When Elie Wiesel went to Israel in the early 1950’s, he observed that those who had survived the death camps were not held in the highest regard. They were seen as pitiable, a bit weak and cowardly, in contrast to the new Israeli who fought back.
I had never known this. It is quite surprising to me to learn it. My American experience, from a generation further on, is quite different. Those who were sent to the camps have always been regarded as the most innocent of lambs sent to the slaughter, and those who survived almost heroic in their mere perseverance.
I had wondered what would have been different if all had resisted, but had not pursued the thought. Certainly the resistance of six million would have presented an enormous logistical problem for the Reich. Even though the Jews were almost entirely unarmed, six million is a very large number, even when disorganised and fragmented in 10,000 groups. Though each individual resolving to resist would be merely hastening his death, sheer numbers would have required the Axis to divert more resources to them, if only in the form of more soldiers to shoot them.
The Nazis played their group psychology cards with grim shrewdness. Long before the Jews were packed onto trains, they had been stripped of all possible support from the communities they lived in. They were forbidden their jobs, removing their value to the local economy. When they were herded into ghettoes, their goods and houses were claimed by neighbors, who now had an interest in preventing them from coming back. The herding served the dual purpose of identifying and containing them efficiently, so that a few armed soldiers could manage them. Even when they had been on the trains and were arriving at the camps, where could they run?
If they had only known, we think. Known for certain, and not merely suspected. Then they would have resisted, then they would have changed their fate.
Except that they did know. Wiesel records often the example from Sighet of Moishe the Beadle, who had seen the death camps in Poland and come back to warn his friends and relatives. No one believed him. They thought him a madman. He tried a dozen strategies to get them to listen, to understand, but they shrugged them all off. They believed it was impossible for the Germans to act this way. Germany – the land of Schiller and Goethe, of Brahms and Bach, could never do these things.
I divert here to try and capture that mindset in a form we can understand. Who would Americans regard similarly? The Canadians? The Brits or the Aussies? Of our own people, liberals might well believe that Reagan or Bush had set up death camps, but that nice Jimmy Carter, who won the Nobel Peace Prize? Walter Mondale, Paul Simon, Ralph Nader? How would progressives respond to the news that those worthies were involved with herding people into large work camps? They would simply reject it. It would be impossible for them to believe.
I have probably pushed that analogy too far. Jews in Europe certainly did know that Germany had been to war in the last generation, and that anti-Semitism had long had a hold there. It was not quite so unbelievable as the American examples I gave, but following that thought-experiment might give some flavor of understanding, some insight into why the Jews did not massively riot and resist at every turn. They thought the worst reports were exaggerations, and the proabable oppression at least endurable.
Wiesel, and most others today would give the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe a pass on that, then.
There is a weakness in that reasoning.
Wiesel, at least at the time of writing his memoirs, retained an anger at the Allied governments, American Jews, and the citizens of the west for not doing more. When tens of thousands were dying in a day at the end, every day’s interruption in the slaughter would have saved tens of thousands. Wiesel wondered whether the Allies perhaps did not know the full extent, and did not understand the need for haste; yet he later learned that they did know. Plenty of information reached the proper offices. One of the other David Wymans is an expert on the subject, head of the Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of Paper Walls, and The Abandonment of the Jews. His evidence is damning. FDR knew, the State Dept knew, the Allied Command knew.
Why did they do nothing? Or so little, so late? Wiesel holds this as an indictment against the west. They did know.
Yet Elie, you also knew. You yourself spoke with Moishe the Beadle many times. You were far less well-placed than a Roosevelt or Churchill to do something about it, but that rationale also leads to moral difficulties. Are only those with great power liable for blame? I can see differences, but are they materiel? If the Nazis knew how to play international opinion to prevent action, isn't that much the same as playing off group psychology in villages?
Well, they all exceed me in bravery and wisdom, so I have little standing to criticise. It is only that I have never had these thoughts before, and they are disturbing.