About 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. This figure is sometimes cited as “between 5 and 6 million” because of the differences between known deaths and the results of estimates and calculations (see Wikipedia’s discussion of totals). Virtually the whole of the Jewish population of Poland, the Baltics, and those parts of the Soviet Union occupied by the Nazis were swept away, utterly annihilated. For example, as you’ll recall from my post the other day, less than 3% of Polish Jews actually survived within Nazi-occupied territory; the remainder survived only due to Stalin’s deportations.
And yet the story of the Holocaust, as we in the West know it, is one of survival. We have Elie Wiesel’s narrative, Night. Schindler’s List. My son recently had a field trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum, and, as is their practice where possible, it was led by a survivor (though with something of a different story – her family had fled to Shanghai). It rather seems to me that even Anne Frank’s diary we think of as a “survival narrative” — at least, I recall thinking of it in those terms: reading the postscript that she died only a few short weeks prior to liberation, and thinking “she was so close to surviving.”
In general, the survivor narrative is considered to be crucial to understanding the Holocaust, and teaching about the Holocaust, and every now and again you come across articles worrying about the future of Holocaust education now that the survivors are aging and dying.
And that’s why I was stunned to read that there were two survivors of the death factory that was Belzec. (p. 474 in Final Solution by David Cesarani, which I still have checked out from the library). In the Babi Yar massacre, 29 survived the massacre. (This comes from Wikipedia, and the footnote is a bad link. Whether these 29 are all people who “played dead” and climbed out of the pits, or includes Jews in Kiev who didn’t report as ordered, or escaped the line somewhere along the way, isn’t clear.)
There’s a high school world history textbook online. What does it have to say? One page on the beginnings of persecution in Germany, and Kristallnacht. One page that the Jews sought refuge elsewhere, and that they were placed in ghettos. The third page, on the final solution says that killing squads killed, and other Jews were rounded up and taken to concentration camps/slave-labor prisons. Then selections began at Auschwitz, and women, young children, the old, and the sick were killed. (This sentence is poorly constructed; from what I understand, women were more likely to be judged unfit, but it was not a blanket statement as was the case with children and the elderly; what’s more, this paragraph implies that all such death camps had selections as Auschwitz did.) It’s pretty paltry knowledge — adequate to check off a basic comprehension of the past but not sufficient to have this shape your understanding of the world.
Anyway, I was thinking about this again because of an article the other day about the “forgotten Holocaust” — that is, the killings in the Soviet Union, where “Of the estimated less than three million Soviet Jews who lived under Nazi occupation, only around 115,000 survived.” This particular article featured a filmmaker’s project, and the link it gives to an article with more details on the project, reports that in the time of the Soviet Union there was simply no research on the Holocaust — something I’d read elsewhere, that the idea that the Jews were in any way victimized more than the rest of the USSR’s citizens wasn’t permitted.
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 labor camp as well as a death factory. These survivors were largely West European Jews, because Auschwitz is where West European Jews were usually sent. After World War II, West European Jewish survivors were free to write and publish as they liked, whereas East 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 West 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 Sobibór in occupied Poland.
I want to be careful not to build a strawman. If I were, it would be something like this:
Americans know about concentration camps, and gas chambers, but that’s about it, but the emphasis on survivors, and survivor narratives gives them the impression that the Holocaust was indeed survivable if you were healthy enough, and young enough (but not too young), and clever enough, and had sufficient Will to Live.
That’s clearly going too far. But what I’ve been reading lately makes me wonder, what are the consequences of the “survivor-oriented” nature of the way Americans speak about and learn about the Holocaust?
Of course, I suppose you could take a step back and ask,
What are the consequences, in general, of knowing about the Holocaust, whether a crappy high-school history version of “Nazis killed Jews, then end” or a more detailed understanding? How does it affect your perception of world affairs, of ethnic relations, your understanding of human nature? And how does this changed perception affect the way you live your life and the decisions you make?
And that’s all I’ve got for you. In a perfect world, I’d find someone to hire me to read and write all day. In the real world, I’ve got a load of laundry to switch out.
Image: memorial at Babi Yar. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Babi_Yar_17.jpg