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Can Evil Ever Truly Be Understood?

HOLOCAUST: A History, By Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, W.W. Norton: 444 pp., $27.95

September 22, 2002|JOHN K. ROTH | John K. Roth, professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the author of "Holocaust Politics" and co-editor of "Remembering for the Future: The Holocaust in an Age of Genocide."

As "Holocaust: A History" draws to its close, Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt include a 1941 photograph of Mirka Grossman and a fragment of conversation between the little girl and her father. "Daddy," she asked in Polish, "isn't it better that today it's a bad day, but tomorrow it will be better?" "Today doesn't matter," her reassuring father replied, "tomorrow will be much better."

It was a comment overheard by Mirka's aunt, Sara Grossman-Weil, one August day in 1944 as cattle cars packed with Jewish deportees from the Lodz ghetto rolled to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than a million Jews perished, most of them gassed to death. Grossman-Weil was among the few adults selected for labor, but 5-year-olds, such as Mirka, were worse than useless to the Germans who practiced the lethal anti-Semitism that Hitler preached. Those killers ensured that "tomorrow" would prove her father wrong.

Writing with a distinctive blend of moral intensity, attention to detail and multifaceted breadth, veteran scholars Dwork and van Pelt describe the Holocaust's history as "a story of utter perdition and ruin." In 1944, for example, with the war against them, the Germans operated four crematories at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those structures included eight gas chambers, 46 ovens and the capacity to dispose of 4,416 corpses a day. In the months before those installations and their more primitive counterparts at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka became operational in 1942, hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews were shot to death by special task forces (Einsatzgruppen), which were augmented by battalions of German police and supported by the German army. Just to mention that such things happened is ruinous enough, but the Holocaust's toll cannot be calculated by those devastating measures alone. Thus, Dwork and van Pelt write their history in a style that keeps individuals such as Mirka Grossman in view.

Scholarship's strategies always have strengths and weaknesses. In addition to their focus on detail, Dwork and van Pelt strive for a comprehensive overview, but their book sheds relatively little light on how to sift and sort the controversies that interpretations of the Holocaust unavoidably produce. Instead the authors' straightforward method is to try to tell, as accurately as possible, what took place. That task, however, is anything but straightforward because it raises daunting questions to which scholars have responded in various and often conflicting ways: Where to begin? What to emphasize or leave out? How strongly to claim that one's account explains what took place? Where to end, and what, if anything, to conclude from the history one writes?

Arguably, no one book can be a history of the Holocaust. The Holocaust entails a multiplicity of accounts, including those of 6 million Jews, among them more than a million murdered Jewish children such as Mirka Grossman. Each account differs in detail because every man, woman and child perished one by one, just as every killer, bystander or rescuer was an individual with all the complex relationships and circumstances that such identity entails. The Holocaust is so vast that, at best, there can be only selective historical narratives about it. Done well, they more or less weave together reliable glimpses, documented perspectives, focused but not all-embracing slices from a destruction process that swept through a continent from 1933 to 1945. This melancholy work is done not to achieve an unattainable mastery but, as the historian Raul Hilberg says, "lest all be relinquished and forgotten." The destruction process, moreover, does not account for itself but can be grasped only in relation to the conditions--some of them centuries old--that made it possible. Still further, the Holocaust reverberates far beyond 1945, leaving one to wrestle with its never-ending implications. Given these limitations and dilemmas, how do Dwork and van Pelt convert a virtually impossible task, the attempt to write a one-volume history of the Holocaust, into a noteworthy achievement?

Although this part of their book is underdeveloped, Dwork and van Pelt understand that the history of the Holocaust begins at least as far back as the struggles that attended the emergence of Christianity, the religion that grew from Jewish roots nearly 2,000 years ago and soon defined itself in opposition to its sibling rival. Absent that rivalry in a Western culture that became predominantly Christian, it is not possible to explain why Jews became targeted for the multiple forms of anti-Semitism--political and especially racial--that ultimately produced an unprecedented genocide.

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