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Yad Vashem Studies, Vol. 41:2 (2013)

Dr. David Silberklang

This issue features a wide variety of disciplines, opening with archaeological excavation as a method for uncovering the history of the Sobibór death camp (Yoram Haimi and Wojciech Mazurek). Alongside this are articles on Hannah Arendt (Samuel Lederman) and Uriel Tal (Noga Wolff); Jewish undergrounds in Poland (Avihu Ronen; Antony Polonsky on Dariusz Libionka and Laurence Weinbaum); the place of Jews in three Auschwitz trials (Devin Pendas, Laura Jokusch, and Gabriel Finder); critiquing a new conspiracy theory regarding the murder of Western Jews (Robert Jan van Pelt on Florent Brayard); literature of the Shoah (Avinoam Patt on Amos Goldberg; Miriam Trinh on David Roskies and Naomi Diamant); and Operation T4 (Yehuda Bauer on Götz Aly). The issue is dedicated to the memory of Yisrael Gutman with articles Yehuda Bauer, Otto Dov Kulka, and Havi Dreifuss on his seminal contribution to the field.

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Archaeological excavations carried out by a Polish-Israeli team in the Sobibór extermination camp began in 2007 and have continued through May 2013. The investigations are a joint project led by Wojciech Mazurek on behalf of the Sub Terra Badania Archeologiczne in Chełm and Yoram Haimi on behalf of the Yad Vashem Historical Institute in Jerusalem.

Sobibór was one of the three extermination camps set up by the Nazis in the Reinhardt Operation in 1942. At least 250,000 victims were murdered in the camp, which was the site of the only successful revolt of inmates against the Germans. Subsequently, the Germans dismantled the camp before the end of the war. As a result of its destruction, little accurate information is known about Camp 3, the area in which the gas chambers, crematoria, and mass graves were located.

Since 2007, the excavations have been concentrated in the area of Camp 3 and a number of important discoveries have been made. Among these is the discovery of the location of the Himmelfahrtsstrasse, the “road to heaven,” along which the victims were channeled from the transports to the gas chambers, and the remains of structures where they were undressed and their personal belongings were taken.

To date, more than 45,000 artifacts have been discovered in the excavations. These include two metal tags belonging to Jewish children who were transported to the extermination camp from Amsterdam in July 1943 and other items belonging to the victims as well as objects (e.g., pistol shells and bullets) left by their captors.


The article investigates the history of a cable sent from Palestine in the summer of 1943 to the surviving ghetto fighters in the Będzin ghetto. In the cable, Yitzhak Tabenkin, head of the United Kibbutz Movement, and Meir Ya’ari, head of HaKibbutz HaArtzi, the settlement arm of HaShomer HaTza’ir, instructed the members of the Jewish Fighting Organization in occupied Poland to “exploit all ways to emigrate” — an expression construed at the time as an instruction to desist from uprisings after the one in the Warsaw ghetto. The cable itself has never been found. However, as this study shows, its existence may be corroborated by many documents and testimonies.

The article discusses the cable at three levels: historical references to it during the Holocaust, the political controversy that its existence or non-existence sparked in the 1950s, and the historiographic controversy that enveloped it afterwards. The first level of inquiry pertains to the roots of the problematique that typified relations between the Yishuv and European Jewry during the Holocaust. The second (political) level offers a pungent account of the ways in which memory is shaped, particularly the way rescue was posited as the diametrical opposite of warfare, an inferior option that was even held in moral and political contempt. The cable is also intimately related to the way the initial historiography of the youth movements during the Holocaust was written — specifically the ways editing, deletion, and censorship were applied in this historiography, which concerned itself with the mythification of the uprising and blurred the painful questions that arise in regard to the topic of ghetto warfare.


Auschwitz has come to serve as a symbol of the Holocaust, although tens of thousands of members of other groups were killed there and other killing sites such as Treblinka and Babi Yar were more specific to the killing of Jews. One explanation for the prominent place of Auschwitz in understanding the Holocaust is the role of this most notorious of camps in postwar trials. Following the example of the Nuremberg Trial, it has often been argued that Jewish suffering was marginalized in trials of Nazi criminals. This article shows, however, that the genocide of the Jews occupied a significant portion of the proceedings at the various Auschwitz trials. At the British Lüneburg, the Polish Höss, and the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, Jewish voices resonated and reached a wide public. The elements of the testimony about Jewish suffering at these trials have come to supply iconic images of Auschwitz. 


The publication of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil touched off intellectual tumult and trenchant controversy. The article focuses on the concept of “banality of evil” and refutes interpretations, based on Holocaust historiography, of what Arendt had in mind when she used it. As I wish to show, Arendt’s intention was neither that Eichmann’s actions were “ordinary” nor even that his crimes should be understood within the ambit of the “bureaucratic crimes” thesis — the argument that millions of people were sent to their deaths by “faceless” clerks sitting at their desks in the bureaucratic apparatus. This latter thesis, in the main as the one that has embedded itself in Holocaust research, is the topos on which I focus in particular. In so doing, I wish to underscore what Arendt really meant by this expression, which she coined, as may be adduced from various letters in which she referred to it. Finally, I ask how the validity of Arendt’s claims should be weighed in view of the latest Holocaust research.


This article looks at the intellectual work of the historian Uriel Tal as he sought to pinpoint the modes of thought that form the basis of antisemitic arguments against the Jews. Of the four key components that Tal posited to constitute the realm of antisemitic thought, this article will focus on the status of antisemitic ideology as reflecting a rejection of the ideas of the critical Enlightenment.

The turn against the principles of the Enlightenment, Tal showed, has been a common factor underlying the arguments of anti-Jewish and antisemitic parties and movements, whether overt or disguised, from the late nineteenth century up to the Nazi seizure of power. This interpretation of the role of anti-Enlightenment thinking, which the article presents, has posed a sharp challenge to the conventional theories of Israeli and Jewish historiography, and entailed a robust correspondence from Tal to various colleagues to prove his theory in the face of intense opposition to his ideas.



Review of Dariusz Libionka and Laurence Weinbaum, Bohaterowie, hochsztaplerzy, opisywacze: Wokół Żydowskiego Związku Wojskowego. Warsaw: Stowarzyszenia Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, 2011, 635 pp.


The book reviewed aims to show first how the history of the Revisionist Zionist organization, the Żydowski Związek Wojskowy (ŻZW), which participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, has been consistently falsified in both Poland and in Israel, and the Jewish Diaspora. It then attempts to reconstruct the actual history of the ŻZW, which was finally set up only after the revisionists failed to be accepted into the Jewish Fighting Organization (ŻOB). The number of fighters in its ranks was between 100 and 160, with some unarmed reservists. The main fighting conducted by the ŻZW was at Muranowska Square, where the organization had its headquarters and where the ŻZW seems to have been responsible for hoisting two flags during this fighting, the white and red Polish flag and the blue and white Zionist flag.

Review of Amos Goldberg, Trauma in the First Person: Diary-Writing during the Shoah (Hebrew). Or Yehuda: Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir and Ben-Gurion University, 2012, 447pp.


This article examines Amos Goldberg’s new monograph on diary-writing during the Shoah and his call to re-examine autobiographical texts from the period through the lens of trauma. While the power of language was often inadequate to depict the extreme trauma of the war, diaries allowed their writers to maintain some sense of identity as the world crumbled around them. The sustained experience of trauma meant no possibility of return to a prior state of normalcy and no potential for redemption and rebirth after the war. Following an extensive theoretical and methodological explanation of the significance of trauma studies and the need for a historiographical corrective, Goldberg focuses on the specific cases of Victor Klemperer and Chaim Kaplan in the second half of the book. Goldberg’s close reading of these texts most fundamentally calls for a renewed examination of the way diaries have been incorporated into historical writing on the Shoah.

Review of Florent Brayard, Auschwitz: Enquête sur un Complot Nazi. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2012, 530 pp.


Florent Brayard’s Auschwitz: Enquête sur un Complot Nazi (2012) proposes that between the summer of 1941 and the fall of 1943 the murder of East European Jews occurred with the knowledge and approval of the Nazi and German elites, but that the murder of German and West European Jews happened in secret as the result of a conspiracy that excluded not only the German elites, but even many senior Nazis, including Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels and State Secretary Wilhelm Stuckart, a key participant in the Wannsee Conference. This unwarranted conspiracy theory is based on a hermeneutical method developed for the analysis of works of art that are conceived by the artist as a unity. This method does not account for the often messy contingencies of actual historical developments, and hence fails to adequately account for the massive documentary evidence that this conspiracy did not exist, and that Nazi leaders like Goebbels and Stuckart were well aware in 1942 and the first half of 1943 that the so-called Final Solution also included German and West European Jews. 

Review of Götz Aly, Die Belasteten: “Euthanasie” 1939–1945. Eine Gesellschaftsgeschichte. Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 2013, 352 pp.


This review terms Götz Aly’s new book a study of unique importance that reveals a deeply buried secret that both the German establishment and public preferred to repress even many years after the war. Integrating historical, psychological, and sociological approaches, the book offers thoroughgoing research based on a plethora of official and private archival sources (e.g., letters and testimonies).

Nazi Germany practiced “euthanasia” as one element in the process of purifying the “Aryan” race. Initially performed on ideological grounds, this killing project eventually found economic and pragmatic justifications as well. Although the conventional wisdom has it that the operation ended in the summer of 1941, it continued de facto until the end of the war. Aly’s book uncovers the murder mechanism, its modus operandi, and the personal aspect of the victims and their families.

Review of David G. Roskies and Naomi Diamant, Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2012, 355 pp.


The principal goal of this new opus by Prof. David Roskies (Jewish Theological Seminary, New York) and Naomi Diamant (Stern School of Business, New York University) is to guide the young generation of English-speakers in studying and understanding the Holocaust through the prism of Holocaust literature. To accomplish this, they present us with a book that is both a historical manual and a rich and versatile bibliographic vehicle that allows the reader to probe Holocaust literature period by period.

The book has two sections, the first theoretical and the second descriptive and bibliographical. The first section presents a comprehensive review of literary writings about the Holocaust from 1938 to the present. The second section offers a concise description of the “first 100 books,” in which the authors propose a selected canonization of Holocaust literature.