The coda to the death fugue

January 30, 2011 at 12:06 pm (anti-semitism, Rosie B, war)

Further to Jim’s post re Primo Levi:-

Primo Levi always said his experience was utterly untypical.   He survived whereas millions of others didn’t.  It was also untypical in that he was in the concentration camp part of Auschwitz and was starving and labouring under brutal supervision instead of being shot or gassed immediately.

The first images I saw of the Holocaust were still photos of the piled bodies but what we see mostly in  films, or read in books like Levi’s are narratives, where you follow the journey of those who got through, and leave the bones and ash behind.  It’s the view of Noah’s Ark.  You forget the many drowned and concentrate on the few saved.

I’ve been reading Bloodlands:-

The Germans began the mass killings of Jews in summer 1941 in the occupied Soviet Union, by gunfire over pits, far from a concentration camp system that had already being in operation for eight years.  In a matter of a given few days in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews in the east than they had inmates in all of their concentration camps.  The gas chambers were not developed for concentration camps but for the medical killing facilities of the “euthanasia” program.  Then came the mobile gas vans used to kill Jews in the Soviet east, then the parked gas van at Chelmno used to kill Polish Jews in lands annexed to Germany, then the permanent gassing facilities at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka in the General Government.  The gas chambers allowed the policy pursed in the occupied Soviet Union, the mass killing of Jews, to be continued west of the Molotov-Rippentrop line.  The vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust never saw a concentration camp.

The image of the German concentration camps as the worst element of National Socialism is an illusion, a dark mirage over the unknown desert.  In the early months of 1945, the chiefly non-Jewish prisoners in the SS concentration camp system were dying in large numbers. . . Some of the starving victims were captured on film by the British and the Americans.  These images led west Europeans and Americans towards erroneous conclusions about the German system.  The concentration camps did kill hundred of thousands of people at the end of the war, but they were not (in contrast to the death facilities) designed for mass killing. Although some Jews were sentenced to concentration camps as political prisoners and others were dispatched to them as laborers, the concentration camps were not chiefly for Jews.  Jews who were sent to concentration camps were among the Jews who survived.  This is another reason the concentration camps are familiar; they were described by survivors, people who would have been worked to death eventually, but who were liberated at war’s end.  The German policy to kill all the Jews of Europe was implemented not in the concentration camps but over pits, in gas vans, and at the death facilities at Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz.

. . Auschwitz was an unusual combination of an industrial camp complex and a killing facility.  It stands as a symbol of both concentration and extermination, which creates a certain confusion.. . The literature of Auschwitz [was] written by its survivors, Tadeussz Borowski, or Primo Levi, or Elie Wiesel.  But this sequence is exceptional.  It does not capture the usual course of the Holocaust, event at Auschwitz.  Most of the Jews who died at Auschwitz were gassed upon arrival, never having spent time inside a camp.  The journey of Jews from the camp to the gas-chambers was a minor part of the history of  the Auschwitz complex, and is misleading as a guide to the Holocaust or to mass killing generally.

Auschwitz was indeed a a major site of the Holocaust: about one in six murdered Jews perished there.  But though the death factory was Auschwitz was the last killing facility to function, it was not the height of the technology of death: the most efficient shooting squads killed faster, the starvation sites killed faster, and Treblinka killed faster. . . By the time the gas chamber and crematoria completed at Birkenau came on line in spring 1943, more than three quarters of the Jews who would be killed in the Holocaust were already dead.  For that matter, the tremendous majority of all the people who would be deliberately killed by the Soviet and the Nazi regimes, well over ninety percent, had already been killed by the time those gas chambers at Birkenau began their deadly work.  Auschwitz is the coda to the death fugue.

Bloodlands p 382-383.

I haven’t got If This is a Man to hand, but I remember when they arrive at Auschwitz he says of most of the people with him – men, women and children – that “they were swallowed up by the night”.  Those must have been the great majority who were killed  immediately.

1 Comment

  1. Michael Ezra said,

    I have not yet read Bloodlands, but Istvan Deak wrote a highly praiseworthy review of the book in The New Republic (December 2, 1010 pp.35-9). Against this, Richard Evans slated the book in the November 4, 2010 issue of the London Review of Books (pp.21-2). This review led to quite a bit of correspondence in later issues of the LRB e.g. December 2 and December 16.) My instinct is that the book should indeed be read and I intend to do so, but that the comments from Richard Evans should also not be ignored.

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