The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War
by Martin Gilbert
This is the most painful book I have ever read, and one of the most important. Its importance is due not only to the subject but to the way that subject is presented by the writer. Movies, television programs, and books that have dealt with the Holocaust usually encompass only a portion of it. Not that this is illegitimate; Schindler’s List, for example, is a powerful and magnificent film that warrants repeated viewings. The Pawnbroker (1965), though not so well known as Schindler’s List, is another excellent film relevant to this topic. But Martin Gilbert’s work provides a more complete picture.
After a brief look at anti-Semitism’s more remote past, the historian describes the formation and rise of the Nazi Party. Its members, in the aftermath of the First World War, blamed the Jews for every problem that was afflicting Germany at the time. However, there seemed to be little reason for concern, at least initially, on the part of Jewish citizens and non-extremist Germans. But the Nazis eventually made alarming headway; and then came the crucial turning point: when Adolph Hitler, their leader, was appointed Chancellor of Germany:
‘I had been skating that day,’ a ten-year-old Jewish boy, Leslie Frankel, who lived in the village of Biblis, near Worms, later recalled. ‘When I got home,’ Frankel added, ‘we heard that Hitler had become Chancellor. Everybody shook. As kids of ten we shook.’
This brief but telling anecdote is a sample of the book’s overall structure. Gilbert’s arrangement of material, which advances chronologically from 1933 to 1945, is made up in large part of eyewitness accounts. Personal testimonies are often brief but some are lengthy; and the overall effect is traumatic.
Even so, despite the mind-boggling horror that is present on nearly every page, many sources of light appear in the darkness. Oscar Schindler was not as unique as many people suppose. Jewish victims of the Nazis were frequently helped, sheltered, and saved by non-Jews who risked their lives in the process. Actions spoke louder than words in most instances, although voices did speak out. Churchill, for example, in the House of Commons in 1942:
‘This tragedy [specifically, the mass deportation of Jews from France] fills me with astonishment as well as with indignation, and it illustrates as nothing else can the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme, and the degradation of all who lend themselves to its unnatural and perverted passions … When the hour of liberation strikes Europe, as strike it will, it will also be the hour of retribution.’
The Jews themselves, in spite of being utterly overwhelmed, would often defy their persecutors; sometimes by simple expressions of human dignity while facing imminent death, and sometimes by heroic acts of revolt.
Again, this is a painful read; and also lengthy. But for anyone who wants to know the whole story of the Holocaust—insofar as that is obtainable to mere readers of history—Martin Gilbert’s work is invaluable.