Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, April 11, 2011

Something everyone should know

About four years ago, I began to realize that we did not know enough about the Holocaust, that our vision was distorted, and that the scholarly landscape was changing. This began to dawn upon me when I went to see an exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. It was about the "Holocaust by Bullets" and it contained photos that I had never seen, more horrifying than those I was familiar with. I had read a novel called The White Hotel, about the shooting of all the Jews of Kiev (about 33,000) in the ravine of Babi Yar, but the full scope of these events did not yet fully register with me. Later I read Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, an important investigation of the groups of "ordinary" Germans (the Einsatzgruppen) who were sent to Eastern Europe to shoot hundreds of thousands of Jews, Poles, and others in the woods near their own towns ("Operation Reinhardt").

Still, it was not until I read Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, the ground-breaking recent work by Timothy Snyder, that I fully understood. More and more, students of the Holocaust are beginning to insist that Auschwitz is not an adequate symbol. Quite a few Jewish historians and writers are complaining about "Auschwitz tourism." It is stressed that we know more about Auschwitz because there were many survivors; virtually no one survived the gas at Treblinka, so we know little about that furnace of Hell. The familiar writings by Elie Weisel, Primo Levi, Charlotte Delbo, and others are all about Auschwitz. No one has written in this way about the "holocaust by bullets," yet as Snyder points out, by the time Auschwitz was fully operational, most of the Jews of Eastern Europe ("the bloodlands") were already dead.

Snyder wrote the following capsule of his own book. We owe it to ourselves and the lost millions to absorb at least this much (the second paragraph especially):

The subject of my article was the five largest policies of mass killing of civilians carried out by Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union: the German attempt to exterminate European Jews (circa 5.7 million deaths); German starvations of Soviet citizens (circa 4 million); German mass reprisals against civilians (at least 750,000); Soviet starvations of Soviet citizens (circa 5.5 million), and the shootings of the Soviet Great Terror (circa 700,000).

I argued that our understanding of European mass killing should be modified: that Auschwitz was less important to the Holocaust than Operation Reinhardt in occupied Poland and the death pits in the occupied USSR; that the Germans planned to kill more non-Jews than Jews and in the end killed the two in about equal numbers; and that German and Soviet killing policies overlapped in territory and should be considered together as part of a larger phenomenon.