Remembering the Holocaust

January 27th, 2009

The Auschwitz concentration camp was formally liberated by Soviet forces on January 27, 1945. In the 64 years since, Auschwitz has come to symbolize the Holocaust. However, Auschwitz (where about 1,200,000 people died) was only one, albeit the most efficient, of six specialized “death camps,” all of them in Poland. The other five were Treblinka (800,000), Belzec (600,000), Majdanek (360,000), Sobibor (250,000), and Chelmno (250,000). Other camps, mostly devoted to slave-labor industries, were not specialized death camps, although millions died in them from disease, maltreatment, and execution for various offenses.

The numbers (source and source) of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, military prisoners of various allied countries, and others who died can only be approximated. It’s generally accepted that the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust is about 6,000,000, including about 1,500,000 children. The real numbers will never be known.

Even those Nazis intimately involved in the killing give different numbers, and the much-vaunted precision of German record-keeping is, at least in this case, a myth. For example, this from the Nuremberg testimony of SS Obersturmbannführer (equivalent to the military rank of lieutenant colonel) Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz:

I commanded Auschwitz [from 1 May 1940] until 1 December 1943, and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease making a total dead of about 3,000,000. This figure represents about 70 or 80 percent of all persons sent to Auschwitz as prisoners, the remainder having been selected and used for slave labor in the concentration camp industries; included among the executed and burned were approximately 20,000 Russian prisoners of war (previously screened out of prisoner-of-war cages by the Gestapo) who were delivered at Auschwitz in Wehrmacht transports operated by regular Wehrmacht officers and men. The remainder of the total number of victims included about 100,000 German Jews, and great numbers of citizens, mostly Jewish, from Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, or other countries. We executed about 400,000 Hungarian Jews alone at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.

Although sometimes quoted, some of these numbers are almost certainly wrong. Most serious researchers and historians put the number of dead at Auschwitz in the range of 1,100,000 to 1,600,000, about 90 percent of them Jews. Why would the commandant of the camp himself be wrong? Höss gave strange numbers in both his autobiographical book, written while a prisoner in Poland, and his Nuremberg testimony. Perhaps he just didn’t know, or perhaps he was using numbers obtained from others, when he went from Auschwitz to the SS camp inspectorate office and worked with the administrators of many camps. Some believe Höss may have written the book under pressure from his Polish captors.

One doesn’t have to be a Jew to consider the holocaust the most disturbing event in Western history. I’ve spent a lot of time, both academic and personal, studying it and the historical period in which it occurred. This has included reading a large number of books and academic studies, participating in discussions and seminars, and studying informally with a rabbi who himself survived two camps in France and was a legitimate expert.

I’ve only been to only one concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen in Germany, which was razed by the British after it was liberated to stop a typhus epidemic. All that’s there now is a small memorial center, a monument, and large, low mounds beneath which the remains of human victims are interred. Row upon row upon row of mounds, thousands and thousands of people. I’ve studied the einsatzgruppen, SS killer formations which, along with their associated reserve police battalions, roamed through Poland, Russia, and other regions. I also know that some countries, and their people, tried and largely succeeded in protecting their Jewish citizens; the people of Denmark and Bulgaria were heroic indeed. Other countries chose instead to hand over their Jewish countrymen to the Nazis or, in some cases, to kill them themselves. France, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, and Poland come to mind. Countries allied in the war against fascism knew enough, at some point, to have saved many lives, but they largely did nothing. And the Vatican knew enough early on to have saved possibly millions, had they but wished to. This profound failure calls into question the belief of the Church in the most fundamental principles upon which it exists.

I’ve pondered the questions everyone else grapples with. Why did the Nazis consider less than one percent of their citizens (about 580,000 of 62,000,000) to be such a serious threat? The answers can only lie in centuries of anti-semitism, certainly from the time of the Crusades, and the need for a revolutionary movement to have scapegoats. How did a country of cultured refinement descend to such unspeakable depths? Did the German people really know what was happening? Perhaps not all knew, at least not the details, but there were literally hundreds of thousands of Germans directly involved in and helping manage the killings. They knew, and through them so did millions of other Germans. And why did so many in other countries, themselves at war with Germany, willingly surrender Jews to the certainty of death? To simply say “anti-semitism” is accurate but far from sufficient.

And perhaps the most irritating question, often heard from Holocaust-deniers and others who question the overwhelming burden of historical evidence, is this: Why did the Jews permit themselves to be slaughtered? Why did they march off to their deaths like so many docile sheep? There are several answers, none of them very comforting. Any subset of any people can be systematically slaughtered if those in charge wish to do it and the vast majority of their followers support it or at least acquiesce. When the sheer power of the state is applied against a relatively small number of civilians, it cannot be resisted. A few trained and armed soldiers and policemen can control a large number of average people, especially people who consider themselves full-fledged citizens of their country and who cannot bring themselves to believe such a monstrous crime could be instigated by their state. Until it’s too late. Of course, there were some who saw it coming and got themselves and their families out of danger, and there were others who resisted as much as they could. But generally, it was too few and too late.

There are many reasons why the Holocaust should never be forgotten, but one may be more important than all others. It’s true, of course, that there have been other examples of the horror of large-scale genocide, and there will be others. But there is a critical difference. This genocide was carried out against an accomplished people, a people who have contributed more to humanity than any other, by another people, meaning much of Europe, to whom the world looks for leadership and example in culture, achievement, and humanitarian impulse. If humanity could so seriously fail in that case, who is ever safe, anywhere?

The anniversaries of various events in the history of the Holocaust are useful for remembering, which is a fundamental obligation we owe to all those who perished. And it’s an obligation of every fortunate beneficiary of Western culture, Jews and non-Jews alike. The state of Israel is the homeland created by and for Jews all over the world in the aftermath of the Holocaust. As the citizens of that small country of a few million struggle daily to defend their very lives against hundreds of millions, many of whom would see them perish in yet another Holocaust, the rest of us cannot lose sight of the simple fact that history can repeat itself. And if all of us are not vigilant, it almost certainly will. For the benefit of all humanity, the civilized people of the world must draw a line beyond which we will permit no transgression. For the sake of us all, we must embrace as a guiding principle the solemn obligation not only to remember but to ensure that it never happens again. Never again.

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8 Responses to “Remembering the Holocaust”

  1. doris |

    Right on! Overwhelming numbers—beyond sad, proves you gotta fight the system.

  2. Jan |

    There is a sobering lesson here for everyone. If the numerous arsenals of nuclear weapons designed by clever, accomplished minds honed on Western culture are ever used it will be an even bigger holocaust for humanity.

  3. Lisa |

    I’ll never forget the trip I took to Auschwitz soon after the fall of the Berlin wall. It was a chilling experience. I hesitated to go to the Holocaust Museum when it opened in Washington DC because I thought I had seen enough. I finally went there and am glad I did. It is perhaps the most extraordinary museum I have ever visited, and I will return there again.

  4. Kevin |

    I’m glad that you mentioned the other main ethnic group targeted by the Nazi regime along with some of the other groups likewise targeted. It’s important to remember that the Holocaust was not just about Jews.

    However, as a human being who also happens to be a Jew, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the apparent suggestion that the contributions of any ethnicity makes their suffering any more onerous or noteworthy. Genocide is an unmitigated inherent evil. Period.

    I know of no other way to say this than to just be blunt so here goes… To my way of looking at it, trying to qualify the evilness of genocide with appeals to ethnic attributes is akin to the very rationalizations used to justify the genocide in the first place. It is, IMO, a very slippery slope that is potentially very dangerous because it can be used to justify committing evil towards other ethnic groups. Considering all genocide as equally evil seems much safer to me.

    That said… if we do indulge the side issue of ethnic contributions as a facet of the Holocaust then I would just point out that there is a supreme irony at the very heart of it because the Germans themselves were then (and have continued to be since) an exceptionally accomplished ethnic group. Indeed, it has been argued by others that many Jews were able to excel in pre-war Germany for this very reason and in fact were drawn to living there for that very reason. Einstein being one of the most famous examples, but there are many others.

    But then I suppose that I’m more ideally situated to appreciate this particular irony. Whereas I am a Jew because my mother is a Jew, I am also part highland Aryan because that’s what my father is. And of course the highland Aryans always considered themselves superior to the lowland Aryans because they considered themselves to be ethnically purer. It is perhaps no accident that Hitler began to formulate his sick ideology in highland Aryan Austria.

  5. Tom |

    Kevin, I completely agree that genocide is inherently evil, regardless of the ethnicity, race, religion, or any other identifying characteristic of the victims. I didn’t suggest otherwise.

    The point I made was that there is a critical difference that must be taken into account when considering the Holocaust and its implications. The perpetrators were among the most civilized and cultured people at the heart of Western civilization. That includes the Germans especially, but it also includes other Europeans who supported and sometimes assisted in attempting to carry out the Final Solution. The victims were also a highly civilized and cultured people whose contributions to humanity have far exceeded what might be expected, given their relatively small numbers.

    It’s far too easy to look at other examples of genocide, perhaps smaller in numbers of victims but no less horrific, and dismiss them to some extent because primitive cultures are involved or because they’re one-off events. The Holocaust forces us to look that evil in the face and recognize what it really represents–the harsh reality that man’s base nature can be unleashed against any people anywhere, including us, our families, and our friends.

    The Holocaust also forces us to confront anti-semitism, one of the enduring evils of history. This wasn’t just ethnic cleansing writ large enough to be called genocide. This was a concerted effort to erase Jews from the face of the earth. It was a primary goal of the state, often pursued to the detriment of other highly important goals. Anti-semitism has been a blight on civilization for almost two millennia, and we still see its ugly face in many parts of the world, particularly in Europe. We also see it today in the Middle East, where another people, far less cultured but no less determined, again seek to exterminate Jews.

    No, the Holocaust was not uniquely evil as genocide per se; it was, however, disturbing proof of where deep-seated prejudice can take even the most civilized of people.

  6. Trevor |

    Very good piece Tom!

  7. Brian |

    The Holocaust was horrible, but it certainly wasn’t the worst case of mass-murder in history, probably not even the worst case of mass-murder in the 20th century.

    It depends on whose number you believe, but Stalin starved to death somewhere between 3 million and 10 million Ukrainians between 1932 and 1934. Russian historians, of course, lay claim to 3 million, and Ukrainians claim 10 million. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

    The railroad that the Japanese built from Malaysia to Burma is known to have claimed the lives of at least 100,000 people. The truth is, we don’t have a clue how many more than that died on this project alone, but it is almost certainly higher – a lot higher, especially in light of what we know the Japanese did in Nanking.

    Mao and his folks murdered millions between 1950 and 1970. After these so-called political “subversives” were executed, their bodies were thrown in barns and warehouses to decompose enough to attract flies, whose maggots were then fed upon by chickens.

    Hitler wasn’t the first of the 20th century to practice ethnic cleansing, and he certainly wasn’t the most accomplished at it – not by a long shot.

    Anybody else here ever heard of the progroms in Russia in the late 1920s?

    Think about all of this the next time you want to pull the lever for a politician who promises to do something for you, because if the government has the power to do something for you, it also has the power to do something to you.

  8. Someone |

    You wrote: “France, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, and Poland come to mind.” – this is not exactly true.

    Poland was no more when Germans killed Jews there. And Poland resisted German army as much as it could.

    In France about 80% of the Jews survived and the number of Jews there after the war was greater than before because many sought for asylum there. Although it is true that France cooperated with the Nazis it seems that the Nazi pressure on France to surrender the Jews was not that big.

    Hungary also surrendered the Jews only after its government was overthrown by Germans.

    But you missed other countries, for example, Slovakia which even paid Germany for each killed Sloivakian Jew.

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