Sunday, October 13, 2013

Book Review 299: The Holocaust Chronicle

THE HOLOCAUST CHRONICLE: A History in Words and Pictures, by the Spertus Institute. 765 pages, illustrated. Publications International.

Today thousands of American colleges offer a course on the Holocaust (up from two in 1973), but only a small proportion of students take it. A film like “Schindler’s List” might have reached a different audience, but even the most popular movie is seen by only a small percentage of the population. The Holocaust Museum attracts several million visits a year (no doubt many on school trips), but in a nation of 300 million, even 5 million a year for 15 years yields only a small minority of everybody.

It is safe to say that the “Holocaust” is something almost everybody knows of, but (like a lot of other important concerns like, say, the uses of genetically-modified organisms)  not many know about.

“The Holocaust Chronicle” was a worthy attempt to provide a (subsidized) introduction to the full depth and breadth of the horror, but only an introduction. A mere 700 pages, heavily illustrated, is not big enough (but too big and heavy to read comfortably). And probably many fewer will spend time in its pages than saw “Schindler’s List,” and even then -- since it is something of a coffee table book -- it is doubtful many will sample much of it.

Nevertheless, this is an excellent book. The more arrows in the quiver, the better.

The book can be read three ways. Straight through (the way I did it). As a collection of brief reference entries contained in 250 “sidebars” on subjects such as American immigration policy or the government of Slovakia in the Nazi era. There is a timeline running along the bottom of all pages, so that a reader can easily find out what was happening during say, January 1943.

(Danish collaborators organize; Pope Pius XII announces no help for Jews; Jews in the Warsaw ghetto begin building bunkers for an eventual revolt; putsch by officers in the  German army comes to nothing; the pope refuses a request by the president of Poland to denounce murders of Jews, for good measure he also refuses to condemn murders of Polish Catholics; and much more.)

Reading just the timeline straight through can be a powerful experience, particularly starting in 1942.

On almost every page, there is an entry such as this one for Aug. 15, 1942: “One thousand Belgian Jews, including 172 children, are deported to their deaths in the East.”

For Americans who know their own history (another small minority) and who are aware that the largest one-day killing in our history took only 3,000 lives (no, not Sept. 11, 2001, but the murder of Irish Catholics by a Protestant mob in Cincinnati), the relentless repetition of 2,000 killed here, 4,000 there begins to put some perspective on the totality of the crime, the way reading that 30,000 were slain at Babi Yar does not (at least for me).

Big numbers are hard to comprehend at the personal level.

Then, if you think that the Holocaust was equivalent to 2,000 Cincinnatis, just for Jews; plus hundreds more “Cincinnatis” for gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Polish intellectuals, homosexuals, mental patients and, especially, Soviet prisoners, the magnitude of the crime takes shape. The total of Red Army men murdered was nearly as high as the total of Jews.

Clearly, this was a phenomenon worth studying with some care.
The editors are fair-minded. Though in the summing up they are clearly sympathetic to the feeling that, say, erecting crosses to Christian Polish victims at Auschwitz does in a way detract from the specially Jewish character of the crimes there, in the text and timeline, they expend much space covering the exterminationist crimes against various groups of gentiles (skimping, perhaps on Serbs, though).

This makes for uncomfortable moments for American readers, as the refusal of American public and political opinion to give a damn about dead Jews is hammered in. And the editors make it clear that it was not just a few rich, stupid Jew-haters like Charles Lindbergh but a majority.

President Roosevelt, with his sensitive political antennae that prevented him from embracing unpopular causes, comes off badly here.

But not nearly as badly as Pope Pius XII. For the record, the editors say that consensus on the Roman Catholic Church’s role will always remain unresolved, but the facts in the timeline tell another story: whatever Pacelli’s motivations -- cowardice, calculation, Germanophilia or Jew-hated -- his attitude toward the Jews was, let them burn.

Harsh as the “Chronicle” is toward Pacelli and the church, it could have been more so. There were valid (and invalid) reasons urging a reticent policy toward German Nazism, but there was one place in Europe where the Roman church was dominant and which the Germans chose to ignore: Croatia.

Croatia was also one of the most murderous and cruel spots on that cruel continent. There is no doubt that a quiet caution would have tempered the Croatian Holocaust, and that Pacelli could have passed it without risk. Not only did he not, the church was complicit in the murders and active in helping the murderers afterward.

The Chronicle does not assess this at all.

There is one other serious failing in the book: Throughout, the German Resistance is taken as real. It never was, with the partial exception of Staufenburg’s personal heroism. 

And even the phony Resistance was not, as the Chronicle tends to portray it, anti-Nazi. There were a few pathetic anti-Nazi groups (like White Rose) and one big one that was, however, largely ineffective except in spying, the communists. What is usually thought of when German Resistance is mentioned was the aristocratic, conservative, nationalist opposition to Hitler.

And that was all it was. Rich upper crust Germans sat around drinking stolen wine and grumbling about that uncouth foreigner with the hick accent. They did not, however, intend to cancel the gains of Nazism, which they were enjoying a lot, by, for example, withdrawing from Russia or restoring the independence of Poland.

It hardly matters, except morally, what they thought since they had no intention of doing anything. Across Europe, millions of people -- almost none of them Germans -- grabbed whatever weapon they had, even if it was only a stick, and fought the Germans. The so-called Resistance, with access to the second-largest military force in history, fought nobody.

Their cowardice and greed and indifference to murder got them nothing. While they showed no resolution, the Nazis were implacable and killed them even though they presented not the slightest threat to the regime.

It is some justification for the book’s editors, all academics, that historians have all taken the German Resistance seriously, too.

For me, the most important item of all is a picture on page 527. It shows, from behind with no faces visible, a grandmother, stooped over, walking with three grandchildren, ages about 3 to 6, toward the gas chambers in May 1944.

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