Rethinking the Unthinkable; Saul Friedlander's Massive History of the Holocaust Is a Judicious, Authoritative and Restrained Study. but It's Also a Stark Reminder That Lunacy May Have Been as Much a Part of Nazism as Cruelty
Byline: David Gates
The head takes the longest to burn; two little blue flames flicker from the eyeholes ... the entire process lasts twenty minutes--and a human being, a world, has been turned into ashes." A Polish Jew named Zalman Gradowski wrote this account of what actually happened, step by step, in the gas chambers and crematoriums of Auschwitz, where he'd been sent in late 1942, along with seven members of his family, including his wife and mother. The Nazis gassed them; Gradowski had the good or bad fortune to be able-bodied, and it got him this rare look at the innermost workings of the horror Germany was hoping to hide from the world. The camp authorities picked him for the Sonderkommando, the Jews who dealt with the corpses--yes, yanking gold teeth, all that--and disposed of the ashes. Even worse, perhaps, they found themselves helping SS men reassure the still-clueless victims removing their clothes before the "disinfection" chambers.
Naturally these men knew that they, too, would be killed--Sonderkommando inmates didn't keep their jobs for long--but meanwhile, they were granted food, liquor, a handful of cigarettes and however many more days of life. "You think that those working in Sonderkommandos are monsters?" one said to a regular inmate. "I'm telling you, they're like the rest, just much more unhappy." Some, though, like Gradowski, saw these truly demonic duties as a last opportunity to bear witness. He said kaddish for the dead after every gassing, and kept notebooks; in late 1944, when he was helping plan a rebellion in the camp, he buried them. He didn't survive, but later generations know what he saw with his own eyes. As he himself wrote, they're the last to go.
The historian, UCLA professor and MacArthur fellow Saul Friedlander, whose parents died at Auschwitz and who grew up hidden among Gentiles in Nazi- occupied France, has been writing about the Holocaust since the 1960s. His new book, "The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945," along with its 1997 precursor, "Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939," caps a life's work that includes a memoir, books on Pope Pius XII and the Third Reich, on Hitler and the United States--and on one Kurt Gerstein. Gerstein was a deeply religious Waffen SS man who delivered Zyklon B to the death camps while trying to alert the world; eventually he hanged himself. As both Gerstein's story and the story of the Sonderkommando workers suggest, Friedlander re-cords not just the atrocities but the madness behind them. The Nazis made the unimaginable suddenly real: how could sane people possibly respond? As late as 1943, the Red Cross in Geneva learned that 10,000 Jews had been transport-ed from Berlin--and was "anxious" to get their new addresses.
"The Years of Extermination" and its precursor may be a definitive overview of the Holocaust--and a compact one, even though both volumes if bound together would total some 1,600 pages. But most of us have already heard these facts and figures. And while it's a moral duty--a spiritual duty, if you prefer--not to grow numb from the repetition, turning a deaf ear is a primal human reflex. We're especially prone to it when cries of pain are coming from six decades ago. Or, say, from some country you couldn't locate on a map. If you've ever had the impulse to skip one more op-ed about Darfur in The New York Times, you can be only so indignant about good Germans. Friedlander seems to understand that the same old horrors don't hold our attention anymore.
Some people may be disappointed by the lack of grisly photographs (he should have included a map, though). Friedlander doesn't soften the atrocities nor try to minimize our revulsion--as the excerpt from Gradowski's notebook shows--but he focuses on the larger narrative and doesn't indulge the prurient with gratuitous detail and imagery. Josef Mengele, for instance, rates only a brief reference. …