by Jon Mandle on June 17, 2013

Several years ago, I was at a conference in Krakow. The organizers put together a couple of excursions for the participants. One was to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and one was to Auschwitz. I was with my wife and daughter who was 6 at the time, so we went to the salt mine. It was pretty spectacular, much better than in pictures, and I didn’t regret the decision. Several friends who went to Auschwitz described the experience in pretty much the same terms: they were glad that they had gone, but never wanted to go back. I recently was in Krakow again, and this time I took the drive – about an hour – out to the camp.

Officially, it is called the “Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum,” but it is also referred to as a “memorial” and this is appropriate. It is a serious place, a point stressed by the guides. It’s actually a series of camps that have been preserved – Birkenau is just over a mile away from the main camp, Auschwitz I, and busses run between then. Although part of the same memorial, there is a significant difference between them. Auschwitz I had served as a Polish army barracks before the Nazis arrived, and the buildings are relatively sturdy and well preserved. The gas chamber, which is still standing, is half underground because it was originally a munitions bunker. The first prisoners arrived in 1940, and for the first year they were primarily prisoners of war and Polish political prisoners. Many were killed, often in gruesome ways, but it was not until September, 1941, that Nazis began mass executions using the gas Zyklon B. In October, 1941, construction began on the massive Birkenau camp, and by early 1943, it served primarily as an extermination camp. In Auschwitz, the Nazis made some effort to conceal from the prisoners the mass killings, but there was no way to hide what was happening in Birkenau. As Soviet troops closed in on the camps in January, 1945, retreating Nazis destroyed the gas chambers in Birkenau. There has been some reconstruction and restoration of various buildings, but the gas chambers in Birkenau are still rubble, and all the more moving because of that. All told, probably around 1.1 million people were killed in the camps.

The English-speaking guide I was with was excellent. She was very knowledgeable, and even though she has undoubtedly repeated the same points over and over again, she conveyed a seriousness of purpose and tried hard to get us to think about what it would be like to experience the place from the point of view of the prisoners. When I asked her questions that pushed her off script – how certain photographs were recovered, for example – she usually knew the answers. She told me that she had been giving tours for about 6 years, and I asked what she knew about the place before she started working there. She knew all about it, she said, because OÅ›wiÄ™cim is her hometown. (Auschwitz is the German name for the town.) But she also thought that schools are doing a better job than they have in the past at educating students about the Holocaust. In answering another question, she mentioned that they occasionally get a Holocaust denier taking the tour. Her approach is simply to let them have their say, and then to move on making her points. In that context, at least, this seems like a wise strategy, although Holocaust denial is apparently a crime in Poland. She – and the entire arrangement – was very good on the who, what, where, and how, but only in retrospect did I realize how little there was about the why. I don’t know what they could do to enter more fully into such controversial territory – or, more importantly, if they should do anything at all.

It’s very powerful and emotional to be told, “this is the building where…” or “this is the cell where…” One of the more amazing things to me was that the whole complex had been preserved at all. Part of the immediate reason for preservation, no doubt, was to preserve evidence for criminal proceedings. But it was former prisoners who led the effort to create a memorial. They received official authorization to do so in February, 1946, and, although there had been many visitors before, the official opening ceremony took place in June, 1947. I just have to believe that most people were simply trying to put together some semblance of a life after occupation and internment, but fortunately some were visionary enough to realize the importance of informing future generations in such a powerful way.

If you go – and you should – be prepared. Personally, I was basically in a state of low-level sobbing the entire time I was there, and several things had my stomach turning in knots. It’s not an easy place, or a place you’ll want to go back to, but it’s worth making the effort.



Anderson 06.17.13 at 8:50 pm

Thanks. The place is proof that ghosts aren’t real, because if Birkenau isn’t haunted, nothing is haunted.


Stephen Frug 06.18.13 at 1:53 am

She – and the entire arrangement – was very good on the who, what, where, and how, but only in retrospect did I realize how little there was about the why. I don’t know what they could do to enter more fully into such controversial territory – or, more importantly, if they should do anything at all.

Incidentally, Claude Lanzmann, in his epic 9+ hour film Shoah specifically avoids ever asking why. (If memory serves, he slips up and asks it twice in the course of a long film.) He focuses on the who, what, where and how. I don’t recall his precise rationale, but it’s something to the effect that “why” is ultimately an obscene question. (It may be in this context that he quotes one of the Auschwitz guards talking to Primo Levi, “Here there is no why”.) In addition, “why” evokes rationalizations and excuses and mitigations (and at least one of his two slips do, in fact, bring forth these), whereas the where/what/how demonstrate the horror more fully. He argues specifically against asking “why”.

I don’t think Lanzmann would make that argument about all Holocaust history — certainly I wouldn’t. But I think he’s right for some purposes, such as his film. And I bet that that applies equally to the Auschwitz memorial.


JanieM 06.18.13 at 1:57 am

I was basically in a state of low-level sobbing the entire time I was there

Harpers Ferry had that effect on me to such a degree that I was glad I had gone there alone.

It isn’t the same kind of place as Auschwitz, of course, but somehow the materials they’ve collected at there, and the place itself (at the confluence of two rivers), and its significance in American history, all come together to focus the emotions like a lens focusing a beam of light to a burning point.

I had a hard time with it.

Thanks for writing about your visit to Auschwitz. If we can’t do a single other thing, we can at least keep bearing witness.


Matt McKeon 06.18.13 at 10:06 am

Robert van Pelt’s “Auschwitz” describes in considerable detail the construction of the complex of camps at Auschwitz, and the changing rationales and “missions” there. He quotes the account of a survivor who asked “why?” during a selection. He concludes at the end of his book that he can tell who did what, when, how much it cost and so forth, but the “why” isn’t a question he can answer.


Agog 06.18.13 at 11:40 am

I was basically in a state of low-level sobbing the entire time I was there

I had a hard time with it

The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum was like that for me. I was so glad that it was there, and to see children seeing the displays.


jon 06.18.13 at 12:49 pm

Why? is now something we wonder about in regards to Holocaust deniers. Why?

It’s because to them, the Holocaust is a goal rather than a historical event. That it failed is the only reason they can deny it happened. Because it is a goal.

That is the Why? you don’t need to scratch deeply to get the answer to. That’s it.


Barry 06.18.13 at 1:02 pm

jon, a blogger once said that there are two types of Holocaust deniers – those who honestly believe that it didn’t happen, but should have, and those who would like to do it again.


Vanya 06.18.13 at 1:53 pm

I have mixed feelings about the way Auschwitz has turned into a shrine. I get the impression that many visitors come back feeling in some way morally elevated from the experience, which strikes me as perverse. Maybe because I was recently in Cracow and noticed that Rick Steve’s popular guidebook describes visiting Auschwitz as a “profoundly life-altering experience”, which strikes me as tin-eared and beside the point. If you go there, go to bear witness for the victims, don’t expect to be a better person or that you will personally have any truly deeper insight into the the Holocaust or human nature (and I am not accusing Jon Mandel of these sentiments).

Also in Poland or Ukraine, if you learn a little about your surroundings you will realize that the ghost of the Holocaust is literally almost anywhere you go – like the half destroyed Jewish cemetary 500 yards away from where I am writing in what was once the Jewish neighborhood in this small Galician town. I think some people find it easier to keep that ghost bottled up in places like Auschwitz.


Paul Davis 06.18.13 at 2:01 pm

I visited Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, about five years ago, and after walking through the ovens found myself weeping, alone, behind a wall, while my family walked around apparently much less affected by the thought of what was done there. I wept for how easily the candlelight of human empathy can be snuffed out, and, almost as trivially, how the lives of real people, people as real as my wife and daughters, could also be extinguished, apparently without much thought. They say that people who lived in Sachsenhausen just “got used to the smell” of burning human flesh.

I don’t know how we keep alive not just the memory but the understanding of how easily humans found it to do what they did to other humans at these camps. I do know that we MUST keep this alive, even though the attempts so far to keep the Holocaust in our collective memories have not stopped genocide, torture and mass killing around the world. I am not sure what our memory and awareness of it accomplishes when I watch the Hutus and the Tutsis, or even Serbians and Croatians, let alone Cambodia, but surely there is some purpose to telling the future and ourselves “This is how bad we can be and how easily it will be accepted and how monstrous it can get”.


Paul Davis 06.18.13 at 2:08 pm

@Vanya (@8), I don’t think Rick Steve’s point is that you become a better person, but rather than you come to understand something (appalling) about human beings (although let us perhaps leave a little room for the acknowledgement that the survival of hope is also notable). Sometimes a “deeper” knowledge of human nature doesn’t mean anymore than understanding just how monstrously we can behave, something that for many of us is often not very accessible. You are not “better” for confronting this, just more … in the world.


geo 06.18.13 at 2:31 pm

I know many people roll their eyes — perhaps with reason — at questions like “How could the most civilized nation in Europe descend into a prolonged episode of insane mass cruelty? or “What does the Holocaust say about the possibilities of international cooperation, trust, peacefulness, lawfulness, etc. for the foreseeable future?” But I’m still gnawing at them. Would a few people mention a few of the most enlightening reflections they’ve read on the moral implications of the Holocaust (apart from classics like Arendt, Adorno, Levi, Grass, Maus, etc?


PatrickinIowa 06.18.13 at 2:39 pm

For Americans especially, I recommend Wounded Knee. It wasn’t as built up when I was there as the Holocaust sites are, but the sense that something profoundly horrible, yet human, had happened was palpable. And the reservation around reminded me that it hasn’t entirely stopped.

I imply no equivalence, nor do I deny it. For our purposes here, there’s no use in comparing evils.


Paul Davis 06.18.13 at 2:46 pm

@geo (@11) … I suppose I tend to think of the question the other way around: “What is it in (y)our current society that prevents it from descending into insane mass cruelty?”

I remember hearing an interview with a Serb (or Croatian – I regret that I have forgotten which way around this story went) who was a manager at a company in Yugoslavia who oversaw most Croatian (or Serbian) employees. When the war broke out there, he found himself chained to a radiator, burned by cigarettes and whipped by people he used to think of as his friends (albeit underlings in a workplace context).

When I heard this story it gave me a sudden rush of awareness of how close to the edge US society is – the edge at which all the petty animosities, racial, class and religious tensions (and lies), all the us/them dichotomies that we normally manage to paper over suddenly erupt in a violent, insane outburst of cruelty and persecution.

I am still not sure what it is that keeps us (mostly) from crossing these lines, but I do have a very strong sense that whatever it is, it probably isn’t very robust.


Rich Puchalsky 06.18.13 at 2:51 pm

“Would a few people mention a few of the most enlightening reflections they’ve read on the moral implications of the Holocaust (apart from classics like Arendt, Adorno, Levi, Grass, Maus, etc?”

_Facing the Abusing God_, David Blumenthal, 1993.

Its Amazon blurb: “In this powerful book, David Blumenthal maintains that having faith in a post-Holocaust world means admitting that while God is often loving and kind, fair and merciful, God is also capable of acts so unjust they can only be described as abusive. Grounding his argument in Scripture and in the experience of Holocaust survivors and of survivors of child abuse, Blumenthal grapples with how to face a God who has worked “wondrously through us” and who has worked “aw(e)fully against us.” Delving into Jewish literary and theological traditions, the author articulates a theology of protest which accepts God as God is, yet defends the innocence of those who are utterly victimized.”


Anarcissie 06.18.13 at 2:59 pm


Rich Puchalsky 06.18.13 at 3:04 pm

Oh, of course. _The Iron Dream_, Norman Spinrad.


Ben Alpers 06.18.13 at 3:14 pm

A few miscellaneous titles, in no particular order….

Zygmund Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust

Inga Clendinnen, Reading the Holocaust

Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands


joel hanes 06.18.13 at 3:34 pm

Dee Brown, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee


Christopher W 06.18.13 at 3:50 pm

Geo @11

Not Grass in that list (hoping this comment doesn’t derail the thread).

I read Grass’ Danzig trilogy many years ago (and was affected by Schlöndorff’s film of “The Tin Drum”) but have always been a bit uncomfortable with his public attitudes (I read German), which often seemed contrived. Then it turned out that he had a secret.

To my mind there is no one more powerful (and profound) on Auschwitz than Primo Levi in “If This is a Man”, one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. And he was there.

Philip Roth: With the moral stamina and intellectual pose of a twentieth-century Titan, this slightly built, dutiful, unassuming chemist set out systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through, and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose. He was profoundly in touch with the minutest workings of the most endearing human events and with the most contemptible. What has survived in Levi’s writing isn’t just his memory of the unbearable, but also, in “The Periodic Table” and “The Wrench”, his delight in what made the world exquisite to him. He was himself a magically endearing man, the most delicately forceful enchanter I’ve ever known.


Brussel Sprout 06.18.13 at 4:46 pm

The book that helped me with the ‘why’ best was Tzvetan Todorov’s Facing the Extreme, which looks at mindsets of survivors and oppressors in the German camps and the Soviet gulag. Also, Jorge Semprun’s The Long Voyage.

Although as a child, I learned about the Holocaust quite early through Anne Frank and Judith Kerr, it was as an adult that I found it something I had to explore: around the same time, I read hitler’s willing executioners, Schlink’s The Reader and Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces, and also, the Wilkomirski scandal came out. For about 6-7 years after that, I couldn’t stop reading Holocaust history and literature, a compulsion that deepened once I had my own children and realised that we would have been vulnerable. A couple of years ago, I took a school group to Auschwitz, and we also visited the Schindler factory inCracow, Emalia, also a museum. The students were aged 15-16 and were very struck by the experience.

Having read so much and seen so many filmed/theatrical interpretations, e.g Sophie’s Choice and Schindler, Anthony Sher’s tour de force Primo and Bent, what I found eeriest was how familiar the environment felt. But still there are specific locations there that came as shocks, some of the cells, some of the galleries of inmates, the execution area where there had been a firing squad.

Once you’ve read Bloodlands, it becomes clear that there are so very many places all over Central Europe that have been the sites of atrocities. For me, Auschwitz is at once a culmination and a distraction. I would go back if I had to with other school groups, but I would prefer not to.


Eszter Hargittai 06.18.13 at 6:59 pm

Thank you for sharing this. I agree that it is so very helpful that people had the foresight and wherewithal to preserve what is there. I agree that it is important that we keep bearing witness.

Recognizing that there is likely already selection bias going into who visits such sites in the first place, I would be curious to know whether seeing them up close changes people’s attitudes toward atrocities and might reduce their chances of committing even remotely similar acts. I’m wondering about the case that Paul Davis described above.

It’s encouraging to hear that education about the Holocaust is better now in Poland. I doubt the same is the case in Hungary. That country has never done well coming to terms with its role in WWII and the current increasing popularity of neo-Nazis isn’t helping in that domain either (although I guess one could imagine a scenario where it would encourage more thoughtful reflection).


gatherdust 06.18.13 at 9:21 pm

I think having local Poles conduct tours of Nazi death camps is about as good as we’re going to get in a reckoning of the Holocaust. I suspect there’s selection bias in who participates in this reckoning. I’m reminded of Marian Marzynski’s SHTETL and the BBC Panorama piece Stadiums of Hate. Both provide pieces of answers to questions about why. And the reactions to both of these documentaries suggest that the sentiments behind the Holocaust, a kind of low-intensity anti-semitism, a preconscious hate, more than endures.

In the U.S. we don’t do reckoning much better. There’s a plaque at Wounded Knee. In southeastern Connecticut they’ve only managed to remove the statue of the person who organized the first act of European genocidal violence in North America. His statue stood in a small island in a sleepy suburban residential street. The street runs through what is now pretty certain the site of the Pequot massacre. There is no plaque commemorating the event. Homeowners have been worried about the potential effect too much remembering might have on property values.


novakant 06.18.13 at 9:30 pm

I like Woody Allen’s father’s answer in “Hannah and her Sisters”

Spoiler Alert:

“How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works!”


Hidari 06.18.13 at 9:36 pm

‘Claude Lanzmann, in his epic 9+ hour film Shoah specifically avoids ever asking why. (If memory serves, he slips up and asks it twice in the course of a long film.) He focuses on the who, what, where and how. I don’t recall his precise rationale, but it’s something to the effect that “why” is ultimately an obscene question’.

I hate to point out something unpleasant but it’s worth remembering that Claude Lanzmann, in not asking ‘why’, is coming at this issue from a very specific political position. One could turn this round of course, and argue that NOT asking ‘why’ is ultimately the obscene position. Incidentally, this post should probably be read in combination with Corey Robin’s post.


Anderson 06.18.13 at 9:50 pm

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands

Not about Auschwitz, but I remember a really striking line from that book:

“Belzec was not to be a camp. People spend the night at camps.” (p. 256)


Anarcissie 06.19.13 at 12:51 am

Given the number of genocides and other mass killings (democides?) which have occurred throughout history, it seems odd to ask why a particular instance of that sort of event occurred, unless we’re inquiring why human beings are so attracted to tribal violence in general. I acknowledge that the Holocaust is an outstanding example in terms of efficiency and clarity, but it was less thorough than, for instance, the American (USAn) and Argentine eradications of the Indians (according to what I’ve read; I wasn’t there to keep count). And for sheer numbers, I’ve heard that more people were killed further east. I’m not at all sure that going to Auschwitz and feeling bad or spooked is going to do a lot to prevent a recurrence, since the recurrence will look different and will be in a different place.


Substance McGravitas 06.19.13 at 1:04 am

I’m not at all sure that going to Auschwitz and feeling bad or spooked is going to do a lot to prevent a recurrence, since the recurrence will look different and will be in a different place.

So there are zero preventative examples?


The New York City Math Teacher 06.19.13 at 1:12 am

Three years ago, I took my wife on a tour of the towns in Hesse and in northern Bavaria where my grandparents were born and lived half their lives, and from which my great-grandparents were deported and murdered. My maternal and paternal grandfathers both were arrested and sent to Dachau on Kristallnacht; we have photos of them taken at release, after they paid their reichsfluchtsteuer and judenvermoegungssteuer – enough documentation about what happened. We have the last postcards of my great-grandparents, sent in 1941 and 1942. “Leibe Artur.” In the summer of 2010, we sat in the garden of my great-grandparents’ house in Hattersheim. admired the cypresses and Riesling grape-vines my greatgrandfather planted, and listened to the elderly owner describe his agonizing flight as a nine year old boy from East Prussia to Bavaria in the winter of 1945, how his baby brother died in their horse-drawn wagon. We have the typewritten affidavits my grandfathers and grandmothers prepared, when they litigated their widergutmachung.
I went to the German cemeteries and said Kaddisch for the ancestors buried in them.

Because we had those things, I’ve never seriously considered visiting a camp, or a holocaust museum. The closest I’ve come in all these years has been a visit to the Raschi Haus in Worms, to the empty reconstructed Synagogue, where I saw a torah scroll burnt to the innermost winding in Deuteronomy, recalled the whitened patches eyeheight on the stone doorposts lining the Judengasse, and beat feet through driving rain to retrieve the rental car and speed off down the Autobahn at Autobahn speeds to Speyer, not fast enough to escape the tears, or the hollow feeling in my belly.


PJW 06.19.13 at 2:00 am

Masters of Death by Richard Rhodes.


novakant 06.19.13 at 7:08 am

Here’s a very interesting (and entertaining) article on Lanzmann’s life and work:


lurker 06.19.13 at 7:47 am

‘ I’m not at all sure that going to Auschwitz and feeling bad or spooked is going to do a lot to prevent a recurrence’ (Anarcissie)
For future prevention you might want to focus on successful preventions in the past, but how do you identify a mass murder that didn’t happen?


faustusnotes 06.19.13 at 1:57 pm

I recommend the chapter “The Drowned and the Saved” from Primo Levi’s If this is a man. I think his work is amazingly uplifting, even though it is about the cruelest and most horrible of places. He finds a way to seek human goodness in the worst of places, and I think doing that as a survivor of those places is a truly remarkable feat.


Michigan Chaperone 06.19.13 at 3:28 pm

I had the occasion to chaperone my son’s German-language high school class trip to Austria, Germany, and Switzerland in 2003, at the dawn of the 2nd Gulf War. On our way from Salzburg to Munich, we stopped at Dachau. Our stop had been planned as part of our itinerary for months, so teachers and parents had had opportunities to prepare the kids beforehand. Our tour leader, a young philosophy student who had grown up in what had been East Germany, also provided plenty of background before we arrived.
Our kids were quite somber as we walked through the memorial.
At Dachau, the explanation of the historical context of the rise to power of the Nazis and Fascists was excellent, and chilling in its parallels to events underway at the time of our visit, with new resonance today: establishment of secret courts by emergency decree, the inability of the democratic process to clearly indicate a winner in the election of the chancellor, extraterritorial imprisonment, torture, and murder of enemies of the state to avoid civil rights entanglements, re-definition of what it meant to be a “member of society”.
We all left Dachau in a very quiet and introspective mood.


Anarcissie 06.19.13 at 7:32 pm

lurker 06.19.13 at 7:47 am @ 31
‘‘ I’m not at all sure that going to Auschwitz and feeling bad or spooked is going to do a lot to prevent a recurrence’ (Anarcissie)

For future prevention you might want to focus on successful preventions in the past, but how do you identify a mass murder that didn’t happen?’

One would have to study peace and its companions as assiduously as we have studied war.


roger nowosielski 06.19.13 at 7:50 pm

Unfortunately, there aren’t that many examples of the above.


Anderson 06.19.13 at 8:13 pm

“the inability of the democratic process to clearly indicate a winner in the election of the chancellor”

Like in the UK? I’m not quite getting that one.


Matt McKeon 06.19.13 at 9:32 pm

“Ordinary Men” by Christopher Browning

It’s not about the death camps, but a unit of Order Police who shot tens of thousands in Poland, the pressure put of them to commit murder, and the choices they made, the things they did.

Browning’s conclusion: If this group of ordinary men could do these things, what group of ordinary men would not?


Anarcissie 06.19.13 at 10:44 pm

‘… what group of ordinary men would not?’

Among others, Jehovah’s Witnesses.


roger nowosielski 06.19.13 at 11:29 pm

As to the less pointed way of asking the same question about “ordinary men,” Hannah Arendt had the right answer: doing nothing.


LFC 06.20.13 at 1:03 am

The NYC Math Teacher @28
You told just enough of the story to make me curious about how your grandfathers survived (managed to emigrate? or…?).


LFC 06.20.13 at 1:06 am

Or maybe if I took the time to look up reichsfluchtsteuer and judenvermoegungssteuer I would have the answer…


Ros 06.20.13 at 4:06 am

Several years back did the Auschwitz-Birkenau visit. We were with a tour and the visit to the museum was part of the tour. Mixed group, Australians, Americans , Canadians, Mexicans, South Africans. Virtually none spoke during the tour. My most stark moment was the room full of hair, smelt like a shearing shed.

If there were holocaust deniers amongst us they kept it to themselves. What was unusual for most of us was the indifferent, seemingly ignorant before and unmoved after.

Like any tour there were some odd folk. The oddest were a Mexican American couple. They arrived late because despite having been warned many times about holding every one up, they did it again and so eventually joined us by taxi. The female half (about fifty) of this pair had chosen to dress for the occasion in silk floral very short shorts, a silk red tank top and very high heels, which to be fair she wore everywhere. As the tour guide refused to pay for the taxi she sulked at Auschwitz and refused to leave the bus. Until we were all reloading and then she decided she needed a snap, hopped out, and asked a man from another tour to snap her with her camera doing her version of a cheesey model pose leaning against the fence. Great black comedy moment, he complied silently with his mouth frozen open. She returned, numbers were counted and we were missing the 2 attractive young Mexican women. They were spotted, taking photos of each other doing fun athletic things on the Auschwitz railway line.
Apart from being an unforgettable moment of the tour, it was clear to the rest of us that the Holocaust was something different to the Mexicans. They all spoke good English, the girls were well educated, well travelled, very rich and pleasant, and had done the full Museum tour. It had washed over them, touched them not at all. Too old a story, their own history had too many horrors in it to make it special, a European story only? Who knows. But an insight into why nonwesterners can speak sometimes of the Holocaust with what seems to us cold racist unpleasantness. They have their own horror stories and simply haven’t invested in the Holocaust?

Actually the older woman was an extremely unpleasant selfish stupid woman, the matted blond wig a yuck story in itself, who caused a near riot on the last night as all the rest of the tour tried to jam onto the one dining table so they didn’t have to sit with her.


The New York City Math Teacher 06.20.13 at 4:06 pm

@LFC – how they got out? My father’s father: bribes, allowed a prosperous business (chain of shoe stores) to get Aryanized, sold their high street properties for pfennigs on the (worthless) mark into a blocked account in the Dresdnerbank. He left Germany with my grandmother for England 16 August ’39; last ship from Bremerhaven to Liverpool before the war began. Their lift was bombed in Rotterdam in May, ’40. His parents were deported from their Hattersheim house directly to Minsk in 1942, without sojourn in a Jews’ House or transit camp – we didn’t know this until less than ten years ago, when the railroad manifests were published. Opa, Iron Cross Second and Third, thought his parents died in Theresienstadt until he died, and not in a pit in Minsk.

My mother’s father flew in a friend’s private plane over the Bodensee into Switzerland in the summer of ’39. Train across Vichy to Lisbon, ship to Philadelphia. Came back three years later with the Big Red One at Omaha. His uncle, aunt, and first cousin were on the St. Louis.


LFC 06.20.13 at 4:55 pm

@NYC Math Teacher
thanks, interesting


ajay 06.20.13 at 5:00 pm

For future prevention you might want to focus on successful preventions in the past, but how do you identify a mass murder that didn’t happen?

Kosovo? Going on their previous form, the Serbs were getting warmed up for Ethnic Cleansing Round Three when they were stopped.
And also things like the escape of the Danish Jews.


Anarcissie 06.20.13 at 7:39 pm

The Serbian tribalists didn’t have the right friends. The U.S. didn’t interfere when the Croat tribalists expelled Serbs from Croatia. The configuration and attitudes of external powers can’t always be counted on — they have their own interests to pursue.

I have read, though, that the Bulgarians (state, church, and people) would not allow a single Jew to be taken out of Bulgaria by or at the behest of the Nazis, although they were put under considerable pressure. For some reason this is seldom mentioned. No doubt they have done other bad things, but there is that signal fact, which someone might want to study someday, if it could only be remembered.


Harold 06.20.13 at 7:59 pm

Speaking of those who helped (the Bulgarians) or not. This is disheartening:


David Kornreich 06.20.13 at 9:09 pm

As a Jewish person “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust” by Yaffa Eliach is a very good book of recollections and reflections. Also Lanzmann’s Shoah is also available in a transcript version. Most of his interview subjects didn’t see anything wrong with what they did then and presumably still wouldn’t today. In such a case there is no sense in asking “why”.


Christopher W 06.20.13 at 10:06 pm

Anarcissie @46,

The Bulgarians’ role in the Holocaust is mixed. On the one hand, as you point out, no Jews were deported from Bulgaria itself (King Boris declared that he needed them as workers!), but over 11,000 Jews were rounded up and deported in 1943 by Bulgarian policemen in Macedonia and northern Greece, then under Bulgarian control under auspices of Bulgaria’s alliance with Nazi Germany.

Things are never simple…

And this fallout…


Christopher W 06.21.13 at 4:45 am

Readers of this thread might also be interested in a current BBC magazine piece on Israeli efforts to keep Holocaust memories alive among young people for whom the past is (literally) a foreign country.

In the early years of the Israeli state, the Holocaust was a taboo subject, a “shameful” period of Jewish history, as historian Tom Segev recalls. “Segev argues that the Zionist pioneers who had come to the Middle East to build a new type of Jewish society couldn’t understand why the European Jews who were murdered hadn’t resisted Nazi rule.” After the Eichmann trial, attitudes slowly changed and native Israelis began losing their contempt for European survivors.

Also fascinating in the piece is the story of a photograph (shown) of an older man kneeling on the ground while German soldiers nonchalantly stand around during what looks like a roundup of Jews in a small town in Poland. The man in the photo turned out to be the grandfather of Meir Dagan, head of Mossad in 2002-2010.

The picture came to light when Dagan’s father returned to his home village after the war, to look for Jewish survivors. They asked a local Polish man to take some photographs. When he handed over the film roll and they eventually had it processed, they discovered at its start the picture of the Germans surrounding the helpless old man. The photographer must have been taking photographs for the newly-arrived Nazis too…


Katherine 06.21.13 at 9:10 am

In a similar sort of vein, I suppose, I visited S-21 (now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) in Phnom Penh, and one of the Killing Fields, whilst in Cambodia some years ago.

The experience was mostly silent and with an all-pervading feeling of nausea. There was an element of the macabre which I didn’t know quite what to make of – lots of skulls everywhere.

I’m pretty good at putting myself in other people’s shoes, even seemingly terrible people and terrible shoes, but I had no clue here. What could make a bunch of people choose a particular tree in a particular spot as the place where they’d bash the brains in of small children?


Hidari 06.21.13 at 11:54 am

It’s difficult to know how to phrase this without giving offence but it’s worth remembering that the Holocaust is one of the most widely studied events in history. If you want to say that in some metaphysical or moral sense we can never know ‘why’ then that’s a perfectly reasonable argument. But if you are arguing that in the common or garden sense of the word ‘why’ we don’t know ‘why’ then that’s not true. We have access to almost all of the relevant documentation, far more so than those who liberated the death camps did. We know precisely ‘why’, albeit in a purely operational sense.

Tuol Sleng was a converted school incidentally.


Katherine 06.21.13 at 12:40 pm

But if you are arguing that in the common or garden sense of the word ‘why’ we don’t know ‘why’ then that’s not true. We have access to almost all of the relevant documentation, far more so than those who liberated the death camps did. We know precisely ‘why’, albeit in a purely operational sense.

No offence taken, don’t worry. I’m definitely in the “metaphysical or moral” realm here.


Hidari 06.21.13 at 7:17 pm

If anyone is interested in why the Holocaust(s) happened, incidentally, then Adam Tooze has a fantastic series of video talks on this. Not for the faint hearted.

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