Historical Reckonings

I came across an interesting article, “Holocaust: The ignored reality,” in Eurozine about the victims of Nazi and Soviet mass killing in the easternmost regions of Europe, e.g. Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.  The author suggests that we may need to decenter, or better, work through Auschwitz in order to begin to confront the Holocaust (and the Gulags) and in turn, face history:

Though Europe thrives, its writers and politicians are preoccupied with death. The mass killings of European civilians during the 1930s and 1940s are the reference of today’s confused discussions of memory, and the touchstone of whatever common ethics Europeans may share. The bureaucracies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union turned individual lives into mass death, particular humans into quotas of those to be killed. The Soviets hid their mass shootings in dark woods and falsified the records of regions in which they had starved people to death; the Germans had slave labourers dig up the bodies of their Jewish victims and burn them on giant grates. Historians must, as best we can, cast light into these shadows and account for these people. This we have not done. Auschwitz, generally taken to be an adequate or even a final symbol of the evil of mass killing, is in fact only the beginning of knowledge, a hint of the true reckoning with the past still to come.

The author, Timothy Snyder, continues:

The very reasons that we know something about Auschwitz warp our understanding of the Holocaust: we know about Auschwitz because there were survivors, and there were survivors because Auschwitz was a labour camp as well as a death factory. These survivors were largely western European Jews, because Auschwitz is where western European Jews were usually sent. After World War II, western European Jewish survivors were free to write and publish as they liked, whereas eastern European Jewish survivors, if caught behind the Iron Curtain, could not. In the West, memoirs of the Holocaust could (although very slowly) enter into historical writing and public consciousness.

This form of survivors’ history, of which the works of Primo Levi are the most famous example, only inadequately captures the reality of the mass killing. The Diary of Anne Frank concerns assimilated European Jewish communities, the Dutch and German, whose tragedy, though horrible, was a very small part of the Holocaust. By 1943 and 1944, when most of the killing of western European Jews took place, the Holocaust was in considerable measure complete. Two thirds of the Jews who would be killed during the war were already dead by the end of 1942. The main victims, the Polish and Soviet Jews, had been killed by bullets fired over death pits or by carbon monoxide from internal combustion engines pumped into gas chambers at Treblinka, Bełzec, and Sobibor in occupied Poland.

Auschwitz as symbol of the Holocaust excludes those who were at the centre of the historical event. The largest group of Holocaust victims – religiously Orthodox and Yiddish-speaking Jews of Poland, or, in the slightly contemptuous German term, Ostjuden – were culturally alien from western Europeans, including western European Jews. To some degree, they continue to be marginalized from the memory of the Holocaust. The death facility Auschwitz-Birkenau was constructed on territories that are today in Poland, although at the time they were part of the German Reich. Auschwitz is thus associated with today’s Poland by anyone who visits, yet relatively few Polish Jews and almost no Soviet Jews died there. The two largest groups of victims are nearly missing from the memorial symbol.

An adequate vision of the Holocaust would place Operation Reinhardt, the murder of the Polish Jews in 1942, at the centre of its history. Polish Jews were the largest Jewish community in the world, Warsaw the most important Jewish city. This community was exterminated at Treblinka, Bełzec, and Sobibor. Some 1.5 million Jews were killed at those three facilities, about 780,863 at Treblinka alone. Only a few dozen people survived these three death facilities. Bełzec, though the third most important killing site of the Holocaust, after Auschwitz and Treblinka, is hardly known. Some 434,508 Jews perished at that death factory, and only two or three survived. About a million more Polish Jews were killed in other ways, some at Chelmno, Majdanek, or Auschwitz, many more shot in actions in the eastern half of the country.

All in all, as many if not more Jews were killed by bullets as by gas, but they were killed by bullets in easterly locations that are blurred in painful remembrance. The second most important part of the Holocaust is the mass murder by bullets in eastern Poland and the Soviet Union. It began with SS Einsatzgruppen shootings of Jewish men in June 1941, expanded to the murder of Jewish women and children in July, and extended to the extermination of entire Jewish communities that August and September. By the end of 1941, the Germans (along with local auxiliaries and Romanian troops) had killed a million Jews in the Soviet Union and the Baltics. That is the equivalent of the total number of Jews killed at Auschwitz during the entire war. By the end of 1942, the Germans (again, with a great deal of local assistance) had shot another 700,000 Jews, and the Soviet Jewish populations under their control had ceased to exist.

There were articulate Soviet Jewish witnesses and chroniclers, such as Vassily Grossman. But he and others were forbidden from presenting the Holocaust as a distinctly Jewish event. Grossman discovered Treblinka as a journalist with the Red Army in September 1944. Perhaps because he knew what the Germans had done to Jews in his native Ukraine, he was able to guess what had happened there, and wrote a short book about it. He called Treblinka “hell,” and placed it at the centre of the war and of the century. Yet for Stalin, the mass murder of Jews had to be seen as the suffering of “citizens.” Grossman helped to compile a Black Book of German crimes against Soviet Jews, which Soviet authorities later suppressed. If any group suffered especially under the Germans, Stalin maintained wrongly, it was the Russians. In this way Stalinism has prevented us from seeing Hitler’s mass killings in proper perspective.

Read the rest of the article here.  I think it’s well worth the time.


3 thoughts on “Historical Reckonings

  1. The article interestingly mentions Vasily Grossman, who Mikhail recently recommended to me (I was looking for a good Russian novel to read). I have to say, his book Life and Fate is really tremendous so far, both in terms of the historical narrative – Hitler’s scorched earth policy in the East and the brutal struggle for Stalingrad – and its philosophical digressions. Chapter 18 in particular, written in the voice of a mother writing to her son from the soon-to-be-liquidated ghetto is immensely powerful and should really be required reading.

  2. Levinas– almost obsessively–refers a great deal to Grossman’s novel towards the end of his life. I think, for one, there is a theme that runs through Grossman’s novel, e.g. the crisis of European culture, which is something Levinas considers with more and more frequency throughout his career (esp in his Jewish writings). Moreover, there are particular images Levinas finds so compelling, and comes back to again and again. Here’s one from an interview collected in Is it Righteous to Be?:

    Toward the book’s end, when Stalingrad has already been rescued, the German prisoners, including an officer, are cleaning out a basement and removing the decomposing bodies. The officer suffers particularly from this misery. In the crowd, a woman who hates Germans is delighted to see this man more miserable than the others. Then she gives him the last piece of bread she has. This is extraordinary. Even in hatred there exists a mercy stronger than hatred (p6).

    This, I think, is a fairly succinct statement of what L means by “ethics.”

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