Posts Tagged ‘the Holocaust’

Tadeusz Borowski: This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

October 18, 2021

     There are now a huge number of books about the Nazi concentration and extermination camps, many of which were sited on Polish soil; Auschwitz has become a sort of shorthand for all the horrors. Yet of all the books I’ve read, this collection of stories remains the bleakest of all. Written a few years after the end of the war by a Pole who had been interned there and who killed himself a little while after writing it, the book shows the depths to which human beings can be reduced, or can reduce themselves.

Death and horror are a normality in these short stories, a necessary part of the struggle for survival. The vileness of the arrival of the transports, the selections, the scrabbling for food and belongings, the cameraderie of the survivors: this is the challenge to every reader – what would you have done? We dare not try to answer…

I think part of the powerful shock effect comes from the short story form, one which I generally avoid reading. There are fewer details, less development of character or personality in short stories and somehow this sketchiness, a sort of distancing-effect, amplifies the awfulness of situations and behaviours. The horrors are gut-wrenching, powerful compulsive; other writers pale by comparison with Borowski’s candour. And we must read these stories; it is vital that what humans did eighty years ago is not forgotten, is not buried by thoughts of such things being so dreadful that they must be made up, exaggerated. You need a strong stomach to read the stories; they had to be written; these things were.

Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation

April 21, 2021

     Reviewing the past century, exploring it, understanding it and coming to terms with it, has been one of the major currents of German literature, and it’s obvious why. Writers who lived though the Nazi era wrestled with making sense of what they had lived through – Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass and Siegfried Lenz spring to mind instantly, but more recent writers, who weren’t alive in those times, such as Walter Kempowski and Jenny Erpenbeck are still nevertheless preoccupied with them. And at some level, whilst Germans do have a traumatic century to reflect on: societal collapse post First World War, rise of Nazism, Second World War and the Holocaust, a divided nation and the DDR, reunification, not to mention the complex relation with neighbouring lands like Poland and Russia, at least there has been an ongoing determination to face the horrors and the guilt, unlike many other, more complacent nations such as my own…

Erpenbeck’s novel focuses on a specific place – a small lakeside community somewhere near Berlin – and how it evolves, develops and changes over time, reflecting the history of the nation. At one level there is the sense of permanence that comes through those who have always lived there, rooted in the place; these are only touched upon, apart from being represented in depth through the abiding presence of the gardener who lives through it all, a silent and obedient servant to all the different outsiders who come in to develop their holiday homes in the village… ask no questions.

German history is revealed through the changing property ownership and developments that take place during the twentieth century, and profiteering from the gradual dispossession of Jewish owners is part of this. Everyone colludes, quietly, as the horrors progress. The gardener transcends time, doing whatever the owners request and pay him to do, dependent on the times and the circumstances. The corruption of the Nazi era, and the DDR times is clear, as is the profit to be made after reunification. I was particularly moved by the reflections of a young Red Army officer billeted in the house in 1945:

The more German houses they set foot in, the more painfully they are faced with the question of why the Germans were unable to remain in a place where nothing at all, not the slightest little thing, was lacking.

At times the novel is reminiscent of, if not indebted to, the fictions of Grass, but there is not the dialogue and the humour of his writing: everything exudes a Germanic seriousness; there is an evenness of tone – which is not monotone – that places pleasure and horror disturbingly on the same level, emphasising further the permanence of place as opposed to people. Even the Holocaust becomes human incident against this stern backdrop. The uncomfortable reader is forced into reflection.

There is a deeper question underlying everything: what is ‘home’, where is ‘home’ when our existence is temporary and fleeting, against the backdrop of geological time? Here is a conundrum that Erpenbeck can only reflect, never answer. And her book ends with the systematic, legally enshrined, following the tiniest niceties of German laws and regulations, demolition of one of the main properties whose various owners and inhabitants have been at the centre of the novel…

Timothy Snyder: Black Earth

June 29, 2019

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I’ve admired Timothy Snyder’s previous books, The Reconstruction of Nations and Bloodlands, because I’ve comes across nothing else in English that deals so clearly and in so much detail with the history of my father’s part of the world during his lifetime; I was immediately interested when this, his most recent book, came out, but was also warned off by reviews which didn’t like his links between Hitler, ecology and what was happening in the contemporary world.

I was instantly uncertain when reading this late twentieth century term in connection with Hitler and the Holocaust, but it’s clear Snyder has studied and analysed Hitler’s Mein Kampf in great depth, which not many do, and which is the source of his ideas about the struggles between races, for domination and survival. There were times when I did feel Snyder was striving too hard to fit all of 1930s history and politics into his own neat theory.

Snyder’s analysis of inter-war Polish politics and its relations with Germany, together with his explanations of why, ultimately they didn’t become allies in a war against the Soviet Union, are very useful, and we see how in the end Poland, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany all misunderstood each other, and misread each other’s intentions. Poland wanted to sort its Jewish problem through mass emigration to Palestine, and spent time and money training Zionists for their armed struggle against the British who had the mandate; Poland suffered from mass unemployment, and felt it had too many Jews (over 3 million). Jews were regarded as human beings whose presence in the country was economically and politically undesirable. What is so well treated is the complexity of all the issues, including the question of Polish anti-semitism. Equally Snyder is clear about Hitler deliberately provoking crises hoping to embroil Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in a war, as well as the Soviet Union fomenting tension along its border with Poland.

Where Snyder’s analysis seems to make most sense, and the greatest contribution – at least to this non-historian’s understanding – to analysis of events in Eastern Europe during the Second World War is in his exploration of the gradual way in which Jews were made stateless, ie without any formal protection in law, and how vast tracts of nations were made lawless zones, in which anything became possible. Once again Snyder makes it evident how the West never really understood the Nazis’ intentions and behaviour towards Eastern Europe and its populations, imagining those lands’ experience of war and occupation as being similar to their own, which was never true.

Soviet occupation of the borderlands in 1939-40, consequent on the secret protocols in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, made the Nazis’ work in 1941-42 much easier: Soviet occupation and chaos followed by Nazi occupation and chaos in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland was crucial in facilitating the wholesale massacre of civilians.

Snyder also unpicks different kinds of anti-semitism in different parts of occupied Europe, the differing ways in which the Nazis encouraged and took advantage of it, and the different ways in which the extermination of the Jews was carried out in different countries. In the West we are not usually aware of the fact that most of Europe’s Jews had already been killed before the extermination facilities at Auschwitz were opened; the focus on Auschwitz has allowed Germans to claim that they didn’t know what went on, whereas any German on service in Eastern Europe could not have been ignorant of mass shootings in hundreds if not thousands of locations.

There is also a very interesting chapter of individual stories which reflect how complex relations were between Jews and non-Jews at all levels during the war, and examine why some helped Jews and others did not. Again, Snyder challenges simplistic Western commentary on Polish anti-semitism: not that there was none, for indeed there was, but that many complex factors lay behind people’s behaviour.

After the war there was collusion between the new Soviet-backed regimes and many of those who had in various ways collaborated with the Nazis; in Poland the Holocaust laid the foundations for the new Soviet settlement and transformation of a now Jew-less society.

I am not a historian and so I cannot comment on Snyder’s analysis and how it fits in or doesn’t with what others have written, but for me he does explore issues carefully, sensitively, in detail, makes connections where they haven’t been made before, and provokes further reflection. As I mentioned at the start, I did find his overall thesis somewhat forced; nevertheless he makes the important point that we don’t necessarily now live in a more secure or saner world from which the spectres and horrors of the past have been banished, and indicates where some future dangers may lie. For me, this is the mark of a good historian.

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