Sometimes we think we know something, but we know it only in the most abstract way, which means we may not know it at all.
I can’t say it better than one of Daniel Mendelsohn’s travelling companions does toward the end of this powerful work of investigative empathy: “The Holocaust is so big, the scale of it is so gigantic, so enormous, that it becomes easy to think of it as something mechanical. Anonymous. But everything that happened, happened because someone made a decision. To pull a trigger, to flip a switch, to close a cattle car door, to hide, to betray.”
Others have grappled with this problem: how do you tell the story of the Holocaust in a way that encompasses both its vast geopolitical and its intimately personal dimensions? On the one hand, for instance, there is “The Destruction of the European Jews,” Raul Hilberg’s portrait of the continentwide project of genocide, which includes everything from railway schedulers to Zyklon B gas manufacturers. And there is “The War Against the Jews,” Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s invaluable account of the origins of the extermination in the perpetrators’ ideology. On the other hand there are the memoirs of survivors like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, along with numerous less well-known but no less affecting personal accounts. There is also an entire “second generation” literature, both memoirs and novels by children of victims who testify to the enduring questions the Holocaust has left behind, questions about the nature of human nature and the perplexities of theodicy — the relationship of God to the evil visited upon the innocent. There are novels about attempting a new life in the aftermath, like Isaac Bashevis Singer’s icy masterpiece, “Shadows on the Hudson,” and jarring, unconventional works like Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.”
more from the NY Times here.