Timothy Snyder (2015) Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

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We think we know the bare bones of the history of the holocaust. Hitler as bogey man and the German nation following him to the abyss, where around six million Jews perished and many more minorities. That was my take on it. Not bad, around a D grade. But Snyder does more than root in the history of the past. He drags us into the present and the lessons are illuminating.

For the German nation the war was portrayed as necessary, a colonial war to maintain food supplies, a war against the inferior Slavic nations, or ‘shitty countries’ are our friend President Trump termed them.  But when Lebensraum came unstuck at Leningrad and the Red Army began to roll back German colonial gains the genocidal war against Jews continued and grew even more intense.

‘The Auschwitz Paradox’ the complex of Treblinka, Belzac, Sobibor and Chelmno was a factory in which people were murdered for being the wrong type of people. The gas chambers also stood as a metonym for the evil of a racial policy of mass murder and genocide, but most of the killing had already taken place further East,

‘where tens of thousands of Germans shot millions of Jews over hundreds of death pits over the course of three years, most people knew what was happening. Hundreds of thousands of Germans witnessed the killings, and millions of Germans on the eastern front knew about them…German homes were enriched, millions of times over, by plunder from the murdered Jews, sent by post or brought back by soldiers and policemen on leave’.

Auschwitz processed a lie of left and right, separating the living and dead effectively, and more importantly it allowed a generation of Germans to say they didn’t know. It also allowed the Russians to act as liberators when earlier they had played a large part in the murder of Jews and other Slavic nationals.

The key to survival, then as now was citizenship. Jews in Denmark, for example, retained their citizenship and almost all survived.  In contrast, all 963 Jew in Estonia were murdered, not by the Germans, but Estonian citizens. And from the Baltic to the Black Sea people who killed Jews killed others such as psychiatric patients and gypsies. Lithuanian policemen who took part in the killing of 150 000 Jews in 1941, also starved to death the same number of Soviet prisoners.

Similar elements are at work in the Syrian conflict. Putin’s genocidal onslaught in the second Chechnya war helped set the template for what was to follow.  Russian troops that committed atrocities were fighting terrorism.

When Russian invaded Ukraine its citizens were deemed to be terrorists. Snyder draws explicit parallels with Hitler’s ideology:

In 2013 Russian leaders and propagandists imagined neighbouring Ukraine out of existence, or presented them as sub-Russians…an artificial entity with no history, culture, and language, backed by some global agglomeration of Jews, gays, Europeans, and Americans…In the Russian war against Ukraine, the first gains were the natural gas fields in the Black Sea…annexed in 2014…The fertile soil of mainland Ukraine, its black earth, makes it a very important exporter of food, which Russia is not.

Bashar al-Assad, Syrian’s dictator, whom Putin brought back from the brink of military defeat, using high-tech Russian jets, chemical weapons that put them outside the Geneva Convention, old-fashioned barrel bombs, artillery strikes on hospitals and schools while classifying these murders as fighting against terrorists. There is no such thing as non-combatants.  Women and children are also terrorists.

Three million people in Idib. Three million non-citizens and terrorists. On the Turkish border civilian forces offer a sense of humanity and prepare for a million refugees. Perhaps an overestimate when the Russian fleet offshore are engaged in ‘exercises’. Non-citizens can expect no mercy in a kill-box that would have been all too familiar to Eastern European Jews. Ironically, those fleeing towards Israel in the hope that proximity to another nation state will provide a safe haven of sorts are simply classified as terrorist by another nation state.

Snyder’s template of taking away citizenship as the first step in genocidal murder applies equally to Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In scenes reminiscent of Nazi occupied Poland, on 27th August 2017 Myanmar’s army attacked unarmed civilians and forced more than 700 000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Ian Figel and Benedict Rogers in The Observer report thousands were killed, thousands of women raped. Children were snatched from their parents’ arms and thrown into their burning homes or drowned. Villagers lined up and shot.

Britain’s response to refugees mirrors that of the Americans during the Holocaust – no entry. The United States and richest nation in the world patted itself on the back for allowing around 5000 Jewish refugees, around the same number that were gassed in Treblinka in a morning’s work. Remember David Cameron talking about ‘swarms’ of them waiting to cross the English Channel. Swarms of children, who we agreed to take, then reneged on the deal. Without the sovereign protection of citizenship those without passports have no rights and can be disposed of.

With global warming the numbers of refugees Snyder argues is bound to increase exponentially and the poorest nations in the world will be hit first and hit hardest. Already we are preparing our defences. The first defence being rhetoric, them-or-us fundamentalism. The warning from history is a lesson we have learned too well. Enough talk produces hate and murder, but no real people die. Only terrorists.  Believe that and you’ll believe anything. We often do and justify it to ourselves by saying we didn’t know. Read this book.


Wendy Whitworth (editor) (2004) Survival: Holocaust Survivors Tell Their Story.


Marina H.  Smith in the Introduction to the 46 Jews published here, who survived the Holocaust, tells the reader: ‘Every life is different. Every story is different too.’ That is true of us all, but there is a pattern of before and after. The survivors are young, middle or upper-class adolescents, some of them younger children, when the Nazis came to power and swept through Europe, when transport to the East meant certain death in Concentration Camps such as Auschwitz. I came to hear about this volume when a fellow writer Elsie wrote a moving peace about the funeral of her father. His story is here, each story different, each story the same, a broad synagogue of suffering, arranged alphabetically under S for Schaufeld, Avara, ‘A Journey – Chorzow to Wembley’ followed by the story of Elsie’s mother Vera, ‘Saved by the Kindertransport’.

Vera Schaufeld’s story is self-explanatory. She grew up in Klatovoy in the 1930s. Her father studied law and one of his teachers went on to become President of Czechoslovakia. Her mother was a paediatrician who studied in Prague and Paris. The population of their town was around 8000 and about 350 of them were Jews. Vera’s parents weren’t observant Jews. They were assimilated intellectuals. The nearest kosher butcher, for example, was 30 miles away. After Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia on the 15th March 1938 Jewish survivors could be counted on one hand. Vera’s mother and father used what clout they had to get their daughter on one of the Kindertransports leaving Prague for England. She survived, quickly forgetting how to speak Czech and German, becoming nominally assimilated into everyday English life.  Her family died.

Her odyssey was not unique other tell here of the rituals of humiliation on the Kindertransport of having their property looted and of a group of children being taken from the train on the Dutch border and being made to lick the platform by SS men and missing the train, being sent back to their deaths. Vera met Avram and they married. Here again is a commonality, like marrying like. I imagine it has little to do with Jewishness, more to do with unspoken suffering. After the war nobody much talked about the camps, the deaths, and nobody much wanted to know. For ten years or more there was collective amnesia and silence.

Andre Swarz-Bart in his fictional masterpiece The Last of the Just chronicles the pogroms against the Jews, against the idea of their otherness, and the way ‘history penetrates legend and is assimilated by it’. And the Just Jews, Lamed-Vow, becomes ‘experts in sorrow’.

O God, cover not our blood with thy silence.

Avram Scaufeld’s survival is indeed miraculous. He was a thirteen-year-old adolescent in 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland. The next day he became a man and had to work for the Judenrat in Sosnowitz to survive. He was one of the lucky ones taken to work in a forced labour camp in Lower Silesia in autumn 1942. Then his luck ran out. In 1943 he was sent to work on construction with thousands of others, from half-a-dozen countries, in Blechammer. Rations became sparser and camp conditions worsened. Each prisoner fighting for scraps of potato.  Avram survived but as the Red Army closed in the Germans began to evacuate camps. Long columns of prisoner marching in the cold to an unknown destination. The Death Marches were walk or die, those that couldn’t walk being shot and left in a ditch. Avram suffered from a leg ulcer and was crawling with lice, a Musselman, who could no longer keep up. His decision to step onto the cart picking up stragglers ensured his death. But when the SS came to shoot stragglers outside a cemetery, Avram found enough strength to climb the wall and hide. He was recaptured by a German policeman and handed back to the SS. He was packed in an open cattle truck with other prisoners and sent to another overcrowded camp. He was sent away once more to a forced labour camp, Langstein, digging tunnels into a mountain. Little food and any transgressions punishable by death the mortality rate was so high the dead were stacked like ‘cordwood’. His legs gave way, he was incontinent and he couldn’t walk. Two SS men with Alsatians found him and he thought this ‘a funny way to die’. Taken to the sick bay as the Allies got nearer an SS man came to evacuate it and warned those that couldn’t walk would be left burnt in their bed. Most of those that  could walk were taken by the German on another march died. Avram drifted in and out of consciousness.   How many miracles keeps a man alive in a few short years?   

We can know little of the camps, a few grey outlines against the backdrop of the raw emotions and human experiences. Perhaps Scwarz-Bart’s image of hell in which Andalusian Jews ‘venerated a rock, shaped like a teardrop,’ comes closest, or the Hasidic story of the Just Man that rises to heaven, but ‘he is so frozen that God must warm him for a thousand years between his fingers before his soul can open itself to Paradise’.

Post-war the silence of those that suffered and the eugenic policies of the Nazis led to a kind of moratorium for about ten years while those countries involved in the war rebuilt their economies. Now we have the right-wing backlash that mass murder did not take place and that is why these witnesses light the way and show that it did and show it by their storytelling.

But evil does not go away. It morphs in new ways. There’s something familiar about Jacob Judah, on the Mynamar border writing about 70 000 refugees trying to cross the border into Bangladesh and being turned back. Contemporary echoes of the SS in reports that Rohingya men and women are indiscriminately killed and Myanmar ‘military are taking the children from the arms of their mothers, and throwing them away.’ Echoes of the grey ghosts of the Sonderkommando moving among transported Jews and telling mothers to give their children to an older aunt.   The problem is that no one can offer workable solutions and even fewer care to try. Nobody wants refugees. We prefer to let them die. But there for the grace of god, go I.