Would you like to read more about the Holocaust?The destruction of Europe’s Jews during the Second World War has produced an enormous body of literature. Unfortunately, much of it is written by academics and is a bit thick and lifeless. My own hero of Holocaust history is Raul Hilberg, the first serious American scholar to tackle the topic. It’s amazing how many of his arguments, formulated over fifty years ago, have been proven correct. His larger tomes are rather weighty, but his abbreviated study Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 1992) is an accessible read.
Although an academic, Christopher R. Browning has penned a forthright account of how low-level German policemen became seasoned killers. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992) traces the activities of middle-aged men taking up their duties to kill—from a senior officer who weeps during the first assignment to those who make tabletalk jokes about splattering baby brains. It’s the source for the section on Police Battalion at Józefów in the mini-book’s section entitled Killing. http://www.amazon.com/Ordinary-Men-Reserve-Battalion-Solution/dp/0060995068/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404137082&sr=8-1&keywords=christopher+browning+ordinary+men
One of the very best books on the Holocaust is Thomas Toivi Blatt’s From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997). While living in the United States an elderly Blatt recalled his youthful ordeal from the arrival of Nazis in his hometown of Izbica, Poland until the end of the war. Admittedly, some of the precision with which Blatt recalls events may be questioned; but there’s no whitewashing or black and white caricatures here. His account rings true in the unevenness of human response—some people try to kill him, very few risk helping him, many are ambivalent or self-absorbed. The early storyline addresses the agonizing circumstances of his family as the terror unfolds. The tale of Toivi Blatt’s experience in the mini-book’s The Death Camps section comes from this work. http://www.amazon.com/From-Ashes-Sobibor-Survival-Jewish/dp/0810113023/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404137208&sr=8-1&keywords=thomas+toivi+blatt+sobibor
Although I didn’t draw upon it, another good autobiographical read is Henry Orenstein’s I Shall Live: Surviving the Holocaust Against All Odds (New York: Beaufort Books, 2010, reprint). Like Blatt, the author has harrowing escapes again-and-again. This might seem farfetched, but in fact anyone who survived the Holocaust had to have repeated and exceptional luck. An autobiographical classic is Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Vintage Books, 1989, reprint), which includes his devastating Second Chapter analysis of what he terms “The Gray Zone”.
I drew upon many scholarly books in writing this website’s mini-book beyond those of Hilberg, including Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987); Richard Breitman, The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1991); Heinrich Fraenkel & Roger Manvell, Himmler (New York: G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1965); Patrick Montague, Chelmno and the Holocaust: The History of Hitler’s First Death Camp (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012). Again, scholarly books can be a bit mechanical and dry—many casual readers will likely find them less-than-engaging.I also used on-line accounts from JewishGen, which has many interviews and recollections from survivors at www.jewishgen.org and from the Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team [HEART] at www.holocaustresearchproject.org. These and other organizations offer wonderful material for free on-line, and allow for intimate and personal glimpses of the terror. Finally, Norman G. Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (London: Verso, 2000) provides a wit-ladden account of how the memory of the Holocaust is misused by some. Yet another Prophet emerges from among the Jewish people (it can make a Gentile almost believe in a Jewish God)! See http://www.normanfinkelstein.com for more, especially concerning contemporary Israel and Palestine, and the always failing latest 'peace process'. http://www.amazon.com/The-Holocaust-Industry-Reflections-Exploitation/dp/185984488X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404137374&sr=8-1&keywords=finkelstein+the+holocaust+industry
Do you like films? My favorite film on the Holocaust is Sara’s Key (2010), starring Kristin Scott Thomas and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, with scriptwriter Serge Joncour basing the work on a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay. And then of course there’s the Steven Spielberg classic Schindler’s List (1993)—it’s Spielberg. You know it will be good, but not too good. Did the real Oscar Schindler start saving Jews because he was an opportunist, recognizing that the Soviet Union was winning the war? Liam Neeson’s portrayal is arguably overshadowed by the brilliant acting of Ralph Fiennes. It’s a film worth watching, if only once.
When the Holocaust meets Hollywood of course bad things are bound to happen. Films by their nature are too brief and fleeting to provide real historical insight. But some are better than others. Edward Zwick’s Defiance (2008) is an example of fantasy ‘non-fiction’ that really didn’t need to be made (but if you want to watch Jews kill Nazis, this is the film for you). Unfortunately, there’s much ‘Hollywood History’ in the form of books, as well. Hollywood History Books create caricatures of good versus evil, without thoughtful variation. They’re predicably popular—I would argue—because they cloak the possibility of what I termed in the mini-book the Belief in Self-Exceptionality. Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners is a classic example of what I call Hollywood History. It’s one-dimensional and, in my view, compliments films like Defiance more than historical reality.