Dr. David Silberklang
Yad Vashem Studies 40:1 is dedicated to the memory of Leon Volovici, an important scholar and Editorial Board member, and opens with Raphael Vago’s analysis of his contribution to scholarship.
Six research articles are devoted to an examination of aspects of the Holocaust in its European context. They help answer some of the questions about personal and societal motivations regarding Jews seeking aid and asylum and show that a complex mix of radical nationalism, racism, antisemitism, sovereignty, greed, and ideals — or their abandonment — were among the factors that came into play in influencing attitudes and behavior toward Jews in need.
The analyses include:
- Rachel Feldhay Brenner on the diary of a liberal Polish rescuer;
- Jan Grabowski on rural Poles;
- Joanna Tokarska-Bakir on the Armia Ludowa Polish underground;
- László Karsai on the Hungarian regime under Ferenc Szálasi;
- Ronit Fisher on Ion Anonescu’s regime and Romanian society;
- Susanne Urban on German attitudes toward the death marches.
These articles tackle difficult subjects, and their findings are not always what might be expected. Review articles by Omer Bartov, Stephan Lehnstaedt, Theodore Weeks, and Dimitry Shumsky round out this issue.
Aurelia Wyleżyńska, a well-known Polish Gentile writer, stayed in Warsaw under occupation, writing an extensive diary. She was deeply engaged in helping the hiding Jews. Intended as a chronicle, the diary became a narrative centering on the Jewish theme, and especially on the psychological and ethical issues concerning rescue. While she denounced the general anti-Jewish attitude of the Polish population, Wyleżyńska focused on the complex dynamic of rescuer-rescuee interaction. The recognition of the devastating effect of the Final Solution on interpersonal relationships defined by the capacity for reciprocity, respect, and mutual understanding made her realize the frailty of the humanistic values in time of terror, and especially the meaning of altruistic action. The diary traces an intricate story of the author’s inner change through unsparing moral self-evaluation and offers a profoundly edifying insight into the anatomy of rescue in a time of genocidal terror.
Jan Grabowski, Rural Society and the Jews in hiding: Elders, Night Watches, Firefighters, Hostages and Manhunts
In the summer and fall of 1942 the Germans started to liquidate the ghettos of the Tarnow area, in southeastern Poland. Facing imminent death, thousands of local Jews started to flee to the “Aryan side”, seeking shelter among their Polish co-citizens, or in the nearby forests. Only a small minority survived until the end of the war. The subsequent hunt for the Jewish refugees involved German police forces (Schupo and, in the rural areas, the gendarmerie detachments) and various units of Polish village self-government and self-defense structures. These units, which included voluntary firefighting brigades, members of the specially-created village night-watches, and peasants mobilized whenever needed for the purposes of a manhunt, with time became a deadly threat for the Jews in hiding. This article, which focuses on one single county, explores the role played by the local Polish population in the German strategy of hunting down the Jews.
The materials presented in this article from the trials of Tadeusz Maj and his subordinate Jan Kozieł, contradict the view that the murders committed in the Starachowice area of the Kielce region were unknown to the high command of the communist-led Armia Ludowa (AL) Polish underground. They illustrate the extent of antisemitism among AL soldiers, and that antisemitic attitudes, which are usually seen as tied to the post-Stalinist era, had divided Polish communists before then. The resonance of the archival materials dealing with murders of Jews carried out by members of the Świt unit, and subsequently the Second Kielce AL Brigade bearing the same name, is summed up in the words of one of the murderers. Jan Kozieł said, “Considering the executions that were carried out and the attitude of the command to these incidents, one can conclude that the attitude of the Świt unit toward the population of Jewish nationality was hostile.”
The story of the trial of Tadeusz Maj, which has been reconstructed in this article as well as other investigations concerning murders of Jews that never came to trial, documents the tensions tearing apart the fabric of the communist power apparatus, which was unwilling to search for truth about the Holocaust. Investigations were launched in order to target political rivals, and because in the period immediately preceding Stalin’s death, the configuration of political forces kept changing, consequently the relevant cases were pursued tardily and inconsistently.
This article attempts to outline the history of the Jewish policy of the Ferenc Szálasi regime, which came to power in Hungary in October 1944 by analyzing the motivating factors which guided his decision making process regarding Nazi policies and the Jewish fate. At its core, the article seeks to expose the irony in the fact that Szálasi is the utmost loathed politician in Hungarian history, remembered for wanting to destroy the remnants of the Hungarian Jewish population, despite the fact that one-tenth of the Jews who died were murdered during Szálasi’s regime as compared to the number of deaths associated with the Horthy–Sztójay regime. The article in no way seeks to absolve Szálasi as a virulent antisemite and murderer, but, rather, to prove that Szálasi’s Jewish policy was more opportunistic than that of the Horthy–Sztójay regime. Szálasi planned to exploit the remaining Jews in Hungary as forced labor, and, thus, ghettos were established and the death marches stopped despite the demands of the Germans to the contrary. Those who survived did not owe their lives to Szálasi. However, he did limit the murder of Hungarian Jews, albeit purely to achieve self-serving, pragmatic, and opportunistic goals.
Ronit Fisher, Between Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide: An Alternative Analysis of the Holocaust of Romanian Jewry
This article examines the main characteristics of the extermination of the Jews in Romania as part of the Final Solution, in light of alarming political trends that have evolved in Romania in the twenty-first century. The author proposes an alternative explanation for the sharp dichotomy between the inherent extreme and brutal antisemitism of the Romanians (both of the establishment and of individuals), and the fact that Romania did not carry out a complete destruction of its Jews, as required by the race laws and as expected by its enthusiastic ally, Nazi Germany. This dichotomy, expressed in the extreme differences between the ranges of the extermination in different areas of Romania, emphasizes the unique nature of Romania and of the Holocaust of its Jews in comparison with the different ways the Final Solution was implemented in other European countries. The author seeks to challenge the religious dimension, usually characterizing theories of the Holocaust of Romanian Jewry, to an ethnic dimension in arguing that the extermination of Romanian Jewry oscillated in its definition between ethnic cleansing and genocide. The social, eugenic–racial, and ethnic–psychological basis of these processes is extremely important not only because of their contribution to a deeper understanding of the past, but also because of their centrality in the way the Romanian nation today perceives its historic responsibility for its conduct in that period.
Susanne Urban, “’Unknown Dead’”: Unsettling Finds from the Archive of the International Tracing Service
The death marches during the final months of World War II from concentration and extermination camps to the concentration camps on German and Austrian soil — such as to Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenbürg, and Mauthausen — have only just begun to draw scholarly attention and interest in the past five to ten years. The appearance of analytical successors to the eminent Prof. Yehuda Bauer’s first study on the death marches, published in 1983, has taken a long time in coming. Because this topic was integrated into historiography so late, many questions and gaps in the research still remain open. The documents presented in this paper both reflect the concentration camps’ administration up to the final days of the Nazi camp complex and the cynical contempt for human beings ingrained in the apparatus of registration and control. It is not yet possible to provide a comprehensive historical classification and analysis of these documents. Rather, what research requires is an array of different approaches in order to comprehend and present the documents in their deep structure, which is challenging to grasp.
Omer Bartov, “Sitrah Akhrah” (The Other Side): What is the Purpose of Holocaust Fiction? Reflections in the Wake of Two Historical Novels by Jonathan Litell and Steve Sem-Sanderg
In the wake of two historical novels – The Emperor of Lies by Jonathan Littell and The Kindly Ones by Steve Sem-Sandberg – this article asks, what is the purpose of Holocaust fiction? The author sees these two inversely symmetrical novels as an attempt to expose the “other side” of Nazism and of the Holocaust. The article praises the novelists for breaking convention and enabling the reader to delve inside the head of a Nazi mass murderer, who happens to be often intelligent, charming, well read, and attractive. And to spend hours in the company of a Jewish leader in the Holocaust who turns out to be a child molester, rapist, thief, glutton, and parasite – a thoroughly despicable and unlikable person. The article does, however, caution readers to bear in mind the existential realities – beyond anything previously imagined – of the period which drove people to act in ways we cannot possibly grasp from our own sheltered vantage point.
Stephen Lehnstaedt, Who Will Edit Their History? The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and the Ringelblum Archives
Review of Magdalena Tarnowska, ed., Życie i twórczość Geli Seksztajn. Archiwum Ringelbluma, vol. 4); Katarzyna Person, ed., Getto warszawskie. Życie codzienne. (= Archiwum Ringelbluma, vol. 5); Tadeusz Epsztein, ed., Inwentarz Archiwum Ringelbluma.
Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute holds the collections of “Oyneg Shabes”, gathered in the famous Ringelblum archive, one of the largest collections of documents authored by Jews during the Holocaust. Recently, three volumes have been published concerning these materials: One archival guide and two books with edited documents on everyday life in the Warsaw ghetto and on the painter Gela Seksztajn. All three volumes are valuable contributions, visually attractive and with a summary in English. However, due to the quite selective choice of documents, one has to ask what the books accomplish in the sense of the planned complete edition of the Ringelblum Archives materials. The neglect of questions of arrangement and classification of materials is quite obvious; thus, this article pleads for a systematic and complete reproduction of all the Ringelblum holdings and discusses some ideas how to do so.
Theodore R. Weeks, Grappling with an Uncomfortable Past: Recent Scholarship on the Holocaust in Poland and Lithuania
Review of Adam Puławski, W obliczu zagłady: Rząd RP na Uchodźstwie, Delegatura Rządu RP na Kraj, ZWZ-AK wobec deportacji Żydów do obozów zagłady (1941–1942). Lublin: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, 2009, 583 pp.
Robert van Voren, Undigested Past: The Holocaust in Lithuania. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2011, 195 pp.
This article reviews recent scholarship on the Holocaust in Poland and Lithuania - Adam Puławski’s W obliczu zagłady (In the Face of Annihilation); and Robert van Voren’s Undigested Past: The Holocaust in Lithuania. Both works address the issues of antisemitism, collaboration, and remembering. Each, in its own way, contributes to our understanding of past and present relations of Jews to Poles and Lithuanians. Pulawski, in analyzing a wide range of evidence, aims to document how much was known by the Polish underground and London government-in-exile about the murder of Jews, and how these bodies reacted to this information. Van Voren's work characterizes a valuable overview, covering Lithuanian–Jewish relations before 1939, the events of the Shoah in Lithuania, the question of collaboration, and the difficult and often suppressed memory of these tragic events in the present day. Although his research sometimes lacks the insight of a professional historian, his contribution demonstrates a serious effort to synthesize the findings of historians and to explain why the level of collaboration and anti-Jewish violence on the part of Lithuanians was so high in the years between 1941 and 1943. Overall, both books transmit information to the public in Poland and Lithuania and open up the discussion of collaboration in the mass murder of their Jewish neighbors.
Review of David Engel, Historians of the Jews and the Holocaust
According to Historians of the Jews and the Holocaust, the overwhelming majority of post-1945 American and Israeli historians of the Jews in the pre-Holocaust modern period have erected an intellectual and mental separating wall of sorts between the event of the Holocaust and their historical consciousness, making it impossible for the Holocaust and its significance to be an integral part of the conceptualization of the Jewish history of the generations that preceded it. In contrast to post-Holocaust Jewish thought, which raised, in the wake of the Holocaust, “Jewish survival” and “Jewish continuity” to the level of supreme values, modern Jewish historiography is unaffected by and devoid of any influence of the Holocaust.
However, a close examination of the historiography discussed in the book shows that the opposite applies. In a similar vein to Jewish thought, there has been a deep impact of the Holocaust rupture on this historiography, which resulted in the quest to highlight the continuities and complexities in the history of Jews and their relationships with their non-Jewish surroundings.
Engel, clearly, rejects this paradigm of dialectical continuities in understanding modern Jewish history, while preferring instead a crisis paradigm. However, as he devotes much effort to wrestling with the imagined wall sequestering, as it were, the Holocaust from the historical perception of the pre-Holocaust Jewish history, he does not go on to methodologically develop his alternative historiographical vision.