It is hard to add much to the work of such eyewitnesses of the Holocaust as Primo Levi, Jean Améry, and Bruno Bettelheim or of the Holocaust historians Raul Hilberg, Omer Bartov, Michael Marrus, and Christopher Browning. Still, thousands of books have been published on the subject since the 1970s, many of them written by survivors of the camps, dozens of them appearing every few months. Although critics seldom acknowledge it, these books are often repetitive or lacking in distinction or insight.
Sometimes one need only glance at a survivor’s memoir to know how it will unfold: the story generally starts with the description of a more than comfortable pre-Holocaust family life, usually in Poland, with relatively prosperous, adoring parents and lovable brothers and sisters. The hero is intellectually curious and recalls his considerable academic achievements. (All of this takes place in pre-World War II Poland, whose government, schools, and people the same writers are likely to describe as fiercely anti-Semitic. “The Nazis,” one account runs, “were to remember this when they occupied Poland, and later used the hate which was burning so deep in the Polish soul as a tool to destroy us.”1 ) Although many of his family members perish, the author’s inner dignity and readiness to help others keep him alive. After the war, he goes abroad, usually to the United States, where he founds a new family and once again becomes fairly prosperous. He is haunted, however, by recurring nightmares from which some relief is provided by his addressing young audiences on the Holocaust and by his generous contributions to worthy Jewish causes.
I do not say that such stories are false, simply that many details appear to have been embellished by selective memory. It was almost always someone else, hardly ever the author himself, who lost his dignity and self-respect at Auschwitz, who stole a spoon, a needle, or a slice of bread from a neighbor, who lorded it over the other prisoners, or who escaped the gas chambers at the cost of a fellow inmate’s life.2 And who can believe that so many writers have perfect recall, enabling them to reproduce verbatim conversations they had, or overheard, half acentury earlier? The truth is that not all survivors were heroes; nor do they all know how to write a book. An accurate record of the Holocaust has been endangered, in my opinion, by the uncritical endorsement, often by well-known Jewish writers or public figures, of virtually any survivor’s account or related writings.
Establishing a critical consensus about that memory has proven difficult in other ways as well. In the vast literature of the Holocaust, scholars have disagreed on nearly every major issue. They have been unable to establish with any precision, for example, the respective guilt and responsibility for the Holocaust of the Führer, his immediate underlings, the SS, the Wehrmacht, the Gestapo, the Nazi Party, the German social elites, and the rest of the Germans. Nor do they know for certain when, and by whom precisely, the satanic plan called the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was conceived.
In his recent sensational book on the Germans and the Holocaust,3 Daniel Goldhagen, for example, writes that hundreds of thousands of Germans were directly involved in the extermination process and that, thanks to a long tradition of personal hatred for the Jews, nearly every German was willing to become involved. “The ubiquitous and profound hatred of the ghettoized Jews,” he writes, “…was integral to German culture as Germany emerged from the middle ages and early modern times,” and anti-Semitism “continued to be an axiom of German culture throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”4 Goldhagen also argues that the atrocities committed against Jews by non-Germans, whether Ukrainians, Romanians, Croats, or Latvians, among many others, were essentially a byproduct of the German Holocaust and that, although the Germans tortured and killed many non-Jews, the other victims were privileged in comparison with Jews.
The success of Goldhagen’s simplistic account suggests to me that historians have failed to make the public understand the immensely complex workings of Nazi terror and of the European civil war that raged between 1939 and 1945. Nor will the books discussed here—a small selection from the hundreds recently published—settle any of the outstanding questions, although they take up again such convoluted debates as the nature of Jewish-Polish relations during World War II, the responsibility of non-German Europeans in the death of Jews, the guilt or innocence of the Jewish Councils, other members of the ghetto, and concentration camp elites, and the difference between Nazi and Soviet concentration camps.
Of the books under review, Tzvetan Todorov’s Facing the Extreme is perhaps the most ambitious, for he attempts to analyze how people behaved in both the German and Soviet concentration camps and to examine much of the literature of the Holocaust and of the Soviet Gulag. He has written an intellectually honest, unpretentious, and deeply optimistic book, which is almost religious in its conviction that goodness existed in the midst of the worst atrocities and, in fact, arose in response to those atrocities.
The ultimate test of human dignity, for Todorov, is the emblem of the totalitarian regime, the concentration camp. Can there be moral life in such a place? Some famous survivors like Jean Améry, Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski, and Eugenia Ginzburg (who spent twenty years at the Kolyma camp in the Soviet Union) argue that in the camps a moral position was impossible. “It was a Hobbesian life,” Levi writes, “a continuous war of everyone against everyone.” In his book Trap with a Green Fence, Richard Glazar, who was among the few Jews arriving in the Treblinka camp to be enlisted as workers in the death factory, horrifyingly corroborates this argument. At Treblinka, near Warsaw, Glazar was assigned to sortand pack the goods confiscated from the gas chamber’s victims. It was backbreaking labor but it brought extraordinary benefits. Valuable goods could be stolen and later exchanged with the Ukrainian and SS guards, and the food and clothing the murdered Jews left behind allowed Glazar and his companions to be among the best-fed and best-dressed of the Jewish victims of Nazism.
Moreover, as Glazar explains, the welfare of the working prisoners depended directly on the number of death trains arriving at Treblinka. When the trains became less frequent, the inmate-workers starved; thus when the number of trains suddenly increased, they shouted “Hurrah, hurrah!” The same trains often disgorged the prisoners’ own relatives and friends en route to the gas chambers. In other camps, mothers sometimes pretended not to know their children in order to save their own lives.
Todorov, however, finds many exceptions to the law of the jungle in concentration camp literature and points out that Primo Levi and other pessimists themselves performed quiet acts of compassion and heroism. Not everybody became demoralized, and survival was often a question of mutual assistance and sympathy. Levi’s survival, for example, would have been impossible without the help of such good friends as the Italian worker Lorenzo, who brought him soup every day. Todorov also writes about Margarete Buber-Neumann, the non-Jewish German Communist who fled to the Soviet Union. Once there, both she and her husband, the German Communist leader Heinz Neumann, were arrested. Heinz disappeared forever in the Gulag; Margarete spent two years in a camp in Kazakhstan, after which, in 1940, the Soviet police handed her over to the Gestapo. She spent the next five years in Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she risked her life to save other women from being selected for the gas chamber. Or consider the non-Jewish French poet and resistance fighter Charlotte Delbo, who, although she suffered unspeakable agonies at Auschwitz, wrote that in her group of French women, “Everyone who returned knows that, without the others, she would not have come back.”
Todorov carefully distinguishes between spontaneous acts of humanity and group solidarity. The latter was often the best guarantor of survival, but was almost always possible only at a cost to outsiders. French Jews acted in solidarity against other Jews, Orthodox Jews against secular Jews; French political prisoners shared none of their Red Cross packages with Russian prisoners; Communists turned on non-Communists and were particularly vicious toward fellow Communists whom the Party had branded as Trotskyites. Where was the dividing line between group solidarity and murderous group egoism? In his fictionalized reminiscences, the Hungarian writer Imre Kertész, who was deported to Auschwitz as a young boy in 1944, describes his utter isolation as an assimilated, irreligious, and patriotic Hungarian Jew among Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking Polish Jews. Not only had he been robbed, beaten, and deported to Auschwitz by the Hungarians, but once there, he was rejected by fellow prisoners as a “Gentile” and a Hungarian.5 Todorov cites admiringly the example of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who at Auschwitz took the place of a political prisoner about to be executed who had a wife and children. But Kolbe, who has recently been canonized, sacrificed his life for a fellow Pole, not for a Jew or a Russian. In fact, he was a notorious anti-Semite.
In the concentration camp, Todorov argues, moral values inevitably conflict with the need to ensure one’s own survival, and suffering can make some people better while it degrades others. Facing the Extreme also warns against uncritically admiring intellectual or creative activity simply because it took place under the camp’s harrowing circumstances. Some intellectually energetic persons tended to make use of those around them—as did the Jewish conductor at Auschwitz, who cared more for musical perfection in her orchestra than for her musicians. After all, the SS, too, loved music, and when she died, SS officers covered her coffin with white flowers: “With bowed heads, [they] wept over the remains of their Jewish prisoner.”
There is a fundamental difference between the ways in which Daniel Goldhagen and Tzvetan Todorov perceive “ordinary Germans.” Goldhagen’s ordinary German policemen, soldiers, workers, and housewives had absorbed, through generations of anti-Semitic culture, a tendency to hate all Jews, while Todorov’s ordinary German concentration camp guards were, more than anything else, obeying the orders of a totalitarian state. Totalitarian regimes, he argues, tried to inculcate the ideas that the enemy is an internal one, that the enemy must be killed, that all men do not have the same rights, and that the state is the custodian of society’s ultimate aims. “The enemy is not a human being” was a belief that animated not only millions of Germans but, according to Todorov, members of the Soviet police as well.
Some readers might resent Todorov’s decision to address the Nazi and the Soviet systems in the same breath. He quotes, for instance, the following lines by the Polish writer Gustaw Herling, a former inmate of the Soviet Gulag:
I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug [River], on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope.
Are the Soviet and German camps comparable? Those who dislike comparisons between the two regimes argue that Stalin never tried to wipe out an entire race and that his methods of killing were less modern and less industrialized than those of the Germans. In a television interview, Goldhagen argued that the two terror regimes were fundamentally dissimilar because Soviet camp guards were specially trained and selected, whereas the German guards were ordinary men and women. This means, according to Goldhagen, that the brutality of Soviet camp guards, unlike that of their German equivalents, tells us little or nothing about Soviet society.
Others would say, however, and I tend to side with them, that when the Stalinist regime deported or shot the children of the so-called kulaks for no crime other than former ownership of land by their peasant parents, then it, too, judged people on the basis of biology. It is true that the Soviets did not use gas chambers, but they had in northern Russia and Siberia a vast natural freezing chamber in which huge numbers of political prisoners died of cold and malnutrition. Nor can there be any doubt that the Soviet regime was as determined to kill off entire groups of human beings—the Polish intelligentsia, for example—as was the Nazi regime. Finally, the training of Soviet camp guards was as cursory and primitive as that of the German police reservists. Ideological commitment was not really expected from the rank and file in either country. The Bosnian Serbs who guarded and killed Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to take a more recent example, were not highly trained for their jobs. Rather, they were ordinary people—often the victims’ own neighbors, if not their relatives or former friends. The reasons why ordinary people torture and kill innocents must be sought elsewhere than in the simplistic argument of national tradition.
Privilege, rank, and power were important words in the camps. Todorov and others ought perhaps to have paid even more attention to this fact than they have. The concentration camp, whether at Auschwitz or in Siberia, fostered an immensely complex social hierarchy in which some thrived, others survived, and others died. Blackmarket activities flourished everywhere; sometimes there was even a sort of stock market where shares were floated. A totalitarian state in miniature, the concentration camp nonetheless based its economy on free enterprise.
In his important study of the hierarchy of the concentration camp, The Order of Terror, Wolfgang Sofsky shows how power in the camps was based on seniority, politics, and race. The aristocracy consisted of German political prisoners and criminals who were surrounded by vast coteries of servants and sycophants. Below them was an upper middle class of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Czechs, Northern Europeans, and some, but not all, Spanish Republican refugees. The Nazis had quite different reasons for allowing these groups to have more privileges than others. The Northern Europeans were seen as racially more acceptable; the Jehovah’s Witnesses showed remarkable cohesiveness and willingness to help one another, while at the same time remaining politically detached. The next level, the lower middle class, was made up of Belgians, Dutch, French, Poles, and Italians (the latter only after Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943). Finally, the lowest class consisted of homosexuals, Soviet civilians, Soviet POWs, Gypsies, and Jews. However, the system of classification was not static. People moved up and down on the social scale; some Jehovah’s Witnesses were treated abominably; the Spaniards were at first killed by the thousands. In this world of constant persecution of inmates by other inmates, Sofsky argues, the SS did not need to make much effort to maintain its control. Between twenty and forty SS officers and NCOs and between ninety and a hundred and twenty Ukrainian and ethnic German guards sufficed to supervise a death camp such as Treblinka, in which nearly a million Jews were killed.
Privilege was the alpha and omega of survival in places where prisoners essentially ran the camps for their captors—as they did in both Germany and the Soviet Union. Those who never managed to secure some kind of privilege did not survive to tell what happened to them. Even if it meant no more than the cook dipping his ladle deeper into the pot or a few days’ work in a heated laboratory—as in the case of Primo Levi—privilege prolonged life. The trouble was that privilege could be lost faster than it was gained.
In Charlotte Delbo’s finely written Auschwitz and After, she describes not only the friendships and sacrifices among women at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück, but also the ranking woman prisoner, the kapo, who robs and beats the others and celebrates her “wedding” to a girlfriend in her luxuriously furnished quarters while the other prisoners lie prostrate from exhaustion and hunger in their bunks. Delbo survived because of the group solidarity, in the best sense of the word, among women who had been in the resistance. But she makes it clear that, after an initial period during which she was treated as badly as her Jewish counterparts, she and others derived some advantages from their status as French political prisoners.
From the perspective of Sofky’s analysis, we can see that Richard Glazar was put in an immensely privileged position when he was ordered to sort the clothes of deportees gassed at Treblinka. There were times when he put on a new shirt every day and lived mainly on chocolate, butter, and sugar. “Maybe my next pair of pajamas hasn’t arrived in Treblinka yet,” he recalls himself thinking. “Maybe it’s still in transit. Maybe I won’t need any pajamas tomorrow.” At one point, a fellow inmate exults: “Oy, what a big, wealthy transport. Oy, what a transport!” When the inmates revolted, in August 1943, in one of the great acts of Jewish resistance, Glazar was among the few who managed to escape. He and a companion subsequently passed themselves off as Czech workers belonging to the Todt Organization. Liberation found them living the good life of free gentile workers.
Another Polish town, Skarzysko-Kamienna, described in Felicja Karay’s Death Comes in Yellow, was home to the Hasag plants, a gigantic German munitions factory. The plants employed Germans, Volksdeutsche (i.e., ethnic Germans who were not from the Reich), Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews—and those five nationalities meant five distinct rungs on the ladder of privilege, with a world of difference between each group. The Polish workers being generally unreliable, the Germans shot hundreds of them until someone in management came up with the brilliant idea that Poles would be more interested in working if they were allowed to engage in black market activity with the starving Jews. The Germans and Poles who ran the bakeries stole the flour meant for the Jewish slave laborers; and the Polish workers sold the baked loaves to the Jews. The presence of Jews made the Poles feel privileged and thus production did not really suffer. Delighted with this arrangement, the plant managers regularly reminded the Polish workers that the Jews alone were responsible for Poland’s terrible condition.
Thousands upon thousands of Jews died in these monstrous plants, whose history and economics Felicja Karay, an Israeli scholar, is the first to examine seriously. She concludes her superbly documented account:
In each camp there was a life and death struggle for any crumb of power which might ensure survival. Everywhere, there was blind obedience to the most demonic of orders. In all camps, prisoners helped to exterminate their brothers. Under this system, the prisoners were taught to despise the weak and revere the strong.
According to Karay, the German system was successful in its mission to brutalize and corrupt every group, yet, she acknowledges, the collective success did not mean success with every person. Some prisoners fought not only to preserve their lives but also to preserve their identities by seeming to conform while surreptitiously helping others. “Research into the Holocaust,” Karay writes, “deals not only with a study of human evil, but also with a study of human courage, holding out the possibility of hope.”
No issue in Holocaust literature is more burdened by misunderstanding, mendacity, and sheer racial prejudice than that of Polish-Jewish relations during World War II. Almost all of the books under review comment on the subject. Tzvetan Todorov, for example, describes the fundamental disagreements between Polish Christians and Polish Jews during the war. Why did the underground Polish Home Army offer so little help to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943? The reason, Todorov believes, is less the certainly existing anti-Semitism in the Polish ranks than the two communities’ traditional isolation from each other and also the pro-Soviet position of many of the Jewish fighters. The Home Army was just as hostile to Stalin as it was to Hitler, Todorov writes; and the Hashomer organization, which was the nucleus of the Ghetto revolt in 1943, was unconditionally pro-Soviet.
Because of events during and after the war, many Poles will forever associate all Jews with “Jewish communism.” For the most part, however, the Polish Jews were not Communists. One hundred and twenty thousand of them served in the Polish army in 1939, and some 30,000 were killed in battle. There were some eight hundred Jews among the Polish reserve officers murdered at Katyn and other sites on Stalin’s orders.6 Many Jews, for their part, tend to view the Poles as unredeemable anti-Semites, despite the fact that the ancestors of most Jews in Poland in 1939 were invited there by the Polish nobility and were given extraordinary privileges. There are more trees at Vad Yashem in Jerusalem dedicated to the memory of Polish helpers of Jews than all other such memorial trees combined.7
Richard C. Lukas, a Polish-American historian, seems to have made it his aim in life to prove to the world that the Poles were as much the victims of Nazi aggression as the Jews, and that both groups of victims should try to understand each others’ positions. Although Lukas underplays the extent of Polish anti-Semitism and exaggerates somewhat the sufferings of Polish children in his book, Did the Children Cry? Hitler’s War Against Jewish and Polish Children, 1939-1945, his efforts have been so much appreciated in some Jewish circles that the Anti-Defamation League voted to awardhim, in 1996, its annual Janusz Korczak Literary Award. It is a difficult task for Lukas to concentrate on children because the Germans, in their brutality, did not make any special effort to distinguish between adults and children, whether Jewish or Polish. The only exception was the kidnapping of thousands of Polish children for the purpose of “Germanization.” Lukas is careful to explain that the murder of Jewish children was more systematic than that of the Poles, but he concludes that, out of the 1,800,000 Jewish and gentile children up to sixteen years of age who perished in Poland during the Second World War, 1,200,000 were Polish and 600,000 were Jewish children of Polish origin. Whereas the Jewish children were mainly gassed, Polish children died mainly of malnutrition, diseases, or as fighters and bystanders of the Warsaw Uprising.
Shortly after the committee appointed by the ADL made its decision and Lukas had been notified of it, however, the ADL changed its mind and told Lukas that there had been “an administrative error” and that he would not be given the Korczak Award. Indignant, Lukas then insisted on receiving it, threatening litigation. The prize was finally sent to him by mail, with no ceremony and no public presentation. An ADL press release said that the organization had discovered a number of errors in Lukas’s book, among them his underestimating the extent of Polish anti-Semitism. Just how serious these errors actually were, and why they suddenly became so important, remains unexplained.
Documents found after the war—The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lódz Ghetto and Am I a Murderer? Testament of a Jewish Ghetto Policeman—tell the terrible stories of two young Jews in Poland, both of whom died before the Nazis withdrew. Sierakowiak, the author of Five Notebooks, died of starvation in the Lódz Ghetto in 1943, when he was nineteen. Calel Perechodnik, a member of the Jewish police force in the Otwock ghetto, not far from Warsaw, killed himself at age twenty-seven, during the great 1944 Warsaw Uprising, after contracting typhus and being discharged from the Polish Home Army. His book is not a diary but a memoir written while in hiding after the ghetto was destroyed and most of its inhabitants killed.
Both Sierakowiak and Perechodnik were rich boys, well-educated and familiar with many languages. Although starving, Sierakowiak conscientiously did his homework on Cicero and Ovid for the ghetto school; in fact, he was indignant that the ghetto still lacked a university. A convinced Communist, he studied Lenin’s What Is to Be Done and other Marxist-Leninist tracts. Where he was serious, honest, and mature for his years, Perechodnik was beset by emotional contradictions. Frank Fox, the young policeman’s translator and editor, describes him as “by turns mordant and sentimental, accusatory and self-pitying, sardonic and sorrowful.” Before the war, he had belonged to a Zionist organization but was also an ardent Polish patriot. Like Sierakowiak, he remembers the period of the German attack on Poland in September 1939 as one of great fraternity between Poles and Jews; in fact, he claims that before the war he never encountered any manifestation of Polish anti-Semitism. Unlike many later memoirists, who could only recall their pre-war family lives as idyllic, these two young men utterly disliked their fathers, and were at odds with the other members of their families.
Sierakowiak hated Chaim Rumkowski, Elder of the Lódz Ghetto, who ruled the ghetto like a king and decided to help the Nazis deport its children and old people in order to save the healthy adult population—a strategy that failed horribly, with Rumkowski himself ending up in Auschwitz. Sierakowiak writes about the enormous class differences within the ghetto, and describes how some lived comfortably while he and others were wasting away from hunger. His mother was selected for death by two Czech Jewish doctors and he watched her being taken away; he often complains about his father, who refused to work but devoured everything in the meager family larder. Yet the father died before his son, and the rest of the family perished as well. The terrible story of the Lódz Ghetto has been told many times before; what is unforgettable about the diaries is the heartbreaking dedication of a young man to learning, and to a political cause in which he desperately wanted to believe.
The young ghetto scholar particularly despises the Jewish ghetto police who served the Germans, arrested fugitives, and if the fugitive could not be found, took hostages from among members of his family. Calel Perechodnik was such a policeman; but he was still not sufficiently privileged to save his own wife and child. Although he loved them, Perechodnik seems to have disliked more or less everybody else. He dislikes most Jews who he believes are cowards; he accuses the Poles of having betrayed their Jewish friends; he hates the Ukrainian militia who often behave worse than the Germans; he curses his own superiors in the police who misled him into believing that his family would be exempted from deportation. Policemen, he writes, “lead their own fathers and mothers to the cattle cars; themselves close the door with the bolt—just as if they were nailing the coffins with their own hands.” He himself watches as the Germans cram his wife and child into the train.
Above all, Perechodnik hates himself—small wonder in view of what took place. Still, he goes into hiding and so, separately, do his parents and some other close relations. This costs money, but the family has plenty of it. Perechodnik blames the Jewish religion for everything—their conceit, their conviction that the Jews were the chosen people. What indeed do Jews have in common? What, he asks, binds the French socialist Léon Blum, the Soviet leader Kaganovich, and himself, Perechodnik, fierce anti-Communist?
This is not a story in which Tzvetan Todorov will find evidence that virtue and decency survived, even though here, too, one encounters a few noble characters, including some Poles, especially “Magister,” Perechodnik’s close friend who ends up preserving Perechodnik’s memoirs. Perechodnik himself demonstrated neither heroic nor quiet virtues; he was far too busy trying to save his wife, child, and himself. Who can blame him?
If Polish-Jewish relations are an almost hopelessly unresolvable subject, the same is equally true of comparative genocide studies. There is no agreement on what, precisely, genocide means. Some writers seem to have a proprietary interest in proving that the Holocaust was the only true act of genocide in history. Others want to prove the opposite. Most carefully avoid the subject. Todorov himself says little if anything about the Armenian massacres in Turkey in 1915, the killing fields in Cambodia, or the massacre of the American Indians. As for Goldhagen, he mentions the Armenian genocide only once in his book, and then only to say that, unlike the Jews, some Armenians could have saved themselves by converting. And although he writes that the Germans killed 200,000 Gypsies, and although he must know that no Gypsy (Roma or Sinti) could save himself in Nazi Germany by “converting,” Goldhagen devotes only two half-sentences and a single endnote in a text of 471 pages to their massacre.
There is now, however, at least one book that is entirely dedicated to the comparative study of genocide. Edited by Alan S. Rosenbaum, a professor of philosophy in Ohio, Is the Holocaust Unique? contains only two essays on the Jewish Holocaust; the other articles deal with the “Romani Holocaust,” the Armenian genocide, the Atlantic slave trade, Stalinist terror, and “the Politics of Genocide Scholarship.” There appears to be less prejudice in this book than an unfortunate preoccupation with a single theme. Instead of wondering why such monstrosities as the mass murder of Ukrainians, Armenians, Jews, and Gypsies occurred in our century, the authors remain fixated on such questions as whether the Holocaust was in fact unique and whether or not the other catastrophes also deserve the title of genocide. The defenders of the traditional Jewish position, such as Steven T. Katz, attempt to prove, with detailed statistics, that only in the case of the Jews can one speak of the killers’ absolute determination to annihilate every member of the group. In the book’s foreword, Israel W. Charny seems to direct most of his wrath against this kind of reasoning.
On the other hand, Ian Hancock, a politically engaged Roma, argues that the Gypsy catastrophe was a true Holocaust, that the Roma suffered proportionally higher casualties than the Jews, and that their sufferings have gone largely unrecognized. Similar views are presented in the essays on the Armenian genocide. Arguing against such specialists in the field of Stalinist terror as Robert Conquest and James E. Mace, the historian Barbara B. Green maintains, in her essay on the Ukrainian famine in the 1930s, that, unlike the Holocaust, the Great Famine was not a case of genocide. “The purpose was not to exterminate Ukrainians as a people simply because they were Ukrainians…. The famine was the result of Stalin’s effort to totally reconstruct Soviet society through rapid industrialization.” Green does not ask what differences Stalin’s allegedly idealistic intentions made to the millions of Ukrainians who starved to death.
One can learn much from these essays, not least how scholarship can be unproductive when it is put to narrowly polemical uses. One of the more valuable pieces in the collection, Seymour Drescher’s article on the Atlantic slave trade, states correctly if somewhat clumsily:
In comparing historical catastrophes, there is a temptation to argue as though one could arrive at a hierarchy of suffering or cruelty or radical evil such that only one such process reaches the apogee of uniqueness. Systems of human action are like Tolstoy’s happy and unhappy marriages, all alike in some ways but each different in its own.
The behavior of “ordinary” people in extreme situations remains as inexplicable and as saddening as ever. How do tradition, culture, and ideology prepare seemingly benign individuals for the role of sadistic executioners?
Daniel Goldhagen tries to prove that German culture was an ideal breeding ground for such behavior. He succeeds to a certain extent—but then he barely mentions Austria, for instance, the original home of a disproportionate number of SS, Wehrmacht, and police killers, yet whose culture and traditions differed significantly from Germany’s. Although Austria had a strong tradition of anti-Semitism, it was also, until 1918, the quintessential multiethnic state where Jews achieved unheard-of successes.
What about Hungary, certainly not a part of German culture, where Jews were still more successful, more assimilated, more patriotic, and for a long time more welcome than in the German Reich or in the Austrian half of the Habsburg monarchy? Randolph L. Braham, the CUNY scholar who has become dean of Hungarian Holocaust studies, and half a dozen young Hungarian historians have illustrated the contradictory attitudes of Hungarian non-Jews at the time of the Holocaust. Hungarian officials, for instance, behaved very differently, depending on what system was in power. Until March 19, 1944, that is, before the German army’s occupation of Hungary, the somewhat anti-Semitic conservative government of Admiral Horthy insisted that Hungarian gentiles coexist with the country’s more than eight hundred thousand Jews.
After that date, the new Hungarian leaders installed by Regent Horthy at the order of the Germans were recruited from the same political party and upper-middle-class background as those in power before the German occupation. They immediately issued viciously anti-Semitic orders, which were enthusiastically obeyed by the local authorities. Often even without waiting for orders, mayors, local gendarmerie commanders, and municipal clerks took brutal action against Jews with whom they had had correct, even friendly, relations just a few weeks earlier, or with whom they had shared the trenches during the First World War.8 They deprived Jews of work and food, and rounded them up for deportation. Ordinary gendarmes and policemen demonstrated extreme greed and ruthlessness, which were matched, incidentally, by the greed and ruthlessness of gendarmes and other police forces in Romania, France, and many other countries. Nor should one ignore the enthusiastic participation in the Holocaust of thousands upon thousands of people who had been raised and educated in the Soviet Union but entered German service during the war.
What does all of this tell us about European culture and the tradition of anti-Semitism? There can be no doubt that, without the German Nazis, there would have been no Holocaust in Europe. There can be no doubt either, however, that Nazi actions met with a certain degree of approval on the part of millions of Germans and other Europeans. When there were disagreements they involved primarily the method and the extent of the treatment of the Jews: some wanted them all dead; others drew the line at killing; others wanted to spare their friends, or the assimilated Jews, or their fellow citizens at the expense of non-citizens. All of this was an extreme manifestation of a process of ethnic cleansing that had begun in Europe in the nineteenth century and is still continuing.
There is a causal connection between the xenophobic, nationalist policies pursued by nearly all governments in the years preceding and during World War II and the Nazi death camps. In Switzerland, Sweden, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States such policies consisted mainly of admitting as few refugees as possible, particularly if they were poor or had no influential connections. In interwar Poland, Hungary, Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey, governments actively tried to rid their countries of minority groups. The outcome in both cases was that more people were vulnerable to the murderous policies of the Nazis and their allies. In both cases, we find politicians, themselves often contemptuous of Jews, trying to avoid the trouble, expense, and political unpopularity that a more generous policy would have entailed. What is less easy to understand is why so many people, whether as guards or inmates, were willing to participate in atrocious acts inside the concentration camps. Or why relatively few people were willing to make even a small effort to help others when they saw them being persecuted before their eyes. But our astonishment at such behavior only reveals our naiveté about the human condition.
June 26, 1997
Joseph Freeman, Job: The Story of a Holocaust Survivor (Paragon House, 1995), p. 11. ↩
In some recent memoirs, it must be said, the writers do not embellish their own role during the Holocaust. Leon Arditti, a French-Bulgarian Jew who survived Auschwitz, found himself in an unbearably crowded open railroad car in Germany at the end of the war. Those still able to move tossed not only the dead but sometimes even the dying over the side. “A rattle—oh, very faint, barely localizable, yet clearly audible to the one lying in wait for it . I slide myself in his direction, straining my muscles to do the maximum. I’m beside him, I crawl onto him, kneel over his face. Oh, I am not doing it out of charitable compassion, to help him out of his misery, no. I am simply doing what all the others have already done before me, hastening the process. There, it’s over, the rattling has stopped . He is quite dead. Okay, let’s go.” Arditti, his brother Oscar, and two other men heave the man over the side. “What bounty, this free space!” See Arditti’s The Will to Live: Two Brothers in Auschwitz, translated from the French by Nanette Guinta (Shengold, 1996), pp. 78-79. ↩
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Knopf, 1996). Reviewed in The New York Review by Gordon Craig, April 18, 1996. ↩
Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, pp. 55 and 32. ↩
Imre Kertész, Fateless, translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson (Northwestern University Press, 1992). ↩
Simon Schochet, “An Attempt to Identify the Polish-Jewish Officers Who Were Prisoners in Katyn,” in Working Papers in Holocaust Studies II (Holocaust Studies Program, Yeshiva University, March 1989), as cited in the Notes to Calel Perechodnik’s Am I a Murderer?, p. 228. ↩
One of the best treatments of Polish-Jewish relations is Ralph Slovenko’s essay “On Polish-Jewish Relations,” The Journal of Psychiatry and Law (Winter 1987), pp. 597-687. (Some advanced undergraduate students come to my class on East European history at Columbia University aware of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and entirely ignorant of the Warsaw Uprising of the Polish resistance that took place between August and October 1944, and that claimed some 250,000 lives. Others, often after viewing Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, believe that the Holocaust was the result of a German-Polish conspiracy.) ↩
Recent Hungarian Holocaust literature is characterized by painstakingly accurate archival work. For instance, Judit Molnár’s Zsidósors 1944-ben az V. (szegedi) csendörkerületben [The fate of Jews in the V. (Szeged) Gendarmerie District in 1944] (Budapest: Cserépfalvi, 1995) shows, on the basis of thousands of original documents, the astonishing callousness and enthusiastic anti-Jewish actions of the local authorities in a single gendarmerie district. It also describes the few laudable exceptions to such behavior. A collection edited by László Karsai and Judit Molnár, Az Endre-Baky-Jaross per [The trial of Endre, Baky, and Jaross] (Budapest: Cserépfalvi, 1994), contains the copiously annotated minutes of the people’s court trial, in Budapest in the winter of 1945-1946, of the three major Hungarian officials responsible for the deportation to Auschwitz of nearly half a million Hungarian Jews from the Hungarian countryside. Finally, the revised and much enlarged edition of Randolph L. Braham, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, 2 volumes (Columbia University Press, 1994), is indispensable for the study of the Holocaust not only in Hungary but in Europe as a whole. ↩