The Nine Days of national mourning, leading up to the Ninth of Av, commemorate all the travails of Jewish history. It is a timely opportunity to re-visit the horrors of the Holocaust. One who thinks that there is nothing that possibly could be added to our knowledge of the Holocaust should read last year’s “Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin,” by Yale professor Timothy Snyder. It is a book that is brutal, unsparing and, if it could be said, sheds new light on the Holocaust.
The bloodlands were the areas of Eastern Europe between the Baltic and the Black Sea, primarily Western Russia and Ukraine, nearby provinces and especially Poland, situated between Hitler and Stalin, territory that was fought over and occupied by both Germany and the USSR – and the area in which most of the mass murder committed between 1933-1945 took place. A reviewer last year in the Wall Street Journal suggested that Jews might be disappointed in the book, which places the Holocaust in “perspective,” as a part of the massacres that took place in that locale that consumed more than fourteen million civilian lives during that period – through intentional policies of mass starvation, liquidation of elements potentially hostile to Hitler and Stalin and the Holocaust. I disagree, because the accounts of the genocide that we call the Holocaust are sufficiently distinct and horrific that the Holocaust remains unique, with a level of evil that is still truly unfathomable.
The sordid tale begins with Stalin’s mass murder in the mid-30’s, the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians to reduce their population, and a story that is chilling to read. They were simply deprived of food – a tactic that Hitler later used to murder Soviet POWs (most died within a month, simply given nothing to it). Stalin then added to his resume with the Great Terror of the late 1930’s, the murder of hundreds of thousands of political opponents, perceived threats, peasants, minorities and undesirables – and this long before Hitler had begun his extermination programs. (In sum, although the numbers are not always precise, Stalin murdered more than Hitler, but, in a century infamous for killing – the worst in history – Mao Zedong murdered more than either Hitler or Stalin, estimated at seventy million Chinese civilians executed during his progressive reign.)
Hitler and Stalin killed together, when they occupied Poland from 1939-1941, several hundred thousand members of the Polish elites and intelligentsia, and, of course, Poland became the killing fields of the Holocaust when Nazi Germany
built six death camps scattered about Poland – where, in addition to the
murders committed in the occupied USSR, Snyder estimates that Germans killed approximately 5.4 million Jews. (Interestingly, and sometimes maddeningly, Snyder refuses to use the “six million” figure for those victims of Germany – at one point writing that Germans murdered 5.2 million Jews, and at another point, 5.4 million Jews. Omitted in these calculations, but referenced
elsewhere in the book, are the hundreds of thousands of Jews murdered by
Romanians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and occasionally Russians, which brings the total to the infamous 6,000,000 Jews murdered in the Nazi genocide.)
Snyder contrasts and compares the Soviet and German styles of genocide, the various rationalizations and methods, and the systematic nature of both. While Hitler almost exclusively murdered non-Germans, Stalin primarily murdered his own citizens. Hitler, had he successfully advanced eastward and captured Moscow and much of the Soviet Union, would have simply starved the population – tens of millions to death. He did succeed in murdering three million Soviet POWs within a few months, through mass starvation. Incomprehensibly, they were doomed in any event, as Stalin ordered the execution of any Soviet prisoner who was freed, on the assumption that any survivor was a traitor. (This included Stalin’s own son, who was captured in battle and for whose freedom Stalin refused to negotiate; Stalin’s son committed suicide in German prison.)
Among his findings, many of which are counterintuitive but meticulously researched, was that our impressions of Holocaust are skewed because they are shaped by accounts of the survivors of the concentration camps – but they were, to use an unfortunate term, the “fortunate” victims of the Holocaust. They had a chance of survival. The death camps – Treblinka, Birkenau, Chelmno, Maidanek, Sobibor and Belzec – had few survivors (some death camps literally had none or a handful) to tell their tales. For all of Auschwitz’ notoriety – all deserved, and certainly it is not meant here to depreciate the horror – Jews were killed faster through the “shooting squads” and at Treblinka and Sobibor. By the time Auschwitz became the major death factory, most Jewish victims of the Holocaust had already been murdered; by the time Birkenau opened for its grisly business – in the spring of 1943 – ¾ of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust were already dead. And most Jews never saw the inside of a concentration camp – they were either gunned down near their homes, died of malnutrition or starvation, or were gassed immediately upon arrival in one of the murder facilities. (For example, we are familiar with the gruesome tattoos that were given to Jews upon arrival at some concentration camps – but most Jews were not tattooed; they were simply murdered even before they were numbered and dehumanized. Or, we are too familiar with the dreadful, unspeakable treatment of Jews in Bergen Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, etc. But those were not killing centers – Jews (and others) were killed there, and died of disease there, but the purpose of the incarceration there was not to kill them but to exploit them. Most Jews suffered a more immediate fate – a quick death.)
Interestingly, Allied forces never made it as far as the bloodlands, which were liberated by Soviet forces – still another reason why American and survivor accounts are centered on smaller concentration camps and not the major killing zones.
Similarly, the Nazi extermination program was not random or haphazard, but painstaking in its organization. The pace of extermination of Jews varied from time to time. If labor was needed, then Jews were kept alive to serve the Nazi war machine. If food was needed more, even considering the meager amount of food provided to inmates, then those laborers were just murdered. Most Polish Jews were murdered before the end of 1942, when they were construed by the Nazis as “useless eaters.” But in 1943, Hans Frank (Nazi Governor-General of Poland) needed labor and kept Jews alive longer, working them to death rather than gassing them. This accounts for the survival of Jews in the concentration camps – as long as they could work – and the systematic massacre in the death camps of those who could not or were not given the opportunity. Jews imprisoned in the ghettoes could not figure out the logic of deportations, but there was a cruel and macabre logic behind it. Killing Jews was a Nazi war objective, but as the war raged and Nazi fortunes plummeted, it became the primary objective of the collapsing Reich.
Part of the confusion lies in the dual “use” of Auschwitz, a concentration and labor camp to which was attached (for administrative purposes) the death camp at Birkenau about two miles away. The accounts of the methodical slaughter are still unnerving, despite their familiarity – the enlistment of Jews in the machinery of death in the ghettoes and in some camps, the inhuman viciousness of Ukrainians, Lithuanians and others who served as guards, the Poles who would mock the deportation trains as they passed by moving a figure across their throats, and the “efficiency” of some death factories and the problems found in others. His account of the last minutes of life for thousands of Jews in Treblinka could serve as an elegy on Tish’a B’Av.
Snyder concludes with an analysis of racial and Jew-hatred post-Holocaust, in Poland and especially in the Soviet Union in which Stalin resumed his mass killings and shortly before his death plotted the extermination of every Jew in his realm – even, sad to say, loyal Communists. Part of his paranoia was because of the establishment of the State of Israel, which indeed brought joy to many Soviet Jews. (One Politburo member’s wife exclaimed: “Now, we too have our own homeland!”) Stalin felt that no Jew could thenceforth be loyal to the USSR. Litvinov, the late 1930’s Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, had been fired because he was a Jew with whom Hitler refused to negotiate, and replaced by Molotov – whose Jewish wife was arrested in 1949 and charged with treason – at which point Molotov himself was fired (because his wife was Jewish). The irony, of course, is that Molotov was chosen because he wasn’t Jewish and Litvinov was, and then fired because his own wife was Jewish.
Seventy years have passed since the start of the Holocaust, and it is still difficult to wrap our minds about the nature of the ruthlessness and inhumanity that perpetrated that evil. “Bloodlands” can’t explain it fully either, but places it in the context of two evil regimes who perceived the survival of their political and social philosophies as dependent on the systematic extermination of real and imagined enemies. It is not a book exclusively about Jewish suffering during World War II, but about the suffering inflicted on human beings – many of whom were Jews who were indeed singled out for special horrors. It is a sobering reminder that evil in the world remains, and we err in seeking it only in the forms and patterns to which we have become accustomed. We err as well in thinking that evil that targets one population will not eventually spread to others, as Westerners learned in the last two decades when it deemed Arab terror as just a “Jewish problem.”