Martin Gilbert’s 960-page history The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy (1986) is a mind-numbing, shocking, horrific account of a cultural and ideological nightmare, and of one of the lowest points in the history of human civilization. An entire nation, or at least its government, sets itself to exterminating six million people primarily because of their religion. (The Nazis killed millions of others—Russian prisoners of war, homosexuals, Catholics, Poles, Gypsies. Gilbert does not ignore these other victims, but his central subject is the Jews, who were the main target of the Nazis). In excruciating detail, the Gilbert outlines the early days of this developing cataclysm, which grew out of an inherent anti-Semitism in European culture and from the insane political ideology of the Nazi party and its leader Adolf Hitler, who was obsessively committed to the extermination of Jews. He shows that when the Final Solution was implemented as government policy in early 1942, Nazis killed as many as 40,000 to 50,000 Jews at a time—in single-gunshot incidents, in vans filled with carbon monoxide, in mass shootings, in concentration camps. He relies on incredible historical research, ranging from first-, second-, and third-hand accounts, to Nazi archives, to oral and written narratives of survivors, and other sources.
The book is full of human details. Gilbert humanizes the Holocaust by citing, often in one- or two-sentence vignettes, the story and fates of victims. He names the victims, tells us what they did, their history, how they died. He relies on oral histories and testimony, Nazi government records, diaries, letters, newspaper articles, scholarly articles, interviews. Although he spends some time tracing the development of the Nazi ideology that led to the Holocaust, he mainly attends to the experiences of the victims. Much of the book is centered in Eastern Europe, where the worst of the killings took place. Day by day, month by month, year by year, Gilbert relentlessly moves forward. Example: “One such gassing, recorded by Dr. Albert Menasche, a deportee from Salonica, was of 2,500 girls, including his own eleven-year-old daughter Lillian” (p. 620). Example: “on June 6, 260 Jews living on the island of Crete, . . . were taken, together with four hundred Greek hostages and three hundred Italian soldiers, Germany’s former allies, a hundred miles out to sea, beyond the island of Santorini, where the boat was scuttled. All were drowned” (p. 683). Example: “Of the Jews murdered at Oradour, the forty-five-year-old Maria Goldman had been born in Warsaw, and the eight-year-old Serge Bergman in Strasbourg” (p. 685).
Before gassing or shooting their victims, the Nazis typically collected their victims’ possessions, forced them to strip naked, shaved the heads of the women, and marched them to their deaths. Afterwards, gold fillings were pulled from the teeth of the corpses. Clothing and jewelry and other personal possessions were sorted, cleaned, warehoused, redistributed to German citizens, or sold. Gilbert measures the vanished lives by cataloguing the possessions the dead left behind. Example: “Himmler received a report on the ‘quantity of old garments’ collected from Birkenau and the camps in the Lublin region. The list included 97,000 sets of men’s ‘old clothing’, 76,000 sets of women’s ‘old clothing’, 132,000 men’s shirts, 155,000 women’s coats and 3,000 kilogrammes of women’s hair. The women’s hair filled a whole freight car” (p. 538). Example: “when Soviet troops entered Birkenau on January 27, they found in the six remaining storehouses, 836,255 women’s dresses, 348,000 sets of men’s suits, and 38,000 pairs of men’s shoes” (p. 773).
Small tragic dramas are encapsulated in a sentence or two: “In Minsk, on January 9, the twenty-year-old Jewish partisan Emma Radova was caught, tortured, and killed. But she betrayed nobody” (p. 515).
At several points, Gilbert makes clear his own connection to the victims: “Hillel Katz was shot by the Gestapo: he helped to provide the Soviet Union with information about the German war effort. His daughter Annette survived. She is my cousin. Her grandfather, my great uncle, had been murdered in Czechoslovakia in the early months of the war. Almost all her other cousins, my cousins also, were later deported” (p. 586). In this book, the verb deported always means sent to a camp and gassed, or taken to a ditch and shot.
Especially in the latter years of the war, there were numerous efforts to resist what was happening. There were the Warsaw rebellion, a number of small and large rebellions in the death camps, partisan resistance groups in the eastern forests of Germany, individual acts of defiance. Almost always these failed, overcome by the massive weight of the German machine and the compulsion to exterminate. The isolation of many Jewish communities from what was happening made resistance difficult. The lies told by German officials left victims unaware of what was about to happen until it was too late to take action.
There were individual efforts by German citizens and others to help the victims. Gilbert describes the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg to save Jews from deportation. He reports on the actions taken by Schindler to save Jewish workers in his factories. He notes the opposition to the killings expressed by the clergy, by leaders such as Churchill, by individuals and families who took Jews in and hid them and who often were arrested or killed for their efforts. Yet he notes as well that agreement with the Nazi efforts, or fear or apathy or inertia, compelled many citizens—most citizens—to do nothing. Even after the end of the war and the liberation of the camps, killings of Jews continued by Polish nationalists, former Nazi soldiers, and others.
Reading this book left me deeply depressed. I wanted to put it aside, wanted it to end, but I felt obliged to finish. The events chronicled in this book did not occur so long ago. World War II ended five years before my birth. The worst years of the Holocaust are only seven decades in the past. It’s incredible to conceive that supposedly civilized human beings could commit such atrocities, that the nation of Germany turned its machine of government to the killing of millions of people simply because of their religion, their race.
I have known about the Holocaust all my life. I remember hearing as a child that six million Jews had been killed during the war—my mother told me that. At the time I couldn’t identify with that figure. What connection did it have to my life and me? Now, as an older man with three grown sons, I find these stories of fathers and mothers being sent to the gas chambers or the killing fields to die with their children, of entire families being wiped out, entire communities extinguished, horrific to contemplate. We may tell ourselves that we live in a day when such a thing as the Holocaust could never happen again. Yet it has happened, and continues to happen, if not always on the same horrendous scale. And other potential calamities—nuclear war, famine, drought, and disease--could wreak havoc and death on our lives. The Holocaust is a story about what human nature is capable of, and of the disasters that can tear apart our lives.