Timothy Snyder: Holocaust ... The Ignored Reality

Roundup: Talking About History

[Timothy Snyder is Professor of History at Yale. His most recent book is The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke. He is at work on Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which will be published in October 2010. This text is based on a lecture delivered on May 9, 2009, in Vilnius at the 22nd annual Eurozine conference. (July 2009)]

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 laborers 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 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, Be zec, and Sobibor in occupied Poland.

Auschwitz as symbol of the Holocaust excludes those who were at the center 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 West Europeans, including West 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 center 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, Be zec, 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. Be zec, 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....
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Arnold Shcherban - 7/8/2009

"Pogroms" in the Soviet Union?
"Sent off" to Birobidzjan?
It just shows that you sir know next to nothing about life of Jews in the former Soviet Union, in particular, and the Soviet national policy, in general.

Randll Reese Besch - 7/3/2009

Many of whom died in pogroms or sent off to live in that frozen swamp area for a while called "Birobidzjan"(sp) to live out their lives until they could immigrate. Stalin just didn't need Jews as scape goats like Hitler did. He had his own prejudices as any other European concerning the 'alien Jew' but it wasn't a holy war as such. He just suppressed all religion as being antithetical to the gov't cum secular church of the Bolsheviks. All hail the 'people' through the politaboro and the maximum leader of the cult of Stalin. Former priest and bank robber who wanted to live forever.

Mr. Snyder? Some 6 million others were targeted for extermination too but are left out of most recollections. The "Holocaust Business" is only to benefit the Jews and no one else. A sad state of affairs indeed. That needs to change.

Arnold Shcherban - 7/1/2009

<whereas East European Jewish survivors, if caught behind the iron curtain, could not.>
So, it follows from the above quote that Eastern European and Soviet public did not know much about the other Nazi extermination camps, such as e.g. Treblinka, Be zec, and Sobibor? Or, perhaps, they knew very little even about Auschwitz?
The people in those countries did not haver much need for personal stories, though there would have been nothing wrong about the latter, since Nazi's presecution and prosecution of Jews and other ethnic groups, e.g. Gypsies (the fact such authors as Snyder don't mention much, if ever?!)
This is BS of the lowest probe, Mr. Snayder. I lived there and allow me to tell you, sir, that I know better.
Apparently, on these pages one can shoot out any lie, as long as it targets Left, especially Soviet and pro-Soviet regimes.
It was the Soviet Union who saved the most number of European Jews from genocide, while almost all other European "democracies" failed (most of them did not even care.)
It was the Soviet Union who broke the
spine of Nazi beast, while the remained western powers (US and UK) had been mostly waiting (conparatively) to finally pick up the laurels of already determined victory in 1944-45.
No other government in the whole history of the world has done as much as Soviet governments to eradicate anti-semitism in their country.
Just let me know, Mr. Snyder, if you want the overwhelming evidence to be presented supporting the last and other statements made in this comment.

Arnold Shcherban - 7/1/2009

<falsified the records of regions in which they had starved people to death>
Does the author have a solid evidence that Soviets did exactly that, i.e. intentionally starved people (Apparently he talks here about Ukranians - the so-called Golodomor) to death and falsified the population records afterwards or he relies on the fables of Ukranian ultra-nationalists and other anti-Left ideologues themselves guilty, directly or indirectly, in murdering thousands of Ukranians, Russians, and Jews? If he does, let's see it!