Introduction to Holocaust Memories

Introduction

 

Nearly eighty years have passed since the Holocaust. There have been thousands of memoirs, histories and novels written about it, yet many fear that this important event may fall into oblivion. As Holocaust survivors pass away, their legacy of suffering, tenacity and courage could be eventually forgotten. We cannot take Holocaust memories for granted. It is up to each generation to commemorate the victims, preserve their life stories and help prevent such catastrophes. These were my main motivations in writing this book, Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films that, as its title suggests, includes over sixty reviews of memoirs, histories, biographies, novels and films about the Holocaust.

It was difficult to choose among the multitude of books on the subject that deserve our attention. I made my selections based partly on the works that are considered to be the most important on the subject; partly on wishing to offer some historical background about the Holocaust in different countries and regions that were occupied by or allied themselves with Nazi Germany, and partly on my personal preferences, interests and knowledge. Because many of the memoirs share geographical and historical contexts, there is some overlap in the background information offered in these reviews. I have tried, however, to keep repetition to a minimum and highlight the unique and valuable contribution of each narrative.

This book offers a general audience, and particularly high school and college students, insight and information into the suffering of nearly six million Jews as well as millions of Gypsies, Poles, Russians and other groups that were considered to be “subhuman” and oppressed by the Nazis. I present the works of others—victims, historians, biographers, fiction writers and cinematographers—to incite readers to return to these invaluable sources. Furthermore, in order to provide more background into the suffering of the victims, I also offer information about the victimizers: particularly the rulers, politicians, propagandists, military leaders and “ordinary men”, to use Christopher Browning’s phrase, who perpetrated the Holocaust. This is why Holocaust Memories includes reviews not only of Holocaust memoirs, but also of books that focus on Fascist regimes and their leaders in various countries that enacted genocide or other crimes against humanity.

This book is organized in terms of four main topics: part one consists of the introduction and theoretical framework (Hannah Arendt and totalitarianism); the second part offers an analysis of the perpetrators and Jewish victims of the Holocaust in different countries in Europe; the third presents other victims of the Holocaust (the Poles, the Gypsies, Russian prisoners of war), and the fourth section covers other genocides (in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Rwanda and North Korea).

Raul Hilberg’s monumental studies of the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1985) and Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 (HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), inform many of my reviews, not only in content but also in approach. The historian Robert Jay Lifton rightly calls Hilberg “one of the great scholars of our century. Perhaps more than anyone else, he has exposed the behavior and thought processes of ordinary people carrying out a genocidal project” (front cover of Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders). Although my book does not offer a history of the Holocaust per se, I review numerous history books that deal with the victims, perpetrators and bystanders of this catastrophe. The works of historians such as Raul Hilberg, Christopher Browning, Max Hastings, Anthony Beevor, Alan Bullock, Robert Conquest, Timothy Snyder and Robert Jay Lifton inform the background I offer in my discussions of Holocaust memoirs, histories, novels and films. In these reviews, I present a wide range of narratives about the Holocaust in all of what Hilberg calls its “stages of operation”: starting with the racial definition of what constitutes a “Jew”; to the Jews’ exclusion from society and the expropriation of their money and property; to their concentration in certain areas and eventually in Jewish Ghettos; to the exploitation of their (slave) labor and, ultimately, to their annihilation through mass shootings, starvation, medical experimentation and death camps. (See The Destruction of the European Jews, 267).

Since the Nazis targeted European Jews as their main victims, my book focuses primarily on them. At the same time, since the Nazis also targeted other groups they considered dangerous and inferior, I also review narratives about the sufferings of the Gypsies, the Poles and other groups that fell victim to the Nazi regimes. As Hilberg aptly puts it, “The Nazi destruction process was, in short, not aimed at institutions; it was targeted at people. The Jews were only the first victims of the German bureaucracy; they were only the first caught in its path” (The Destruction of the European Jews, 268). Had Germany won the war, there’s no telling how many more millions would have fallen victim to their race wars. The signs that the Poles and the Slavs would have been the Nazis’ next targets for extermination were apparent long before the end of WWII.

In the last section, I review books and films that discuss other genocides and crimes against humanity, including the Stalinist mass purges, the Cambodian massacres by the Pol Pot regime and the Rwandan genocide. In so doing, I emphasize that history can, indeed, repeat itself, even if in different forms and contexts. Just as the Jews of Europe were not the only targets of genocide, Fascist regimes were not its only perpetrators. If there’s one common thread among such diverse human catastrophes it’s totalitarian institutions. This is why Holocaust Memories also includes an analysis of Hannah Arendt’s groundbreaking The Origins of Totalitarianism. The ethos of mass murder is often initiated from above by authoritarian regimes and disseminated to ordinary citizens through propaganda, indoctrination and terror. The spread of Fascism and Communism during the 20th-century, culminating in the Great Terror and the Holocaust, offers a stark warning to posterity. For as long as we will allow totalitarian regimes and their evil leaders to take root in our societies, we will continue to remain vulnerable to the unspeakable destruction they can cause.

Although I’m writing a book called Holocaust Memories, I was born generations later and have no personal memories of the Holocaust. I have vivid childhood recollections of totalitarianism, however, under the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania: snippets of my family’s past and the struggles endured mostly by my parents, which I revisited and wrote about in my first historical novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 2009). In this book, I’m going two generations back in time, to the painful memories of the Holocaust that my grandparents only alluded to. It’s mostly their silence that speaks to me now, decades later. I never found out all the details of what happened to my paternal grandfather during the Holocaust in Romania: when and where he was thrown off a train when sent to a forced labor camp by the Antonescu regime during the 1940’s, as so many young Jewish men were at the time. All I know is that he survived that fall but walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

My grandparents’ survival of the Holocaust in Romania intrigued me enough to start reading scores of books on this subject. I wondered: how could hundreds of thousands of Jews manage to survive in a country that was so virulently anti-Semitic at the time? I learned about Ion Antonescu, the Romanian authoritarian ruler, and his changing and opportunistic policies, which created the apparent paradox of a large number of Jews surviving a pro-Nazi regime that despised them. I also learned about the heroic actions of the Jewish leader Wilhelm Filderman, who never stopped trying to negotiate with Antonescu a livable situation for Romania’s Jews. From there, I became interested in exploring deeper what happened to the rest of the European Jews during the Holocaust, nearly six million of whom were obliterated from the face of the Earth and never got the chance to share their tragic stories. This book is dedicated to them, to the survivors who lived with traumatic memories that continued to haunt them, and to the new generations of readers who want to learn about history’s darkest past.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

 

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