Holocaust survivor Sonia Weitz begins her poem “For Yom Ha’Shoah” with these lines: “Come, take this giant leap with me / into the other world . . . the other place / where language fails and imagery defies, / denies man’s consciousness . . . and dies / upon the altar of insanity.”
To study the history in this chapter is to take Weitz’s “giant leap.” Learning about the Holocaust requires us to examine events in history and examples of human behavior that both unsettle us and elude our attempts to explain them. The previous chapter examined the brutality of the war for “race and space” that Nazi Germany began in 1939. This chapter delves even further into the shocking violence and mass murder of the Holocaust, as well as the choices made by perpetrators, bystanders, resisters, and rescuers as the Nazis carried out their “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”
Although the Nazis’ program of mass murder was horrifying and the small number of people who tried to resist it or rescue those who were targeted is disturbing, this is a history that needs to be confronted. The accounts in this chapter force us to consider the full range of human behavior, the worst and the best that we are capable of as human beings. And the choices described in these accounts force us to think deeply about what leads one person and not another to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. The accounts in this chapter also show the importance of honoring human dignity by showing us what can happen when it is taken away and what can be prevented when it is preserved.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, its goal was to claim “living space” for the “Aryan” race that the Nazis had long wanted. But in order for Germans to settle in the territory of eastern Europe conquered from the Soviet Union in 1941 and 1942, they would have to empty it of so-called inferior races, including the millions of Jews who lived there. Early in the war, the Germans had forced Jews from the territories they conquered into ghettos and concentration camps and killed scores of Jews in mass shootings by mobile killing units. They had also considered plans to move the populations of Jews and other “non-Aryans” to far-off places like Madagascar or Siberia. Eventually, however, the Nazi leadership decided that these plans would be too impractical or expensive; they chose instead a policy to annihilate all of the Jews of Europe. Historians believe this decision was made by Hitler and his advisors toward the end of 1941. As mobile killing units continued to operate throughout eastern Europe, the Nazis began to establish death camps—camps designed for the purpose of murdering large numbers of victims, primarily in gas chambers, as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The readings in this chapter show the evolution of Nazi methods of mass murder, and they rely on the troubling and provocative testimony of many who witnessed or were targeted by those methods. These stories reveal a range of human behavior in response to the Holocaust. The Nazis persuaded or forced thousands to participate in the mass murder of millions of people. Many others participated willingly; they did not need to be persuaded. This chapter includes the testimonies of people who murdered as members of mobile killing units, coordinated trains to transport victims to their deaths in death camps, and, as Jewish prisoners in the camps, were forced to help operate the gas chambers.
This chapter also includes the stories of individuals who, in spite of the danger, violence, and suffering around them, resisted the Nazis’ program of dehumanization and murder. Some individuals imprisoned in the concentration camps made enormous efforts to preserve human dignity for themselves and others. A small percentage of prisoners in camps and ghettos found ways to carry out armed resistance. At the same time, some individuals, groups, towns, and even entire nations risked their own safety to protect, hide, or evacuate Jews and members of other targeted groups from the Nazis and their collaborators. However, opportunities to resist or rescue were not available to everyone, and among those who had such opportunities, many did not seize them. These efforts, therefore, were the exception rather than the rule. Historian Peter Hayes explains:
A few diplomats rose to the occasion, but most did not. More clergy accepted the challenge, but a majority did not. Minority group members expressed solidarity with Jews more frequently than the surrounding population, but not reliably or uniformly. Cosmopolitan residents of Warsaw may have been more inclined to aid Jews than Poles in the countryside, but not dependably so. Rescue was always the choice of the relatively few.
Hayes adds that “at most, 5 to 10% of the Jews who survived the Holocaust in Europe did so because a non-Jew or non-Jewish organization . . . concealed and sustained them.”
In the end, the Nazis succeeded in murdering 6 million of the estimated 9 million Jews who lived in Europe in 1939.