Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The War: Shoah

German policemen aiming at Jews from Ivangorod who have just finished digging their own graves. 1942. Ivangorod, Ukraine. Photographer unknown. © USHMM, courtesy of Jerzy Tomaszewski. Copyright: agency agreement. All rights reserved. This photograph was found by members of the Polish army (Polish Home Army) inside a letter written by a German soldier. The Polish army kept an eye on post being sent from the East which went through Warsaw's central Post office. Letters and photographs which seemed interesting were copied and sent to the exiled Polish government. The German inscription on the back of the original photograph reads:  Ukraine, 1942, Aktion against the Jews, Ivangorod. 

The photograph and caption are from a French website Memorial De Shoah.  They are part of an online exhibition detailing the activities of the Einsatzgruppen , mobile squads that roamed the occupied Soviet Union killing Jews and other "undesirables" in 1941 and 1942.  The squads were SS assisted by Ukrainian "militias" who were useful in the identification and rounding up of victims.

Before I can write anything about the War, there are two points that need emphasis: the Holocaust and Russia.  I prefer the Hebrew word Shoah rather than holocaust because the first, meaning catastrophe, is a more haunting and descriptive term.  Before the war, there were vibrant Jewish communities all over Eastern Europe (Poland, BeylorussiaEstonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine ).  After, they had been swept away as if by a tsunami, gone forever.  From the victim's point of view, this was truly a catastrophe that engulfed not just individuals and communities, but an entire way of life.

This was not, however, a single crime, or a series of crimes.  It was a monstrous industrial enterprise that consumed 12 million people.  Besides the death factories, there was an SS empire of slave labor camps. This universe of despair was populated by Soviet POWs, civilians from occupied territories, but especially Jews.  Labor camps were operated all over the Reich and occupied territories, but especially in Poland.  Auschwitz was the biggest and only later added a death camp.  No death camps ever operated inside the Reich proper.  Famous camps like Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Gusen were not primarily killing factories, although a great deal of death occurred.

The Final Solution had never been planned, and was certainly never inevitable.  The fateful decision to eradicate the entire Jewish population of Europe was not taken until the end of 1941.  Before the Wansee Conference in January 1942, Jews in Germany and other parts of Western Europe had not been killed in any systematic manner.  After the conference, a series of specialized killing factories were created in Poland.  Treblinka, Belzec and Chelmno are the most famous.  Their purpose was to liquidate the 2 million Jews in Poland.  By the end of 1942, this object had been achieved.  The camps were dismantled and evidence of their existence eradicated.

I believe that the Nazi leaders learned something dramatic from this effort.  That people transported to their deaths carried with them their most liquid assets of last resort.  The camps produced a river of money, diamonds, and gold.  This river became so valuable that the Nazis extended the program and built more camps.   The Jews of Western and Southern Europe were killed through 1943 and 1944 in order to get their money.  Rudolf Hoess, commander of Auschwitz, believed that money was the entire motivation for the genocide.  He recalled one day sending a suitcase containing 10 million Reich Marks (currently worth US$40 million) directly to the Reich Chancellery.  The money probably went right into Martin Bormann's pocket.

In the last analysis, this worst crime in human history was not the act of madmen driven by fanaticism.  It was the act of thieves driven by greed.

The crimes have been meticulously cataloged, as they should be.  Yad Vashem, USHMM, Nitzkor, Wikipedia.  When Eisenhower toured Gusen in April 1945, he wanted to be shown everything.  He predicted that sometime in the future people would deny that what he was seeing had ever happened.  The only thing we can do for these dead is to remember them and ensure this crime is never minimized, never denied, never forgotten.