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What We Need to Know About the Holocaust

Je suis le dernier Juif: Treblinka, 1942–1943

by Chil Rajchman, translated from the Yiddish by Gilles Rozier
Paris: Éditions des Arènes, 150 pp., €14.80

Nim słonce wzejdzie: Dziennik pisany w ukryciu, 1943–1944

by Marek Szapiro
Warsaw: Zydowski Instytut Historyczny, 682 pp., zł40.00
Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York
Outside the Jewish health organization in the Warsaw ghetto, where a woman has collapsed from hunger, circa 1942

We don’t have a history of the Holocaust that is set in the Eastern European lands where the victims died, and that describes the interactions of the German invaders, the Jewish inhabitants, and the peoples among whom the Jews lived. Why not? The vast literature on the Holocaust based on German sources, though it represents perhaps the most impressive historical research of recent decades, seldom draws from Eastern European languages. Eastern European historians, for their part, have traditionally avoided a topic that transcends national history and challenges national myths of innocence. In Historians of the Jews and the Holocaust, the NYU historian David Engel suggests a surprising addition to this list of limitations: historians of Jewish life, scholars comfortable with the longue durée of Jewish history and with Hebrew and Yiddish, have sequestered Jewish societies and institutions from the Holocaust. Over decades, says Engel, they have built a “wall separating study of the Holocaust from study of all other aspects of the Jewish past.”

In much of Eastern Europe for much of the half-millennium before the Holocaust, Jews had managed, in various ways and to various degrees, to oversee their own religious and communal affairs. Because the Jewish institutions of the Nazi era—the Jewish councils and the Jewish police forces—drew from pre-war elites, they looked uncomfortably like a continuation of Jewish tradition. Because these institutions aided the Germans in the ghetto roundups and deportations that preceded the mass shootings and gassings of the Holocaust, the Eastern European Jewish tradition could seem like a dead end. After the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, Engel maintains, scholars found it difficult to integrate the mass killing of the Jews into a history of Jewish life.

For some Israelis the Jewish councils and police forces were a perversion of an essentially sound tradition that had preserved Jewish life for centuries despite the difficulties of diaspora, for others a confirmation that diaspora life was itself a perversion. The issue brought so much unease in Israel, Engel suggests, that Israeli scholars preferred to avoid open international scholarly discussion of it. Contrary to what outsiders might suppose, “Zionist historiography has hardly placed the Holocaust at the center of its agenda.”1

These sensitivities were heightened, Engel argues, by the appearance of the first systematic study of the Holocaust. In 1961 a little-known young American scholar, Raul Hilberg, published The Destruction of the European Jews, now in a third edition and still the basic guide to the institutions that brought about the expropriation and murder of German and European Jews. In some brief passages on the Jewish councils, Hilberg drew damning conclusions about Jewish self-destruction. His chief sources were German reports from the field and documents from German administrative offices in Berlin. These sources described Jewish councils and Jewish policemen collecting valuables, arranging for labor brigades, and urging cooperation in the “selections” that preceded death by bullets or gas. Since Hilberg did not rely upon Jewish memoirs, he did not note the many (if usually futile) attempts by a number of Jewish councils to improve the desperate lot of their people, let alone their widespread (although usually defeated) attempts to conspire against the Germans. Most difficult of all to extract from German sources were the almost ubiquitous efforts to preserve Jewish religious and cultural life, which Yehuda Bauer, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and academic adviser to Yad Vashem, includes within his notion of Jewish resistance, or amidah.

At the time of its first edition, writes Engel, Hilberg’s pioneering work seemed to confirm the dangers of mixing the history of Jewish life with the history of mass Jewish death. In Israel, the history of the Holocaust was entrusted to a separate state institution, Yad Vashem; in America, historians of Jewish life used methodology as an excuse not to write about the Holocaust. Major scholars such as Steven Zipperstein and Paula Hyman wished to prevent Hitler from shaping the history of earlier centuries of Jewish life.

Engel, who sees modern Jewish history in Europe as of a piece, and believes that it is right to understand the whole with respect to its end, regards the restraint of his colleagues as “little more than a discursive affectation.” He is correct to note the historians’ hesitation, but he is unconvincing in his critique of their historical method. The danger of defining previous Jewish history entirely with respect to the Holocaust is real enough among scholars, university students, and the general public. The resistance of historians to determinism and teleology provides one defensible way (as the works of Hyman and Zipperstein show) to produce lively accounts of the variety of Jewish experience in modern Europe in the centuries before the Holocaust.2

The problem Engel sees arises partly (though not entirely) from the definitions he uses to categorize historians. He criticizes historians of Jewish life for not engaging with the Holocaust. In his account, historians of the Holocaust figure not so much as Jewish historians but as a problem for Jewish historians. But with just a slight shift in perspective, one could see Hilberg as representing a different tradition of Jewish scholarship, that of Jewish historians who rely on German-language primary sources to document the collapse of a German civilization to which they themselves, in some measure, belong.

This tradition continues a major current of modern Jewish intellectual life, that of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) in its Central European form. Much of the outstanding work by historians published in the United States, from Hilberg’s through Saul Friedländer’s, could be classified in this way. In this light, Friedländer’s latest work, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945, a powerful narrative account of German killing policy that draws on Jewish memoirs and evokes the lives of Jewish victims, addresses Engel’s challenge. Because Friedländer uses chiefly German-language sources, however, his portrayal of Jewish life is bound within a familiar but in fact atypical perspective. He makes excellent use of important first-person sources, such as the diaries of Victor Klemperer, whose situation, that of a Jewish husband protected by marriage to a non-Jewish German wife, was all but unthinkable in lands further east. In occupied Poland, where there were also many mixed marriages, Jewish husbands of non-Jewish Polish wives were sent to ghettos, deported to death factories, and gassed. German Jews were a very small proportion of the victims of the Holocaust, some 3 percent. Polish Jews were more than half.

A complete account of Jewish life and death in Europe, and thus the meeting of European and Jewish history, would have to be centered in Poland, where most of the victims of the Holocaust lived and even more of the victims died.3 As Engel mentions, there is also the school of Polish-Jewish positivist historians, concerned chiefly with the collection of sources. Today its best-known member is Emanuel Ringelblum, who organized the archive of the Warsaw ghetto, an invaluable source for scholars working in Polish or Yiddish (the languages of Warsaw Jews). The same tradition also continues in the archival collections of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, which include thousands of surveys of Holocaust survivors, in Polish and Yiddish, taken right after the war.

Although Engel does not discuss them as such, historians within this Polish-Jewish tradition might also be regarded as scholars of Jewish life who write about the Holocaust. Since the end of communism in Poland in 1989, this empirical approach has been revived by the new Polish Center for Holocaust Studies, and also (though unevenly) by the official Institute for National Remembrance. The Jewish Historical Institute, under new leadership, has published and annotated sources such as the diary of Marek Szapiro, who survived in hiding in Warsaw. Though postwar testimonies are many, actual diaries are very few. Szapiro’s diary—written and published in Polish—is particularly important, since it recounts the daily efforts of a Jew in Warsaw to make sense of the last years of the war, and includes frank discussions of personal relationships with non-Jewish Poles, including rescuers and blackmailers. The most important recent example of this Polish-Jewish positivist tradition is the encyclopedic and now indispensable guide to the Warsaw ghetto by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak, now available in an excellent English-language edition.

The Polish-Jewish positivist school has the vices of its virtues: it transmits valuable Polish (and sometimes Yiddish) sources, but does not take account of the interpretative discussions taking place in German and English. Its very important findings, which include detailed examples of Jewish resistance, are thus usually ignored in the larger debates.4

Perhaps the most appealing feature of Engel’s book is its open-ended conclusion. Although he makes clear his own view—that the Holocaust was an unsurprising end to an increasingly difficult period of Jewish history—he understands that the conclusions of future researchers are impossible to predict. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, by contrast, in Worse than War, takes the view that we already know all that we need to know about the Holocaust, and indeed about all of the other calamities of the twentieth century. :In an earlier work, Hitler’s Willing Executioners,5 Goldhagen sought to explain the Holocaust as an expression of a longstanding and special German “eliminationist anti-Semitism.” One criticism of that book was its limited attention to other anti-Semitic and racist cultural traditions—for example, among Germany’s neighbors—which, were Goldhagen’s thesis true, would also have brought about Holocausts. In his current book, Goldhagen responds to that criticism by replacing “eliminationist anti-Semitism” with “eliminationism,” a state of mind among people who take part in mass murder.

Rather than refining his simple explanation, he merely extends it from the Holocaust to other genocides.6 Mass murder is to be understood as a matter of will: the “decision-making moment,” he maintains, is a “self-sufficient account for why these people perpetrate mass murder and elimination.” Goldhagen asserts that other students of the Holocaust clutter the story with colonial institutions set up by Germany in the countries it occupied during World War II. Rather than consider the political or historical backdrop, we should rely upon our intuitions, upon “what we know about individual and social life in general.” This ostensible knowledge includes the capacity to perceive the “beast within”—within other people, that is, never Goldhagen himself or his readers. National societies, we are to understand, differ in their level of subhumanity: “there is variation of beastliness across cultures and subcultures.”

Goldhagen’s writing has been, as his publisher says, “very popular,” perhaps because it is tempting to distinguish among murderers and the murdered in such a stark way. Goldhagen’s own categories, if rigorously applied, reveal a problem of his approach. For Goldhagen, a “perpetrator” is someone who “knowingly contributes in some tangible way to the deaths or elimination of others, or to injuring others as part of an annihilationist or an eliminationist program.” How would such a definition apply in the case of one of the worst of the Nazi crimes, the mass murder of the Jews of Warsaw in the summer of 1942?

  1. 1

    Engel means that prominent Zionist historians preferred to avoid the subject. He does not mean that no Israeli historians wrote about these difficult issues.

  2. 2

    For example, Zipperstein’s The Jews of Odessa: A Cultural History, 1794–1881 (Stanford University Press, 1986) and Hyman’s The Emancipation of the Jews of Alsace: Acculturation and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Yale University Press, 1991). In his later work Zipperstein is more willing to countenance the “backshadowing” of the Holocaust onto earlier events than Engel credits: see his Imagining Russian Jewry: Memory, History, Identity (University of Washington Press, 1999).

  3. 3

    Jews from beyond Poland, most of them from Hungary, were deported to Auschwitz and gassed. Smaller numbers of European Jews were deported to other death factories in occupied Poland and gassed.

  4. 4

    See my “Jews, Poles & Nazis: The Terrible History,” The New York Review, June 24, 2010, and “Nazis, Soviets, Poles, Jews,” The New York Review, December 3, 2009.

  5. 5

    Knopf, 1996.

  6. 6

    Goldhagen’s analysis fares worse in the Soviet and Chinese Communist cases than it does with the German. In the Communist cases, the threat and application of terror to perpetrators was routine.

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