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The Holocaust and Historians

December 11, 2010

Hall of Names in Yad Vashem Museum

Jerusalem Friday. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, I ask Dr Robert Rozett what are the most recent developments in the scholarship of the Holocaust. He nominates four.
One, the work of a Daniel Blatman, in Hebrew but not yet English, on the death marches as the eastern concentration camps were emptied when the Russians approached and prisoners forced on the road in the depths of winter. This was the murder of thousands at the 11th hour, applied not just to Jews but all others and on an improvised basis. Second, there is Y Bauer’s Death of the Shtetl which explores how over a million Jews were killed in small cities and towns in Ukraine and Belorus and how this was a separate story from what happened in the big cities like Warsaw, Vilna and Lvov. The same story of cultural destruction but one that shifts attention from the icon of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Third, there is Christopher Brown’s Remembering Survival about the labor camps – hundreds of them – where there was massive suffering and means of survival but in a context different from that of, again, the huge icon of Auschwitz. Fourth, Rozett nominates his own work on the Hungarian labor battalions in which Jewish men were mobilized for the Eastern front, 80 percent not to return. Some who survived the Nazis were captured by the Russians and treated as enemies and killed in Siberia.
He said, ” These studies show us that the Holocaust was not only Auschwitz. At Yad Vashem we frequently teach complexities – the dilemmas, anomalies, paradoxes showing that history like our lives is not in black and white but in colour.”

Research is also emphasizing the role of Nazi allies showing that while Germany was at the heart of things there was a mobilization of antipathy to Jews across Europe and the Hewis – the volunteer helpers of the Nazis in the East – were crucial. Germans could not have done this on their own. Research is also putting Hitler at the centre of the Third Reich’s eliminationist anti-Semitism rather than spreading responsibility more widely.  Adolf Eichmann’s role is wound back somewhat, no longer seen as a decision-maker although, of course, vital in the round-up of Jews in Hungary in 1944.
Teaching the Holocaust is no antidote, Rozett says, to anti-semitism. It’s necessary but not sufficient. The challenges are to stop trivializing, banal-ising and the making of false analogies, that is, equating the Holocaust with other things which plainly don’t fit.

We honor the memory of the six million in perhaps the world’s most appropriate location, Auschwitz excepted.


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