Commentary Magazine

Appropriating the Holocaust

The Holocaust must have been a great shock to Christian consciousness. Why else would Pope John XXIII have cried out—as he is said to have done—“Forgive us for crucifying Thee a second time in their flesh”? Why else would the Synod of the Evangelical Church of the Rhineland have passed a resolution declaring Christianity responsible for the Holocaust and nullifying former Church doctrine that the Jewish people have been rejected by God and replaced by the Church? As the German theologian, Heinz Kremers, has written: “The Holocaust signifies the crisis of our civilization, our culture, our policy, and our religion. Six million people have been murdered by the heirs of Christendom for no other reason than the fact that they were Jews.”

That such a burden of guilt should evoke resistance in the minds of the “heirs of Christendom” is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that the Jews, still in a state of shock, should have been fearful for so long of admitting openly who it was they deemed guilty of this crime. So the blame was put instead on abstractions like fascism, racism, or totalitarianism. The plain fact that the Holocaust was prepared and caused by Christian anti-Semitism, that Christendom in effect made the Jews the chosen people for the Holocaust, was just too difficult to face. That is why, as the Protestant theologian Franklin H. Littell has noted, “for years, except for a few poets, novelists, and memoirists, neither Jews nor Christians could bear to talk about the event.” Rather, both sides tried their best to forget. When this proved impossible, at least for the Jews, a peculiar process of avoidance got under way.

The universalization, trivialization, and general blurring of outline of the Holocaust which we see today on all sides can perhaps best be viewed as a kind of unconscious defense mechanism. For Christians, it is a defense against guilt; for Jews, against fear. In both cases, it is a way of avoiding the awful particularity of this event. Thus, many Christians and even some Jews today accept the notion that the Jews should not be singled out as particular victims of the Holocaust, that they were only one group—albeit the hardest hit—among a number of other groups also killed by the Nazis. If this version of the Holocaust becomes the historically accepted one, we shall have collaborated in the perpetration of a second Big Lie, as heinous as the first, and this even after that second crucifixion of which Pope John spoke.

One factor obscuring the truth about the Holocaust is the confusion in terminology which has bedeviled this subject from the beginning. An example of such confusion is the continual use of the term “concentration camps” in connection with the Holocaust, as though the two were synonymous. Since the concentration camps did in fact contain inmates of many different religions and nationalities, it is only logical to conclude, as many have, that the Jewish case was only a more extreme instance of a catastrophe which befell many other nationalities and religions as well.

The truth is, however, that the largest part of Europe’s Jews perished not in concentration camps but in extermination camps, and German terminology—with its distinction between Konzentrationslagern and Vernichtungs or Sonderlagern—is very clear on this point. Those Jews who did not die in the death camps died either in closed ghettos, where they were systematically starved (Warsaw, Cracow, Lodz), or else in mass executions carried out in places like Babi Yar, Ponary, Dubno, and other points in the German-occupied Soviet territorities. What the murder installations have in common is that they were designated exclusively for Jews.

To clarify this distinction once and for all, Treblinka (where 750,000 people perished), Belzec (600,000), Chelmno (360,000), and Sobibor (250,000) were strictly extermination camps, while Maidanek, with 200,000 victims, was both a concentration camp and an extermination camp. The same is true of Auschwitz, the most infamous of all. What the visitor who enters Auschwitz through the gate bearing the inscription “Arbeit macht frei” sees is Auschwitz I, the concentration camp, which housed 405,000 registered and numbered prisoners of different nationalities, including Jews; 340,000 of those inmates died here. But about a mile and a half away is another camp)—Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau (in German) and Brzezinka (in Polish). This was the extermination camp of Auschwitz, where about 3,500,000 people were gassed.

According to the testimony of Rudolf Hoess at the Nuremberg trials, except for 20,000 Russian prisoners of war, people gassed during his term as commandant of Auschwitz were “Jews from Holland, Belgium, France, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, and other countries.” They were never registered or numbered, and in a sense they never became real prisoners. They were taken to the gas chambers almost straight from the train, following a quick selection process which separated out the younger and healthier adults and the taller teen-agers. These were directed to the concentration-camp work force, where they had the chance, if not ultimately to survive, then at least to live a while longer.

The extermination camps, unlike the concentration camps, were never “liberated”—the liberators came too late. While there are thousands of survivors of the concentration camps, many of whom have written accounts of their experiences, the extermination camps left virtually no survivors, and almost nothing in the way of eyewitness testimony. I myself, for example, am technically a kind of “survivor” of the death camp of Treblinka, but that is only because my parents managed to run away with me before we were loaded onto the train—the rest of my family was murdered. Under these circumstances, it is all too easy to speak only of concentration camps, and let the mute death camps fade into oblivion.

Finally, in listing the differences between the concentration camps and the death camps, it is important to point out that the former were not a Nazi invention. They are one more instance, if a particularly grisly one, of the institution of concentration-camp slavery, which has existed in one form or other throughout the history of mankind. In our own century, the Bolsheviks were the first to set up these camps on a mass scale—shortly after their seizure of power—and the death rate in the Soviet Gulag was probably as high as that in the Nazi concentration camps. The extermination camps, by contrast, are a true Nazi invention, devised exclusively for the murder of Jews. The official Polish encyclopedia, on the basis of evidence gathered by the Commission on Nazi War Crimes, states that 5,660,000 people were killed in death camps, as opposed to 1,500,000 in concentration camps; the same source states that 99 percent of those murdered in death camps were Jews, and 1 percent were Gypsies.

To say this is not to minimize the other crimes perpetrated during World War II: the mass execution of 10,000 Polish army officers by the Soviets (4,000 in the Katyn forest) or the death of 3 million Soviet POW’s who were simply kept by the Germans in open barbed-wire enclosures without food or water. What distinguishes these enormous crimes from the Holocaust, however, is the fact that although the number of victims involved may be unique to the 20th century, the crimes themselves are not. They are typical war crimes, perpetrated by armies throughout the centuries. But the Holocaust was not a war crime. It had no connection with any military operation or strategic situation. There was absolutely no military reason for the Jews’ internment—the course of the war would not have changed if they had been left in peace. Indeed, as has been pointed out, the exigencies first of rounding up, then of transporting, then of guarding, then of killing so many millions of people probably impeded the German war effort and may well have hastened the German defeat.



To deny that what was done to the Jews of Poland, the Ukraine, and Lithuania during the years 1941-45 was a unique event in the history of evil is to acknowledge it as somehow within the range of normal human experience, and hence to accept, if not to sanction, it as a part of “the human condition.” Those who universalize the Holocaust are not enlarging its significance but rather reducing it.

Curiously, this mistake is made even by otherwise enlightened and well-intentioned individuals. Thus, Czeslaw Milosz in his Stockholm lecture after accepting the Nobel Prize in literature, made eloquent reference to the Holocaust. But then he added that he feared for the gradual transformation of this word “so that it begins to belong in the history of only the Jews, as if there were no other nationalities who became victims of the crime.” Milosz is right in saying there were other nationalities besides the Jews who became victims of crime during World War II, but they did not become victims of the Holocaust. Millions of Jews too have been victims of crime throughout history, but only in the years 1941-45 did they become victims of the Holocaust. Both Milosz and I lived in Warsaw in the spring of 1943, for example, but while my chance of surviving was one in a thousand, though I was just a six-year-old, there was nothing remarkable in the survival of a non-Jewish child who happened to live there at the time.

Even at the site of Auschwitz itself, this distinction has been blurred. Visitors to Auschwitz today are greeted by an imposing memorial monument (to the “Martyrdom of Nations”) and an international exhibit with pavilions representing an array of nations whose citizens perished in the camps. Russia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Denmark, Belgium—even East Germany—have their own exhibits here, but it was not until 1978 that Polish authorities allowed a Jewish pavilion to be added to this international martyrdom festival—notwithstanding the fact that 90 percent of all those killed in Auschwitz (both Auschwitz I and II) were Jews.

When Pope John Paul II made his celebrated visit to Auschwitz in 1979, he enumerated some twenty languages in which the commemorative plaques were written. He referred to the inscriptions on these plaques as “languages of the victims of this Golgotha” and went on to say that these plaques “testify to the losses suffered by the nations.” But in fact those plaques testify only to the different languages spoken by the victims, who were predominantly of one nationality—Jewish.

The Pope himself acknowledged the Jews as a nationality when, standing before the Hebrew plaque, he said: “This inscription commemorates a nation, whose sons and daughters had been destined for total extermination.” He acknowledged it a second time when he said: “This nation traces its origin back to Abraham, who was the father of our faith.” Finally, he called the Jews a nation for the third time when he said: “This nation which received from God the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ experienced a particular measure of killings.” Yet when he stood before the Polish plaque the Pope said: “Six million Poles died during the last war, one-fifth of a nation.” While it is certainly true that those 3 million Polish Jews exterminated by the Nazis were a loss to the Polish nation, simple justice requires us to remember that the majority of Poles did not consider them part of the Polish nation while they were alive, or when they were dying their Jewish death.

In Communist-ruled Poland there are of course “ideological” reasons for this distortion of reality. But there is also a more general misunderstanding about the Holocaust which goes all the way back to the Nuremberg trials when the Holocaust—mistakenly, in my opinion—was subsumed under the category of “genocide,” and defined as a “crime against humanity.” Genocide is, to be sure, a crime against humanity, but it has existed almost as long as humanity itself, as a reading of the Pentateuch will show. Very few nations have not been touched by genocide at some time in their history, either as perpetrators or as victims. But the Holocaust was more than genocide. As the Christian scholars Alice L. Eckardt and A. Roy Eckardt have written, there is a “difference between forcible, even murderous, denationalization, and wholesale, total murder of every one of the members of a community.” Unlike prior attempts in time of war to root out national groups, “the Holocaust was a policy of the total, sacral Nazi act of mass murder of all the Jews they could lay their hands on.” The Eckardts point out that contrary to general belief, there never was a Nazi policy to apply the measures used against the Jews to other national communities. While some nationalities were called inferior in Nazi terminology, the Jews were considered “not human at all.” The Holocaust, in short, was directed not against humanity, but against the Jews, and it should therefore be called a crime against the Jews.



The consequences of failing to observe this distinction in terminology can be seen very clearly in the report prepared by the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, the special group convened by President Carter in 1978, and headed by Elie Wiesel, to offer recommendations concerning a memorial to Holocaust victims in the United States. To begin with, the report insisted on “the uniqueness of the Holocaust” as one of its “guiding principles.” It then went on to describe the Holocaust with admirable specificity as “a systematic, bureaucratic extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators as a central act of state.” But no sooner was this definition established than the document proceeded to undermine it with rhetorical concessions like the following: “As night descended, millions of other peoples were swept into this net of death.”

Now this statement, dramatic though it is, is absolutely false. The death of those “millions of others” had nothing to do with “this net of death,” as the Commission calls the Holocaust; it was a product of the war itself and the savage methods used by the Nazis against all opposition, methods introduced before the Holocaust and independent of it. Those millions of others would have perished in the war even if the Holocaust had never taken place and if the Jews had never existed.

The same confusion in terminology enables the Commission to declare that “Jews might not have remained the final victims of Nazi genocide, but they were certainly the first.” This statement is false both because the term genocide does not really cover the Holocaust and because the first victims of Nazi policies were not Jews but Germans confined to institutions for the mentally ill.

While visiting Poland and the Soviet Union, in the course of their research, members of the Commission heard constant lectures from Communist authorities about how “the Jews were not the only ones who suffered” (the same argument used, incidentally, in London and Washington during World War II as an excuse for not mounting a rescue effort). One would hardly expect to find this sentiment emerging from the Commission itself, yet precisely the same point is made in the Commission’s recommendations for a proposed Holocaust museum to be set up in Washington: “Since Jews were not the only people to suffer and since others perished for their convictions or affiliations, for their nationality or race, in the machinery of death initially designed for the destruction of Jews, the Commission recommends that the museum incorporate displays on the Poles, the Gypsies, and other exterminated groups.” Amazingly enough, this sentence in the report comes right after a firm declaration that “the Jews were Hitler’s primary victims against whom the total fury of the Holocaust was unleashed: to dilute or deny this reality would be to falsify it in the name of misguided universalism.” How can a group of intellectuals and scholars establish in one sentence a reality which should not be diluted, and in the next sentence proceed to dilute it? Is this to be seen perhaps as another instance of the inadequacy, if not worse, of intellectuals in the face of evil, which our political century has documented so abundantly?



The Commission, after visiting Babi Yar, where the memorial monument fails to mention the Jews at all, professed itself “shocked” by this failure and “alerted to the danger of historical falsification and dilution.” Yet there was no protest when the same sort of falsification and dilution occurred at the National Civil Holocaust Ceremony held in Washington on April 24, 1979. President Carter set the tone for the occasion when he told the audience assembled at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda that “We must teach the lesson of the Holocaust,” only to add in the next breath, “in the persecution, the suffering, and the destruction which has befallen so many other people in this century, in many nations.” Vice President Mondale echoed the President, reminding the audience of the many other nationalities that had suffered in addition to the Jews, and referring in the course of his talk to “11 million innocent victims exterminated—6 million of them Jews.” Even Elie Wiesel found it necessary, when he formally delivered the Commission’s report to the President a few months later, to affirm that “although all Jews were victims, not all victims were Jews,” thereby obeying the unwritten rule which specifies equal rhetorical time for all nationalities on occasions like these. Such techniques contribute to divesting the Holocaust of most of its specific historical meaning and transforming it into a generalized metaphor for the suffering of all mankind.

This kind of evasion is practiced routinely in Communist countries. As Franklin H. Littell (himself a member of the Commission) has pointed out, Soviet authorities continually refer to the 11 million total camp dead, or the 22 million total Russian dead, or the estimated 42 million total losses of life in World War II. Littell deplores this practice of “tossing the sufferings of many peoples during World War II into the same cauldron”—and calls it an “escape mechanism,” a way of refusing to confront the significance of the martyrdom of the 6 million.



It is hard to understand how people who claim sympathy for the Jewish martyrs and express regret because they were unable to help the Jews during the Holocaust are still unable to recognize the right of the Jewish victims to a separate resting place in human memory. Surely these “sympathizers” are serving no ecumenical purpose by increasing the number of Holocaust victims by 5 or even 20 million. Others, particularly Jews, may have an unacknowledged fear of Jewish isolation, and believe—like Simon Wiesenthal, for example—that to merge the Christian and Jewish dead in a common memorial will bring Jews and Christians together and safeguard the Jews against future catastrophe. My argument against this position is that it is very hard to bridge a separation that has existed for millennia, and it certainly cannot be done by a gesture whose main purpose is to salve the bad conscience of the Gentile world. The Holocaust, which was not shared then, cannot be shared now. After the greatest crime on earth was committed against them, the Jewish people still have a sense of living on sufferance and not by right in this world, which has taken everything from them—religion, property, possessions, life. Now it is trying to appropriate their death as well.

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