Two New Books Look at the Holocaust in Civic and Military Terms

Nicholas Stargardt in The New York Times:

HoloAt the center of “Final Solution” are the words of Jewish victims. In mid-August 1942, Rudolf Reder arrived at Belzec on a train that had taken many hours to cover the 60 miles from Lvov. He was assigned to a small group of men held back on the platform, while the rest were led away. “After a few minutes prisoners appeared with stools and hair-cutting equipment: Their job was to shave the women. It was ‘at this moment that they were struck by the terrible truth. It was then that neither the women nor the men — already on their way to the gas — could have any illusions about their fate.’ ” Reder saw how “the women, naked and shaved, were rounded up with whips like cattle to the slaughter, without even being counted — ‘Faster, faster’ — the men were already dying. Two hours was the time it took to prepare for murder and for murder itself.”

…Why the Jews? Why murder? Why didn’t more Jews fight back more often?

Hayes’s answer to this last question is characteristically balanced and astute, as he sketches out the different courses set by four different ghetto leaderships. Whether it was Adam Czerniakow in Warsaw, Chaim Rumkowski kowtowing in Lodz or Jacob Gens in Vilna and Jewish leaders in Minsk who tried to assist Jewish partisan groups, it ultimately made no difference. As Hayes concludes, “whatever the Jewish leaders did — kill themselves, aid the resistance, appease the Nazis — the outcome was the same.” Theirs were truly choiceless choices. Contemporaries may have debated the right course of action, and Cesarani recounts the confrontation between Rabbi David Kahane and Henryk Landsberg, the respected lawyer and head of the Jewish Council in Lvov, in which Kahane declared that “it is better that all die and not one Jew be delivered to the enemy,” while Landsberg countered that the rabbis were not living in the prewar world. But neither Hayes nor Cesarani has any time for the old accusation leveled by Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt that without the collusion of the Jewish Councils, the Nazis could not have carried through the Final Solution to the same extent. Cesarani faults the Jewish leaders in Poland not for things over which they had no control, but for their venality and social conservatism when it came to allocating the scant resources they possessed. Cesarani’s central claim to originality is to reconnect the Final Solution with the military campaigns of World War II. As he argues, recent historiography has shown that “making war” was “the central mission of Hitler and the Third Reich,” but that their preparations for war were “erratic”; that the decisive victories over France, Britain and the Soviet Union in 1940-41 were achieved “mainly thanks to the mistakes of their opponents”; and that the regime’s response to the changing military tide thereafter was marked by “inadequacy.”

Picture: Children from Lodz on their way to the Chelmno extermination camp, 1942.

More here.