Retracing the road to the horror, detail by detail

December 20, 1992|By Jeffrey M. Landaw

PERPETRATORS, VICTIMS, BYSTANDERS: THE JEWISH CATASTROPHE, 1933-1945.

Raul Hilberg.

Aaron Asher/HarperCollins.

340 pages. $25.

FIGHTING BACK: A MEMOIR OF JEWISH RESISTANCE IN WORLD WAR II.

Harold Werner.

Columbia University Press.

253 pages. $24.95.

The last Holocaust cliche may be that the Holocaust is a cliche, the horror incapable of being made fresh. Two very

different writers -- the pre-eminent Holocaust historian and a former Jewish partisan -- disprove it by following the same old writerly wisdom: You don't get emotion with adjectives.

In "Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders," Raul Hilberg spends necessary time retracing the Third Reich's drive toward mass murder, "a process that in retrospect had emerged from an inner logic not recognizable even to the perpetrators. It was primal, beyond rationality and irrationality. . . ." But most of his book is a picture, built up detail by dry, merciless detail, of what that "primal" process looked like from the inside.

Small strokes like these -- "Even while an official in the Justice Ministry pondered the inheritance problem resulting from deaths Jews who had no wills, an SS non-commissioned officer in Auschwitz tried to figure out ways and means of burning bodies more rapidly" -- are far more effective than open anger or grief could have been.

With understated but convincing judgments, Dr. Hilberg examines the people caught up in the process, showing how some joined in the crimes, others stood by and still others actively tried to help the victims.

He gives no statistics on the issue, but the Jews fall into two classes. Most could not act to save themselves -- or underrated the thoroughness or determination of the Nazis, or overrated the courage, intelligence and good will of the outside world, while a few had the chance and the will to survive. The survivors needed plenty of luck, too, but Dr. Hilberg suggests the question of who died and who lived was answered less randomly than outsiders sometimes think.

(Dr. Hilberg, a native of Vienna who escaped to the United States as a teen-ager in 1939, has taken some blows from critics who think his earlier works rebuked the Jews for being too passive. But the impression he leaves is of the enormous odds, physical and psychological, against any successful action.)

Harold Werner, who died just after he finished his memoir, was Dr. Hilberg's classic type of survivor: young, fit, unattached and determined. Twenty-two years old when his native Poland was invaded in 1939, he hid briefly with farmers near the German-Soviet border before helping to organize a Jewish fighting unit that wound up working with the People's Army, the Communist underground. He's not literary -- he was glad of a job in a Warsaw sweater factory at 15 and spent years raising chickens in New Jersey -- but his book gets its considerable power from memory, not slick presentation.

Werner's struggle had at least three sides. Besides the Germans, his fighters had to contend with Russian partisans who robbed and raped the Jews till they armed themselves -- and the friendship, equivocal at best, of their Polish and Ukrainian neighbors. Werner notes that Poles saved his life more than once, and Poles saved many Jewish children, but accuses the Poles as a whole of "actively cooperat[ing] in the Germans' war against the Jews." The rival partisans of the Home Army, loyal to the pro-Western government-in-exile in London, "took every opportunity to kill Jews. It even sometimes seemed that they were more interested in killing Jews than in fighting the Germans."

Dr. Hilberg is far more sympathetic to the Home Army and the Poles in general, but he admits that "some units of Polish right-wing formations, and even some of the [Home Army] forces . . . kill[ed] the diminishing fugitives without hesitation," while other Poles took the chance to better their lots at the Jews' expense. Werner, who writes that two of his brothers and several his fellow partisans were attacked or killed by Poles during and after the war, left in the late '40s for the United States.

Dr. Hilberg suggests indirectly that some of the violence Werner endured from other Poles might have had its roots in the struggle over Communist control of Poland. Werner says "few, if any, of our fighters were communists or leftists." But he worked for the Communist government, and that might have made him a target even if he hadn't been a Jew.

(He mentions having attended lectures before the war by the Jewish socialist leaders, Henryk Erlich and Victor Alter. He doesn't mention, as Dr. Hilberg does, that when they tried to form a Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, to which they had fled, they were charged with inciting surrender and shot.)

The fate of Erlich and Alter is just one of the many ironies of the Jews in Eastern Europe. The Soviets deported the "bourgeois" Jews in the areas they seized under the pact with Hitler, inflicting hardships and, Werner suggests, discouraging Jews from fleeing to Soviet-held territory, but ultimately saving the deportees' lives. The Jews with "good" class backgrounds were overrun by the Germans and their collaborators.

A further irony suggests itself. In what used to be Yugoslavia, we watch state-supported ethnic and religious violence with many of the visual marks -- detention camps, people transported in sealed freight cars -- of the Jewish catastrophe. Where the Nazis worked in what they called "night and fog," the perpetrators in the Balkans are going forward in broad daylight, and getting away with it. Who says the world learns nothing from history?

Mr. Landaw is a makeup editor at The Sun.

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