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…

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