Thursday, January 27, 2005

Never to Forget: the Jews of the Holocaust

On January 27, 1945, the Soviet Red Army liberated the Nazi death camp that has since become the emblem of the Holocaust: Auschwitz.

Located near the industrial town of Oswiecim, Poland, where more than 40 rail lines traversed the Polish countryside linking Eastern and Central Europe, Auschwitz was centrally located for the Nazi war machine, yet its supply lines were never bombed by the Allies. Expanded from a moderate size camp to an enormous complex including the Birkenau extermination center, Auschwitz was German industriousness at its worst. More than 3,000,000 people by its commandant's own reckoning, mostly Jews, were systematically killed at Auschwitz. From William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is this reckoning:
How many hapless innocent people - mostly Jews but including a fairly large number of others, especially Russian prisoners of war - were slaughtered at the one camp of Auschwitz? The exact number will never be known. Hoess himself in his affidavit gave an estimate of 2,500,000 victims executed and exterminated by gassing and burning, and at least another half million who succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total of about 3,000,000. Later at his own trial in Warsaw he reduced the figure to 1,135,000. The Soviet government, which investigated the camp after it was overrun by the Red Army in January 1945, put the figure at four million.

In 1941, Auschwitz was primarily a POW camp holding Russian war prisoners. The Soviet soldiers were the test cases for the gas chambers as Rudolf Hoss, the SS officer in charge of Auschwitz, noted in his autobiography Commandant of Auschwitz (and quoted here):
The gassing was carried out in the detention cells of Block II. Protected by a gas-mask, I watched the killing myself. The Russians were ordered to undress in the anteroom; they then quietly entered the mortuary, for they had been told they were to be deloused. The doors were then sealed and the gas shaken down through the holes in the roof. I do not know how long this killing took. For a little while a humming sound could be heard. When the powder was thrown in, there were cries of "Gas!," then a great bellowing, and the trapped prisoners hurled themselves against both the doors. But the doors held. They were opened several hours later, so that the place might be aired. It was then that I saw, for the first time, gassed bodies in the mass.

The killing of these Russian prisoners-of-war did not cause me much concern at the time. The order had been given, and I had to carry it out. I must even admit that this gassing set my mind at rest, for the mass extermination of the Jews was to start soon and at that time neither Eichmann nor I was certain how these mass killings were to be carried out.

The Eichmann that Hoss refers to is Adolf Eichmann, the ultra-organized bureaucrat who coordinated the Nazis' Final Solution that sought to kill all the Jews of Europe. From an Eichmann profile in the Atlantic Monthly from 1962, excerpted here:
This is a sane man, and a sane man is capable of unrepentant, unlimited, planned evil. He was the genius bureaucrat, he was the powerful frozen mind which directed a gigantic organization; he is the perfect model of inhumanness; but he was not alone. Eager thousands obeyed him. Everyone could not have his special talents; many people were needed to smash a baby's head against the pavement before the mother's eyes, to urge a sick old man to rest and shoot him in the back of the head; there was endless work for willing hands. How many more like these exist everywhere?

Putting perspective on this is almost impossible -- how can the blind conceive color or the deaf conceive sound? The scope of the Nazi horror is simply that difficult to grasp for rational people sitting comfortably in their homes in a free and open society like the US. Note this excerpt from a column by Jeff Jacoby, the Boston Globe columnist whose father survived internment at Auschwitz:
Auschwitz was a vast factory of death, the site of the greatest mass murder in recorded history. Even now, two generations later, it is almost impossible to grasp the scale on which the Nazis committed homicide there. It is suggested by a detail: From 1942 to 1944, the train platform in Birkenau was the busiest railway station in Europe. It held that distinction despite the fact that, unlike every other train station in the world, it saw only arrivals. No passengers ever left.

* * *
The very worst thing about Auschwitz was -- what? The staggering death toll? The gas chambers disguised as showers, in which thousands of naked Jews went daily to agonizing deaths? The endless cruelty and torture? The diseases that ravaged those the Nazis didn't kill first?

Was it the inhuman medical experiments carried out by doctors like Josef Mengele, such as the deliberate destruction of healthy organs or the sadistic abuse of twins and dwarfs? Was it the willing exploitation of Jewish slave labor by German corporations? The tens of thousands of murdered children and babies?

No. The very worst thing about Auschwitz is that, for all its evil immensity, it was only a fraction of the total. Even if it had never been built, the Holocaust would still have been a crime without parallel in human history. It would still have been something so monstrous that a new word -- genocide -- would have had to be coined to encompass it. Never before and never since has a government made the murder of an entire people its central aim. And never before or since has a government turned human slaughter into an international industry, complete with facilities for transportation, selection, murder, incineration. And none of it as a means to an end, but as an end in itself: The reason for wiping out the Jews was so that the Jews would be wiped out.

And for the survivors, what solace could they hope for? Aharon Appelfeld, a survivor of Auschwitz, found only this:
G-d did not reveal himself in Auschwitz or in other camps. The survivors came out of hell wounded and humiliated. They were betrayed by the neighbors among whom they and their forefathers had lived. They were betrayed by Western culture, by the Germans, by the language and literature they admired so much. They were betrayed by the great beliefs: liberalism and progress. They were betrayed by their own bodies.

What to hold onto to live a meaningful life? It was clear to many that the denial of one's Judaism, which characterized the emancipated Jew, was no longer possible. After the Holocaust it was immoral.

No wonder many of the survivors went on to Israel. No doubt, they wanted to get to a place where they could leave their victimhood behind and assert responsibility over their fate, a place where they could connect with the culture of their forefathers, to the language of the Bible, and to the land that gave birth to the Bible.

This is not a story with a happy ending. A doctor who survived, from a religious background, who sailed to Israel with us in June 1946, told us: "We didn't see G-d when we expected him, so we have no choice but to do what he was supposed to do: we will protect the weak, we will love, we will comfort. From now on, the responsibility is all ours."

Today, Israpundit is coordinating a BlogBurst, of which this site is an honored participant. Other participating sites are listed here.

Never to forget.

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