From New Technology to Resurgent Nationalism: The Future of Holocaust Studies

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
Prof. Richard Freund of the University of Hartford, left, with an infrared image of a tunnel entrance on the Vilna Excavations Project.
Prof. Richard Freund of the University of Hartford, left, with an infrared image of a tunnel entrance on the Vilna Excavations Project.Credit: University of Hartford Vilna Excavations Project
David Green
David B. Green
David Green
David B. Green

In February, the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris hosted a two-day conference about recent Holocaust research coming out of Poland. Post-20th century Poland has a tiny Jewish population, of course, but you don’t need to be Jewish to study the Holocaust and the scholars dealing with the subject there — Israeli Holocaust scholar Prof. Yehuda Bauer says he’s counted some 28 of them — are doing groundbreaking work. 

Among the subjects these academics have examined is the vexing question of the role played by Poles during World War II, both in turning Jews over to the German occupiers and in killing them. A newly published collection of Polish-language articles — comprising two volumes, each some 800 pages long, and called “Night Continues: The Fates of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland” — is among the fruits of their labors.

As has been widely reported, the nationalist regime leading Poland since 2015 has pushed back against researchers who have turned up facts that are seen as blackening the good name of the Polish nation. Even after it was modified, a law passed in early 2018 made it illegal to publicly ascribe any Holocaust complicity to the Polish nation or people

It’s not that the Polish government denies the Holocaust. According to Israeli Prof. Havi Dreifuss, the country’s leadership “is very interested in the Holocaust — very — but only in a specific aspect of the Holocaust: That in which Germans killed Jews.” 

Although there’s no argument that it was the German occupiers who were responsible for the deaths of the vast majority of the 3 million Polish Jews murdered in the Shoah, it has also been long established there were also those killed or betrayed by locals. As Dreifuss, a professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University notes, that is true “not only for Poland, but for all Europe.” In today’s Poland, however, there is a movement to repress these disquieting facts, and to attack the people who are trying to understand the country’s history. 

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, attending a meeting in Warsaw, February 14, 2019.Credit: Michael Sohn / AP

Polish denial spread its reach to France this past winter. Even before the opening of the academic conference on Polish Holocaust research, agitators attempted to intimidate participants and organizers, with emails demanding its cancellation. Some of them, Polish speakers themselves, actually stalked the visiting academics, confronting them in the streets of Paris with cries of “Dirty Jew” or “Jewish ulcer,” according to a report by Izabela Wagner in the online journal Public Seminar. “Some of these insults, such as ‘Parch’ (dirty, or ‘shitty,’ Jew),” explained Wagner, “were directly borrowed from the repertoire of the interwar anti-Semitic ‘classics.’” 

This kind of abuse only makes the work of Polish scholars seem more inspiring, especially considering that the fruits of their labors are among the most prominent examples of the advances that have characterized this relatively young field in recent years internationally. 

Academics in many countries, including Israel, are taking advantage of vast troves of documentation that began to open up following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. They are using not only these new sources of material, but asking new questions, looking at new regions and employing new tools. 

As Israel commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day, Haaretz undertook a concise survey of the state of Holocaust studies internationally, noting recent trends, changing areas of focus, and the use being made by scholars of new technologies and methodologies. 

1. New sources

Holocaust scholars need not worry about a loss of work in the foreseeable future, if only because of the proliferation of source material. 

Dr. David Silberklang recalls how, in 1992, his historian colleague Shmuel Spector — having returned from a visit to a then-recently opened archive in post-Soviet Moscow — observed that it would take 100 years “just to turn the pages” of all the newly available documents there. 

According to Silberklang, a senior historian at Yad Vashem and editor of its Yad Vashem Studies journal, today “there remains untapped documentation in many archives across the former USSR — Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, etc.” that probably is in the order of magnitude of “several hundred million pages.” 

Prof. Wendy Lower, of Claremont McKenna College, California, refers to the Shoah as “the most well-documented genocide that we know of,” even as, in another context, she notes that within the borders of contemporary Ukraine, where “one out of every four victims lived,” half of those victims have yet to be even identified by name. This is because so many of them died in mass shootings and, laments Lower, “If you’re rounded up in your village and led to the edge of town and shot — well, the paperwork is going to be very thin, if there’s any at all.”

Lower also notes how, in late 2015, France declassified its records on postwar trials of suspected collaborators: “That’s all being digitized, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will get all those digital files.” The same goes for the Dutch National Archives’ records of postwar trials. More recently, the Vatican announced that, finally, it would open up its wartime archives to scholars. 

Silberklang mentions records from Polish courts from both during the war, when tribunals in the General Government (occupied Poland) were allowed to continue functioning in certain areas, even in cases to which Jews were a party, and also in the immediate aftermath. 

Dr. David Silberklang giving Samantha Power, then the U.S. ambassador to the UN, a guided tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.Credit: Matty Stern / U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

In the postwar period, the so-called Decree of 31 August 1944, made it possible for the pro-Soviet Polish regime to try those who were considered traitors to the Polish nation and were accused of harming other Polish citizens during the Nazi occupation. Dreifuss says that in several thousand of these cases, the defendants were tried for hurting Jews, “and the testimony from those trials offers very early [firsthand] accounts of witnesses to specific events.”

According to Prof. Michael Berenbaum, one of the creators of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, fully apprehending the phenomenon of the Shoah requires “understanding the perpetrators and collaborators in greater nuance. At the same time, it also gives us greater understanding of the ‘upstander,’ most of whom were ordinary people behaving with ordinary decency under extraordinary circumstances.” 

2. Macro and micro levels 

Recent years have allowed for the emergence of research that focuses in new ways on both the macro and micro levels of the Shoah. According to Brown University’s Prof. Omer Bartov whose own work has embodied both of these approaches, the macro approach looks at the Holocaust “within a wider context of violent societies, or genocidal events, campaigns of population displacement, or ethnic cleansing that are happening before, during and after the Holocaust.” 

Omer Bartov - Professor of History and Professor of German StudiesCredit: Hannah Kobtova via WikiCommons

He says that such a sweeping approach “gives you a geographical and chronological span that extracts the Holocaust from its Judeo-centric, narrow understanding of it. It doesn’t take away from its unique aspects — no other genocide had extermination camps of this kind, or was continent-wide to this extent — but it shows various complex roots of such events.”

Bartov’s 2018 book “Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz,” about his mother’s birthplace in Galicia (today Ukraine), is, on the other hand, an example of a “micro” study. This “focuses on a single place,” he says, “and tries to get into the complexity that has been missed by studies that look at the top, at the [Nazi] bureaucracy in Berlin. It is more interested in the way events are experienced at the local level, and it brings in the question of relations between Jews and their neighbors.”

In the case of Buczacz, a name that may be familiar as the birthplace of writer S.Y. Agnon, Bartov explains that “there were other groups, such as Poles and Ukrainians, that were trying to implement their own agendas under Soviet, and then under German, occupation. So, there was a whole lot of violence going on that was related to but also independent to the killing of the Jews.”

Lower’s résumé also offers examples of the micro and macro approaches: Whereas her 2013 book “Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields,” which earned a nomination for a National Book Award, looked at the previously unexamined role played by women across Eastern Europe in murdering Jews, two years earlier she published “The Diary of Samuel Golfard and the Holocaust in Eastern Galicia,” examining a personal diary that survived the death of its young author in Ukraine.

3. Overlooked subjects

What are some of the topics that have been neglected to date by researchers, or that have only recently begun to receive the attention they deserve?

In general, says Silberklang, the role of religious institutions and life in the Holocaust is a theme that is only now coming into its own. Until the 2017 publication of Ion Popa’s book “The Romanian Orthodox Church and the Holocaust,” for example, almost no research had been done on the Orthodox churches in Europe. 

Popa, a Romanian-born historian working in the United Kingdom, has “thrown down the gauntlet” for other scholars, says Silberklang. The book shared Yad Vashem’s international book prize last year with “Sermons from the Years of Rage,” by Israeli Dr. Daniel Reiser. 

In this 1943 file photo, a group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after an uprising in the Jewish quarter.Credit: AP

That work is about Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the “Eish Kodesh” who wrote and then made a handwritten record of his weekly Sabbath sermons to his Hasidic flock in the Warsaw Ghetto. The sermons survived the war, but needed extensive deciphering to be analyzed.

“Who’s going to write the book on the Holocaust in Greece?” asks Silberklang, explaining that no comprehensive work on the subject has yet been forthcoming. He attributes this lag to the fact that few Holocaust historians know the Greek language — which, he says, needs to be supplemented by knowledge of at least Ladino, Italian and Turkish, and maybe Bulgarian — and also because Greek archives are not in ideal condition, even if they are officially open. 

Much has been written about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in which a combination of underground movements carried out a courageous revolt against the German occupiers on the eve of the ghetto’s final evacuation in April 1943 (several interviewees pointed to the 2011 book by Dr. Laurence Weinbaum and Prof. Dariusz Libionka, “Heroes, Hucksters and Storytellers: On the Jewish Military Union in the Warsaw Ghetto,” as the landmark study of the uprising). But only in her most recent Hebrew-language book “Warsaw Ghetto — The End” does Havi Dreifuss look at, as she explains, “The 50,000 Jews who continued living in the ghetto after the great deportation in the summer of 1942.” Many of them actually participated in the uprising but escaped scrutiny because they were not affiliated with any of the underground movements, and they demonstrated modes of resistance different from the standard armed one. 

Greek Holocaust survivor Moshe Ha'elion visiting Yad Vashem in 2005. “Who’s going to write the book on the Holocaust in Greece?,” asks Dr. David Silberklang.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

4. Technological advances

Not surprisingly, technology is playing an increasingly helpful role in study of the Holocaust. The director of Yad Vashem’s vast archive, Dr. Haim Gertner, says the Holocaust memorial center has some 210 million documents. But, he says, “just because you have it doesn’t mean you know how to access it.” 

Even as Yad Vashem’s agents bring in “another five to 15 million scans from around the world” each year, the institution is scanning and cataloging its existing collection. Its ultimate goal is to make it accessible online, both to professionals and to what Gertner calls “researchers for the moment” — people who may be trying, for example, to learn about their family histories. 

“We have already scanned almost 80 percent of the collection,” says Gertner. “Now we are in the process of providing rapid descriptions of items, so you will able to search for them.” He notes that the software being used needs to be upgraded every few years. 

Archaeologists of the Holocaust also have increasing occasion to use high-tech systems in their work, says Prof. Richard Freund of the University of Hartford. Archaeology is by its nature “a destructive science,” notes Freund. “It’s expensive, labor-intensive, not particularly effective, and it’s very insensitive. This is especially a problem for Holocaust archaeology, where you have sites that have been obliterated, and of course real burial sites” holding remains that cannot be disturbed or moved, according to Jewish law. 

With great enthusiasm, Freund — author of the newly published “The Archaeology of the Holocaust: Vilna, Rhodes, and Escape Tunnels” — explains how, already for several decades, archaeologists have been using noninvasive technologies developed in the field of geoscience to peer beneath the earth without any digging. “We use ground-penetrating radar (GPR), multi-spectral photography, drones with magnetometers to look into areas we can’t get to,” he says. In one recent case, in January, GPR was employed to peer beneath the surface of a frozen lake in Lithuania where Freund had reason to believe he would find the remains of the Rumshishok (Rumsiskes, in Lithuanian) shtetl. This summer, he’s planning to return with a team of sonar operators and divers to do underwater excavation. 

GPR equipment analyzing the ground where the Great Synagogue was situated in Vilna (now Vilnius in Lithuania).Credit: University of Hartford Vilna Excavations Project

Working with Israeli archaeologist Dr. Jon Seligman, Freund used noninvasive techniques to identify remains from the Great Synagogue of Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania), which the Germans partly destroyed during the war and was then replaced by an elementary school in the 1950s during Soviet rule. The Lithuanian government subsequently moved the school and is working on a plan for a memorial and museum at the site.

Freund described several instances of close work with Lithuanian authorities, which also includes finding the remnants of an escape tunnel dug by hand by Jewish prisoners (in shackles, using only spoons) in a burial pit at the site of a Holocaust-era massacre at Ponar, outside Vilnius. 

Lithuania has its own well-documented problems with high-level Holocaust denial, which entails a special approach from researchers, as Freund explains. “When I come to a country like Lithuania,” he says, “I come with hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, and I offer them the opportunity to use it for their own projects, for free. We’re not like carpetbaggers who want to tell them what to do. They tell us what problems they want to solve. We work with them, we publish [with them], we give them all the research, so they feel like they control the research in their own country.”

“Every day,” he continues, “when we make a discovery, it’s not an American or an Israeli who goes on TV to explain it. We discovered two mikvehs [Jewish ritual baths] in the Great Synagogue. A local colleague said, ‘They’ll put us on TV, and you can explain what a mikveh is.’ I said, ‘No, you’re going to go on TV.’ It’s working with the mayors, local museums.”

Freund will be discussing his work, and his new book, later this month at the Explorers Club in New York, and he is thrilled. “At a place where astronauts and Nobel Prize winners have spoken, now the study of the Holocaust will find its place,” he wrote in an email, to which he attached an invitation to the event that includes a photograph of him in Indiana Jones-like gear, his arms loaded down with a large clay jar, out of which unfurls a copy of an ancient-looking scroll.

5. Combating nationalism

Even for scholars who aren’t working in states like Poland, where there are organized attempts to repress their intellectual freedom (these also include Lithuania and Hungary), anyone working in the field is going to be affected by the growing global tide of nationalism, racism and a widespread attempt to undermine the very concept of factual truth.

Wendy Lower points to the unsettling realization that the trend is spreading. “It’s not that one country that has gone awry, and that the rest of the world community brings it back into line, or at least condemns its actions. There is too much silence and acquiescence now.” 

Lower speaks of “an urgent moral imperative to uphold the lessons of the Holocaust that are universal.” This outlook, she says with distress, “has been completely upended by a return to some of the crude populist, national-sovereignty arguments, anti-refugee sentiment, xenophobia and, of course, anti-Semitism — even when there are so few Jews, in Poland, for instance, this hatred still thrives there and across the European terrain of the Holocaust. I keep asking myself, why is this so, why at this moment?”

Leading Holocaust historian Prof. Havi Dreifuss.

Dreifuss, meanwhile, says she can’t stop talking about her Polish colleagues, whose “great sin,” as she puts it, “is in writing history based on what they find in the archive, and not based on what their government wants them to write.”

Yehuda Bauer, who at age 93 could be said to have seen it all, declares that what is happening in Poland “is no joke,” even as he compares Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who heads the Law and Justice Party but has no elected position beyond membership in the Polish parliament, to Joseph Stalin, whose power also derived from his role as party chairman. Kaczynski, he says with a chuckle, is “an anti-communist Bolshevik.”

Bauer doesn’t see the Polish leadership as necessarily anti-Semitic. Rather, he suggests, what we’re witnessing “is an internal struggle against the democratic and liberal traditions of Poland — which are tremendous: Poland contributed to European and universal civilization.”

Nonetheless, he elaborates drily, “During the war, the majority of the Polish population was between anti-Semitic and radically anti-Semitic, with a small but very strong minority which was prepared to help Jews. They were tremendously courageous. [They] had to fight not just the Germans … they had to be careful not to be denounced by their neighbors.”

>> The amazing Polish woman who hid and saved 16 Jews – and one German – in her house <<

This inconvenient truth creates a problem for today’s Polish nationalists, says Bauer. “You need a usable past to follow a nationalistic line. When you don’t have one, you invent it.” 

Lower’s despair was palpable even down the telephone line from Southern California (we were speaking two days after the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, about 170 kilometers, or 105 miles, south of Claremont). But as I wind up a nonetheless riveting conversation, she breaks in to say, “I’m an American: I don’t like to end on a moment of complete despair,” and tells me about the consortium she helped organize of all the approximately 150 academic programs in the United States dealing with the Holocaust, genocide and human-rights studies. She describes it as “a startup, a way to secure intellectual critical discourse and the freedom to engage in it through Holocaust studies.

“In December 2017, my colleagues and I hosted a first summit, at the USHMM, where we convened the directors of these programs. We realized that we needed each other’s support, and we wanted to grow this network and this infrastructure, to formalize it so that we can act nationally, and if need be, respond politically,” says Lower. 

Prof. Bauer’s advice

Prof. Yehuda BauerCredit: Kobi Gideon / BauBau

At the end of an hour-long interview with Yehuda Bauer, I ask this formidable and provocative scholar what he would suggest to a young person searching for a subject to pursue in their graduate studies. He has many ideas, of course, but in general finds fascination in the question of the widely varying responses of local populations to the German occupiers’ persecution of their communities’ Jews. 

“How do you explain the different attitudes in different countries?” he asks rhetorically. “How do you explain the Danish exception? … How do you explain that, without any organization at all, there is an eruption by the general population where Jews were living to smuggle them to Sweden? How do you explain that?” 

His eyes glimmer with joy as he describes a fishing village called Gilleleje, in northern Denmark: “Nobody had ever heard of it, a small village with a church in the middle. And it was rumored that from there you could perhaps get to Sweden. So, all of a sudden, over 2,000 Jews descend on that village.” 

After the Germans arrested some of them, relates Bauer, almost spontaneously a group of five citizens, “led by a caretaker of summer houses, with the local grocer, the priest, and two others,” met one morning and decided they needed to act. “So they make a list of all the people in the area, and they assign a number of Jews to each family. Nobody asked them to. They didn’t ask those families whether they would accept these Jews. They just assumed. And then they organized their escape to Sweden.”

Bauer then ponders why the situation was so different just to the north of Denmark, in Norway. “In Norway, the collaborationist government of [Vidkun] Quisling had public support. The Danish police refused to cooperate with the Germans, but in Norway the police were very happy hunting Jews. So how do you explain that?” Not only that, he adds, but “in Norway, there was real armed opposition to the Germans. In Denmark, it was very weak.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics: