Zofia S. Kubar
Hill and Wang, 208 pp., $17.95

Life With a Star

by Jirí Weil, translated by Ruzena Kovarikova, by Roslyn Schloss, preface by Philip Roth
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp., $22.95

From That Place and Time: A Memoir, 1938–1947

by Lucy S. Dawidowicz
Norton, 333 pp., $21.95

And I Am Afraid of My Dreams

by Wanda Póltawska, translated by Mary Craig
Hippocrene, 191 pp., $14.95

Doctor #117641: A Holocaust Memoir

by Louis J. Micheels M.D., foreword by Albert J. Solnit M.D.
Yale University Press, 199 pp., $19.95

Eva’s Story: A Survivor’s Tale by the Step-Sister of Anne Frank

by Eva Schloss, with Evelyn Julia Kent
St. Martin’s, 224 pp., $16.95

Unbroken: Resistance and Survival in the Concentration Camps

by Len Crome
Schocken, 174 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Lódz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege

compiled and edited by Alan Adelson, by Robert Lapides, with annotations and bibliographical notes by Marek Web
Viking, 464 pp., $29.95

Soldiers of Evil: The Commandants of the Nazi Concentration Camps

by Tom Segev, translated by Haim Watzman
McGraw-Hill, 240 pp., $17.95

The Holocaust in History

by Michael R. Marrus
New American Library, 267 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Unanswered Questions: Nazi Germany and the Genocide of the Jews

edited by François Furet
Schocken, 392 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Modernity and the Holocaust

by Zygmunt Bauman
Cornell University Press, 224 pp., $29.95

1.

According to the historian Raul Hilberg, the United States alone captured 40,000 linear feet of documents on the murder of European Jews. Add to this other captured documents, police and court records, memoirs, oral histories, film documentaries, interviews, two thousand books in many languages (there are over ten thousand publications of varying size on Auschwitz alone), and we can say that the Holocaust is a uniquely well-documented historical event. Yet a host of unanswered questions remain, and we have not even agreed on a name for the terrible thing that happened. The term “The Final Solution” has passed into common usage, but, fortunately, this obscene Nazi euphemism does not correspond to fact because nearly half of the European Jews survived. “Holocaust” is the choice of the Jewish organizations, but as Arno Mayer points out in Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?, Holocaust is a “religiously freighted word concept,…a term whose standard meaning is a sacrificial offering wholly consumed by fire in exaltation of God.” And in truth, why should one find sacrificial offering or exaltation of God in the involuntary agony of the Jewish millions, many of whom were converts or unbelievers?

Others resent the Hebrew “Shoah,” which, in the words of Philip Lopate, shares “the same self-dramatizing theological ambition to portray the historic suffering of the Jews during World War II as a sort of cosmic storm rending the heavens.’1 Arno Mayer prefers “Judeocide,” arguably an apt term but one unlikely to win any more followers than his careful distinctions between “anti-Semitism” as the institutionalized form of prejudice, “Judeophobia” as a personal prejudice, and “anti-Judaism” as hostile feelings or actions directed against the Jewish religion and its adherents.

Clearly, finding the right name is not our gravest concern (I shall be using all these terms freely) regarding the worst mass murder—or one of the worst mass murders—in history, even though by choosing a name we are inevitably making a religious and political statement. Moreover, by hedging the question—writing “the worst,” as opposed to “one of the worst”—I have already opened a hornet’s nest in the Holocaust controversy. After all, did not Stalin and Mao kill many more people than Hitler? Did not the Turks murder proportionately more Armenians? Conversely, was not the Holocaust a unique event, aiming as it did at the extermination of an entire people, something neither Stalin, nor Mao, nor Enver Pasha sought to achieve?

Some of the writers under review have raised these questions, risking accusations of either Jewish ethnocentrism or German apologetics, cold war propaganda or an attempt to rewarm the now somewhat discredited theory of totalitarianism. At least, no serious historian would agree with those on the far right and the far left who try to compare the Final Solution to Hiroshima, My-Lai, or the bombing of Dresden. Nor need anyone pay heed to those who claim that the Holocaust never took place. (Note, however, that the foremost promoters of this persistent fantasy are not SS men, but such pseudo-scholars as the French university professor Robert Faurisson and the socialist Paul Rassinier, himself a former inmate of Buchenwald.)2

While elaborate critical discussions of the Holocaust have been taking place, we are still debating precisely who decided to proceed with the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” when or why they did so, or what in fact they had in mind. It seems possible that no such clear-cut decision was ever taken, that the program of destruction, although it carried out general aims clearly announced by Hitler, evolved gradually, as an ad hoc affair. Was there a blueprint for murder from the very beginning, and, if so, why did the Nazis foster a vigorous program of forced Jewish emigration during the first eight years of their rule? Why was emigration suddenly forbidden in 1941, after it had become nearly impossible anyway? When did the Holocaust actually begin? Immediately after the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, or only after effective Soviet military resistance had been met, or only after things had begun to go badly for the German army on the Eastern front? What was Hitler’s part in the entire affair, and what were the activities of Himmler, the Waffen SS, the army, the bureaucrats, the capitalists, the German public, the satellite governments, and the authorities in subjugated countries? What is one to make of the Reich railroad officials, who charged tourist group passenger fares for the Jews deported to the death camps (children paid only half fare) and then crammed them into cattle cars?

What share do the Poles or other non-German peoples have in responsibility for the Holocaust? Why did the Jews not resist more vigorously, and how guilty were their leaders and their ghetto police? How about the Catholic and the other churches, the Pope, the antifascist resistance, the German conservatives, the European bourgeoisie, the working-class movement, the non-Jewish concentration camp inmates, the Kapos and other Prominenten in the camps, the Foreign Office, the State Department, Anthony Eden, President Roosevelt, and Stalin? Why did proportionately more Jews survive in Fascist Italy and in Germany’s allies such as Bulgaria, Romania, Finland, and Hungary than in the anti-Nazi and democratic Netherlands, anti-Nazi and undemocratic Poland, or in the occupied Soviet territories? Why did almost all the Jewish citizens of the Danish puppet state survive, but only a few of the Jews in Norway, which had resisted the German invasion? Why was it possible to spirit Jews across the sea from Denmark to neutral Sweden, but not across the thousand miles of the common Swedish-Norwegian border?

Was the German fury rooted in the country’s peculiar social and political development, in the traumas of World War I and the Versailles Treaty, or a fear of Bolshevism? What made the mass killings possible: German centralization and bureaucratic efficiency or, conversely, the anarchic disorganization of the Nazi state? Is it true that Nazi anti-Semitism had only a modest appeal for the German people, and, if so, why did Germans do the Nazis bidding in carrying out the Final Solution? Or was the killing chiefly the work of Nazi political troops? The debate continues, and Arno Mayer sounds most convincing when he writes in the preface of his work that “at bottom the Judeocide remains as incomprehensible to me today as five years ago, when I set out to study and rethink it.” But why, then, is he so sure of his numerous provocative theses on the remaining 450 pages of his book?

2.

Testimonies

A great many of the works reviewed here are personal reminiscences, and it is decidedly easier to comment on them than on the convoluted scholarly histories, which I shall deal with later. Admittedly, most of these memoirs lack the intellectual depth and brutal honesty of such classics of the Holocaust as Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz.3 Admittedly also, the reminiscences under review seem to follow a well-established pattern: a happy and secure middle-class existence interrupted by a lightning bolt of terror and followed by unspeakable agonies; quiet heroism; survival through self-respect and a desire to tell the world about it; liberation; a painful search for a new place in the world; a modest career and a contented family life, although one marred by terrible dreams. Still, one cannot read enough of these stories. Lately the number of such published reminiscences has increased dramatically, perhaps because most of the survivors are now retired and have time to document their lives; perhaps too, because old age compels them to look back with some longing even to a homeland which proved treacherous and cruel.

Most survivor stories begin in Eastern Europe, which means that their authors have had to cope not only with German but also with native anti-Semitism. Malvina Graf (The Kraków Ghetto and the Plaszów Camp Remembered), Frieda Frome (Some Dare to Dream), and Zofia S. Kubar (Double Identity) came from educated middle-class families in Poland and Lithuania, which may well have been the key to their survival: they had some money as well as friends in the local population.

Graf and Frome had a taste not only of German but also of Soviet rule, and have little good to say about the latter. Malvina Graf escaped from the German to the Soviet zone in occupied Poland in 1939, but she found conditions so bad there that she and her brothers registered for repatriation to German-held territory. The USSR and Nazi Germany were allies at that time; still, the Grafs’ attempt to go home was interpreted as disloyalty to the Soviet Union, and Graf, relatives, and friends were rounded up for deportation into the Soviet interior. She managed to go into hiding, however, only to fall into the hands of the Germans in 1941. Subsequently, she landed at the Plaszów concentration camp and was finally liberated, in Bavaria, by the Americans.

Frieda Frome experienced the Soviet occupation of Lithuania from 1940 to June 1941, when the Red Army was forced to withdraw from the country. This allowed the right-wing nationalist Lithuanian “Partisans” to emerge from prison and to begin massacring the Jews. The arriving Germans needed only to coordinate and expand this activity. Most of Frome’s family—and 90 percent of all Lithuanian Jews—perished in the Final Solution, but Frome and her sister survived by escaping from the Kaunas ghetto in 1944 and by hiding with warmhearted Lithuanian peasants. Liberated by the Red Army, she found life in Soviet Lithuania unbearable and fled again in 1945, the beginning of a long odyssey that ultimately led her to the United States. Frome sympathizes with the plight of Lithuanians, a tiny nation caught between German and Russian imperialism. Still, her account makes clear that, even without the German occupation, Lithuania and the other East European nation-states would have done their best, if by more peaceful means, to diminish the number of Jews and other ethnic minorities in their midst.

The university student Zofia S. Kubar was one of the approximately 18,000 Jews who hid in Warsaw during the war. She escaped from the ghetto in 1943 and succeeded in leading a new life on the Aryan side of the wall by looking less than conspicuously Jewish and by proving herself cool and resourceful. She was constantly in danger from blackmailers, often hordes of young boys who spied on Jews in hiding, squeezed them dry, and then denounced them to the Gestapo for yet another monetary reward. But she was also helped along by many decent Poles, sometimes complete strangers, who risked their lives on her behalf.

The penalty for assisting or even trading with a Jew in German-occupied Poland was death, a fact that makes all comparisons between wartime Polish-Jewish relations and, say, Danish-Jewish relations blatantly unfair. Yet such comparisons are made again and again in Western histories—and virtually always to the detriment of Poles, with scarce notice taken of the 50,000 to 100,000 Jews said to have been saved by the efforts of Poles to hide or otherwise help them.4 This is not to say that Polish anti-Semitism was not a strongly and widely felt prejudice, for it certainly was, or that life was not hard for most Jews in prewar Poland; it is to say only that one must not ignore the crucial differences between wartime conditions in Eastern and Western Europe.

  1. 1

    Philip Lopate, “Resistance to Holocaust,” Tikkun, Vol. 4, No. 3 (May/June 1989), p. 56.

  2. 2

    See Pierre Vidal-Naquet, “Theses on Revisionism,” in Unanswered Questions, pp. 304–319.

  3. 3

    Translated from the Italian by Stuart Woolf (Orion Press, 1959; reprinted by Macmillan, 1988).

  4. 4

    Nechama Tec estimates, in When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 11, that between 50,000 and 100,000 Jews survived the war in Poland, but it is not clear from her account whether these figures include only Polish citizens or all Jewish survivors in Polish territory. To complicate matters, not all survivors were indebted to Polish Gentiles. Some had been left behind in the concentration camps by the retreating Germans and were liberated by the Red Army; others had been able to “pass” as Gentiles without any Polish assistance, or joined Jewish resistance groups in the forest. On the other hand, many Jews who had been helped by Polish Gentiles failed to register as Jewish survivors after World War II and are consequently not in the statistics. Consider, too, that the boundaries of Poland—and of the other Eastern European countries—changed radically during and after the war, meaning that statistical data on the dead and the survivors are at best approximations.

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