Holocaust: A History, by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, W.W. Norton and Company
Safe Among the Germans: Liberated Jews after World War II, by Ruth Gay, Yale University Press
In their new book, Holocaust: A History, Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt paraphrase the post-war generation’s anguish: “Each one of the Jewish victims had had neighbors. What had those neighbors done?” The question —a sincere inquiry colored rhetorical by the well-known answer-embodies the authors’ approach. With a tongue as sharp as their scholarly vision, they rigorously scrutinize and never hesitate to condemn.
So we learn what the neighbors did and did not do. A grim collective resume: for the most part, the only variable was the degree of enthusiasm in the collaboration. Among the exceptions were many women, such as Rebecca van Delft, an 18-year-old Dutch courier who accompanied children by train to hiding places. Her young female identify, far from a handicap, proved a dc facto job requirement. Since German soldiers targeted men. We also hear from Truus Grootendorst-Vermeer, who gave up her job for full-time rescue work because “I liked my office job, but I liked the people more” and Marion van Binsbergen, who impulsively shot a Nazi to protect the children hiding in her home.
But these heroines were moral mutants. Most of the book, which justifies its ambitious title with comprehensive meticulousness, is a taxonomy of horror. There is a difference between “ethnic cleansing” and genocide, and only gradually, almost improvisatorily, did the Nazis shift from a policy of “resettlement” to the “final solution” of extermination. The authors also distinguish between incidental and deliberate slaughter: in occupied Greece, hunger resulted from Nazi pragmatism and indifference, whereas in the Soviet Union it was brandished as a genocidal weapon. Of course, these nuances made little difference to the starving.
Holocaust leaves off, essentially, where its eponymous cataclysm ends. Ruth Gay offers, in Safe Among the Germans, an excellent post script. Gay blazes an academic trail into postwar Germany, filling a lacuna she calls understandable: most survivors who tell their stories “stop and draw breath” at the moment of liberation, and most scholarship accordingly ends there. Now, the rich subject has finally found its author. In eloquent prose. Gay renders a portrait of a changing community that, notwithstanding internal conflict and scorn from abroad, has emerged as small but vibrant.
Two-thirds of the post-war community arrived as refugees from Eastern Europe, which had greeted its returning Jews with violence and comments like, “What, are you still alive?” Palestine and most Western countries refused the deluge of immigrants, sending many Jews to the seeming oxymoron of a safe Germany.
The United Nations’ displaced persons’ camps quickly established their own governments, synagogues, schools, workshops, theaters and publications. Most considered Germany a waiting room, and many did eventually emigrate to Israel or the United States. But it became increasingly clear that resettlement elsewhere might be a matter of years. Some Jews became integrated into the stabilizing German economy; some believed that a Jew free Germany would spell victory for Hitler; some were reluctant to move yet again. Pragmatism, ideology and chance collaborated to land each refugee in a final residence.
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a teacher and writer living in Brooklyn, New York.