Essay Question No. 1 –
The Holocaust, more than any other event in modern history, is important for the witnesses who lived to bear testimony to Nazi genocide. The sheer mind-boggling numbers involved tend, over time, to separate people who were not there from what really mattered, from what happened and what it was like on a very personal level. Firsthand accounts of survival in Primo Levi’s highly personal novel, and the stories assembled in the collections of Ed Niewyk, and Carol Rittner and John Roth are testaments not only to survival but to the determination of survivors to tell the story, so that Nazi crimes are not forgotten, consigned to history books and thus lose their power to inform and warn.
In Survival in Auschwitz, Levi’s narrative takes him from his native Italy through the nightmare of one of the Nazi regime’s most notorious extermination camps. Along the way, Levi’s compelling account is interspersed with poignant slice-of-life samples. Levi was arrested in his native Turin, where he had been a chemist. Once in Auschwitz, Levi was able to survive by giving bread to a fellow Italian in exchange for teaching him German and to instruct him about life in the camp. In 1944, Levi’s background in chemistry enabled him to secure a position at a nearby plant which made synthetic rubber, though Levi notes that the “Buna” facility “never produced a pound of synthetic rubber” (Levi, 73). Thus, the reader learns that Levi parlayed
personal resourcefulness, his professional knowledge and will to endure into an intelligent and proactive approach to survival.
Survival in Auschwitz makes some searingly relevant points about human nature, commentaries that speak to what happened at a much deeper level than historical documentaries can approach. “Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally attainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite” (Levi, 17). It is in this spirit that Levi concluded that those who would deny that Auschwitz ever occurred run the risk of allowing it to happen again. In one of the most poignant scenes in the book, Levi writes about an old man he calls “Kuhn,” who prayed fervently, rocking back and forth and giving thanks that he had survived. Levi wonders at what appears to be the man’s insanity, and his obliviousness to the fact that the Greek in the next bunk was going to the gas chamber the very next day, and what that meant for him. “Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn?,” Levi wondered (129). He scoffs at the very idea of prayer as a mitigating, intercessory activity in such a world, where real monsters exist and are made even more deadly by those who stand aside, and who give their tacit approval by doing nothing.
In The Holocaust: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, Donald Niewyk includes an account of a concentration camp survivor who made it through by striking a bargain with his own notion of self-respect. Yehuda Bauer writes about a man named Henri Michel, whose means of defiance took the form of what he called “the maintenance of self respect” (Niewyk,
149). Bauer also criticizes the approach taken by Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, for whom resistance meant nothing more or less than armed resistance and the use of violence against violence (149). In his narrative, Bauer realizes that resistance to evil was a much more complex moral question than someone like Hilberg could admit. Bauer decided that resistance should be defined as “any group action, consciously taken in opposition to known or surmised laws, actions, or intentions directed against the Jews by the Germans and their supporters” (149).
Bauer’s narrative leads him to the conclusion that it came down to a matter of law, of moral/legal opposition in the face of undeniable evil. In other words, having transgressed against the laws of humanity, the Nazis were fair game. It is an interesting distinction between this ethos and the vengeful beliefs of Hilberg, but there is one to be made. Bauer does not give up on the idea of society and of the rule of law, even in its complete absence. His account of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, in places like Poland, Belarus and Lithuania, provides provocative insights into the social/moral dilemma posed by resistance to overwhelming force, which characterized circumstances in that part of Europe.
Resistance and survival had ambiguous meaning during the Holocaust, with those words having vastly different meaning for those on the other side of the equation. In Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust, author Claudia Koonz writes of the impact that Aryan women, husbands and moral supporters of their husbands, had on men who faced the inconceivable on a daily basis. German housewives, though socially marginalized, were strong, authoritarian figures in the home, whose personal moral rectitude was meant to be a strong source of support to their husbands. In her narrative, Koonz notes that this was especially important for men who
bore witness to horror. Their “wives gave the individual men who confronted daily murder a safe place where they could be respected for who they were, not what they did” (Rittner and Roth, 303).
This gave their husbands the means of survival by allowing them a way to live with themselves. “Nazi wives did not offer a beacon of strength for a moral cause, but rather created a buffer zone from their husbands’ jobs. Far from wanting to share their husbands’ concerns, they actively cultivated their own ignorance and facilitated his escape” (Rittner and Roth, 304). Koonz speculates on what constitutes active support for genocide and what was merely domestic normalcy. Aryan wives, though not directly involved in the extermination of Jews, did make it possible for their husbands to do so.
In her essay, Marion Kaplan chronicles the activities of Jewish women during the Nazi regime, and the steps they took to aid the overall Jewish community. The League of Jewish Women and other organizations played an important role in helping Jewish women withstand the emotional and physical assaults of Nazi terror. Like their non-Jewish counterparts, Jewish women were supposed to maintain a sense of normality in horrendous circumstances. They did so in a remarkably wide range of areas. “In the limited time and space allotted them, and with the restricted means at their disposal, women’s organizations encouraged job retraining, emigration, and self-help and attempted to boost morale and boost Jewish consciousness” (Rittner and Roth, 207). In many ways, the unity of Jewish women’s organizations exhibited not only a powerful resolve to survive as women but also a determination to exhibit strength when their men failed to show courage.
Essay Question No. 2 –
Nazi theories about racial inferiority engulfed women from two directions. As the war progressed and the concentration camps were swamped by internees, Jewish, Slavic, Gypsy and other ethnic females, who were deemed politically or racially threatening to the state, were slaughtered in numbers that actually exceeded male victims. This represents a marked departure from the policy in the war’s early years, when only girls and young women were assigned to labor groups, and children, by and large, were allowed to remain with their mothers (Rittner and Roth, 3). Older women, on the other hand, were sent straightaway to the gas chambers. But as Nazi ideology expanded its bounds, female prisoners were increasingly regarded as physically inferior as well as ethnically and racially sub-human.
In a curious way, women came to form a rational basis for the whole concept of racial inferiority. In other words, the extermination of women showed that the Nazis were truly committed to the goal of racial purity. If they were willing to gas grandmothers, mothers and sisters, then there could be no question of their devotion to Aryan purity. This is the twisted rationale that led to the extermination of millions. Though females, as Jews, Poles or some other group defined as untermensch, they could not be excused simply on the basis of gender. It was as if Germans, who might otherwise have reviled what was being done to females, believed that by unilaterally carrying out the Final Solution they were, somehow, proving their worthiness as members of Hitler’s “master race.”
In a sense, the Nazi’s approach to the Jews and the threat the party hierarchy insisted they posed reflected their treatment of women. Anti-semitism, and the belief that Jews were gnawing
at the root of German civilization, was part of German life for centuries. It was a sentiment that
though many held, few were prepared to act upon it, certainly not to the degree that the Nazis initiated. Marion Kaplan writes that “ordinary Germans balked at rampant balked at rampant violence against Jews. They were not bent on killing Jews as much as ostracizing them from society” (234). It was a classic case of out of sight, out of mind, in that most Germans hoped that the Jews would simply “go away,” that if encouraged to believe that they were not wanted, and that opportunities for them would be minimal in Germany, then they would be much more apt to do the desirable thing and depart.
Thus, anti-Semitism had at least the aura of social illegitimacy, otherwise there would have been no brake on anti-Jewish violence at all. German society had long benefited from dedicated, patriotic and skilled Jewish citizens. The Prussian state, and the military machine that gave birth to it, had many prominent Jewish citizens. Indeed, one of its most important representatives, Gerson von Bleichroder, was a Jewish banker whose relationship with Otto von Bismarck was solely responsible for keeping Prussian expansionism fueled with ready supplies of cash. The German army in World War I had many distinguished Jewish units, who fought proudly and bravely as Germans, first and foremost. And yet it was the nation’s undoing in that global conflict that gave Adolf Hitler grist for his racist philosophy. Thus, the “soft” build-up of anti-Semitic feeling began with government policies that fostered ideas of Jewish emigration between the years 1935 and 1939, a program known as “the territorial final solution” (Kaplan, 70). In fact, the German government became something of a clearing house for information and aid for Jewish emigration in the inter-war years.
It is generally believed that the precise details of the Final Solution were not worked out until relatively late in the war. There is confusion and a vague understanding as to the sequence of events that led to the Nazis’ ultimate plan. However, the seed was likely planted in the “persuasiveness” campaign that marked the 1930s. “No one defined the Final Solution with precision, but all signs pointed toward some vast and as yet unspecified project of mass emigration” (Niewyk, 208). The Nazis held the opinion, until quite late in fact, that when the war was over the Jews would simply flee Europe, leaving it to the Aryan “majority.” But by the time anti-Semitism had become central to Nazi ideology, the die was cast. Hitler found the defining identity for his regime in Anti-Semitism.
Persecution of Slavic peoples, which included many Slavic ethnic minorities living within greater Germany, grew from the pseudo-science known as eugenics, a dubious theoretical system that classified individuals according to race, which determined such characteristics as intelligence, loyalty and other traits. Nazi propagandists cited everything from Darwin to the U.S. Army, and its early “I.Q testing,” in fleshing out their racist paradigm. This was “the law of Nature,” according to the Nazi creed. “Eugenics provided a biological basis for (racist) ideas” (Niewyk, 41). Eugenicists were recruited from the ranks of the social and biological sciences. These were individuals willing to adapt Mendelian laws concerning heredity to suit the specific needs of their racist ideology. As members of a race that possessed naturally inferior hereditary traits, the Slavs could be freely and excusably targeted for removal and extermination. In doing so, the Nazis were simply playing out destiny, which fated the Germans, who required Lebensraum, to rule in Europe (Niewyk, 253).
There were many instances in which the Germans played untermensch off against each other, such as at Jedwabne. Thus, eugenics and race theories could be modified according to need, a flexible and self-serving belief system. As Gross mentions, the Germans were quick to loose their Slavic subjects on Polish Jews. The Germans who were on hand during and after the massacre at Jedwabne adopted an amused, conciliatory attitude toward the bloody actions taken by the non-Jewish Poles. There was a smug, self-congratulatory sense that such sub-human bloodletting only proved the truth of Nazi racist theory, a warped self-vindication for fanatics who needed no affirmation to carry out their genocidal program.
The accounts of Nazi atrocities in the works of Levi, Kaplan, Niewyk and others reflect a level of complexity that is often lost amid conventional histories. Holocaust survivors such as Levi supply an important first-person context that reminds the reader that the Final Solution was a crime that had many accomplices, some Nazi and some not. Thus, the Second World War, the great crusade against evil, becomes a much “grayer” area than has generally been understood. These readings together provide an in-depth witness that turns the Nazi nightmare into a general, cautionary tale for the entire human race. In the final summation, this is the most important testament provided by these authors. The Holocaust was a crime committed by humanity against humanity, a monstrous collaboration that could not have taken place without the aid of people who were in a position to stand against the Nazis.
Gross, Jan T. Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton Univ. Press, 2001.
Kaplan, Marion. Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, New York:
Oxford Univ. Press, 1999.
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Niewyk, Donald, ed. Holocaust: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, 4th edition. New
York: Houghton Mifflin Harcout, 2010.
Roth, John and Rittner, Carol. Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust. St. Paul, MN:
Paragon House, 1998.