Having never been to Poland, I was struck by the lovely photographs of Auschwitz and Birkenau, looking like New England summer camps with rustic cabins, bungalows, and grass-lined walks — a far cry from the scenes in the newsreels I saw as a child.
The second thing that struck me was the author’s tactful reference to “the appropriation by some Poles of Jewish possessions.” The Holocaust involved not only mass sadism and relentless mechanized slaughter, but also mass theft — of homes, businesses, furniture, personal belongings, and bank accounts — that was accomplished before, during, and after the murder of the Jews themselves. Evidently, the motivation of the Holocaust was not merely to kill the Jews, but to kill the Jews and take their possessions.
Framing the Holocaust in terms of “Jewish studies” avoids the central issue. It has led, appropriately, to the celebration of a now-extinct subculture and a memorialization of the victims. But focusing on “the Jews” is like regarding Shakespeare’s Othello as the story of what happened to poor Desdemona. Of far greater interest is what happened to Iago and Othello. The Holocaust is less a story of the calamity that befell the Jews than a story of the rapid transformation of formerly decent people into sadists, thieves, and murderers.
The disquiet we feel when confronted by an atrocity arises not from an empathy with the innocent victims, but from our awe at the scale of the event, the inexplicable inhumanity of the perpetrators — and the realization that paranoia and ethnic hatred are not buried deeply within us, but lie just under the skin.
Perhaps we can detect even here, in our rising Islamophobia and the gratuitous cruelty of Guantánamo, faint Holocaustian stirrings.