The Diplomat of Shoah History Does Yale historian Timothy Snyder absolve Eastern Europe of special complicity in the Holocaust?

By David Mikics|July 26, 2012 7:00 AM TABLET MAGAZINE

The dispute between Poles and Jews about the Nazi period can move in unsettling directions, ones that make an unhealed wound hurt even worse. Perceived insults, like President Barack Obama’s recent reference [1] to “Polish concentration camps,” are seen by right-wing Poles as part of a plot to blacken their country’s name in the West. Some on the Polish right are also quick to argue that Poles who assisted the Nazis in anti-Jewish actions, or who slaughtered Jews on their own initiative (such pogroms occurred both during and just after the war), acted from understandable motives: After all, Jewish “treachery” had handed their country to the Bolsheviks. But the treachery is a fiction. Polish Jews were overwhelmingly anti-Communist, and the Soviets deported many of them.

The Polish role in the Holocaust had other roots, darker ones: traditional anti-Semitism and the greedy desire for Jewish property. When the historian Jan Gross in his books Neighbors and Fear (and, most recently [2], Golden Harvest, written with Irena Grudzinska Gross) charged his fellow Poles with aiding the Nazi genocide and profiting from the death of the Jews in their midst, he wanted them to mourn the vanished Jewish lives they had known so well, to come to terms with their guilt, since many of them had been indifferent or complicit or satisfied in the face of the Shoah. Instead, Lech Walesa, the hero of Solidarity and former president of Poland, called Gross “a mediocre writer … a Jew who tries to make money.” (Gross’ father was Jewish.) When Gross, who teaches at Princeton, returns to his native Poland, he has to contend with public prosecutors who, a few years ago, threatened to take him to court for “slandering the Polish nation.” His fellow historian Jan Grabowski says that Gross demolished the myth of Polish innocence by focusing on the reaction of Poles to the murder of 3 million of their fellow citizens, a reaction that was often craven, money-hungry, and cruel. “He was the one who brought this stinking mess into the open, single-handedly,” Grabowski remarks.

Enter Timothy Snyder.

The Yale historian’s Bloodlands [3]: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin—hailed by Antony Beevor when it appeared in 2010 as “the most important work of history for years”—is grim and magisterial; it puts together the tragedy of the Holocaust with earlier mass murders in the regions that Snyder christens the “bloodlands” (Lithuania, Latvia, Byelorussia, Poland, and Ukraine). Snyder begins with the terrible famine that Stalin inflicted on Ukraine (more than 3 million dead); he goes on to the Great Terror, in which 700,000 died, including many Poles; and he writes movingly of the 3 million Soviet prisoners of war whom the Nazis starved to death, many of them in Byelorussian camps that were little more than barbed wire strung around masses of helpless, doomed POWs.

Like Gross, Snyder seeks to explain the actions of the non-Jews of Eastern Europe, the nearest bystanders to the Holocaust. But unlike Gross, he demands no conscience-searching from Eastern Europeans. Snyder points out that the Soviets and the Germans had ravaged the countries of the bloodlands, whose loss of sovereignty led to social chaos, hunger, threats of death, and deportation. Suddenly, Poles, Ukrainians, and others realized there was a starkly unavoidable presence in their midst, the German desire to kill Jews. It should not be a surprise, Snyder argues, that, by and large, they had little empathy for the Jews. Neither did we Americans, and we were thousands of miles away from Hitler and Stalin. The great debate between Snyder and Gross is a key juncture in the politics of memory in Eastern Europe and a test case for our efforts to understand what the Nazi extermination of the Jews meant to the part of the world where it happened.


I recently met Snyder for coffee in New Haven’s Blue State Café. Excited and nervous, he was anticipating the birth of his second child, due within days of our meeting. When he saw me he quickly folded his newspaper, and we launched, without throat-clearing, into our inescapable theme: mass murder. Snyder has the look of a hard-worked scholar on the brink of middle age—not unfriendly, but with a certain wariness about being misread; he seemed tired but in conversation was alert and careful. This fall, he said, he is preparing to teach a course solely about the destruction of the Jews and is writing a book on the causes of the Holocaust.

‘That Soviet power didn’t matter at all is just a polemical, indefensible view.’
Although Bloodlands describes an array of Nazi and Soviet mass murders, its secret, as every reader discovers, is that it turns out to be a book about the Holocaust. Why the Shoah is the inevitable end point of the story that Bloodlands tells is a question that Snyder elicits without fully answering: The Holocaust stands out because it is the most developed instance of genocide. Every single Jew was marked down for murder, with the goal of making the Jewish nation vanish forever from the earth, and the German state devoted its best resources to this end. The disappearance of the Jews became an absolute priority; this was not true of the Roma and Sinti, or the Soviet POWs, or the Ukrainians under Stalin, who suffered just as the Jews did, but whose fate did not carry the same symbolic weight.

The utopian, absurd idea that getting rid of Jews means liberating non-Jewish humanity points to the central, though hidden, role that Jews played in the Nazi imagination. Jews, the people of the Ten Commandments, were the incarnations of conscience; their presence on the earth reminded humanity of the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. No other genocide took on such a task: the redemption of the world from the disease of conscience. The victims of Stalin and Mao died just like Hitler’s, but their deaths weren’t intended to have the world-altering significance that the annihilation of the Jews had for the Nazis.

Unusually for a historian in his field, Snyder—who is from small-town southwestern Ohio, where his family has lived for two centuries—has no Jewish and no Eastern-European ancestry. “I grew up as an American kid with no connection to any of these places,” he told me. In college in the late 1980s, he said, “I thought I was going to grow up and become a diplomat and negotiate nuclear arms,” but with the fall of the Soviet Union, he veered toward Eastern European studies, where he discovered high-voltage connections between intellectual life, politics, and national identity and learned to speak Polish and Ukrainian.

While Snyder never planned to become a Holocaust historian, it appears that he may now be turning into one. In 2008, he wrote a masterful essay [4] on the Shoah in Volhynia, integrating survivor testimony with a measured account of the roles that Germans and Ukrainians played in the killing of Jews. In Volhynia, Snyder wrote, Jews were in greater danger from Ukrainian nationalists than they were from Germans. “Many gentiles came to see the murder of Jews as corresponding to their personal economic interests,” he explained. He ended his essay with a haunting passage that he later incorporated into Bloodlands, in which he recounted the inscriptions scrawled on the walls of the synagogue in Kovel. Here, where 12,000 Jews awaited certain death, they wrote their parting messages, nearly unbearable for the reader (“My beloved mama! There was no escape. They brought us here from outside the ghetto, and now we must die a terrible death. … We kiss you over and over.”).

Continue reading: Knowing the languages [5]

Snyder thinks that his vast knowledge of Eastern Europe, its politics, its history, its languages, is his best qualification to write about the Holocaust. “There’s a basic problem with the history of the Holocaust,” Snyder explained. “The people who do it don’t know the necessary languages.” The pioneering Raul Hilberg relied almost exclusively on German sources; Saul Friedländer, author of a monumental volume, The Years of Extermination, is similarly ignorant of the languages of the regions where the killing took place. “Saul’s books, and in general the big books we know about the Holocaust, are basically books about Germany,” Snyder remarked. The exceptions, the historians who do look beyond Germany, are, ironically, mostly Germans. Many of them, like Snyder, are still in their forties, and the most impressive of them is probably Christoph Dieckmann, who knows Lithuanian, Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew; he recently published the first volume of his study of the Holocaust in Lithuania, whose 2,500 pages make it the most comprehensive account yet written (and that’s only volume one).

But the new multinational histories of the Shoah are a very recent phenomenon. For decades, most Holocaust historians focused solely on the Nazi perpetrators. The first wave of Holocaust history, under Hilberg’s influence, insisted on seeing the event through German eyes, and Hilberg disagreed sharply with younger historians’ interest in the life stories of Hitler’s Jewish victims. (“The perpetrator had the overview,” Hilberg wrote. “He alone was the key.”) He advocated, instead, a wide-angle perspective on how the vast work of killing occurred. Yet these days, Holocaust studies now mostly means looking in detail at the small communities where Jews were so often murdered, and it relies on survivor testimony. Snyder, who is clearly a large-scale explainer, has a problem with such “micro-studies.” “The field now is in a very micro-mode,” he said. “And what I think about the micro-mode is that it’s a little bit self-indulgent, because you talk about Poles and Ukrainians and Jews, and it ends up confirming your own view about Poles and Ukrainians and Jews.” The distinguished Holocaust historian Omer Bartov, an Israeli who teaches at Brown, wrote a groundbreaking study of the Wehrmacht, but now he is studying the home of his ancestors, the town of Buczacz in Ukraine. “So, Omer writes a book about the army, then he writes a book about Buczacz,” Snyder noted. “The concern is that when you get that intimate and that small, you can’t really catch the big things. You see that in [Gross’] Neighbors … it can’t really have full explanations.”

In Snyder’s view, Bartov and Gross have dodged the biggest question: why the Holocaust took place in Eastern Europe rather than elsewhere. “Actually figuring out how Soviet power mattered,” how it made possible the murder of Jews as well as all the other murders, is the true theme of Bloodlands, Snyder insisted to me. “That it didn’t matter at all is just a polemical, indefensible view. That the Soviets were just as bad as the Germans is also a polemical and indefensible view.”

But how does the collapse of state power at the hands of the Soviets lead to herding people into barns and setting them on fire, as Poles did to Jews in Jedwabne, the town studied in Gross’ Neighbors? Unlike Bartov and Christopher Browning, who describe the growing willingness of German soldiers and policemen to commit atrocities on the Eastern front, Snyder doesn’t make the breakdown of authority in Eastern Europe seem very real. Where Bartov and Browning make you feel the dissolving of moral inhibitions and show how warfare becomes murder, Snyder holds back. In a passage from Bloodlands that Bartov, who reviewed the book in Slavic Review, found deeply implausible, Snyder wrote that “there was often an overlap of ideology and interests between Nazis and local nationalists in destroying the Soviet Union and (less often) in killing Jews. Far more collaborators simply said the right things, or said nothing and did what they were told.” Here, Snyder turns the anti-Jewish deeds of Eastern Europeans into individual choices that on the whole seem rather reasonable. But this slights the collective nature of the phenomenon, the excited and dreadful group bonding that was perceived by all involved. One historian, Andrzej Zbikowski, notes the “exceptional, extreme cruelty” of the Polish attacks on Jews, the use of pitchforks and axes to mutilate bodies. In Jewish survivors’ accounts “no reflexes of compassion were recorded, nor even a turning of the head in shame,” Zbikowski asserted.

Snyder demonstrates that what permitted Poles to kill Jews in the wake of the German invasion, and then again after the German defeat, was the lack of a strong authority, a missing set of rules. But he avoids the question of what the pogroms accomplished—namely, a revival of the society that had been torn apart by Soviet occupation. That society came together to oppose not the conquering Germans, but the helpless Jews. The Poles’ resulting sense of guilt, which Gross emphasizes, largely disappears in Snyder’s work, replaced by an evenly distributed wrongdoing. Non-Jews steal from non-Jews, too, and kill them, Snyder reminds us. But these remarks do little to explain the rampant Polish eagerness to despoil the Jews who lived alongside them, a social fact that many observers saw at the time as a sickness. What do the killings of Polish (and Jewish) officers at Katyn, terrible as they were, have to do with Poles persecuting Jews? In his collage of terrible events, Snyder sometimes suggests that there were crucial links among these disasters. But he doesn’t demonstrate what those links actually were.

In our interview, Snyder wrestled with the question of Polish collaboration. “Why are they willing to take part?” he asked me, and groped toward an answer. “Mainly because of the previous destruction of their state by the Soviet Union. They’re trying to redeem themselves, to undo their humiliation.” Are the Poles—and the Ukrainians, and the Lithuanians—to be faulted for this behavior, or should we try to stick to neutral description? Snyder in Bloodlands is still the diplomat he once wanted to become; he stays neutral. He badly wants to avoid the nerve-fraying quarrels, the nationalist squabbles that Gross dived into.


Bloodlands has been translated into Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian, and when readers from those countries read the book, they are forced to reckon with the enormity of the Holocaust. Similarly, when Jews read Bloodlands, they are challenged to acknowledge the struggles of other groups, the mass death that afflicted them, too. We are reminded that everyone’s fate is interlocked with everyone else’s. This is one reason—a fitting, even necessary one—for writing, as Snyder does, about all the murdered peoples of the bloodlands together. But Snyder also suggests that there is a second, just as pressing reason: the need to understand the role that earlier cases of mass death played in the later ones. Here, Snyder falls short. He falls back on an eloquent empathy for all the lost, rather than reaching the causal explanation that he hints at throughout his book. The famine in Ukraine did not lead to the death of the Soviet POWs, nor did the Great Terror lead to the Holocaust.

Continue reading: The limits of diplomacy [6]

Snyder soundly rejects the argument of the conservative 1980s historian Ernst Nolte, who said that the Germans imitated Soviet mass murders. But if Nolte is wrong (and he is), what, then, do Bolshevik crimes have to do with Nazi ones? When I asked Snyder why he is so intent on putting Holocaust history in an Eastern European context, he said, “It relativizes. When you read Jan’s book about the Jews being burned in the barn [in Jedwabne], it’s a horrible thing, but when you know that there were a couple of thousand instances like that, most of them not involving Jews, it relativizes it. We see it more as a question of what humans can do to humans.” In 1943-44 there was a war between Ukrainian nationalists and their Polish counterparts. Ukrainians tortured Poles and burned them alive, men, women, and children; and Poles responded in kind, with violence just as gruesome. Those who ask how Poles and Ukrainians could have done what they did to Jews overlook the fact that they did the same terrible things to each other. After the war, in Poland, “Jews were not substantially more at risk of losing their lives than Ukrainians and Germans, or Polish oppositionists, for that matter,” Snyder explained. You wouldn’t know that from Gross’ Fear, which describes the epidemic of lynchings that terrorized Jewish survivors who returned to Poland in 1945 (nearly all of them left; many, ironically, for the safety of DP camps in Germany).

Here, Snyder hazards a criticism of Gross, whom he clearly admires. Gross thinks that Jews were and are crucial to Poland’s image of itself, a concealed trauma at the nation’s center. Snyder is not so sure. “I’m not convinced by the post-Holocaust argument that the Jews were always so incredibly central to the Polish imagination,” Snyder told me. Gross, by contrast, writes that “living Jews embodied the massive failure of character and reason on the part of their Polish neighbors”; that is why official newspaper condemnations of the Kielce pogrom of 1946 sparked massive strikes among workers, who protested in favor of the massacres. Here Gross proves more capable than Snyder of interpreting the painful reality of what Poles did to Jews. Gross notes that the Polish intelligentsia, stalwart in its opposition to anti-Semitism, was utterly unable to comprehend the outpouring of anger against Jews, the fact that they were being killed again, so soon after the Germans had left, and with the approval of most Poles. The shocked reactions of Polish intellectuals to the mass killings undermine Snyder’s argument that, when it comes to murder, there may be nothing much to explain.

Snyder never mentions the dismay of many in the Polish underground and the Polish government-in-exile over the moral degradation of their countrymen under German occupation. At the end of 1942 the underground reported that “the popular opinion is nearly united. Everyone is against the cruelty and the injudiciousness with which the Jews are being murdered, but in general they think that ‘the judgment of history against the Jews has arrived.’ In the thoughts of the society there is no sharp protest against what is happening, and no warm sympathy.” When offered a thousand zloty or a bottle of schnapps in exchange for turning in a Jew, many took the bargain; all knew that the Jew was headed for certain death. Dr. Zygmunt Klukowski, director of a hospital near Zamosc, wrote in November 1942, “In general some terrible demoralization has taken hold of people with respect to Jews. A psychosis took hold of them and they emulate the Germans in that they don’t see a human being in Jews, only some pernicious animal, which has to be destroyed by all means, like dogs sick with rabies, or rats.” Klukowski bears witness to what the sociologist Thomas Kühne, a specialist on the Holocaust, calls the “creative” aspect of genocide, the thrilled solidarity it spurs in the perpetrators and in onlookers as well. Jan Karski, who urgently alerted the Western allies to the reality of the Nazi death camps, confessed in a despairing mood that the Polish nation largely embraced the Nazi plans for the Jews; this was the “thin bridge,” in his phrase, that united the Poles and their occupiers. (Neither Klukowski nor Karski was Jewish.) Zegota was the branch of the Polish underground dedicated to saving Jews, a band of men and women who put their own lives on the line; they come as close to sainthood as anyone could, or did, in World War II. But even Zegota issued a statement declaring that Jews were the enemies of Poland. In this atmosphere, in which the feeling that Jews were alien intruders was almost universal, genocide did its work.

“Jan has a problem that I don’t have, which is that Jan is Polish,” Snyder told me. “So, Jan is having a discussion with a colleague in Poland who asks, what about the relevance of the Soviet occupation, and Jan says, no matter how relevant it is, does that mean we ‘understand’ that so many people killed Jews? He’s using the word ‘understand’ in a moral way, rather than in a scholarly way. [Gross’ work] is universal in its arguments, but it tends to be national in its ethics.” He paused. “It’s a role that I actually admire,” Snyder added—but one that is only possible for a Pole.

Instead, Snyder proposed, in our interview, a provocative thought-experiment: “If the Soviet Union invaded the United States to the Mississippi, there would be all kinds of explanations about how that was possible, and we would fall prey to something like ‘Judeo-Bolshevism.’ ” He’s probably right, of course: America has never experienced foreign occupation (unless you count the South after the Civil War). If it ever does happen, you could probably expect lynch mobs, conspiracy theories, and the stringing up of internal enemies—and not just on talk radio. But despite Snyder’s effort to ameliorate Polish behavior through counterfactual historical comparison, Gross still makes a convincing case that Poles themselves felt guilty about the deaths of their countrymen and the country’s profit from the wartime genocide. The whole society knew that something was wrong and was terrified to admit it, which is why, after the war, Poles persecuted not only Jews, but also Polish rescuers of Jews, many of whom were afraid to admit what they had done: Instead of heroes, they were seen as traitors.

Often in Bloodlands, Snyder presents deeply moving vignettes of Hitler’s and Stalin’s victims; he quotes their words when, about to die, they tried to sum up their lives. The reader is grateful that Snyder has so lovingly—there is no other word for it—given us the memory of these people. Yet the spectrum of characters in Bloodlands is oddly curtailed; all of the book’s capsule portraits are of victims. For all Snyder’s insistence that he is interested in the role of the perpetrator and the bystander, he finally, like most of us, prefers to commemorate the murdered innocents than to reach “into that darkness” (to quote Gitta Sereny’s title for her book on the Commandant of Treblinka, Franz Stangl), the place where the murders are planned and carried out and observed with a poisonous mixture of feelings. That Snyder is tactful where he should be daring is proof that diplomacy has its limits.

David Mikics is the editor of The Annotated Emerson, and author of Who Was Jacques Derrida? and other books. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.

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Kinderblock 66 at the Jerusalem Film Festival

I am pleased to share the information that the film Kinderblock 66 is currently featured at the Jerusalem Film Festival and is competing for awards in two categories: a) the Avner Shalev Yad Vashem Director’s Award for Holocaust films, and b) the Lia Van Leer for the Jerusalem Cinemathique Award for films on the Jewish experience.  Executive producer Steve Moskovic and his father, former Buchenwald boy Alex Moskovic, are in Israel with the film, as are producers Martin Pohl, Brad Rothschild, and Paul Turlick.

We are currently awaiting news from Yad Vashem on the status of the candidacy of the late Antonin Kalina, Czech Communist head of the kinderblock 66, for Righteous Among the Nations…. Kalina is on the right in this picture behind the man looking over his shoulder…

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Alvin Rosenfeld on the Contemporary American University

Alvin Rosenfeld reflects, in a speech given at U Minnesota, that “many of our campuses have become hospitable to certain political and ideological currents of thought that issue in actions and statements  inimical to many Jewish students and professors. A review of contemporary debates about two issues of particular concern to Jews—the Holocaust and the State of Israel—suggests that we may be witnessing the emergence of some new versions of the “Jewish Question.”

Rosenfeld discourses on currents that would “forget” the Holocaust on American campuses, end the focus on study of the Holocaust (do more comparative genocide instead), and removeemphasis in particular on the specific tribulations of the Jews.  The idea is to end the alleged Jewish monopolization on suffering.  He says the same holds true in terms of complaints about focus on the study of the State of Israel.   We are witnessing new versions of the emergence of the Jewish Question.

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Kinderblock 66 Builds a Gentle Emotional Power

Jay Handelman, in Arts Sarasota and in Herald Tribune, April 18, 2012

Perhaps I was setting myself up for my reactions to Rob Cohen’s documentary “Kinderblock 66: Return to Buchenwald.” I watched it just a few hours after returning from a visit to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland, so my emotional state was already raw. It added a more personal exclamation point to the day.

Even without such a backdrop, “Kinderblock 66″ is a moving testament to
the human spirit that survived unimaginable experiences at the German
prison camp and those who went on to live relatively healthy and productive
lives. At the same time, it adds new perspective to a long line of films that
have captured the sadly dwindling voices of survivors of the Holocaust,
revealing how a large group of young men survived their time at Buchenwald
thanks to the efforts of an underground resistance movement operating at
the camp.

The film, which has its American premiere at the Sarasota Film Festival April 20 and 22, is built around four survivors of what came to be known as Kinderblock 66, an area of Buchenwald that was designated for the roughly 2,000 teenage boys and young men who were separated from their families and sent to the camp. The film relates the persuasive stories of Antonin Kalina, a Czech communist prisoner, who pushed for separating the
boys as a way to protect them from the beatings and likely death they would otherwise face by guards at the camp. Though some challenged the wisdom, it turned out to be a smart move. Of the 2,000 that were sent to Buchenwald, more than 900 survived.

The four survivors — Alex Moskovic (father of executive producer Steven Moskovic), Israel Lazar, Naftali-Duro Furst and Pavel Kohn — are shown receiving small video phones to record their initial thoughts as they prepare to return to Buchenwald in April 2010 for ceremonies surrounding the 65th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. And then returning to Germany where they faced uncertain emotions and meeting fellow survivors.

We learn about their lives, their families and their memories of the camp,both through their own video recordings and well-chosen archival footage that gives you a feeling of what they experienced there. It features an impressive array of experts on the Holocaust, including Ken Waltzer, Jewish Studies director at [Michigan State University], and officials from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. It’s a film filled with personal reflections, but it also serves as convincing argument to support the inclusion of
Kalina among the Righteous Among the Nations, a list of non-Jews who have been proven to have selflessly worked to save Jews during the Holocaust at Yad Vashem. It could take years, but the voices heard clearly in this film, point to Kalina as a man worth of being included with Oskar Schindler and far less prominent but no less
noteworthy people.

Holocaust-related films can be difficult to watch for some. “Kinderblock 66″ makes its impact in gentle, if occasionally disturbing, but meaningful ways.

“Kinderblock 66: Return to Buchenwald” will be shown at the Sarasota Film Festival” at 4:45 p.m. April 20 and 12:30 p.m. April 22. Regal Hollywood 20 Cinemas, 1993 Main St., Sarasota.  “Kinderblock 66 will be shown at UM-Flint at 7:00 pm April 25, in the University Kiva…..

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Faculty Seminar-New Directions in Study of the Holocaust

Many thanks to all members of the Winegarden UM Flint faculty seminar, which met nine times during January-February-March 2012 to consider new directions in study of the Holocaust.

We discussed anxieties some authors like Alvin Rosenfeld express about a worried “end to the Holocaust,” a sense that the more we talk and write about it, the more we actually get away from it and the less we understand it in its specificity and moral gravity.  We discussed standards and criteria by which to assess Holocaust memoirs and novels, exploring  truth and veracity, authenticity, literary quality, and more, with Ruth Franklin as our guide.

We explored whether it is possible, in terms of new directions in history, as Timothy Snyder does in Bloodlands, to go more macro, more comparative, without at the same time flattening the distinctiveness of the events that we call the Holocaust.  Finally, we explored. in terms of new directions in history, reading Christopher Browning’s Remembering Survival, going more micro, more bottom-up, drawing on survivors’ testimonies and interviews, and studying the Holocaust in particular places and camps.

All of this led to other insights about doing or writing history, confronting genocide, coping with ongoing issues of justice and responsibility, and wrestling with memory. UM Flint faculty and staff explored the many ways confrontation with aspects of the Holocaust is also germane and relevant to studying topics and raising questions beyond the Holocaust on which they work or in which they’re interested and on exploring methods of approaching these. What a great group — the seminar leader learned at least as much as seminar participants!

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Reducing Remembering Survival to an Anti-Polish Account (and Understating Its Value)


Jews, Poles & Nazis: The Terrible History

June 24, 2010

Timothy Snyder

Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp
by Christopher R. Browning
Norton, 375 pp., $27.95

The hangings took place on the last day of August 1941, on the town square of Wierzbnik, in what had once been central Poland. Two years had passed since the joint German-Soviet invasion that had destroyed the Polish state; ten weeks before, the Germans had betrayed their ally and invaded the Soviet Union. Wierzbnik, home to Poles and Jews, lay within the General Government, a colony that the Germans had made from parts of their Polish conquests. As Poles left church that Sunday morning, they saw before them a gallows. The German police had selected sixteen or seventeen Poles—men, women, and at least one child. Then they ordered a Jewish execution crew, brought from the ghetto that morning, to carry out the hangings. The Poles were forced to stand on stools; then the Jews placed nooses around their necks and kicked the stools away. The bodies were left to dangle.1

Demonstrative killing of civilians was one of several German methods designed to stifle Polish resistance. The Germans had murdered educated Poles: tens of thousands in late 1939, thousands more in early 1940. Since June 1940, the Germans had been sending suspect Poles to Auschwitz and other camps. Polish society was to be reduced to an undifferentiated mass of passive workers. German policy toward Jews was different, though the nature of the difference was not yet clear. Jewish elites had been preserved; some of them as members of the Judenrat (Jewish council) or as policemen directing the local affairs of Jews in a way that suited Germans.

Although fatality rates in some ghettos were high, Jews in summer 1941 had little idea that they had been gathered into ghettos in preparation for a “Final Solution.” The Germans had first planned to deport the Jews to a reservation in eastern Poland, or to the island of Madagascar, or to Siberian wastelands. As these schemes proved impracticable, the Jews remained in the ghettos. It was in that final week of August 1941 that the German “Final Solution” was taking on its final form: mass murder. Two days before the hangings at Wierzbnik, the Germans had completed their first truly large-scale murder of Jews, shooting some 23,600 people at Kamianets-Podil’s’kyi in occupied Soviet Ukraine.

“I knew I hanged the right people,” one of the Jewish hangmen in Wierzbnik recalled more than fifty years later. He thought that those who were executed belonged to the Polish Home Army, and as such were guilty of murdering Jews. The people in question died, of course, not because Poles were killing Jews, but because Poles were resisting German rule. The hangings at Wierzbnik were a typical German reprisal, aiming to spread terror and deter further opposition. If it were not for the testimonies of the Jews from Wierzbnik, this particular event would have been lost. For most of them, it was a first stark demonstration of German mass murder, if only a small foretaste of what was to come.

In his magnificent and humane microhistory, Christopher Browning has drawn on the “written, transcribed, and/or taped accounts of 292” Jewish survivors, most of them from Wierzbnik, who shared a similar experience of the war. He treats these testimonies as historical sources, believing that according them “a privileged position not subject to the same critical analysis and rules of evidence as other sources will merely discredit and undermine the reputation of Holocaust scholarship itself.”

Here, in recounting how a Jew forced by Germans to kill Poles blamed the Poles for their fate, Browning reaches the problem of Polish–Jewish relations.2 While he is quite aware that this particular testimony must be subjected to scrutiny, his analysis consists mainly in the comparison of multiple Jewish testimonial sources. Addressing the evidence of the Jewish hangman, Browning characterizes the Home Army as a “conservative nationalist underground movement” that did indeed kill Jews, but perhaps not at early as 1941. This description may reflect a consensus among surviving Wierzbnik Jews; it does not fit the historical Home Army.

Interestingly, the “Polish underground” makes several appearances in Browning’s book, usually behaving in ways that are remembered positively: shooting Germans, attacking camps, helping Jews. The Home Army, meanwhile, appears in this negative light, as murderous and anti-Semitic. There is a problem here: the Home Army was the Polish underground. Aiming to restore Polish independence from German rule, it united hundreds of resistance groups. It represented a very wide spetrum of opinion, excluding only the communist left and the extreme nationalist right. And it was not just an underground movement: it was an integral part of the Polish armed forces, under the command of the exile government in London, allied with Great Britain and the United States in the war against Nazi Germany.3

Although the Home Army’s enemy was Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism was indeed a problem in its ranks. On Rosh Hashanah, three weeks after the hangings in Wierzbnik, Polish Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski sent his good wishes from London to the Jewish citizens of Poland via the BBC. Stefan Rowecki, the commander of the Home Army in Warsaw, was irritated; such gestures, he thought, made “the worst possible impression” among Poles. This revealed a basic tension, apparent throughout 1941, between the Polish exile government and its underground army. Anti-Semitism, Rowecki seemed to think, was so pervasive that the Jewish issue should be tabled until war’s end. Many Poles had been inclined to support anti-Semitic parties in the 1930s, and the experience of German and Soviet occupation had not helped.4

Some Poles claimed to resent the Jews who had taken up positions of authority in the Soviet occupation apparatus in eastern Poland between 1939 and 1941, after the Soviet invasion of that part of the country. Other Poles were corrupted by having taken over Jewish houses or apartments when Jews were forced into ghettos in 1940 and 1941. Throughout 1941, Poles were debating the political and civic status that Jews should have in Poland after the war. The exile government took the view that postwar Poland would be a democracy without racial discrimination. Within the government, however, nationalists questioned this position.

Polish wartime debates about the “Jewish question” ceased only when Adolf Hitler’s answer became clear. The condition of Polish Jews became a pressing question for the exile government and the Home Army when the Germans began to gas Jews in the final weeks of 1941. In early 1942, Polish leaders believed that news of the shocking German campaign would prompt action from Great Britain and the United States. The Home Army thought that the revelation of the existence of gassing facilities would force the Germans to stop. It transmitted to London the documentation about the death factory at Chełmno that had been gathered by the ghetto historian Emanuel Ringelblum. This led to BBC broadcasts about the mass extermination of Polish Jews. The Polish government in London, though always presenting Jewish suffering as part of a larger story of Polish martyrdom, gave the mass murder of Jews as a reason for the British and the Americans to carry out retributions against German civilians. In vain: the Germans were not shamed by the publicity, and the Western allies took no meaningful action.5

In 1942, in Operation Reinhard, the Germans deported some 1.3 million Polish Jews from ghettos in the General Government to death factories at Treblinka, Bełzėc, and Sobibór. The associated mass deportations of the Jews of Warsaw, which began on July 22, forced the local Home Army into action. It supplied false documentation to Jewish survivors, supported Żegota, the Polish government organization that aided Jewish survivors, and assisted Jews within the Warsaw Ghetto who were planning an uprising. Operation Reinhard reached the town of Wierzbnik on October 27. As Browning shows, an unusually high proportion of Wierzbnik Jews, some 1,200 men and four hundred women, were selected for labor. Browning provides a heartrending depiction of the selections that separated those who would work for the Germans from the nearly four thousand who would be gassed at Treblinka.

This scene was repeated thousands of times in occupied Poland, but rarely if ever has it been rendered in such detail from so many perspectives. Some families were forced apart. Others divided themselves, not knowing which group was the better one. Some people left their families behind. Others stayed with their families when they might have saved themselves. Others still contrived to take their families with them into labor duty. Browning gently evokes the kinds of morality that could function in such a situation of extremity. He does not expect his sources to provide an example of ethical behavior: “We must be grateful for the testimonies of those who survived and are willing to speak, but we have no right to expect from them tales of edification and redemption.” But he does draw attention to the loyalties that did function: the bonds among families, lovers, and friends.

The Wierzbnik Jews selected for labor were in an exceptional position. By late October 1942, more than two million Polish Jews were already dead, shot in what had been eastern Poland or gassed at Treblinka, Bełzėc, Sobibór, or Chełmno. In 1943 and 1944, as hundreds of thousands more Polish Jews were gassed at Auschwitz or shot in the East, Wierzbnik Jews continued to live and work. They owed their survival to an accident of geography: their homes were very near the Polish arms factory at Starachowice, now taken over by the Germans. Jewish labor at Starachowice was important to the German war effort. The Starachowice camps were not under the direct authority of the SS, but rather run by a private business, operating within a larger holding company. As in the Wierzbnik ghetto, daily authority over Jews in the Starachowice camps was in the hands of a Jewish council and Jewish police force. These institutions, which drew heavily from families that had been prosperous before the war, distributed labor assignments on the basis of connections and bribes. German personnel were few, and the guards were stationed outside the camps.

There was little need to guard the camps: in 1943 in occupied Poland, Starachowice was a place Jews escaped to, not a place they escaped from. When Jews from Majdanek were transferred to Starachowice, they could hardly believe their eyes. The place was filthy and the work was dangerous, but Jews remained alive in large numbers, sometimes even with their children. Some were able to supplement their minimal food rations by selling belongings that they had left for safekeeping with Wierzbnik Poles. Jews at Starachowice bribed camp guards to accompany them to Wierzbnik, where they would carry out these transactions. Then they returned to the camps with the food. To escape from Starachowice would be to court death. Jews found by Germans would be shot. Although thousands of Poles aided Jews despite the death sentence they faced for doing so, it would be an extraordinary gamble to trust any given Pole. In this part of occupied Poland there was no underground army that Jews knew would accept them, and no Jewish armed force that could protect them.

The major Jewish armed rebellion against German rule in the General Government, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April–May 1943, had aimed not at survival but rather at the choice of the manner of death. It had involved a certain alliance between Poles and Jews, but one that did not endure. The Warsaw branch of the Home Army had given Jews a substantial part of its modest weapons cache. Seven of the first eight armed actions taken by the Home Army in Warsaw were in support of the ghetto. This was symbolic: as everyone knew, the Home Army in Warsaw could not have saved the Jews of the ghetto in April 1943, even had it devoted all of its troops and weapons to this purpose. After the Ghetto Uprising was crushed, Home Army commanders failed to enlist surviving Jewish fighters. Thus even Jews with combat experience found themselves hunted in occupied Poland in 1943. Jews had to fear not only the Germans, but also local units of the Home Army who (on several documented occasions) shot them as bandits or (on a few documented occasions) shot them to steal their belongings.

From the perspective of the Home Army, 1943 was the year of an irresolvable dilemma: the Germans were losing the war, but the Soviets were winning it. In February the Red Army had dealt the Wehrmacht its first major defeat, at Stalingrad. Henceforth, the Home Army had to resist the Germans while preparing for the arrival of the Soviets. German propaganda drove the point home that April, revealing that the Soviets had shot thousands of Polish officers at Katyn. Stalin used the revelation of his own mass murder as a pretext to break diplomatic relations with Poland.6 This was an unmistakable sign of imperial ambition. If Stalin would not recognize the legitimate Polish government during a common war against Nazi Germany, why would he endorse Polish independence after a Soviet victory?

Some Home Army commanders feared that arming Polish Jews would ease the spread of Soviet power. Though this sometimes took the form of an anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jew as Communist, the concern was not entirely unjustified. The Polish Communist party was part of the Jewish Combat Organization, which the Home Army had supplied with arms. The man who negotiated those arms transfers, Aryeh Wilner, was also negotiating with Communists. The Jewish representative within the Polish government department charged with rescuing Jews, Adolf Berman, was also in touch with the Communists. (His brother Jakub would later preside over the Communist security apparatus that would persecute Home Army veterans—including those who had aided Jews.)7 For the Home Army, the Soviet advance meant the arrival of a dubious ally against the Germans as well as an impending threat to Polish independence. For Jews it meant life. This basic difference in perspectives, a result of the Holocaust, was difficult to overcome.

For Jews at Starachowice, only labor counted. As Browning masterfully reconstructs daily life within the factory camps, he reveals what Jews knew about their fate and the limits of their local perspective. When typhus broke out, for example, the Germans at first simply shot the Jews who were infected. So long as Jewish labor was available for rent from the SS, shooting sick Jews was the economically rational thing to do. As the war continued and the number of living Jews plunged, the Germans treated sick Jews rather than killing them. Jews remembered this as a change in the camp regime; Browning recalls the larger causes.

In late 1943, Heinrich Himmler liquidated most of the camps in the General Government where Jews were used as labor, and had tens of thousands of Jewish workers shot. The directors of Starachowice sacrificed some of the women and children to Himmler, but preserved the men. Because their business was making arms, they could evade the policy of murdering all Jews. Only the Red Army’s successful offensive in June 1944 forced the closure of the factory camps at Starachowice. In July the Jewish laborers at Starachowice were sent to Auschwitz. Mortality rates in one of the railcars was high, but not only because of the transport conditions: some of the stronger prisoners took the opportunity to beat the members of the camp council to death.

The Red Army was disarming Home Army units as it entered eastern Poland. The Home Army’s only hope seemed to be an uprising against the Germans in Warsaw, timed to exploit the Soviet advance but precede the actual arrival of Soviet troops. The aim was to liberate Warsaw from German occupation by Polish efforts, and to install a Polish government before the Red Army arrived. In late July 1944, as the Wierzbnik Jews were sent to Auschwitz, the Red Army approached Warsaw. On August 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising began. The Home Army fought the Germans there for eight weeks: a longer battle than either the Polish campaign of 1939 or the French campaign of 1940, and with casualties comparable to both. As Dariusz Libionka and Barbara Engelking demonstrate in their pioneering study, Jews took part in the battle, most of them in the Home Army.8 Some of these were people of Jewish origin who regarded or presented themselves as Poles and had been in the Home Army all along. Others were veterans of the Ghetto Uprising. More were survivors who left their places of shelter in Warsaw in order to fight, seeing it as self-evident that they would help Poles fight Germans. As Michał Zylberberg put it, “The Poles had risen to fight against the mortal enemy, and it was our obligation, as victims and as fellow citizens, to help them.” The Warsaw Uprising was a major example of armed Jewish resistance to the Germans during World War II. Indeed, it is quite possible that more people of Jewish origin took part in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 than in the Ghetto Uprising of 1943.

The Warsaw Uprising, like the Ghetto Uprising before it, was defeated. The Home Army, like the Jews the previous year, fought essentially alone. Stalin forbade Allied air drops when they might have helped. The Germans held the line at the Vistula River, and the Red Army halted. Some of the most brutal German SS and police formations defeated the Polish resistance in Warsaw, killing at least 120,000 Polish civilians.

These people perished not only because German forces were ordered to kill them, but also because Joseph Stalin allowed them to die. The Red Army was indeed halted by the stubborn German defense at the Vistula, but its encampment there for five months must be understood as a political act. It doomed the Poles (and the Jews) who were fighting the Germans in Warsaw. The Germans killed people who, as Stalin knew, would also have resisted the imposition of Communist rule.

The Germans were able to empty not only Starachowice, but also the last ghetto in occupied Poland, in Łódz´. In July 1944, Łódz´ Jews knew that the Red Army was nearby, and thought they could be liberated in a matter of days. Some 67,000 Jews were transported from Łódz´ to Auschwitz while the Warsaw Uprising was taking place. Whereas the Wierzbnik Jews were not subjected to a selection at the ramp at Birkenau, most of the Łódz´ Jews were gassed upon arrival.9

By the time the Red Army finally reached Warsaw in January 1945, the Wierzbnik Jews, Łódz´ Jews, and other Jews were being marched from Auschwitz to labor camps in Germany, where they would remain until the end of the war. This ordeal was deadlier for the Wierzbnik Jews than Starachowice and Auschwitz; hundreds died in a matter of a few months. After the Red Army took Berlin in May, Polish- Jewish survivors found their way to displaced-persons camps in Germany. A few dozen Wierzbnik Jews were able to return to Poland and their hometown, where they were greeted with ugly threats from the Poles who had stolen their houses. In June a few returning Wierzbnik Jews were murdered by Poles. One Jew was beheaded. In Poland as a whole, hundreds of Jews were murdered by Poles in the months after the war was over.

Browning concludes from this horrible finale that the goal of the Polish underground was the end of Jewish life in Poland. He adds that the Polish nation was defined in opposition to an enemy image of the Jew. As Browning acknowledges, it is not at all clear that members of the Home Army committed the murders and robberies in Wierzbnik; the Jews upon whose testimony Browning relies could not have known this. However that may be, it is misleading to discuss Polish political aims only in the light of these events. If Polish patriotism was simply a matter of hating Jews, why did the Home Army fight the Nazis with such determination?

Officially, the Home Army was fighting for constitutional liberal democracy and equal rights for all citizens; what its victory or indeed what democratic elections would have brought to Poland we will never know. After intimidation campaigns and faked elections, Poland became a Soviet satellite governed by a Communist regime. We owe the description of the Home Army as a reactionary nationalist clique to Soviet and Polish Communists, whose forces defeated its stubborn remnants, tortured its best officers, and hanged its last commander after a show trial….

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Toby Perl, “Historic Shift,” Tablet Magazine, July 22, 2010

Like most Holocaust historians, Christopher Browning was wary of survivor testimony. Then, one case made him realize he could ignore it no longer.

Though it has long played a central role in the popular history of the Holocaust, survivor testimony has for decades been seen as marginal by Holocaust historians. The issue has preoccupied scholars since Raul Hilberg’s landmark 1961 book, The Destruction of the European Jews, in which he largely discounted the “usefulness” of survivor accounts.

Hilberg’s pioneering work established a methodological orthodoxy with regard to survivor testimony that was long adhered to by historians looking to establish a credible and unassailable historical record of Nazi crimes.

Christopher Browning was still operating within the boundaries Hilberg had set when he chose to focus on the slow brutalization of a single battalion of German soldiers in his pathbreaking 1992 book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.

But, more recently, while studying a 1972 German court case that acquitted a Nazi police chief on all charges related to his role in the liquidation of a small Jewish ghetto in central Poland, Browning was outraged.

He was struck by the presiding judge’s chilling dismissal of some 100 eyewitness testimonies by the ghetto’s survivors who attested to the defendant’s memorable savagery. The judge dryly noted, “As a matter of principle … eyewitness testimony was ‘the most unreliable form of evidence’ with which the judicial process had to deal.” Compounding the insult was the fact that virtually no other documentary or evidentiary material existed in this case.

In his latest book, Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave Labor Camp, Browning offers a corrective—one that represents a shift away from the field’s long-held eschewal of survivor testimony. “The history of the Holocaust,” Browning has concluded, “cannot be written solely as either perpetrator history or history from above.”

Remember Survival offers an account woven out of 292 testimonies by survivors of the Starachowice slave labor camp, whose principal security officer, not coincidentally, was the same Nazi police chief exonerated in that 1972 decision by the German court.

In reflecting upon the 292, Browning remarks: “Among the survivors of the Starachowice camps, there is no Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel.” For the most part, these are ordinary survivors, some with limited verbal skills or disjointed narratives. But Browning is scrupulous in preserving the dignity and integrity, if not always endorsing the accuracy, of their accounts.

Complicating survivor testimony, Browning believes, are five discrete categories of memory, whose boundaries sometimes shift. The largest obstacle to their usefulness as judicial testimony is the tendency by some survivors to incorporate postwar Holocaust tropes into their personal narratives.

Thus, for example, although the historical record indicates that they were not subject to the usual selection process upon arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau in July 1944, many of the Starachowice survivors vividly “recalled” a selection by Dr. Mengele, whose ubiquity and notoriety were largely nurtured in postwar Holocaust literature and film.

But Browning allows for “authenticity” as well as “factual accuracy” in the survivor testimony. He wisely notes that all evidence is problematic but rather than discarding evidentiary testimony wholesale the problems can be managed by a competent historian. In this case, he speculates that the survivors likely fused the memory of subsequent selections by SS officials, including Mengele, with their traumatic arrival at Auschwitz.

When I picked up Remembering Survival, my interest was not strictly academic. My late mother, Anna Perl Freilich, is among the 292 Starachowice testimonies, and I read the book closely, hunting for more pieces to the overwhelming and confusing jigsaw puzzle that had always constituted her wartime experiences. What I gleaned were not only more shards from a fractured story, but a vital context that endowed those fragments with new meaning.

Ironically, it is Hilberg whom Browning quotes in claiming that what he has attempted to do in this micro-history of the Starachowice factory slave labor camp is to “cast a bright light on a small stage,” and he has largely succeeded. Thrown into stark relief, in particular, are the internal dynamics of the camp and the moral matrix within which the survivors operated.

There were other camps that exploited Jewish labor vital to the German war effort, but the Starachowice labor camp was unusual in at least one respect, one that contributed to the relatively high survival rate of its inmates. Following the 1939 nationalization of the munitions factory on its site, the daily operation of Starachowice was conducted not by the SS, but by “bribable” civilian factory managers.

The Jewish slave laborers were the legal property of the SS, and the new German factory owners paid a per capita fee to the SS for their use. This afforded the SS a more limited day-to-day role in Starachowice than it had in other slave labor camps that used Jewish workers, notwithstanding the brutality of individual Nazis, who oversaw the camp’s security.

Starachowice’s atypical survival rate was rooted in another, more complex, circumstance. In its cynical attempt to “divide and control,” the Nazi administration that ran the security apparatus of the camp appointed a Jewish lagerrat, a parallel to the concentration camps’ infamous kapo system, placing “privileged” Jewish prisoners in charge of Starachowice’s internal affairs. The lagerrat was supplemented by a Jewish-administered lagerpolizei.

Starachowice’s corrupt and often cruel lagerrat and lagerpolizei were as morally controversial as the ghetto-based Judenräte, or Jewish councils, but they were also paradoxically instrumental in the relatively high survival rate of the Jewish slave labor force.

Though collectively reviled in the survivors’ testimonies for abetting German policies, some credited their own survival to crucial and inexplicable acts of mercy by individual members of the lagerpolizei.

My mother, for example, fell victim to the typhus epidemic that raged in Starachowice during the winter of 1942-43. Too weak to leave her bed to attend the mandatory prisoner roll call, she had resigned herself to the consequences.

But in a story that I heard over and over during my childhood, and that is recounted in Remembering Survival, it was one of the lagerpolizei, a landsman from her hometown of Szydlowiec, Szmul Szczesliwy, who burst into her barracks, rallied her to her feet, yanked on her clothes, helped her to the roll call, and insisted that other landsleit carry her to work. Those who remained behind were massacred in their beds.

As Browning notes, a member of the lagerrat, Rachmil Wolfowicz, was “detested” by many. But he is recalled by my uncle, the Yiddish journalist Joseph Friedenson—another Starachowice survivor interviewed by Browning—simply as a cousin by marriage whose mother’s privileged job in the camp kitchen enabled Friedenson, his wife Gitele and my mother (Gitele’s cousin) to receive occasional life-saving supplements to their near-starvation diets.

This web of idiosyncratic stories helps to reconstruct the tortured ethical universe that reigned in Starachowice, where the Jewish prisoners were continually presented with what Lawrence Langer referred to as a series of “choiceless choices” in their struggle to stay alive and where they established a makeshift moral code in the face of a heartless and single-minded enemy.

The interdependence of this battered community of slave laborers, many of whom were fortunate to be imprisoned with relatives or townsmen, is vividly portrayed. Tragically, as one survivor notes, “if you helped one person, it was usually at the expense of another.”

But Browning cautions against moralizing; what he emphasizes is that it was almost impossible to stay alive solely through one’s own agency. He credits, among other factors, the Starachowice slave laborers’ desperate commitment to the lives of those closest to them by blood or geography for their unusually high survival rate. It also provided a way for them to unwittingly thwart the Nazi plan for total Jewish annihilation.

In one of the book’s most gripping chapters, Browning describes the 1944 cattle-car ride from Starachowice to Auschwitz-Birkenau. When the doors were opened on arrival, a preponderance of the labor camp’s surviving lagerrat and lagerpolizei—all of whom were concentrated in the first car—were found dead in a heap.

Had they perished from the hardships and privations of the cattle-car ride, or were they the victims of revenge killings by their fellow prisoners? Though it’s impossible to be sure, Browning is convinced that it’s the latter.

If fellow prisoners had killed them, it was likely a group of Lublin survivors who had arrived at Starachowice rather late in the game. Geographic outliers at the bottom of the camp hierarchy, they had systematically been denied the advantages of the veteran Starachowice slave laborers, and they may have decided to settle a score. To his credit, Browning neither flinches in exploring this scenario nor offers facile moral judgments about this tragic possibility.

Now, some 40 years after the scandalous verdict of a German court, not only has Browning proved that survivor testimony is “useful” to Holocaust historiography but that it is vital. It also grants survivors a degree of justice that they have long been denied.

In a measure of the emotional resonance his book has had among Starachowice survivors, my uncle, Joseph Friedenson, remarks of Browning, “For someone who didn’t see the Nazis in action, he manages to capture the tragedy as if he were there; as if he were a witness, just like me.”

In his sensitive and careful use of their testimonies, Browning has not simply made a sentimental concession to these ordinary survivors, he has enriched the historical record. Even as he reinforces the evidence of Nazi crimes, Browning provides a critical window into the daily life and mores of the Jewish prisoners. Like any good historian, he sifts through and weighs conflicting testimonies and carefully contextualizes them. Above all, he listens.

Toby Perl Freilich is a freelance filmmaker in New York and Jerusalem currently completing a documentary about Israel’s kibbutz movement. The picture shows the author’s parents shortly after the war. Her mother, Anna Perl Freilich, provided one of the 292 accounts that are the basis of Christopher Browning’s Remembering Survival.

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Some Questions on Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (2010)

What makes Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, in your mind, groundbreaking? Original? What are the book’s great strengths?

What new optic or perspective do you obtain by reading Bloodlands?

What makes Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, also, an object of controversy and a target of criticism? What are its weaknesses?

How does what Snyder writes contribute to a different understanding of Europe in the early mid-20th century and to a transformed understanding of mass state murder in the borderlands between Nazi Germany and the USSR?

How, in focusing on the geographic area between Hitler and Stalin, Nazi Germany and Soviet Union, and on imperial utopian schemes by rival tyrannies, does Bloodlands also add to our understanding of the Holocaust?

What popular misconceptions about the Nazi Holocaust does Snyder correct?

Can Snyder be accused of de-centering the Holocaust? Diminishing it? What about the Holocaust does Snyder not explain?

What might reasonably said to be omitted from Bloodlands or treated without an even hand?

Can Snyder’s Bloodlands be put to the service of those who would diminish and relativize the Nazi Holocaust, specifically those who speak today of a double genocide, who draw a broad equivalence between Nazism and Communism, and who seek to cover up the role of local participants in the Bloodlands in the mass murder of the Jews? Can it contribute to the aspirational goal of unsavory political elements who wish to replace Holocaust Remembrance Day with Red-Brown Day?

What do you make of Snyder’s efforts to comment on modernity and the Holocaust?

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Diminishing the Holocaust or Expanding Attention and Empathy to a Wider Array of Victims?

According to the journalist Charles Lewis who wrote in The National Post in January 2011, Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands, a new history of mass murder during the 1930s and 1940s under Nazism and communism, said that, after he finished the book, he wanted to “crawl into a cave and hide.” The only “lesson” he learned was a hopeless one: Anyone can be the victim or the perpetrator of barbarism.

But this it seems is also one of the key problems of Bloodlands, which attributes victimization largely to geographic location, to being caught between competing totalitarian states and to being occupied and reoccupied. It diminishes the Nazi Holocaust even while exploring it specifically in great detail, at one and the same time anchoring the Holocaust and merging it into a sea of killing of other peoples throughout the borderlands. It also omits any serious attention to the ideology and sentiment that drove the mass murders.

Adam Muller thinks he knows why. “All this [killing], according to Snyder, was the byproduct of the convergence of two massively destructive and highly mobile and vindictive totalitarian forces: Soviet Stalinism in the East and German Nazism in the West. More specifically,

“Snyder’s thesis is that it was in the Bloodlands that these forces met and interacted in ways that became mutually self-reinforcing, always at the expense of indigenous populations whose suffering continues to remain under-acknowledged in the historical literature, particularly in the West. Accordingly, Snyder feels that it is important to displace the Holocaust, and especially concentration camps like Auschwitz, as the primary signifiers of twentieth-century genocidal mass murder, since privileging them unhelpfully restricts our awareness of the scale of the damage done to the people and places under Nazi and Soviet occupation. For example, over a million Jews were shot to death in the forests of Eastern Europe, almost forty thousand in two days at Babi Yar in Ukraine alone. Nearly three million more were killed on arrival at extermination centers such as Bełżec, Sobibór, Majdanek, and Treblinka, these death factories not to be confused with concentration camps which actually housed many inmates for varying periods of time, however inadequately. More than this, for Snyder the Holocaust is typically framed by exceptionalist language which serves to disconnect its particulars from larger historical and ideological currents, thus insulating its victims from others experiencing versions of the same horrors, for the same reasons, who remain no less entitled to our moral regard….”

Adan Muller thinks: “Notwithstanding the criticism of historian Richard Evans that he fails to acknowledge the singularity of the Holocaust, and to some extent notwithstanding his stated desire to do precisely this, I find ample evidence in Bloodlands of Snyder acknowledging the exceptional character of the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews. [In interviews and in print, Snyder says the same, he accepts the "singularity" of the Holocaust.]The main achievement of Snyder’s history lies in its explicit demand for recognition of the suffering of those [who were] not directly caught up in the Holocaust but who found themselves nevertheless implicated in, and destroyed by, the same matrix of forces which gave rise to it.”

Richard Evans, on the contrary, thinks differently. Evans castigates Snyder sharply for failing to draw a clear enough distinction between the Holocaust and the concurrent genocides, distracting from what was unique. Snyder writes:

“That uniqueness consisted not only in the scale of its ambition, but also in the depth of the hatred and fear that drove it on. There was something peculiarly sadistic in the Nazis’ desire not just to torture, maim and kill the Jews, but also to humiliate them. SS men and not infrequently ordinary soldiers as well set light to the beards of Orthodox Jews in Poland and forced them to perform gymnastic exercises in public until they dropped; they made Jewish girls clean public latrines with their blouses; they performed many other acts of ritual humiliation that they did not force on their Slav prisoners, however badly they treated them in other ways. The Slavs, in the end, were for the Nazis a regional obstacle to be removed; the Jews were a ‘world enemy’ to be ground into the dust.”

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Eric Sundquist and Jerome Chanes on Ruth Franklin’s Later Judgments in A Thousand Darknesses

Eric Sundquist in the Wall St. Journal

“Despite the hazards of trying to represent events often said to be “unknowable,” Ms. Franklin insists on the moral authority of the imagination and shows the power of literature to uncover the truths that are latent in documentary material.”

“, the best of Holocaust literature, Ms. Franklin emphasizes, has the advantage of being “self-conscious about its own unreliability.” True enough. But since the events of the Holocaust, not to mention its vast historiography, play very little role in her book, an important dimension of the problem is left out of account. (A more practical drawback is that she provides no endnotes or bibliography.)”

Jerome Chanes in the Forward

“…Franklin makes a misstep, a serious one, in her chapter on “Identity Theft: The Second Generation.” The second generation (the parlance is “2G”) is that of the children of the survivors who came to maturity after the Holocaust. The writers of the second generation are angrily characterized by Franklin, thus, “driven by ambition, guilt, envy, or sheer narcissism, [they] have constructed elaborate literary fictions in which… they assert themselves as witnesses to the Holocaust… [claiming that] the second generation’s ‘memories’ are as valid as those of the survivors.” In a word, they misrepresent themselves as survivors, Franklin asserts. To Franklin, the 2G writers have committed “identity theft.”

There is a basic problem with Franklin’s bald assertion, and that is that she simply does not understand the psychology of the survivors and of their children, nor does she understand the history of the survivor community; her analysis of the literature is therefore entirely lacking in nuance. The 2Gs have lived with people who were persecuted, who were humiliated and who experienced multiple losses. The survivors, for their part, experienced losses that they were not able to mourn. The creative process of their children, the “2G” writers — the Thane Rosenbaums and the Melvin Bukiets (to take two writers chosen by Franklin for special scorn) — therefore came out of the second generation’s own need to mourn those never known.

Psychologists have taught us that the final stage of mourning is the search for meaning; creativity is an integral part of that process, and is not the “grotesque solipsism” that Franklin imputed to the second generation. Rosenbaum and Bukiet are indeed valid witnesses. What they witnessed was not the Final Solution, but the improbable and often impossible lives of those for whom the Nazi death sentence had not proved final. Franklin’s “identity theft” is not a “theft” at all; the identity — the experience taught the 2Gs by the survivors — was not stolen but is theirs, and is embedded.’

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