Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Jeyamohan and Holocaust: The poisonous edge of skepticism

I just returned from a history tour in Germany centered mostly around Third Reich and Holocaust. I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau concentration camps along with visits to Berlin's fabled Jewish history museum and holocaust museum. As an avid reader of Jewish history and holocaust a tour like this was long desired. Did I learn anything new beyond what I know through reading books by survivors and historians?

Crematorium Ovens at Dachau, Near Munich in Germany

Contemporary Tamil fiction writer Jeyamohan visited USA in 2009 and toured Boston for a day. He happened to visit a small holocaust memorial in Boston and in his role as public intellectual he sought to raise some questions. The 'proof' for holocaust appears to be based more on hearsay and memoirs of victims and we do not know if they were subject to historical analysis. Holocaust deniers like David Irving have not been answered decisively. Is American government promoting talk of holocaust in order to not discuss America's own nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Jeyamohan is not an anti-semite though these questions have been all posed by deeply anti-semitic haters. I'll assume he was posing as a skeptic seeking to appear as an intellectual who is disapassionately questioning deeply held ideas. I'll seek to answer Jeyamohan's question only because they give a framework.

We all think we know holocaust simply because we watched 'Schindler's List' or 'The Reader' or 'The Pianist'. A few discerning readers might add Elie Wiesel's book 'Night' or even fewer might refer Primo Levi's 'Survival in Auschwitz'. Some may have watched one or two documentaries even. All of those give only a glimpse into a horror that remains, fortunately, unparalleled in human history. Of course some also ask 'why is holocaust unique? should the word 'holocaust' be used only to refer to those killed Jews?'.

Author of the book 'German genius' points to a historical anomaly with regard to holocaust. Every historical event is usually much talked about in the immediately succeeding years and slowly fades from memory. Holocaust on the other hand was talked very little in the immediate years after the end of the war but has seen a phenomenal amount of talk in recent decades. This is an inversion of historical process. There are several reasons for this.

In the immediate years after the end of the war the world, particularly the two emergent super powers, were more intent on carving up Germany and Eastern Europe and locking themselves in a deadly ideological battle. While the Nuremberg trials progressed and several Nazi leaders were executed as punishment for war crimes many more escaped and resettled in African or Latin American countries. A vast majority of the Nazi death camps, especially the ones in Poland like Auschwitz-Birkenau etc, fell behind the iron curtain.

USSR was more keen on talking about how communists were killed by Hitler and downplaying the rest of the victims, most notably the jews. USSR, after all, was a deeply anti-semitic country that donated to the world the word 'pogrom'.

What of Israel itself? A nation for the jews did not come about for another 3 years until 1948. In those days the Jewish community did not have the time to sit and mourn its losses but had to lobby for a nation. The UN vote only promised a nation to Israel alongside Palestine. Nobody, not even the US, guaranteed a secure Israel let alone any means to survive. The grand Mufti of Jerusalem declared 'we will push you into the red sea'. Armies from Jordan, Syria and Egypt raced towards Israel to snuff it out at its very birth. In this context Israel itself hesitated to talk of holocaust and the millions  of Jews killed only because they were afraid that it would be seen as a sign of weakness and a lack of man power. Accepting that nearly 2/3rd of entire Jewish population perished without any resistance was too apalling to even accept in the face of an onslaught.

Further complications arose from talking about a little known aspect of holocaust that is not talked about much even today. The Jewish councils in the ghettos that were in charge of selecting people for trains to Auschwitz and the 'sonderkommandos' that worked in gas chambers cleaning out the dead were only barely mentioned and that too as 'collaborators'. Today they are looked at as much a victim as those who died. Memoirs by sonderkommandos detail what emotional scars such duties leave. Those memoirs, Mr Jeyamohan, are not vacuous exaggerated tales but cries of tormented hearts that have lived through an inhuman tragedy that words cannot capture.

We think seeing Amon Goeth in 'Schindler's List' shoot people at random in the midst of having sex somehow captures the horror. No. He was more evil. He was more deliberate. A documentary details the meeting of a girl who worked at Goeth's home with Goeth's own daughter in Plaszow, Poland where Goeth ran the camp. Death was not a random careless accident. It was deliberate and it stalked every inmate. Some critics have demurred that Spielberg simplified the horror by depicting Goeth as an impulsive, careless murderer.

There are parts of holocaust that Hollywood would not even dare to touch. The medical experiments on children and women by Dr Joseph Mengele are too horrendous to even recount. I visited the Medical history Museum in Berlin. There they have recounted unflinchingly how the medical community sold its soul to the devil. At Dachau there is a photo that depicts the 'high altitude experiment'. In order to find out the odds of a survival of a Luftwaffe pilot who ejects from his aircraft at high altitudes a prisoner was sent into a pressurized room and, with doctors observing, the pressure was lowered to the point where the prisoner died in front of their eyes. The photo was amongst the thousands taken by the SS themselves. Experiments were conducted to see how TB spread in human body, how human body reacted to extreme cold, lamp shades were made of human skin, twin children were killed for eugenics study.

Jeyamohan wonders if such tales were scrutinized by historians. Every museum in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany and in Auschwitz functions under the highest standards. Jews know very well that even at the slightest whiff of exaggeration there are heartless people waiting to white wash the entire horror. The letters displayed, the admission cards at Auschwitz, the train tickets, invoices for poison gas Zyklon B, remnants of gas chambers, intact crematoriums, mobile gassing vans, the death registers, population census of jews before and after the war in each neighborhood all tell a grim story.

A recent documentary by BBC tells the story of 'Kindertrains'. Jewish children were sent by the hundreds from France to Britain to escape oncoming horror. A book based on that documentary is not a he-says-she-says type but a heart rending historical document. A million jewish children died in the holocaust.

Evil holocaust deniers like David Irving have played mischief with conspiracies like 'where is Hitler's order for Final solution?'. While some were implied some orders were not. At the 'Topography of terror' museum, erected at the very spot in Berlin where the Gestapo headquarters once stood, an audio recording of the chilling words of Himmler calling for extermination is available for willing ears to listen. To cite Irving as source for intellectual skepticism is a shame. It only shows the danger of what happens when Jeyamohan wades into territories beyond his expertise. Irving's book on World War II does not even have entry for 'holocaust' in the index instead it only has an entry "Jewish Problem".

Rudolph Hoss, commandant of Auschwitz, has written his own memoirs titled 'Commandant'. If Jeyamohan thinks tales by survivors are just tales let him read that. A doctor who aided Mengele has written "Eye witness at Auschwitz". The doctor details in graphic manner of how he once saved a small girl who happened to survive inside a gas chamber. Hoss details how mothers, fully aware of what was coming, used to play with children before stepping into gas chambers. What else can they do?

Photos by the thousands are in archives. Every photo displayed in museums is credentialed and authenticated. At the 'Topography of terror' museum I was astounded to see a photograph picked for a unique depiction. Amongst hundreds of people giving the Hitler salute just one man would stand defiantly with folded arms. The museum had a note that the man's identity was not known for sure. Imagine sifting through thousands of photo to exhibit just that one very unique photo and what professionalism in saying that the identity is not known. The museum also had originals of Gestapo interrogation transcripts in binders for interested visitors to read and understand the regime of terror. Is this what Jeyamohan calls 'hearsay'?

While top Nazis were investigated and executed at Nuremberg notorious ones like Josef Mengele and Adolph Eichmann had escaped capture. Eichmann was later abducted by Israel is a movie like operation and arraigned at an Israeli court. Writer Hannah Arendt's 'Banality of evil' recounts that trial. Interestingly the road adjacent to where Hitlers last bunker once stood is named 'Hannah Arendt'. Mengele was never captured. Many nations who sheltered these Nazis were anti-semitic so Israel and international law never reached them.

Many lesser Nazis slipped into public lives too. In an embarrassing incident Soviet run Eastern Germany released a list of 16 judges in West Germany who were known to be Nazis. Later they were dismissed. Only after 20 years was a trial conducted in Frankfurt to bring to justice the killers at Auschwitz. Most were only awarded 5-7 years imprisonment. In a very unique display at the museum of Terror we are shown how only in 1972 just 16 officers of Reich Security officers were investigated by the prosecutor in Berlin . Of that only two were sentenced.

The fall of Soviet empire, opening up of Poland and the Nazi death camps in Poland like Auschwitz and Treblinka have spurred further scholarship in holocaust. That is why as recently as 2008 a book on holocaust, 'The years of extermination' by Saul Friedlander, was considered fresh with details that it was awarded the Pulitzer. Elie Wiesel's novel, Primo Levi's memoir, Anne Frank's diary are all not just memoirs but historical documents. At Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam there are originals of their parents admission cards to Auschwitz. At Bergen-Belsen Anne Frank met her friend who later survived  the war to corroborate the tales. Anne Frank's own father, Otto Frank, was the sole survivor in that family. 140,000 Jews lived in Netherlands before the war. Only 30,000 survived. At Lvov out of 120,000 Jews just a few less than 1000 survived the war. Prior to war Jews were nearly 5% of the population in Hungary. Nearly 400,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in Auschwitz alone bringing their survivors percentage down to 1.4%.

The Nazi regime organized death on an industrial scale using methods of industry to achieve mass killing by the thousands at an instant. Dachau alone had more than 50 sub camps. Prisoners from far off Italy and interior Russia were carted into Auschwitz. Auschwitz was a camp established for only one purpose, to exterminate, at the heart of Europe.

1.3 Million People were killed in Auschwitz. 1.1 Million were Jews.
In a letter I wrote I objected to Jeyamohan that it is a grave mistake to equate Holocaust with the bombing of Hiroshima. One is memorial to the murder of unarmed women and children by a country where they lived as citizens for no other sin than being Jews. The other was an act of war against a country that initiated war. Japan was a cruel, very cruel, imperial power that refused to end the war even after Hitler was defeated. It is good to ask questions that provoke in order to illuminate lesser known dark angles but Jeyamohan seems to ask these questions only to provoke. Skepticism towards anything that comes to be seen as 'common knowledge' is good. It is not a sin to ask "did 6 million die". An intellectual skeptic would take it further to understand and study. Just to ask a question and smugly leaving it at that only betrays an ulterior motive of seeking to appear dispassionate and intellectual. By the way why does no one ask "could it have been more". In any riot, any genocide anybody wonders 'could it have been more'. Only when it comes to holocaust do people ask "was it really that much"? Unlike Jeyamohan most of those who ask that are sheer anti-semites.

The worst part was where Jeyamohan says he has watched hundreds of movies regarding holocaust. The horrors like the medical experiments are not captured in any movie. Rudolph Hoss lived with his family just outside the Auschwitz camp. He spends time with his children and came to the camp to kill children. Educated Nazi officer would fling a child into a wall and watch the brains splatter across. A group of Nazi officers once played football with a one year child and made its mother wipe the blood of their boots. Can any art form, words or painting or movies, capture such a horror? Is there any explanation in any psychology or philosophy for any of that? Nazis would advertise why killing the disabled was good for the economy. What movie has even depicted that?

What were my ideas when I ended the tour? What is the impact of Holocaust on Israel today? What have the Jews taught the world by talking about holocaust? All that and more later.


Interested readers can see my photographs with notes at https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.4007347221684.138348.1221294625&type=1&l=7447dc0bb4

History of the Jews in hungary http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Hungary#Number_of_survivors
Lvov Ghetto http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lvov_Ghetto


Links from Jeyamohan:
Jemo in Boston http://www.jeyamohan.in/?p=3488


Anonymous said...

Liked the way you articulated and explained how Holocaust is a well documented historical facts and not just memoirs. Some how this notion that it is merely memoirs of survivors seem to have spread despite efforts to show historical evidence. The last part was a bit graphic but I understand your intentions. Looking forward to your next in this series, specifically how Israel taught and learned from this!


டி பாலசுந்தரம் said...

I cannot imagine an Indian would doubt Nazi's Holocaust.

One of my professors at Columbia University was one of those who escaped Hitler. He was sad but not revengeful. I asked him why. He said it was a failure of humanity not to have resisted Hitler.