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Responding to the Holocaust

ISSUE:  Winter 1999

The World Reacts to the Holocaust, edited by David S. Wyman. Johns Hopkins, 1996, $65.00.

The world, at least the Western world, responded to the Holocaust before it had a name. Whatever the date given to its origin, the annihilation of the European Jews became the settled policy of Adolf Hitler and the German Reich at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, The Jewish Question had vexed Naziism from the beginning, and now the “Final Solution,” as it was called, had been agreed upon. Its realization was a major war aim, already disclosed by the mass murders of Jews in Poland, the Ukraine, and the Baltic countries. Sometime later news of the catastrophe reached the West through several sources: the Jewish press, the Polish underground, and the World Jewish Congress in Geneva. On October 9, curiously, Anne Frank noted these reports, heard via BBC radio, in her diary. About the same time, Jan Karski set out on a dangerous mission from the Warsaw Ghetto to make an eyewitness report to Allied leaders in London and Washington. Many found the disclosures too harrowing to be believed. As we know, there was virtually no response of a military or diplomatic land. And so it remained throughout the duration of the war.

The first official international response was the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial of 1945–46. The tribunal invented the category of “crimes against humanity.” The crime against the Jews, however, was not on trial at Nuremberg. In a wartime radio address Winston Churchill had said, “we are in the presence of a crime without a name.” What could not be named could not be tried. The Polish-born lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who made his career in the United States and was part of the prosecution at Nuremberg, had coined the word “genocide” in his timely Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944). It was actually used in Article III of the indictment. The 24 Nazi leaders were accused of “deliberate and systematic genocide,” which accorded with Lemkin’s definition: the intentional extermination of racial, religious, and ethnic groups. Lemkin went on to draft the United Nations resolution that led to the international genocide treaty concluded in 1949. Henceforth, genocide became the generic crime, applied to such atrocities as the Turkish campaign to annihilate the Armenians during the World War I and more recently to the outrages against Bosnians in formerly multi-national Yugoslavia and Tutsis and Hutus in Rawanda.

But the dimensions of the Jewish tragedy, unprecedented in the historical record, seemed to call for a particular and proper noun to designate it. Among Israeli Jews Shoah was preferred. It translated into English as catastrophe, but was otherwise obscure. There were clumsy suggestions, for instance “permanent pogram.” As late as 1961, the year of the Eichman trial, Raul Hilberg entitled his monumental work, The Destruction of the European Jews. By then Yad Vashem, the constituted memorial authority in Jerusalem, observing the flood of scholarly and related publications on the subject in many languages, recognized the need for a classificatory noun to identify this burgeoning branch of history. It recommended the little known and little used holocaust, from the Greek meaning “whole burnt offering,” and despite misleading intimations of sacrifice it was rapidly accepted. The Library of Congress adopted it in 1968, and the word was transmitted globally by the American television docudrama, Holocaust, a decade later.

The World Reacts to the Holocaust is the first comprehensive scholarly survey of the subject. It is the result of an ambitious project conceived and directed by Rabbi Charles H. Rosenweig, founder of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Bloomfield, Michigan. Edited by David S. Wyman, a leading American historian of the Holocaust, the work covers, chapter by chapter, 22 countries grouped by world area, plus the United Nations. The international cast of authors are all experts on the subjects they treat. Each country is a story unto itself, yet but a facet of the larger story. To say that the work encompasses the world is an exaggeration, for in many places there has been either no significant reaction to the Holocaust or insufficient research into the subject. Asia is represented by a chapter, indeed two chapters, on Japan. China, where thousands of Jews found refuge—18,000 from Austria alone—is not included. Latin America is unrepresented, as is the Middle East except for Israel. On the European continent, the Scandinavian countries are omitted; so is Greece, where the great Sephardic Jewish colony of Thessaloniki was obliterated, an omission owing perhaps to the conception of the Holocaust as an event in the history of Ashkenazic Jewry. Spain and Portugal are also omitted. Withal, however, the coverage is wide and generous.

It begins with France, appropriately, for no other European country has had a more troubled journey through the wartime past of the Holocaust. This was due, in large part, to the fact that every memory of Jewish atrocities called up the humiliation and shame of Nazi occupation and the collaborating Vichy regime. What the author, David Weinberg, calls “the masking of Vichy” seemed necessary to the birth of a new national myth of heroic resistance to totalitarianism. Vichy was seen as an aberration and the Holocaust was left to the memory of the French Jews who survived it. This changed in the 1960’s, however, under the impact of brilliant works of literature: the novels Night, by Elie Wiesel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, and The Last of the Just, by André Schwarz-Bart, both originally published in French, and the drama The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth, staged in Paris in 1964. Commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Kristallnacht, in 1978, was followed by the airing of the American docudrama Holocaust, at first rejected by all three French TV channels partly on the ground it was Hollywood kitsch. Weinberg credits the film with helping the new generation of Jewish youth, in particular, to rediscover their past. Marcel Ophuls’ documentary film, The Sorrow and the Pity, with its Vichy focus, although commissioned by French television in 1971, was finally screened a decade later. Monuments to the Holocaust sprang up in Lyon (site of the celebrated trial of Klaus Barbie), Nice, Bordeaux, and other cities. All the while anti-Semitism remained a worrisome undercurrent on the right of French politics. Feeding into it was the new school of Holocaust revisionism led by such authors as Paul Rassinier and Robert Faurisson, which denied the existence of the historic horror. Meanwhile, a courtroom in Bordeaux awaited the trial of perhaps the last Nazi collaborator and Jewish persecutor, 87-year-old Maurice Papon. (Since this was written, Papon has been tried, convicted, and given a light sentence.) Memories of the tortured past do not die, though they may eventually fade away. From a comparative perspective, as Weinberg points out, France was fortunate to save three-fourths of its Jewish citizenry, thereby maintaining a vital remnant for the revival of secular Jewish culture.

The Dutch Jews did not fare so well, as the fascinating chapter on the Netherlands makes clear. Any visitor to the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem or, closer to home, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, must be impressed by the disproportionate number of Dutch protectors and rescuers of Jews. Although the Dutch saved from the gas chambers only one-quarter of their Jewish citizens, they fashioned a national legend of gallantry towards this victimized people. According to the co-authors, Debórah Dwork and Robert-Jan Van Pelt, the only way the surviving Jews could participate in the Dutch people’s remembrance of the war was to express gratitude for the aid and assistance they received. And so the first monument in Amsterdam reared by the survivors honored their Dutch helpers. “The victims had no place in the ideology of the monuments, which invoked Calvinist imagery and depended on Christian phraseology.” The official Dutch monument to the war years, in 1956, was raised to those who had given their lives in the resistance. This excluded the Jewish victims. Even the Anne Frank House, although her diary was published in 1947, had little place in the historic landscape of Amsterdam until years later. The Jewish tragedy was marginalized.

Things changed after 1960. The main catalyst was Louis de Jong whose television series, Bezetting (Occupation), made place for the Jews. The State War Documentation Institute, which he headed, also commissioned a book on the history of the Jews during the Occupation. Authored by the scholar Jacob Presser, Onderdang (Destruction) sent shock waves through the Netherlands upon publication in 1965. “This book,” Presser wrote in the Introduction, “concerns the history of a murder. A murder, indeed a mass murder, on a scale never known before, with malice aforethought and committed in cold blood.” Dutch complacency was shattered. The younger generation, in particular, experienced disillusionment and, vicariously, a sense of responsibility for the Holocaust. At Westerbork, the transit point to Auschwitz, in the far northeastern corner of the country, a simple monument was formed by lifting and twisting the railroad tracks to the heavens. The poet Wim Ramaker commented on the significance:

And nobody saved them
To be sure there was much waving as they passed by
A gesture that always touched the deported deeply
but nobody shifted the point to life
or changed the track

In 1977 another monument, designed by Jan Wolker, rose in Amsterdam: a two hundred square foot surface of cracked mirrors reflecting the sky—a metaphor of universal cataclysm.

The chapter on Poland, running 75 pages, is the second longest, after Israel, in the book. Poland was the center of Ashkenazic culture. It had the largest minority population, 10 percent, of any European nation. In 1939, 40 percent of the nation’s labor force was employed by Jews, and Warsaw alone, with 350,000 Jews, boasted 442 synagogues and prayer houses. In no country was the slaughter greater or the devastation more complete. As Michael C. Steinlauf observes, “Poland was where the encounter between murderers and victims, Germans and Jews . . . played itself out.” The Poles, becoming hors de combat, found themselves witness to the Holocaust at close range, and so their reaction has a special interest. Six of the extermination camps were within the boundaries of pre-war Poland. At Auschwitz alone, approximately one million Jews, plus numbers of Poles, Gypsies, and others, lost their lives, most of them in gas chambers. Auschwitz became an official memorial site in 1948, coincident with the fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Here, however, as throughout the Soviet Bloc, it was forbidden to recognize explicitly the destruction of the Jews. And so the memorial was dedicated to “Poles and citizens of other nationalities” who died at Auschwitz. This submergence of the Holocaust into the new Soviet legitimation myth, the patriotic War Against Fascism, lasted until the Gorbachev era. Moreover, not only was the Jewish tragedy brushed aside but state-espoused anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism ended any possibility for the rebirth of Jewish community life in Poland. The Jews, instead of being viewed as victims, were viewed as enemies of the nation.

Meanwhile, works of scholarship, together with monuments and tributes, forwarded both remembrance and reconciliation. Two significant landmarks beg for notice. In 1979, Pope Jean Paul II, visiting Auschwitz, called attention to a Hebrew plaque recently placed there, and said, “This nation, which received from God Jehovah the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” itself experienced killing in special measure. It is not permissible for anyone to pass this plaque with indifference.” Some recaptioning of the texts of memorial tributes followed. In 1991 President Lech Walesa visited Israel and before its Parliament declared, quite spontaneously, “Please forgive us.” This paved the way for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s visit to Poland on the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw rebellion.

As earlier suggested, every country adds something of its own to the larger story. Not surprisingly, the Soviet Union, with by far the largest Jewish population, recorded by far the most deaths in the Holocaust. They occurred not in death camps, not from gas, but in massacres on the Eastern Front carried out by Einsatzgruppen, the special mobile killing squads of the German SS. At Babi Yar, a forested ravine on the edge of Kiev, some 30,000 of the city’s Jews were murdered in two days. In 1959, when it was planned to turn this mass grave into a park or soccer field, Yevgeny Yevtuschenko, a young Russian poet, wrote so movingly of the atrocity that the site became a place of remembrance instead. In Russian memory, of course, the victorious war with its huge toll obliterated the Holocaust. Not until 1990 was that English word transliterated into Russian; nor is there a single reference to Jews, says the author Zvi Gitelman, in the official Soviet history of the war.

In the Baltic states, at least Lithuania and Latvia, for Estonia is omitted from the volume, anti-Semitism was rife and the Jews were commonly identified with the oppressor Communist regime. Only 4 percent of Lithuanian Jews survived the war. How much of the loss can be ascribed to the Germans, or to the Lithuanians or the Russians, is unclear. In Latvia, it seems, most Jews were killed by ethnic Latvians. The Latvian Babi Yar was a green crater in a rolling woodland called Rumbula. The site had been forgotten, but after being rediscovered in 1961 was made into a park dedicated “To the Victims of Fascism.” Jewish authors of Latvian origin, most of them living in Israel, have been particularly attentive to the Holocaust. In 1990 the government in Riga issued official apology and regret for the death of 80,000 Jews and resolved to perpetuate their memory. In Bulgaria, the story revolves around the myth, as historian Frederick B. Chary dubs it, of Jewish survival and who should be credited for it, King Boris or the Communists. Actually, many were not saved, though by chance or design the overwhelming majority of Bulgarian Jews lived to immigrate to Israel, where they formed the second largest Alivah after Iraq.

Germany is a special case for a number of reasons. First, because the guilt of the Holocaust fell to the successor government of Hitler’s Reich. Second, because the devastation of its notable Jewish community began in 1933 and featured the flight of refugees before it ended in deportation and death. Third, the division between East and West gave a tortuous turn to the German response.(The two Germanies are discussed separately.) Appropriating the Communist conception of the War Against Fascism, the GDR shrugged off responsibility for the Holocaust. The Federal Republic, on the other hand, confronted that responsibility in denazification efforts, in documentation centers, in war crimes trials, in school curricula, memorialization, and, most specifically, in the comprehensive reparations settlement with Israel. Yet Konrad Adenauer and his successors at Bonn were more tolerant of Nazi residues in the new order than the government in the East. As the coauthors of the chapter on West Germany point out, this confrontation with a painful past is all about thought and memory, rarely about current aims and events. The Jews had disappeared. Most Germans today have never met a flesh-and-blood Jew, and they are desperate to forget the past the Jewish people want to remember. The first official memorial was Dachau, the original concentration camp, opened to the public on its 30th anniversary in 1965. Now it is visited by several hundred thousand tourists a year, as well as by busloads of school children on mandatory field trips. Thus far all efforts to build a worthy national memorial to the Holocaust—something as big as the crime—has failed. In 1996 the Tubingen historian Walter Jens, chairman of the jury to review designs for a great monument in Berlin, declared “there was no aesthetic “solution”” to the memory of mass death, and washed his hands of it.

Austria, although fully implicated in the Holocaust from the Aunchluss forward, would gladly wash its hands of it. Thus far all claims for reparations and restitution against the nation have been stonily resisted on the specious grounds that Austria was itself a victim of Nazi aggression. The 1986 election of Kurt Waldheim as president in the face of embarrassing disclosures of his Nazi past is seen by the author, Bruce F. Pauley, as “symbolic of the whole country’s amnesia.”

The editor of The World Reacts to the Holocaust, David Wyman, established himself as the foremost historian of the American response with his book, Abandonment of the Jews, in 1984. Here the severe strictures upon President Roosevelt in that book are somewhat moderated. Wyman credits him with the creation in January 1944 of the independent War Refugee Board, which may have assisted in the rescue of as many as 200,000 Jews; but he thinks it was done less for humanitarian reasons than to head off a brewing conflict between the State and Treasury departments over refugee matters. Throughout he finds Roosevelt basically indifferent to the plight of the Jews. He made no effort to educate the American people on the subject and on matters touching Palestine declined risking offence to Arab interests in the Middle East. Yet the president was idolized by the mass of American Jews. President Truman compiled a better record. He lowered the bar to admit more refugees—in the end 21 percent of Jewish survivors came to the United States—and his instantaneous recognition of the new state of Israel in 1948 laid a cornerstone of postwar American foreign policy.

In the first decade or so after the war most Americans did not know enough about the Holocaust to respond to it. Those who did read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, and saw the play or motion picture based on it. It was a remarkable educational force in part because the harshness of the story had been softened and the victim left with all her humanity. Films like Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) and The Pawnbroker (1965) “grazed” the Holocaust, as Wyman says, but did not come to terms with it. The first to do so was the docudrama, Holocaust, in 1978. The truth of the film, whatever its blemishes, was palpable. Nearly half of the American TV audience of 120 million people saw at least one of the film’s four long episodes. The book version sold a million copies within nine days of publication.(Allusion was earlier made to the film’s spectacular success abroad.) Several Holocaust memorials have been dedicated in the United States. At the head of the list is the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Originated in the Carter Administration, it was finally dedicated in 1993, the year that also marked the release of Steven Spielberg’s powerful motion picture, Schindler’s List. The Memorial Council under Elie Wiesel’s chairmanship successfully negotiated the conflicts, ethnic and religious and political, that threatened to doom the project. About two million people toured the museum during its first year, an estimated two-thirds of them non-Jewish; and it remains one of the most visited sites in the nation’s capital.

On some occasions the usually placid face of public commemoration breaks into vibrant controversy and galvanizes public sentiment. Such was the case of President Reagan’s decision to accept the invitation of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to visit the cemetery at Bitburg in 1985. Two thousand German soldiers, victims of World War II, rested there, and the president, by laying a wreath at their graves would memorialize the 40-year reconciliation between former enemies. Very well, but it was then discovered that 49 of the graves belonged to Waffen SS officers. Members of Congress, Jewish leaders, and other public figures called upon the President to cancel the visit or switch it to another cemetery. As it happened, the controversy broke when Wiesel was due to be honored at the White House for distinguished achievement. He could not, consistent with his honor, be silent about the Bitburg visit. Thoughtfully, respectfully, he pleaded with the President not to go to Bitburg. “That place, Mr. Preident, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.” Amidst rising debate, and in the face of divided public opinion, the president adhered to his plan. At the cemetery he said that reconciliation is not forgetting, yet his presence seemed to convey a different message. No one alert to this controversy could ever again think the words and symbols of ceremonial acts was mere empty gesture.

Although a secular event, the Holocaust, more than any other human disaster of the century, in the words of the scholar Richard L. Rubenstein, “resonates with the religio-mythico traditions of Biblical religion, the dominant religious tradition of Western civilization.” Inevitably it elicits a religious response, even if in the end it negates God in history. Nietzsche may have declared “God is dead,” but it was the Holocaust that drove the idea into consciousness. The litany that closes Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, after the hero Ernie Levy has died at Auschwitz, mocks the Hebrew blessing: “And praised. Auschwitz. Be. Maidanek. The Lord. Treblinka. And praised. Buchenwald. Be. Mauthausen. The Lord. Belzec. And praised. Sobibor . . .” until all the deathcamps are named. Hitler, of course, did not seek to eradicate a religion but a race. The historic slur upon the Jews as “Christ-killers” lingered in the background; it was not the motivating force. On the European continent, at least, he nearly succeeded in his goal, “The immensity of the Jewish losses,” Lucy Dawidowicz has written, “destroyed the biological basis for the continued communal existence of Jews in Europe.”

It was, in short, a genocide, yet distinguished from all the others by its size, scope, and efficiency. In recent years much light has been cast upon the question of the uniqueness of the Jewish catastrophe by the comparative study of genocides in modern history. These range from the Armenian, or perhaps the Native American, through the Ukranian, the Cambodian, and the Bosnian and Rawandan. A leading student, Steven T. Katz, emphatically declares the Jewish case “phenomologically distinct,” Most of the others can be clearly differentiated on one ground or another, including the crucial one: they did not intentionally aim to annihilate a race. Thus the Great Famine in the Ukraine, 1930—33, which may have left as many as five million people dead, was the result of a criminally flawed theory of political economy. Josef Stalin did not seek to exterminate the peasants but to exploit them. Katz also diminishes the Armenian comparison, though other scholars, among them the Israeli Yehuda Bauer, call it “the closest parallel” to the Holocaust. An estimated two million perished in the massacres perpetrated by Turkish nationalists in the First World War, Although primitive in execution, the mass killings bore some resemblance to the random terror and violence of the Einsatzgruppen, and even Hitler recognized the Armenian precedent for his assault on the Jews. The case of the Gypsies (Romani) is unusual, for this was a genocide under cover of the Jewish Holocaust. The museum in Washington makes place for the Gypsies in its permanent exhibit, yet in the opinion of lan Hancock, the leading scholar on the subject, persistently understates and misrepresents the enormity of the Gypsy loss.

The organization of The World Reacts to the Holocaust does not allow for critical discussion of topics that transcend national boundaries, such as theology, literature, and the arts. Just as some thought the Holocaust killed God, others were sure it killed the muse of poetry. Theodor Adorno, the German critic, famously declared, “After Auschwitz it is barbaric to write poetry.” He meant, of course, that the reality of the Holocaust shattered the perception of truth and beauty that had been the lifeblood of poetry. Silence seemed the only response. Poets soon found voice to address the Holocaust, however. Some of them, Wiesel and Primo Leivi, notably, were survivors of the death-camps and wrote prose memoirs that became classics. As the Holocaust was international, so is the verse, written in many languages. Paul Celan, the most admired of the poets, was born of Jewish parents in the Rumanian province of Bukovina, lived in Paris after the war, and wrote in German. His best-known poem, Death Fugue, not long after the war in which both his parents perished, is distinguished for its imaginative, if perverse, lyrical images—”black milk of daybreak,” “grave in the air.” The subject matter of this body of verse runs from persecution and death to loss and bereavement and memorialization. Some of it is marked by sardonic wit and some of it, for instance The Fuehrer Bunker, an amazing cycle of poems by the American A.D. Snodgrass, is bizarre. Of the dramas written about the Holocaust, easily the most important is Hochhuth’s The Deputy. It is historical witness as well, for the protagonist, Kurt Gerstein, is based upon the real person of that name who masqueraded as an SS officer in order to sabotage the killing machine and who sought the unwilling intervention of God’s deputy, Pope Pius XII, in the effort. The motion pictures treat standard themes: gallant rescue (The Assist Underground), heroic martyrdom (Hanna’s War), “choiceless choice” (Sophie’s Choice), farcical escape (Europa, Europa), anguished survival (Enemies: A Love Story).The best, however, Schindler’s List, is less about the Jews than it is about the redemption of a Nazi industrialist.

The British-born poet, Alan Sillitoe, scanning the 77,000 names of Czech victims carved on the great walls of the abandoned synagogue in Prague, said that “the dead god” was not allowed to hear of revenge:

Vengeance is Jehovah’s own;
To prove He’s not abandoned us
He gave the gift of memory

Collective memory is allied to history, yet, being suffused with feeling, is different from it. Remembrance of the Holocaust is especially important to Jews because it concerns their identity, their survival, as a people. It is important to the rest of us because of our share in the guilt of the Shoah and our common humanity. Reflections of this kind inevitably call up George Santayana’s aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And that is true. It is the reason why the nation has the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Yet it may also be true that those who remember the past too well hazard the future. Making a proper balance between memory and forgetting is a difficult public question. It is not answered, and scarcely addressed, in this book, but everything in it is relevant to the question.

We are now three generations removed from the event of the Holocaust. A school of historical revisionists has risen to deny the thing itself, which, as Wiesel has said, is like murdering the victims a second time. And there have been enough incidents of “skinhead” violence and right-wing political fanaticism to warrant continued vigilance. The issue between memory and forgetting is at the heart of Alan Massie’s recent novel, The Sins of the Father. With a bow to Romeo and Juliet, the story is set in Buenos Aires in 1964. The betrothal of the two lovers, Franz Schmidt and Becky Czinner, is upset when the latter’s father, a German Jew and Auschwitz survivor, unmasks the father of the young man as Rudi Kestner, a Nazi SS officer responsible for the death of many Jews. Israeli agents kidnap him and carry him to Jerusalem for trial. The Eichman trial is replayed five years later, though this time the true victims are the innocent, “Eichman’s children.” The former question of the guilt of the Holocaust is succeeded by the issue of the past burdening the future. An Israeli journalist, who serves as a kind of Greek chorus, says that the trial is “yet another performance of a ritual that commenced as consolation but is in danger of becoming a macabre form of celebration instead.” Kestner is convicted, of course. Franz and Becky marry at last, in England, though their lives are blighted forever. For all the endless rituals of remembrance, none has yet been found for oblivion.


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