Violence inflicted by mankind upon mankind is nothing new. There
have been many tragedies throughout our long history, including several
in this century alone: the artificial famine in Ukraine, the prisons of
Stalin, the terror of Idi Amin, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, to
name a few. But is anything more terrifying than the brutalities
inflicted by Nazi Germany against those that it classified as its
enemies? It cannot be denied that the Nazis believed that they had many
"enemies": for example, people from over twenty different countries
were imprisoned in Auschwitz
alone. But does a shared suffering, if not a shared fate, mean equality
among the victims?
Some might say that it is obscene to argue about who suffered more
at the hands of the Nazis. But like it or not, there are groups
arguing, and it has even appeared in these very pages. Many Polish
groups have begun fighting for the recognition of the suffering of the
Poles at the hands of Nazi Germany, implying, and in some cases even
stating, that Poles and Jews were co-victims of the Holocaust. Does the
fact that several million Poles were killed during World War II mean
that they suffered as much as, less than, or more than the Jews? And
what of the Roma (Gypsies)? Ian Hancock has written that "the Nazis
would have gassed six million Gypsies too, if there had been six
million Gypsies." And how about the homosexuals and the "mental
defectives" that also suffered under Hitler?
Is there a difference between Holocaust and genocide?
What makes the Jewish Holocaust unique is that an entire
bureaucratic apparatus was created to define who they were, where they
should live or be forced to live, and eventually, to see that they
would live no more. This was not murder as a byproduct of war, not
casualties as a result of skirmishes or partisan activities, but the
end-result of an ideology that had for years been calling Jews vermin
and also calling for their destruction. This was a sophisticated
machine, an industry developed to exterminate first and foremost the
Jews of Europe. For example, although Auschwitz
was not built to kill Jews, Jews became its primary victims: 1.35 of
the 1.6 million killed there, according to Yehuda Bauer.
It is true that had the war lasted longer, the Poles probably would
have shared the fate of the Jews. But it did not. We do not know what
might have been, but only what was.
Of course, no one can deny the terrible treatment of the Poles by
Nazi Germany, and by the Soviet Union -- and the purpose of this
article is not to diminish the suffering of the Poles. Poland had been
wiped from the map and was in effect one large prison camp, where the
penalty for helping Jews was death. Those Poles who helped Jews deserve
our praise. Sitting here comfortably fifty years later, we cannot
condemn those Poles who did not help Jews because we have no idea what
they themselves were going through, trying to ensure their own survival
and their families' survival.
To say that the Poles were not co-victims with the Jews in the
Holocaust is not to say that the Poles were not victims of attempted
genocide. But are genocide and Holocaust the same thing? The Jewish
tragedy was unique in that even though all victims were not Jews, all
Jews were victims (if they were caught). The same thing cannot be said
of anyone except the Roma. In fact, a "Gypsy" was someone who had at
least two great-grandparents who were Gypsies, an even stricter
classification than that applied to Jews.
Many Jews tried to escape the terrible fate that awaited them by
disguising themselves as non-Jews. Did any non-Jews try to survive in
Nazi-occupied Poland by disguising themselves as Jews? Wearing a
crucifix did not ensure a 100% chance of survival, but the odds were
certainly better than if one was wearing a yellow Star-of-David. Yes,
Poles and Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis, but they suffered,
in the words of Yisrael Gutman, two "separate frightfulnesses."
Last modified: Apr. 15, 2014
Thanks to William Skeith for the email-hider.
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