Sunday, April 13, 2008

Budapest [2]: Some Final Reflections

On the plane to Atlanta:

Some final thoughts on this trip and my role in it:

It was an intense experience: a trip made with 40 exceptionally talented people, many of them real change agents, who have markedly different Jewish weltanschauung,

They traveled together for a week against a backdrop that was fraught with pain. They asked each other some difficult questions. In certain cases they came close to asking the difficult questions but pulled back…. Maybe those will yet come. That is for the participants to work out among themselves.

Throughout the trip I kept pushing the participants – sometimes relentlessly -- to stay true to the historical facts. I began my first presentation to them by saying that there were a number of reasons why this was so critical.

First of all history is not something to be played with. While we may all have different interpretations of history, certain facts are immutable and we cannot play with them to serve other purposes.

Simon Wiesenthal’s Myth Making:
I gave them the example of how the late Simon Wiesenthal invented, without any basis in fact, the notion that the Holocaust constitutes the murder of 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews.

He did so, he admitted to Professor Yehuda Bauer, in order to get non-Jews to care about the Holocaust. He assumed that they would not do so unless there were non-Jews included in the total. He therefore created a number that was almost – though not quite as large as the number of Jews.

Shortly before giving my talk I Googled “11 million” + Holocaust and came up with 47­0,000 references.

Wiesenthal may have meant well but he created a historical monster that now is rooted in what people think is fact. I frequently receive emails and letters accusing me of being narrow minded and insensitive – if not worse – for failing to recognize the suffering of the 5 million non-Jews.

[This is not the place to delve into this issue but when I say five million were not killed in the Holocaust, I am not suggesting in any way that there were not millions who suffered horrendously under the Nazis. Many of them were killed. But it was only Jews and, to a certain extent Roma (Gypsies) who were killed in a relentless fashion not for what they did but for who they were.]

But that is not the only reason to be rigorously true to historical facts. Some would say it is also necessary in order not to give deniers ammunition. That is the least important of the reasons; Deniers are simply not important enough. More importantly, even if we had never heard of deniers it would be necessary to maintain a strict fidelity to historical truth.

Oyneg Shabbes and fidelity to truth:
I have just finished reading Samuel Kassow’s magnificent book, Who Will Write Our History? I had posted a superlative review of the book a few weeks ago. The review is absolutely accurate. The book is an outstanding contribution not just to our history of the Holocaust and a stellar exploration of how history – even in the most dire circumstances – can and should be preserved.

Kassow points out that among the most important driving forces behind Oyneg Shabbes’ heroic efforts was their intense fidelity to history not mythi making [as Wiesenthal did].

They talked about their work as “science not literature.”

Emanuel Ringleblum, the creator and leader of Oyneg Shabbes wrote:

We wanted the simplest most unadorned account possible of what happened in each shtetl and what happened to each Jew [and in this war each Jews is like a world in itself.] Any superfluous word, any literary exaggeration grated and repelled…. It is unnecessary to add an extra sentence.

In late 1942 Ringelblum wrote, what are our “goals? A photograph of life. Not literature but science.”

Another member of the group, Menakhem Mendel Kon, wrote in his diary in the fall 1942: “I consider it a sacred duty for everyone… to write down everything he has seen or heard from others about what the Germans have done….It must all be recorded without a single fact left out.”

As Kassow demonstrates so forcefully, these people wanted: objective scholarship that avoided apologetics, bitter accusations, and blatant emotions. This, they believed, was the best way to serve the nation.

In short, matters were bad enough without making them seem even worse.

Rachel Auerbach – one of only 3 survivors of Oyneg Shabbes wrote in her memoirs:

The mass murder, the murder of millions of Jews by the Germans is a fact that speaks for itself. It is very dangerous to add to this subject interpretations or analyses. [That] can quickly turn into hopeless hysteria or endless sobs. So one must approach this subject with the greatest caution, in a restrained and factual manner…

An anonymous resident of the ghetto scrawled in margin of questionnaire on German-Jewish relations: Facts!

Many things made this week gratifying for me but chief among them was the way in which the participants were willing to be receptive to my push that they stick to the facts and not base their impressions on “romanticized” or “mythologized” versions of history.

It was tough teaching at times but it was, I am convinced, well worth the effort.


Rebecca said...

Again, this is very inspiring to me as a teacher of Jewish Studies. I did not know that Wiesenthal had made up the figure of five million. Has anyone tried to estimate the number of non-Jewish civilians killed by the Nazis?

Ludovic said...

The French language Wikipedia has no counterpart to the English language entry "Holocaust". It has an entry called "Shoah" dealing exclusively on the genocide of Jews.

Stressing that Jews have been killed by Hitler "not for what they did but for who they were" is an important distinction. I think a distinction also has to be done within the "what they did" group, between the people who did something political, and those who did something non-political, like the German homosexuals or the German disabled people.

In his book « Genocide » William Rubinstein quotes several nazi statements showing the racist motivation for the killing of Polish civilians, but, "he [Hitler] treated the Jews and the Poles in very different ways". "Had the Second World War continued longer or if the nazis had won [...] the Poles [...] would have become victims of 'ethnic cleansing' and perhaps mass murder on a colossal scale".


Thank you for having the courage to point out that Simon Wiesenthal was wrong and 5 million non - Jews were not killed. The number of non - Jews killed myth can be attributed to the Russians. For instance when the first concentration camp, Madjanek [Mai'dan'ek] was liberated by their troops, they claimed 1.75 million people had died in this one camp, they then reduced this at the Nuremberg trials to 1.3 million. After the war this camps death toll figure was reduced by scholars to 360000 or thereabouts. Although Madjanek had Cyclone B gas chambers and 2 very small Carbon Monoxide gas chambers for small groups of prisoners, it was not classed as 'an extermination camp', but a POW camp, whose facilities could be used to kill others. Stalin and cohorts may have exaggerated the death toll figures in order to [i] increase the amount of compensation he was hoping to claim from the Germans, [ii] to role play the Communist Party as the heroic defenders of Mother Russia [iii] and to increase his own prestige.

For the same reasons Hitler exaggerated the numbers of Jews living in Germany, and their influence. It would be interesting to learn how many Jewish poor persons work-houses there were in Germany, how many Jewish orphanages and how many German Jews were claiming pre-Hitler state benefits, WW1 war disabilty pensions and public relief?

Deborah Lipstadt said...

The number of deaths at Majdanek was much lower than what you state.

In any case, I think that when the Soviets first arrived at these places they genuinely thought this was the correct number.


Professor Lipstadt, I'm aware of the recent article which gives an estimate for the death toll at Majdanek of 78000 dead. But after reading the full article I had an uneasy feeling that the writer could be wrong or an revisionist. So for safety I went with the commonly accpted higher figure. See:

Lublin scholar Tomasz Kranz has established that the Nazis murdered 78,000 people at the Majdanek concentration camp -- far fewer deaths than previous estimates:

Two figures of the number of Majdanek victims have usually been in use -- 360,000 or 235,000. Kranz, director of the Research Department of the State Museum at Majdanek, asserts that approximately 59,000 Jews and 19,000 people of other ethnic backgrounds, mostly Poles and Byelorussians, died there. Kranz published his estimate in the latest edition of the journal Zeszyty Majdanka.
The figure of 360,000 victims appears in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, the Britannica Polish edition, and the Polish Nowa Encyklopedia Powszechna PWN. In all three cases, the source is a 1948 publication by Zdzisław Łukaszkiewicz, a judge who was a member of the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland. The second figure, of 235,000, comes from a 1992 article by Dr. Czesaw Rajca, now retired from the Majdanek museum staff.
Rajca said that he "established that estimate on the basis of calculations by historians as published by the museum in the 1991 monograph on the camp. The people doing the research did not have access to all the sources, including some in Germany. Nor did I use all the records available in the museum archives, because they are fragmentary, and they will not be useful in analyzing the mortality figures at Majdanek until the data they contain is entered in the computers." Rajca emphasized that he had "not yet read Tomasz Kranz's article, but, at first glance, his figures for the number of people killed in the camp seem incredibly low."


I have been reading the above article again on the Tomasz Kranz revised death toll figures for the Madjanek Concentration Camp, Lublin, Poland, and got to wondering just how long it will it be before the revisionists and deniers pour scorn on the estimated Jewish death toll figure of 6 million Jewish dead and claim if you use these figures as a guide then just 1, 299600 Jews died in the Holocaust.

Tomasz Kranz's article suggested that just 78000, 21.66%, of the Madjanek prisoners died, and not the 360000 as previously thought.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

Fairplay: deniers already do this. In fact, what it shows is that historians are anxious and more than willing to ascertain the truth, even when it results in a "lowering" of the death tolls.


Professor Lipstatdt,

Then what do you estimate the Holocaust death toll figures to be?

My own views are 3 million Jewish murders occurred that could be confirmed, with another one million Jewish deaths that would be difficult to confirm or prove, people who dissapeared, moved, went into hiding or who never resurfaced after the war, and around 2 million non-Jewish deaths, with 0.5 million non-Jewish deaths and war casualities that are presumed. So the alleged 6 million figure of deaths is fairly correct when applied to both groups.

[Ques] Does this figure of 4 million presumed Jewish deaths [and not 6 million] diminish the Holocaust in any way, the answer is clearly it does not, all acts of genocide rank equal and the numbers are immaterial.

The new figures produced by Tomasz Kranz are going to be used and misused as internet-fodder for years to come? You must admit that 78000 deaths in a major camp and not the 360000 deaths claimed is quite a windfall claim for malicious others.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

estimating the number of deaths is something that scholars do carefully and based on serious information, not glib estimates.

the number of 78,000 at Majdanek is not new. Scholars have known that the number is far lower than initially estimated is not new.

Serious scholars who have looked closely at the numbers reach a conclusion of about 5.2 to 6.2 million.

However, the work of people such as Father Patrick Debois in the Ukraine suggests that the numbers might be higher.

Finally your estimates about non-Jewish deaths etc. make no sense. they do not seem to be based on any historical calculations.

there were many non-Jews who were killed by the Nazis but not as part of the Holocaust.


Professor Lipstadt,

The problem I have is the amazing numbers of people alleged to have been killed, for instance if you killed all the people presently in Baltimore, Boston, Denver, Detroit, Kansas, Las Vegas, Memphis, Miami, Milwaukee, and Nashvile, you would NOT have slaughtered 6 million people, or, if you killed all the citizens of LA and Chicago you would handle [endoslung] 6.6.million persons. Source World Population Gazeteer.

Lets cross the Atlantic to Europe, these are the *current* population figures [in 000s] for Lublin 351k, Lodz 750k, Kracov 755k, Katowice 310k, Kaunas 355k, Lvov 734k, Vilnius 543k, Warsaw 1.7 million. Total *5498000*. I know you can see what I am getting at so won't labour the point. Is it possible we can trust the figures given, common-sense says not, and in 1939 - 1945, the WW2 population figures of these European cities was lower?

If you then look at Military deaths the USSR claimed 10 million dead, Germany 3.5 m dead, the USA 400K, the UK 280K and France 210k. I know which figures I would trust?

Deborah Lipstadt said...

This is my last statement on this interchange. You are doing all sorts of "let's suppose" or "let's look at today's population" etc.

Historians who work in this area base their conclusions on carefully studied documentary information. They acknowledge that they cannot reach precise conclusions. But the conclusions they do reach are based on information not suppositions.

Before you decide how many people who think were killed I would suggest you, at the least, study how they have reached their conclusions.


Profesor Lipstadt,

I did what you suggested about 10 years ago, and arrived at a figure of 4.6 million Jewish dead.

It's my view that the number of Jews claimed to be living in Europe was an exaggeration, the Wannasee figures were wrong, and towards the end of the war Hitler himself confirmed this in a reported private conversation when he said words to the effect of "The Gestapo tell me they've hunted high and low for Jews, I never thought there was so few?".

Deborah Lipstadt said...

Fairplay: this is my last comment on the issue. Re your statement "It is my view,": my view does not equal research.

Have a bit of humility and take a look at the research based, careful calculations of historians. They range over different amounts but they are not based on their "views" and suppositions.

jay said...

"But it was only Jews and, to a certain extent Roma (Gypsies) who were killed in a relentless fashion not for what they did but for who they were."

The Ustashe slaughtered around 700,000 Serbs at Jasenovac. This doesn't count?