When we say, “the Holocaust,” we all know what we’re talking about. At the same time, it is one of the least understood major events of the Twentieth Century. It’s certainly worth remembering, but a question that needs to be asked is: who are we remembering?
DISCLAIMER: NOTHING THAT FOLLOWS SHOULD PERSUADE YOU THAT I AM SOME KIND OF HOLOCAUST DENIER, OR A HOLOCAUST APOLOGIST, OR EVEN A HOLOCAUST MINIMIZER. I FULLY BELIEVE THAT IT HAPPENED, AND I BELIEVE THAT THE NUMBERS THAT WE HEAR ARE CORRECT.
So, the question, or let’s say the two questions. For one thing, regarding the dead, who gets included in the total? And regarding the living, the survivors, who may be called a “Holocaust survivor?”
I cannot say that I have any specific knowledge of the dead, except to say that the families left behind by my many American friends of Polish, Belorussian or Ukrainian Jewish background must certainly have suffered and died. But of the survivors, I got to know one very well. His name was Jack, and he was a client of mine. He believed that he was qualified to receive German Social Security payments as a survivor, and he was referred to me only because my file at the Santa Monica Bar Association listed German as a language skill of mine.
I agreed to help him where previously no one had. The matter looked like a lot of work with a very low chance of success, and as Abraham Lincoln said, and I paraphrase, time is money for lawyers. I thought, let’s give it a shot, this will be interesting. And Jack was a great guy. Every night he collected some food from restaurants, and bought more, and drove around giving food to the homeless in Los Angeles. His only explanation was to say, “I’ve been hungry, I didn’t like it.”
Jack was born in western Poland in the nineteen-teens to a family that was Jewish, but not particularly religious, and German, and proud of it. Mostly you’d say that they were Polish though, the family had been there for many generations. In 1939 the Nazis and the Soviets divided Poland after simultaneous invasions. Jack was in the half that the Nazis took over. Of course the family knew what had been going on in Germany, they knew about the bad treatment of the Jews of Germany. Jack had a bad feeling about it all and decided to flee to the Soviet zone. One brother was convinced to join him, but the rest of the family chose to stay put. What could happen? After all, the Germans had not yet started any kind of program of killing Jews, and the family members were identifiable as culturally German/Polish. Sure the Nazis are a bunch of bastards, but these are the people of Goethe and Beethoven!
So Jack said, “good luck,” and split with his brother on foot. The brother got homesick almost immediately and turned back, but Jack made it to the Soviet zone. It was all very dramatic, gunfire and hiding in the woods were involved, but he made it.
The bad news is that everybody in Jack’s family, including the brother, everybody but Jack, died in the ensuing Holocaust.
That’s the bad news, and actually, there’s no good news at all. He lived, but only barely. The Soviets, of course, arrested him immediately. He had blond hair and blue eyes, and he spoke Polish and German, so to them he was obviously a spy. They sent him, and hundreds of thousands of Poles from the Soviet sector, to concentration camps, probably in Kazakhstan.
For a few years there Jack was very hungry, those Gulag camps were hunger camps. Many prisoners died of hunger, and prisoners survived by scheming to get enough food to live on. Recalling this time years later, Jack developed a lifelong interest in alleviating hunger, God bless him.
Later on he was chosen for some kind of Soviet sponsored Polish Anti-Fascist Army, towards the end of the war the Soviets were making plans for their take-over of eastern Europe. After the war he emigrated to Israel where he fought against the English mandate and later in the new Israeli Army. (He knew Menachem Begin.) Eventually he emigrated to America, ending up in Los Angeles.
So our first problem was this: even though German Social Security seemed, to our understanding of their own materials, to include Jack in the group that qualified for payments, they had consistently refused his applications for years.
I was by training a lawyer, but I decided that the best strategy here would be a public relations campaign. I contacted them by mail, letting them know that I was now representing Jack, and please address all future correspondence to me, and by the way, here are the reasons that I believe Jack qualifies and could you please explain to me just how I am wrong? I wrote to them in English; they wrote to me in German. They just stuck to their “no.”
I went to the Jewish community, the temples, the newspapers. It was an interesting story, and it got some play. Ari Noonan was a reporter at the Jewish Times who was particularly sympathetic and helpful. I would send copies of the newspaper articles to the Germans with cover letters. It did finally work, and they put Jack on the roles, even paying the arrearages back to the original application. It was a good benefit.
We now encountered problem number two. The Times got some letters from L.A. Jews who were angered by Jack’s case. “Who is this guy claiming to be a Holocaust survivor?” They acted like Jack was defiling the memories of those who had died. Jack was from the wrong country, wasn’t he? And he had certainly been in the wrong camp system. (Perhaps they would have given him some credit if they’d chosen to recall that his family had been wiped out.)
I believe that those letter writers were victims of a common misconception about the Holocaust, or a set of misconceptions. They thought that the victims were German, and they thought that the victims were gassed and cremated in the large, famous death camps. In the event, only two to three percent of the victims were German. There had been fewer than 500,000 Jews in Germany as of 1933, and more than half of them were allowed to emigrate. Those that remained were killed later on, in camps. The total number of victims is generally agreed to be about six million, and I, like most reasonable people, recognize that figure, but the remaining ninety-seven percent of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust came from outside Germany, most were Poles, Belorussians and Ukrainians. Something like fifty percent of those victims were shot, not gassed, and they never saw even the gate of a camp, they were simply marched outside of town and killed.
So is Jack a Holocaust survivor? He was from a country where over a million of the recognized victims were killed, in the recognized way, and his family died with them. Did his act of running away and surviving somehow remove him from consideration? What about one of those rare few who escaped by jumping from the trains taking them to the death camps? Should they also be disqualified? What about the Jews that worked for Schindler? Or Ernst Leitz (Leica Cameras)?
It would be better if we agreed to define the category “victim of the Holocaust” as generously as possible, and it would be better to do so not only for the dead, but also for the survivors. Surely any Jew within a thousand miles whose life was in jeopardy, and whose family members died, was a victim. Even if they survived, they were victims. Oddly, the spirit of the German Social Security Code recognizes this to be true, even if some armchair historians do not.
I chose to leave the Gypsies out of this discussion, but that doesn't mean that you can't bring it up. Actual Germans who were consigned to concentration camps but who were of categories other than "Jew" we can leave off. They survived in much greater percentages, being kept alive for their labor. For the Jews, on the other hand, and for the Gypsies too, the Nazis saw greater value in their deaths.
(Recommended reading: “Bloodlands,” by Timothy Snyder, available anywhere that books are still sold.)