Hitler’s Logical Holocaust

Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941–1944 [German Occupation Policies in Lithuania, 1941–1944]

by Christoph Dieckmann
Göttingen: Wallstein, two volumes, 1,652 pp., €81.30

Jest taki piękny, słoneczny dzień: Losy Żydów szukających ratunku na wsi polskiej 1942–1945 [It Is Such a Beautiful, Sunny Day...The Fate of Jews Seeking Rescue in the Polish Countryside 1942–1945]

by Barbara Engelking
Warsaw: Stowarzyszenie Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, 292 pp., zł39.99
Popperfoto/Getty Images
The offices of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer in the Free City of Danzig, circa 1935. The anti-Semitic poster in the window reads ‘Die Juden sind unser Unglück!’ (The Jews are our misfortune!).

Jan Gross and Irena Grudzińska Gross conclude their account of grave robbery after the Holocaust with a story from the very recent past. A Polish businessman, returning from Berlin, narrowly escaped death in an automobile accident. The following night, a Jewish girl appeared to him in a dream, addressed him by his first name as if he were a friend or a child, and asked him to return her ring. The businessman did have a gold ring, given to him by his grandparents, who had lived near Bełżec, one of the major death factories built by the Germans in occupied Poland.

Hoping to save themselves or their families, Polish Jews on the death transports of 1942 sometimes exchanged the valuable objects they had managed to take with them for water (or promises of water) with local Poles when the trains stopped short of their destination. Anything that remained was seized when the Jews had to undress before being led to the gas chambers. Gold teeth were removed from the corpses by Jewish slave laborers, and taken by the Germans. Some valuable objects were hidden by the Jewish laborers and were then exchanged with the camp guards, who were often Soviet citizens taken prisoner by the Germans. They exchanged the objects for food, alcohol, and sex in nearby Polish villages. Some of the valuables remained at the site of the gas chambers when the Germans retreated. After the war, the locals would dig up the corpses looking for gold.

The businessman did return the ring, as best he could: he gave it, along with a note, to the museum at Bełżec. In some ways his gesture and his story reflect the realities of today’s Poland. Every detail of his account—the commercial relationship with Germans, the business trip by chauffeur-driven car, even the travel on good roads—bespeaks a Poland that is today more prosperous than ever in its history. Liberated in 1989 from the communism that followed German occupation, allied to the United States in NATO since 1999, linked to its neighbors in the European Union since 2004, Poland is a beneficiary of the globalization of the post-Communist years.

As Donald Bloxham suggests in his Final Solution, the Holocaust can be seen, among many other things, as the final catastrophe accompanying the breakdown of what some historians call the first globalization, the expansions of world trade of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It collapsed in three stages: World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Its fatal flaw was its dependence upon European empire. The process of decolonization began within Europe itself, as the Balkan nation-states liberated themselves first from…

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