Commentary Magazine


The Holocaust and the Historians, by Lucy S. Dawidowicz

Confronting the Holocaust

The Holocaust and the Historians.
by Lucy S. Dawidowicz.
Harvard University Press. 187 pp. $15.00.

Browsing in a London bookstore recently, I chanced upon a new biography of Hitler by a British academic historian. Turning to the four pages on the Holocaust, out of some 86 pages on the war, I read that, in facing up to the Nazi persecution, “the Jews”—so the author informed me—“had decided to confront Nazism with an attitude that, for them, was virtuous traditionalism: obey, do not provoke, and the crisis will pass”—except in some so-called “notorious cases” where ghetto leaders and Nazis cooperated. Not one single instance of revolt—not even the Warsaw ghetto revolt—was mentioned. As a historian deep in a study of the Jewish fate in World War II and of efforts at resistance, ghetto by ghetto, forest by forest, and camp by camp, and as one familiar with so many hundreds of accounts of courage, both of groups and of individuals, I was angered and offended. But I did nothing, sought no copy of the book for review, took issue with it in no learned (or even popular) journal.

Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s new book shows me how wrong it is to remain silent. For my single example was typical of many comments on the Holocaust which she documents and examines. Herself perturbed by the treatment of the Holocaust in history books, Mrs. Dawidowicz, the author of The War Against the Jews, has applied her considerable historical knowledge and analytical skills to this neglected theme.

Mrs. Dawidowicz spans a large subject in a brief space. Her first concern is the absence of the Holocaust from general histories in Britain and the United States. Her examples, widely and wisely chosen, reveal that the Jews and their fate in wartime Europe are largely portrayed—or rather not portrayed—as “nonpersons and nonsubjects” in the United States, and with “disdain” in England, despite the work of several recent, mostly Jewish, historians to redress the balance. She concludes that the reasons for this neglect are twofold: first, generally, “a lack of interest in the fate of the Jews”; second, as far as certain British writers are concerned, “a form of social prejudice” which she sees often associated with “an anti-Semitism of contempt.”

One of the chapters of this book tries to answer the argument that the Holocaust was “no more” than an integral part of the general and much wider wartime killings, the losses inevitable in a long and bloody war. Mrs. Dawidowicz is emphatic that no other people “was chosen for total extinction,” and argues her case with considerable conviction and passion. The central point is so well expressed that it deserves to be quoted in full:

Every country and people ravaged by the war and by the German occupation eventually returned to a normal existence. All the nations, the victims now become victors, the aggressors now defeated, once again assumed their positions in the political order. Having mourned their dead, commemorated their martyrs and heroes, all the peoples of Europe, including the Germans, recovered from their wounds, rebuilt their shattered cities. London, Warsaw, and Rotterdam, as well as Berlin and Dresden, were reconstructed. They restored their factories and their marketplaces. They resuscitated their institutions of learning and culture. They reestablished their armed forces. But the annihilation of the 6 million European Jews brought an end with irrevocable finality to the thousand-year-old culture and civilization of Ashkenazic Jewry, destroying the continuity of Jewish history.

In her section on Germany, Mrs. Dawidowicz contributes a valuable essay on the “scholarly” anti-Semitism that informed Nazi history, and on the problems involved for postwar German historians in coming to grips with wartime crimes aganst the Jews. Thus, an article published in 1953 by West Germany’s Institute for Contemporary History, written in fact by a converted Jew who had been forced out of a professorship in 1934 for “racial” reasons, argued that what was “most urgently” required of German historical writing was “to keep distance from all tendencies toward self-abasement and also from apologetics.” Not for another sixteen years did the first breakthrough take place, with Karl Dietrich Bracher’s history of the Third Reich and its origins, The German Dictatorship. This book—unlike many of its British or American counterparts—recognized, as Mrs. Dawidowicz puts it, “that from the start the Nazis assigned primacy of place, in doctrine and in action, to make hatred of the Jews, with all its tragic consequences, a cardinal feature of the state’s policy.” Anti-Semitism and the destruction of the Jews were “in the very center” of Bracher’s book, integrated into the political and military developments of the time. Bracher is also commended by Mrs. Dawidowicz for urging Germans to seize the “opportunities of an educational process drawing on the experience of the past.”

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No such praise is meted out to the Soviet and Polish historians whose work Mrs. Dawidowicz next passes in review. Even Ilya Ehrenburg’s graphic Black Book of testimonies and documents, widely circulated in 1946 in English, never appeared in the Soviet Union, where it was written, and the fate of whose Jews it describes. In her Soviet section Mrs. Dawidowicz scrupulously documents not only the “erasing” of Jews (as Jews) from Soviet history, but also the growing public propaganda which links Nazism with Zionism as part of a single evil. These links were made forcibly at the time of the Six-Day War of 1967, They were repeated with equal vehemence after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. It was “Zionist capital” which had helped “to strengthen the Hitlerite regime in Germany,” one Soviet publication then declared, while another stated: “Not without the help of the leaders of Zionism did hundreds of thousands of ordinary Jews meet their deaths in the gas chambers.”

Soviet practice and Soviet historiography seem fixed in a deep groove. But the Polish experience is far more complex, and in considerable flux. Those who follow today’s developments among Polish historians will be well served by Mrs. Dawidowicz’s chapter on the intricacies of past historiography in that country: what she calls “history done, redone, and undone.” Bitterly but justly she accuses Polish Communist historians of having “themselves put the finishing touches to the Final Solution of the Jewish question which the Germans had so efficiently accomplished for them.” Mrs. Dawidowicz’s words were written before the most recent developments in Poland, which have also had the effect of challenging Polish attitudes to the Jewish past, and may yet result in a reversal of earlier abysmal trends.

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The last focus of this survey is Holocaust history as written by Jews, and in Israel. Here Mrs. Dawidowicz voices a necessary caution about the danger that exists for Jewish historians to overemphasize and inflate the aspect of resistance to the Nazis. Her point is well taken, but it leads to some unfortunate weaknesses. There seems little awareness, for example, of the continuing and substantial researches in this field (much of it still unavailable in English), including the work of several survivors and scholars, among them Shalom Cholawski on western White Russia, Shmuel Krakowski on central and southern Poland, and Shmuel Spector on Volhynia, as well as other important scholarship proceeding under the auspices of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry in Jerusalem. Given the sensitiveness of the subject (as noted in my opening reflection), it would have been a service if Mrs. Dawidowicz had at least indicated the scale and nature of some of the research in progress.

But Mrs. Dawidowicz’s more general point, which she makes with considerable emphasis in her section on the Jewish Councils, is certainly a valid one—namely, the extent to which the “suppurating wounds” of the Holocaust still affect Jewish historians and make it difficult for them “to confront Holocaust history.” Even so, as she points out, the work of such scholars as Philip Friedman and Isaiah Trunk does adhere to high standards of objectivity while also establishing facts and a methodology for future analytical studies.

Mrs. Dawidowicz refers at one point to Hannah Arendt’s sweeping charge against Jewish leadership in northern Europe (“Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis”) and to Raul Hilberg’s earlier and even more scathing charges of Jewish passivity. This leads us back to the issue of the continued belittling, denying, or ignoring of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, its scale, and its nature. In confronting and challenging this ongoing denial, Mrs. Dawidowicz’s short but closely argued book performs a major service. It will have fulfilled its purpose the better if it encourages other historians to answer, as and when they are made, each of the new libels and accusations that have become common in the press, in mass-market books, and even in “scholarly” publications. Would that the historical profession as a whole adhered to Mrs. Dawidowicz’s scholarly rigor and moral vigilance.

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