Books: Persecution to extermination

David Cesarani writes an epic study of the Holocaust in his book 'Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949.'

December 1, 2016 11:59
4 minute read.
The holocaust

Hungarian Jews arrive at Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 1944. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

‘Auschwitz, unlike the extermination camps, was not designed for mass murder on an industrial scale so it was necessary for the camp administration to devise killing methods,” writes David Cesarani in his epic study of the Holocaust, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949. “They were on the job,” these industrial killers. “Far from being a smooth-running, clinical operation, this led to a great deal of trial and error.”

It’s hard today to come face to face with what happened only a bit over 70 years ago. We are taught a kind of defanged history of it, the sheer litany of horrific stories melded together into a list of evils.

Those who saw it firsthand also became inured to it and numb.

“We were met by the appalling sight of the dead,” recalled Filip Muller, a Jew from Slovakia. “I began to realize that there were some people lying at my feet who had been killed only a short while before.”

Cesarani was one of the greatest Holocaust scholars of the last generation. A professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, he greatly influenced Holocaust studies in the UK before his death last year.

“The Holocaust... has never been studied so extensively, taught so widely, or taken with such frequency as a subject for novels and films,” he recalls in the introduction.

However, popular understanding and the latest scholarship are not on the same playing field; the popular conception is colored by current agendas.

“Some lazily draw on an outdated body of research, while other utilize state-ofthe- art research but downplay inconvenient aspects of the newer findings,” he writes. For instance, while the freight car used to transport Jews is a common symbol of the mass murder, more Jews were murdered near their homes in Kiev in September 1941 than were deported by train from Belgium. Cesarani also argues that survivor testimony, which is used often in teaching about the Shoah, skews our understanding toward an unrepresentative sample of people’s experiences.

Obviously six million were killed, most did not survive.

The author wants to disabuse some other sacred cows here as well. He argues that whereas the Holocaust is often seen as a systematic persecution building bit by bit, this account “contests whether Nazi anti-Jewish policy was systematic, consistent or even premeditated.” Holocaust accounts are also separated from the war effort itself, which he argues is a mistake.

“The Jews paid the price for German military failure,” he argues, from emigration and expulsion to extermination. One gets the feeling here that this enumeration of “new research shows” may be replacing one large brush stroke with another.

It is worth wading through this excellent account at least to remind ourselves of so many pieces of the era that have been forgotten. For instance, within days of Hitler coming to power, more than 4,000 Jews marched in New York City.

These were veterans of the Great War and their march was designed to encourage a boycott of German goods. A far cry from today when most Jewish communities couldn’t assemble more than a few people to protest Iranian or Saudi-sponsored antisemitism.

The full scale of the Nazi program is brought to light in shocking detail. Within four months of taking over Austria, more than 23,000 Jewish businesses had been closed and only 5% of Jews had jobs.

Some 15,000 were reduced to taking free meals.

James Macdonald, a former writer for The New York Times, told an audience of Jews in the US that “if you think because you live in the United States you are immune you are very foolish.” He went on to help the US administration resettle Jewish refugees. One might see in the response to the refugees parallels with today as world leaders talked, but did little.

Experiences of Jews varied greatly. In Belgium, Jews resisted the Nazi deportation orders. The communist Partisans Armés assassinated a central collaborator.

But in Holland, leading Jews worked with the Germans.

“As long as one group of Jews thought they were immune they would be willing to help remove another, saving the occupiers a great deal of manpower.” In Norway, 930 Jews, about half the community, fled over the mountains to Sweden when the local police came for them. Not so in Warsaw. How could 300,000 Jews have been murdered by only 50 SS men and 200 local hires at Treblinka, wondered one Jewish man.

“[We] have exceeded them [the Germans] in malevolence,” he concluded.

The local Jewish council had aided and abetted the Nazis, up until the Warsaw Ghetto revolted. Cesarani is unsparing in his critique of the collaborators.

“To the majority of Poles and Ukrainians, Jews were perceived not as humans in dire need of assistance, but as commodities to be traded or a source of enrichment,” he writes. Even in Holland the local people didn’t help their fellow citizens. In southern France in the Italian zone of occupation, local people did subtly resist the antisemitic policies and Germans had to resort to measuring noses and checking for circumcised males.

In the end, like so many books about the Holocaust, this one leaves the reader with little faith in humanity. Not only did almost every European community collaborate with the Nazis and not resist them, but within almost every Jewish community the leadership collaborated and aided the Nazis in deporting their own people.

Never in human history have so many people been murdered so quickly by so few. It’s hard to forgive. It’s impossible to forget.

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