The Memory of the Holocaust and the Mystery of Unfathomable Evil
The following article has been published in ABC Religion & Ethics by Alex Ryvchin.
This article is based on keynote speeches delivered on Holocaust Remembrance events in Queensland on 5 May 2019.
The Holocaust ― the term given to the industrial-scale slaughter of the Jews of Europe ― is often examined in isolation. An event without precedent and without successor. Certainly, the enormity of the killing, the unsparing barbarity and cool sophistication with which it was carried out, and its genesis in the centre of enlightened Western Europe, all contribute to its uniqueness. This in turn means that the Holocaust is largely viewed as an aberration, a deviation in the progression of human history.
But in reality, the events of the Holocaust were entirely predictable and were shown to the Jews in preview over and over again.
The expulsion of the Jews from Spain and England in the Middle Ages showed how dispensable this ancient nation was. The massacre of Jews in York in 1190 and Odessa in 1905 showed how easily a mob could be compelled to kill men, women and children in a great release of pent up frustration in times of political upheaval or economic downturn. The Kishinev pogrom during which the local police looked on as Jews were defiled and killed, showed that at best police units would stand aside for the mob, at worst they would be the mob. And the Cossack Rebellion led by Bogdan Chmielnicki in seventeenth-century Ukraine, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were tortured and killed, demonstrated the sadism, vulgarity and blood revelry that abounds in seemingly ordinary men.
How fickle are the rules and laws we establish, the order we think we have, the norms and customs we expect to be followed, when faced with overwhelming evil backed by unstoppable force.
But the horrors of the past were not taken as harbingers of worse to come, but of evidence that, no matter how dire the outlook, this too would surely pass. But this did not pass. Despite the history, despite the warnings, in the years before the Holocaust, the Jews of Europe continued to live in a state of perfect self-delusion, on the precipice of a complete inferno.
Before the Nazis could begin the process of ghettoising, deporting and then murdering millions of Jews spread across hundreds of communities in Europe, they had to overcome enormous practical challenges such as defining who was a Jew ― accounting for products of mixed-marriages, converts, identifying Jews, many of whom were highly assimilated ― and gradually expunging the Jews from visibility such that their coming demise would barely raise a whimper. This all required as much bureaucratic diligence as ruthless inhumanity.
In the end, the Germans overcame every single challenge with an almost impressive focus and enterprise. The Nazis also demonstrated a truly extraordinary understanding of human nature. They correctly posited that the level of hatred for the Jew was such that they could be systematically stripped of all rights, removed from the wider population, robbed blind and eventually murdered with little or no public reaction, particularly when done under the cover of war.
For this, the Germans had their antisemitic predecessors to thank. The Roman Empire, the Church with its marauding Crusaders, nationalist figures like Chmielnicki, intellectual titans like Martin Luther, had all imprinted in the European psyche a characterisation of the Jew as sub-human. He was cunning yet parasitic, ritualistically clean but plainly filthy, lazy yet all-powerful, studious yet utterly perverse. And always inferior and most importantly, unchangeable. Full of paradoxes, unsupported by fact or reason, this depiction of the Jews over centuries, fed the human urge to see and understand evil and to find a cause for life’s horrors and misfortunes.
And to allow otherwise decent and moral people to descend into such loathing for their fellow man, it had been necessary to not only completely dehumanise the Jew, to reduce him to the status of a flea, but to also frame any action against him as a helpless resort to self-defence against a nation of parasites and murderers. So Martin Luther had called the Jews “thirsty bloodhounds and murderers of all Christendom” that had “poisoned water and wells, stolen children, and torn and hacked them apart.” “Christians have been tortured and persecuted by the Jews all over the world,” Luther said.
In 1895, decades before the world had heard the name Adolf Hitler, the speaker of the German parliament called the Jews “cholera germs.” And what is left to be done with such a thing but to destroy it? As the Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer said, “one does not argue with parasites.”
As total war descended on Europe, the fact that the Jews were literally disappearing was of very little concern. Their vast personal and communal possessions were harvested, they were confined physically to ghettoes where they were forced to live as the insular, diseased wretched race that propaganda had said they were all along, and from there they were eventually taken to be killed ― men, women, children.
The process of mass extermination began in June 1941 after the invasion of the Soviet Union. The initial method of killing was through mobile killing squads, known as Einsatzgruppen, that moved on the heels of the advancing German army. Their mission was to comb the cities and towns for Jews. The Einsatzgruppen units would move with devastating speed, trapping the large Jewish population centres before the victims could discover their fate, then returning to conduct further sweeps, sometimes days later, sometimes weeks later, but they would always return to ensnare any Jews who had evaded the initial dragnet.
The massacre of the Jews of Kiev, in which 33,771 Jews were machine-gunned over two days in September 1941 in the Babi Yar ravine, was one of the earliest mass killings of Jews and became indicative of the killing squad method of extermination that was perfected throughout the vast, sprawling lands of the Soviet Union.
Dina Pronicheva was a Ukrainian-Jewish actress and one of the very few survivors of that massacre. She lived by jumping into the ravine a moment before the firing began and sheltering under piles of bodies before making her escape at nightfall. Her testimony revealed a revelry and euphoria among German soldiers and Ukrainian volunteers. Pronicheva observed young Jewish women being violated by groups of German soldiers before being bayoneted to death where they lay. A mother unable to control a hysterical child would have the child snatched away by an impatient German soldier who would proceed to dash the child’s skull against a wall before handing it back to the mother. In other instances, Pronicheva recalled, soldiers would simply toss distraught babies over the wall at the assembly point “like pieces of wood.”
At Babi Yar, the victims were divided into small groups, they deposited their possessions, stripped naked in the Autumn chill, before proceeding to the edge of the ravine. They were then made to pass through a tight cordon of soldiers with dogs where they were clubbed mercilessly before reaching the other side. Naked, wounded, bewildered, the victims were powerless to resist and were obedient without recorded exception. Teetering on the edge of the ravine, they awaited the fire of machine-guns and toppled into the void beneath them. Some were not lethally wounded and bled to death under a mass of bodies. Others slowly suffocated under the earth that was heaped onto the victims at the end of each day of killing. Residents heard the sound of machine-gun fire from dawn until nightfall and reported that the killing site shifted and groaned for days after the massacre.
At the end of each day, soldiers descended into the ravine to club any survivors to death or to empty the pockets of those who had been killed with their clothes still on. At night, the soldiers lit bonfires, slurped coffee from aluminium cups, and helped themselves to any women designated for shooting the following day.
By war’s end, some two million Jews would be killed in massacres in forest and ravines similar to Babi Yar. Every village, every town, every city in the former Soviet Union would have its own killing field.
In Romania, the locals grew impatient by the orderly manner in which the Germans were developing the killing process and took matters into their own hands. In Bucharest, Jews, among them a five-year-old girl were taken to a kosher slaughterhouse, skinned alive and hung from meat hooks. In Bogdanovka, nearly 5,000 sick and infirm Jews were crammed into barns and stables which were the sprinkled with straw, doused in gasoline and set alight. The Jews of Jedwabne in Poland were similarly shut into a barn and incinerated alive by their Polish neighbours. In Budapest, 20,000 Jews were assembled on the bank of the River Danube and shot, toppling into the waters beneath.
The first gassing of Jews took place at the Chelmno camp in Poland. From December 1941, transportations to the camp commenced, where the Jews were loaded into vans specially rigged and sealed so as to direct the exhaust fumes into the cabin. The victims were driven for around ten minutes by which time they died by asphyxiation and the corpses were then taken directly to pre-prepared mass graves in an adjacent forest. By the end of the war, some 320,000 Jews would be murdered at Chelmno.
Other camps in Poland ― Bełżec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau ― commenced operating as factories of death after January 1942, following the formal adoption at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, of the plan to completely exterminate the Jews, in what came to be known as the “final solution to the Jewish problem.”
With the camps built and the methods of mass killing perfected, the ghettoes of Europe could be liquated. The Jews were crammed into train cars used for transporting cattle in which they would ride across the continent for days on end, completely without food or water, given an occasional pause at which the human waste and corpses of loved ones could be tossed out of the cars before continuing onward to the camps.
In some camps, the fit were used as slave labour until their bodies gave out while the very young, the old and the sick were selected for gassing immediately. The process of selection would take place on the platform immediately upon arrival. Nazi doctors looked over the human cargo, sending them to one queue or another, forever tearing sister from sister, parent from child.
The ones selected to die immediately were led into chambers which were sealed behind them before canisters of poison were released through chutes in the ceiling. When the victims ceased their writhing and their nervous systems succumbed, other inmates were charged with transferring the dead to the crematoria, and clearing the chamber of visible signs of distress such as fingernails clawed into walls, to ensure the next batch of victims would enter the chamber without disorder or resistance.
At Auschwitz, human experiments were conducted on the living, including determining the time to death from injection with various poisons, the effect of removal of organs without anaesthetic, and freezing victims to see how close they could be brought to the point of death and still be revived. If they survived the torture that masqueraded as science, their only salvation was the gas chamber.
Those who were able to survive for any length of time in the camps existed in a realm somewhere between life and death, but surely closer to death. They ate virtually nothing, slept in barns and worked outdoors in the freezing Polish winter wrapped in rags, and were rife with diseases like dysentery and typhoid from malnutrition and the absence of clean water. They could have only lived from one moment to the next in the knowledge that their families had been killed and that the same fate would strike them at any time. Such was the deathly pall about them that rats sometimes attacked the still-living, mistaking them for corpses.
In the perfect crescendo to centuries of gradually debasing and reducing the humanity of the Jewish people, the Jews were exterminated in purpose-built camps, industrial facilities of destruction, using a common pesticide, Zyklon-B, at a rate of up to 15,000 people a day.
When the Germans were finally forced into retreat, they abandoned the camps, deploying inmates to hastily conceal the apparatus of industrial death as best they could, before killing off the remaining inmates or else sending them on long, winter death marches to other camps.
By the time the killing had ended, more than 3 million had died in the camps. The total Jewish dead stood in the vicinity of 6 million. They died from disease in ghettos, from poison gas, mass shootings, live burial, beatings, burning alive. Half of the dead were from Poland, a country in which Jewish life had accounted for some 10 percent of the total population. They had perished in all corners of Europe from the Baltic to France, Scandinavia to the Balkans.
In 1939, Europe was home to 9.5 million Jews. By war’s end, nearly 65 percent of those Jews were dead. Dynasties and entire families, great sages and common workers, Nobel laureates and humble students, babies, pensioners, whole villages and communities, had all disappeared. Thriving Jewish intellectual and cultural centres like Krakow and Vilnius that had bustled with Jewish life ― seminary students, merchants, families, all manner of artisans ― were now reduced to rude husks, urban memorials of human depravity. The Jews’ possessions now divvied up between the Nazi conquerors and the locals, the former inhabitants were now piles of ash in the forests surrounding the camps.
How many more Freuds and Einsteins, Chagalls and Primo Levis were among them we can never know. A million Jewish children were killed. A million Anne Franks vanished in a pit of suffering.
The scholar and campaigner for prosecution of Nazi war criminals, Efraim Zuroff, wrote of how the historian Shimon Dubnow was dragged from his home in the Riga ghetto to be killed. His last words to the Jews around him were, “Yidn farschreibt” ― “Jews, record it all, write it all down.” While in a suburb of Kovno, Lithuania, Jews also taken to be shot scrawled a final message to any surviving brethren, “Yidn nekoma” ― “Jews take revenge.” But how could such a thing be avenged? What could be redeemed from such complete calamity?
Compounding the Jewish sense of helplessness and betrayal was the collective shrug of indifference that was the overwhelming reaction of the international community, before, during and after the slaughter.
When Franklin Roosevelt convened a conference in Evian, France to discuss the question of Jewish refugees following Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938, the conference broke up with no solution to the looming crisis. Capturing the mood of pathetic diplomatic indifference, the Australian representative, T.W. White, explained that Australia would not be taking Jewish refugees, “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one,” as though the Nazi persecution of the Jews was really just a disagreement between communities.
A German observer at the conference reported to the Nazi top brass that “the many speeches and discussions show that with the exception of a few countries that can still admit Jewish emigrants, there is an extensive aversion to a significant flow of emigrants either out of social considerations or out of an unexpressed racial abhorrence against Jewish emigrants.” Hitler was said to have drawn the conclusion from the conference that he could do with the Jews exactly as he pleased.
The killings continued even after the fall of Nazi Germany and the liberation of Europe. In Kielce, Poland, in 1946, a mob, which included hundreds of mills workers, set upon Jewish Holocaust survivors, clubbing 42 to death. There were reports of Jews being killed while attempting to return to their homes across Poland. In August 1945, thunderous applause greeted the passing of a resolution by the Polish Peasants Party thanking Hitler for destroying the Jews and calling for the expulsion of any survivors.
The dehumanisation of the Jews had been so complete that even the disaster that antisemitism had unleashed on the European continent, the bestial carnage to which millions bore witness, could not dislodge it.
The people of Europe had allowed themselves to believe that their misfortune, their poverty, their war losses, their poor crops and their national debt, were squarely the fault of the Jew. The Jewish peasants tending the land, the pious, secluded families seeking wisdom in ancient texts, the middle-class merchants of the cities, the teachers, the drunks, the scholars, the poets, the vagrants, the bankers and the children. In the final wash it just didn’t matter how absurd the idea of their collective guilt was. The die had been cast over hundreds of years.
The people believed this lunacy because they wanted to believe it. And if they were wrong and they had just extinguished millions of lives for no reason at all, and war and poverty and misfortune would not go to the grave with the Jew, well at least they have blown off a little steam and enriched themselves in the process.
The Holocaust brought no redemption or awakening. Its seemingly infinite stories of infinite evil have been presented to us over and over again in dispassionate historical texts, in Hollywood films, novellas and memoirs. All seek, and all fail fully to explain, why human beings would act this way to their fellow man. What was it about the Jews that aroused such feeling that the army of a sophisticated nation would be deployed to traverse the European continent with the mission of ending every final Jewish life? What discord existed in the hearts of ordinary men and women that they would shed their humanity entirely, and seize with unrelenting fury and purpose the opportunity to dispossess, humiliate and destroy their neighbours, simply because they were Jewish? These are the imponderables at the heart of the Holocaust.
The popular slogan to emerge after it was “Never Again.” This has been variously interpreted to mean everything from “never again will the Jews go like lambs to the slaughter,” to “never again will humanity allow the evil of antisemitism to take root,” to “never again will the world stand by and allow a people to all but vanish.”
But in the mere 75 years that have passed since the end of the Holocaust, in a period when many of the victims remain alive to bear witness, we have seen the increasing popularity of Holocaust denial ― denial of the very event itself, a denial that our people ever lived and died. We have seen new genocide in Darfur and Cambodia, Srebrenica and Rwanda. We have seen antisemitism arise with fresh vigour, and in our very days, Jews are targeted for being Jews in our homes, in our synagogues, in our schools, even in our graves.
But it may be that just as the Holocaust is not a single story but a collection of millions of individual moments of trauma, horror and pain, there is not a single lesson to be drawn from it. Rather we should each strive to take something from it as individuals. For me, that something is a deep love for the Jewish people, a determination to preserve and defend the memories of our sacred dead, and a commitment never to relinquish what was gifted to me and what was so cruelly taken from our martyrs ― the ability to live freely and live proudly as a Jew.
Alex Ryvchin is the co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the author of The Anti-Israel Agenda: Inside the Political War on the Jewish State.