Some Misconceptions about the Holocaust

hch-15-cervantes HCH 15 / March 2017

Some Misconceptions about the Holocaust, by Jared Sorhaindo

Every American schoolchild knows about the Holocaust. He or she may not have an appreciation for Nazi policy or how it came to happen, but he or she knows that Nazi Germany killed six million Jews, many of them in gas chambers. There are, however, some frustrating misconceptions that plague the popular American understanding of the Holocaust. While the misconceptions are not necessarily cause for alarm (except to the extent to which they can be manipulated by Holocaust deniers), they allow for a false interpretation of the Holocaust to percolate into the American public and cause some serious misunderstandings about the Nazis’ war against the Jews.

Misconception # 1: Conflation of concentration and death camps

One of the first terms that comes to mind when the Holocaust is brought up is “concentration camp.” The Nazis, so it is said, threw all of the Jews into concentration camps and gassed many of them in those camps. While partially true, it mostly isn’t. Concentration camps, by literal definition, are meant to concentrate real and potential enemies of the state; they are hardly unique to National Socialism or to the Holocaust. Death camps, on the other hand, were specifically designed to murder people in an industrialized fashion; these were unique to Nazi Germany. The concentration camp and death camp are not remotely the same thing. The typical grouping of Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Auschwitz, and Treblinka obfuscates more than it illuminates. These were very different camps with very different purposes.

Bergen-Belsen was originally a transit camp that in the final months of the war was overwhelmed by Jews forcefully marched and trained from places farther east – the result of the influx was devastating epidemics and starvation, and the kinds of scenes witnessed by the British Army upon liberation, scenes that are practically unwatchable.

Dachau was a penal camp for political prisoners, and the first official concentration camp established by Nazi Germany, in 1933. It later became a terminus for Jews being pushed westward in 1945, and it too was the site of horrific scenes of human skeletons and piles of corpses upon its liberation by American troops.

Both of those camps were liberated by Western armies, and their liberation was widely publicized to American and British audiences, who were able to see with their own eyes evidence of Nazi abominations. The two, among others such as Buchenwald, became known as “death camps” in popular parlance, but this did not accord with their intention or function. Neither Jews nor anyone else was systematically murdered at these places; only later, on the eve of the war’s end, did large numbers of Jews die in them, mostly of starvation and disease.

Auschwitz was a special case. It opened its gates in 1940 to imprison Polish political opponents. Jews were sent to Auschwitz and gassed at the Birkenau camp beginning in spring 1942, but the camp maintained its original function as a brutal penal camp for political prisoners all the way up to its liberation in January 1945 by the Red Army. In addition to being an extermination camp, Birkenau served as a massive forced-labor camp. Because the main Auschwitz camp was a concentration camp, and Auschwitz sub-camps dotted the Upper Silesian countryside, there were many survivors of the Auschwitz camp complex. This is why, even though more Jews were murdered at Auschwitz than anywhere else, more Jews also survived Auschwitz than any other camp. This seeming contradiction – it is not, of course – has given fodder to Holocaust deniers. If Auschwitz was the worst and most murderous death camp, why do you have all of these elderly Jews in New York with tattoos claiming to have been in Auschwitz? This is where the misconceptions can actually become dangerous.

Treblinka, which lies some 50 miles northeast of the Polish capital Warsaw, was a death factory, plain and simple. Unlike at Auschwitz, there was no industry there except death. There was no “selection” as there was at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Treblinka, like its sister camps Bełżec and Sobibór, as well as Chełmno, was a death sentence. This is why very few survived, and why correspondingly there is less information on these camps. We know much less about them than Auschwitz-Birkenau, and there is no remnant of them – they were systematically destroyed by the SS in 1943.

Due to the foregoing, it is silly to categorize these camps under the same heading. Treblinka was not a concentration camp; Dachau was not a death camp. The term “camps”, therefore, which conflates all of these different sites, muddles our understanding of events and gives space for deniers to work their grotesque spin.

Misconception # 2: Auschwitz as a synonym and symbol for the Holocaust

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(The gatehouse at Auschwitz-Birkenau, taken from outside of the camp. Photo by Jared Sorhaindo, Auschwitz, October 4, 2014)

I admit that I am guilty of this as well. The need to differentiate between the Holocaust as a whole and Auschwitz has been made forcefully by Timothy Snyder, a scholar of Eastern Europe at Yale University. I agree with his analysis.

The experience of Auschwitz was actually an atypical experience for the vast majority of Jews. By the end of 1941, one million Jews in the Soviet Union and the Baltics had been shot into ditches. The Polish Jews had been largely extinguished by the end of 1942 in Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka, at which there was no selection, as explained above, and in mass shootings carried out by roving death squads. Auschwitz did not become a true factor in the Final Solution until 1943, when the other three camps had already shut down or were winding down operations, and when the vast majority of Holocaust victims were already dead.

I believe the reason for the fixation on Auschwitz is manifold. More Jews were murdered there than at any other single location. It is largely intact so we know what it looked and looks like: the Birkenau gatehouse, the ruins of the crematoria, the barracks, the vast expanse of it all. This is not the case with Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, or Treblinka, which are today just forests and fields. There were tens of thousands of survivors of Auschwitz because the prisoners were used for forced labor. Therefore, there are more eyewitness accounts and generally quite a lot (indeed, an exhaustive amount) of information on Auschwitz. Finally, while Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka consumed mainly the Jews of Poland, Jews were sent to Auschwitz from nearly every country in Europe, including and especially Western Europe. But it is important to remember that the center of European, and world, Jewry lay in the east – and these were the communities that were the most thoroughly destroyed, and destroyed immediately upon conveyance to the death pits and death camps.

This might be a side note, but there is an annoying conflation of the Auschwitz concentration camp and the Birkenau death camp. Jews and others flock from around the world to the main camp at Auschwitz to make a pilgrimage of sorts. This is the location of the Arbeit Macht Frei gate and the Death Wall, where thousands of prisoners were shot. It is also where you can see piles of suitcases, eyeglasses, other personal artifacts, and, most gruesomely, hair. The fact, however, is that the vast majority of Jews never saw the Arbeit Macht Frei gate. The main camp was mostly a center of Polish persecution, suffering, and death (about 80,000 Poles were murdered there). The Jews met their suffering and death down the road, in Birkenau. A lot of visitors do not know the distinction, or that Birkenau is even a thing – I have read accounts of people visiting the main camp and then getting on the return bus back to Kraków, never knowing that they were skipping the main site of death. There is little understanding of the distinction between the main camp, which was comparable to Dachau and Buchenwald (albeit much deadlier, because the Nazis viewed the majority of its prisoners, Poles, as a lesser species), and Birkenau, which was its own beast. This is why I don’t care about a Carmelite convent or a large cross at or near the main camp. The main camp’s story is mostly a Polish one, not Jewish. Misconceptions therefore have led to unnecessary tensions between Jews and Poles at the Auschwitz site.

Misconception # 3: The canard against Poland

“The Nazis built the extermination camps in Poland because the Poles are a viciously anti-Semitic people.” I’ve heard this voiced, with absolute conviction and certitude, a million times. It is an absurdity.

There were anti-Semites among the Poles, of course; it is depressingly clear in the Polish underground literature that, even if at times they were sympathetic, the vast majority of Poles did not view the Jews as their own kind. Poles carried out pogroms of Jews, most notoriously at Jedwabne and Radziłów (they also carried out post-war massacres, such as that in Kielce in July 1946). Polish blackmailers (szmalcowniks) would demand money from Jews in hiding; if the Jews could not provide it, the blackmailers would turn them in to the German authorities. Polish resistance units, including those of the Home Army, at times murdered Jews and then robbed them of their belongings. Most Poles watched the Warsaw Ghetto uprising with utter indifference; a minority watched in admiration as the Germans crushed the “Jewish problem.”

Yet other Poles were inspired by the uprising. Many risked their lives to save Jews. An organization was formed by the Polish government-in-exile to hide the Jews and assist them in any way possible. In other word, it’s a mixed picture, to say the least (it would take a book or books to reckon with this subject) – and Poland continues to this day to suffer from demons and a very serious complex for what its soil, and its people, witnessed. Poles infuriatingly insist that they were practically angels during the war, but that was obviously not true.

But it was also not true of the vast majority of the people of Europe. The Nazis were able to take advantage of a nearly complete societal and moral breakdown on the European continent that was largely effectuated by their conquests and subsequent policies. With a few noble exceptions, such as the people of Denmark’s heroic action in spiriting Jews by boat to neutral Sweden, all of Europe was passive, or gleeful, at the fate of the Jews. The nations and governments of Europe by and large did not see stopping the slaughter of the Jews as a priority (nor, for that matter, did the United States). That is why the Holocaust was possible. If all of Europe had resisted the Nazis to save the Jews, the death toll would not and could not have been so high. So singling out the Poles on this score is unfair, even if they do (and, believe me, they do) have a lot to answer for.

So why were the death camps placed on Polish soil? The answer is easy – Poland was where the vast majority of Jews lived. 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland on the eve of the German invasion in 1939, representing 10% of the total country’s population. Over 90% of them were murdered – indeed, Polish Jews alone constituted at least half of the victims of the Holocaust. Chełmno was built to kill the Jews of the Łódź Ghetto to make room for Jews being deported from the Reich. Bełżec was designed to annihilate either the Jews of the Lublin district or of all of occupied Poland (this is not exactly clear – probably the former). Sobibór was built to assist Bełżec in its grisly task and Treblinka for the destruction of the Jews of Warsaw, Radom, and other Polish cities. Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek were built to accommodate huge numbers of Soviet POWs and only latterly were shoehorned into the Final Solution. The common denominator is that literally zero of this had to do with Polish anti-Semitism, whether it was ferocious or not – what it did have to do with was murdering Jews where most of them were and to where they could easily be deported. It also had to do with Nazi racial engineering – moving Jews and Poles around the map to make room for German settlers.

Misconception # 4: “Desk Killers”

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(Adolf Eichmann in 1942 or 1943)

The notion of the Nazi genocidaire as a “desk killer” who keeps his hands clean and just shuffles paper has been the most common understanding of the Nazi perpetrators since the trial of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s (Eichmann was the chief manager and logistician of the Final Solution). The philosopher Hannah Arendt attended Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem on assignment with The New Yorker and concluded after a couple of weeks that Eichmann was no murderous anti-Semite, but merely a cog in a totalitarian machine and a taker of orders. She thus shoehorned Eichmann into her extant theory of totalitarianism rather than appreciating him as an individual phenomenon. Funnily enough, Arendt’s perception of Eichmann was precisely how he wished to be perceived, as the crux of his defense strategy. Anyone reading the transcripts of his postwar conversations while a fugitive in Argentina knows he was a vicious anti-Semite who reveled in his role as chief executioner of the Jews. He literally bragged about it to his associates.

The fact is that Eichmann was not removed from his paperwork; on the contrary, he witnessed gassings of Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bełżec, and Chełmno, and a mass shooting of Jews outside of Minsk. Throughout the murder campaign, but especially while in Budapest in 1944, Eichmann went above and beyond the call of duty, and even against express orders, in making sure that as many Jews as possible were sent to their deaths.  Young intellectuals of the Reich Main Security Office – including historians, sociologists, economists, and lawyers – volunteered (or did not protest about being sent) for killing operations behind the front lines in the east, where they could put their theorizing into practice. Odilo Globocnik, the destroyer of Polish Jewry, oversaw the operations of Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka with great gusto, and said golden plaques should be buried along with the corpses in these camps to explain that it had been the National Socialists who had had the fortitude to murder the Jews. These were people intellectually and emotionally invested in what they were doing. Certainly there were individuals who would fit the mold of the stereotypical “desk killer,” but not enough to make sweeping, declaratory statements about the perpetrators. It is not even true about the supposed archetype: Adolf Eichmann.

Misconception # 5: Ghettos designed as a way station to slaughter

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(Strip marking the former boundary of the Warsaw Ghetto, Jared Sorhaindo, Warsaw, 2016)

This is actually partially true, but not in the way one might think. Nazi policy was not originally to kill all of the Jews. Rather, it shifted and morphed until it crystallized into genocide. At first, it was Nazi policy for Jews to emigrate out of Germany and, after the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia, out of German-controlled territory.

The Nazis were faced with a conundrum when they conquered Poland due to the voluminous number of Jews now under their control. They considered deporting them to a conceptualized Jewish reservation in the Lublin district, which was the easternmost territory under their control at the time; they also seriously (yes, seriously) considered shipping all of the Jews to far-off Madagascar. Neither vision came to pass. In the meantime, however, Jews were concentrated in ghettos in major cities in Poland along railway lines – in Warsaw, Łódź, etc.

The Nazis, as just explained, had certainly not conceived of extermination camps or even mass shootings at this point. The reason why it is partially true to suggest that the ghettos were a waystation to death is because the Lublin reservation plan and the Madagascar Plan were implicitly murderous and genocidal. And when those plans failed, so too was the plan to send the Jews somewhere to Siberia. While the ghettos were certainly designed as holding pens, they were not done so as part of an already-conceived extermination program in the way that the Final Solution is known to history. In fact, the Nazis argued bitterly among themselves as to what the point of the ghettos should be: productive labor or slow death? Different ghetto administrators had different answers to the question.

Ghetto policy was not consistent – while Jews from surrounding towns were sent to the Warsaw Ghetto, in Kraków, it was literally the opposite – most Jews were driven from the city. Therefore, this misconception is due to reading history backward.

hch-jared-photo-bw Jared Sorhaindo, Washington, D.C., February 3, 2017

Originally published on Al-Zilzal on February 3, 2017

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