Re-examining the Holocaust

"The head takes the longest to burn; two little blue flames flicker from the eyeholes ... the entire process lasts twenty minutes—and a human being, a world, has been turned into ashes." A Polish Jew named Zalman Gradowski wrote this account of what actually happened, step by step, in the gas chambers and crematoriums of Auschwitz, where he'd been sent in late 1942, along with seven members of his family, including his wife and mother. The Nazis gassed them; Gradowski had the good or bad fortune to be able-bodied, and it got him this rare look at the innermost workings of the horror Germany was hoping to hide from the world. The camp authorities picked him for the Sonderkommando, the Jews who dealt with the corpses—yes, yanking gold teeth, all that—and disposed of the ashes. Even worse, perhaps, they found themselves helping SS men reassure the still-clueless victims removing their clothes before the "disinfection" chambers.

Naturally these men knew that they, too, would be killed—Sonderkommando inmates didn't keep their jobs for long—but meanwhile, they were granted food, liquor, a handful of cigarettes and however many more days of life. "You think that those working in Sonderkommandos are monsters?" one said to a regular inmate. "I'm telling you, they're like the rest, just much more unhappy." Some, though, like Gradowski, saw these truly demonic duties as a last opportunity to bear witness. He said kaddish for the dead after every gassing, and kept notebooks; in late 1944, when he was helping plan a rebellion in the camp, he buried them. He didn't survive, but later generations know what he saw with his own eyes. As he himself wrote, they're the last to go.

The historian, UCLA professor and MacArthur fellow Saul Friedländer, whose parents died at Auschwitz and who grew up hidden among Gentiles in Nazi-occupied France, has been writing about the Holocaust since the 1960s. His new book, "The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945," along with its 1997 precursor, "Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939," caps a life's work that includes a memoir, books on Pope Pius XII and the Third Reich, on Hitler and the United States—and on one Kurt Gerstein. Gerstein was a deeply religious Waffen SS man who delivered Zyklon B to the death camps while trying to alert the world; eventually he hanged himself. As both Gerstein's story and the story of the Sonderkommando workers suggest, Friedländer records not just the atrocities but the madness behind them. The Nazis made the unimaginable suddenly real: how could sane people possibly respond? As late as 1943, the Red Cross in Geneva learned that 10,000 Jews had been transported from Berlin—and was "anxious" to get their new addresses.

"The Years of Extermination" and its precursor may be a definitive overview of the Holocaust—and a compact one, even though both volumes if bound together would total some 1,600 pages. But most of us have already heard these facts and figures. And while it's a moral duty—a spiritual duty, if you prefer—not to grow numb from the repetition, turning a deaf ear is a primal human reflex. We're especially prone to it when cries of pain are coming from six decades ago. Or, say, from some country you couldn't locate on a map. If you've ever had the impulse to skip one more op-ed about Darfur in The New York Times, you can be only so indignant about good Germans. Friedländer seems to understand that the same old horrors don't hold our attention anymore.

Some people may be disappointed by the lack of grisly photographs (he should have included a map, though). Friedländer doesn't soften the atrocities nor try to minimize our revulsion—as the excerpt from Gradowski's notebook shows—but he focuses on the larger narrative and doesn't indulge the prurient with gratuitous detail and imagery. Josef Mengele, for instance, rates only a brief reference. When he calls a Nazi functionary "sadistic," Friedländer generally leaves it at that. He finds dread enough in everyday details: a deported woman, for instance, dragging a bundle of possessions and provisions, with a thin stream of rice pouring out. What he offers is his radar for the weird, the inadvertently revelatory, the absurd, the downright insane. Lunacy, perhaps even more than thuggery, sadism and deliberate cruelty, was the essence of Nazism.

This seems overobvious: of course they were crazy. ("Evil" is a theological term—which isn't to say it doesn't fit, too.) But this very obviousness might be why we seldom see the Nazis' sheer lunacy emphasized lately, either in the academy or in the culture at large. (Prominent exceptions, such as the cult TV sitcom "Hogan's Heroes" and Mel Brooks's "The Producers," date back to the 1960s.) It might be a useful perspective to recover today. The deader Hitler gets, the more he becomes an emblematic, almost disembodied figure—a metonymy for Evil—despite such recent efforts as Norman Mailer's novel "The Castle in the Forest" to reimagine him as a nasty creature of flesh and blood. In wartime America, however, Hitler was a real, living menace—Kim Jong Il times 100—to be fought with every weapon from air raids to ridicule.

The popular culture of the day, puerile as it sometimes was ("Whistle while you work/Hitler is a jerk"), nailed the absurd aspect of Nazism in a way that now seems—and it's an odd word to use—irreverent. Walt Disney's 1942 animated cartoon "Der Fuehrer's Face" confronted Hitler with an ideal antagonist—the babbling, short-fused Donald Duck. (Could 1940s Americans watch newsreels of Hitler ranting without thinking of a Donald Duck tantrum?) That same year, in the comedy "To Be or Not to Be," expatriate German director Ernst Lubitsch cast Jewish comedian Jack Benny as a Polish actor who's forced to impersonate the commandant of a concentration camp. (Yes, a comedy. But Benny's own father left the theater when he saw Jack in uniform.) The archetypal comic Nazi was pompous, rigid, machinelike and absolutely unaware he was preposterous. Like other comic archetypes—the absent-minded professor, the overweight Don Juan—he and reality had gone their separate ways. Real Nazis weren't funny, but they had lost human citizenship by neglecting the residency requirement.

Holocaust scholarship seems incompatible with humor—and "comic relief" would be obscene. But Friedländer allows himself a periodic flash of wit: after a staggeringly stupid dispute over the Aryanness of the name of some textile firm, he writes, Martin Bormann "reached a Solomonic decision, if one dare say." His attentiveness to irony gives an otherwise solemn history moments of sinister zaniness. Himmler, on easing the stress of hands-on mass murder: "Evenings should be devoted to music, to lectures and to introducing our men into the beautiful domains of German spiritual and emotional life." Hitler, discussing the Final Solution with a couple of henchmen: "I am so immensely humane ... I only say, 'The Jew must go.' If he is destroyed in the process, I can't help it. I see only one thing: total extermination, if they do not leave voluntarily." (This was in 1942, as the Nazis cut off all escape routes.) Again, Himmler, explaining how the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising confirms what he's been saying for years: "This whole fun will probably not last long. One sees though what one may expect from the Jews when they manage to set their hands on weapons."

As Himmler's last remark suggests, many of the Nazis' anti-Semitic rants can be read as unwitting self-portraits. (Wait, who shouldn't have gotten their hands on weapons?) In a 1944 address to military officers, Hitler announced: "Gentlemen, we are in a life-or-death struggle. If our opponents are victorious in this struggle, the German people will be eradicated. Bolshevism [to Hitler, merely a cat's-paw for Judaism] would slaughter millions and millions of our intellectuals. Anyone not dying through a shot in the neck would be deported. The children of the upper classes would be taken away and eliminated." (Wait, who's deporting and slaughtering millions?) In describing his own work, propagandist Joseph Goebbels used the same metaphor of infection he'd often used against the Jews: "I will tell [Hitler] how important the place of anti-Semitic propaganda is in our foreign broadcasts ... The anti-Semitic bacteria are naturally present in the entire European public; we need only make them more virulent."

Even the Nazis' creepy fascination with Jewish bodies—dissecting them, collecting the skeletons—suggests a perverse sense of intimacy and identification. So does their obsession with preserving ghetto life on film. If Hitler had won the war, Europeans would now be visiting his Jewish Museum, in Prague. By the end of the war, it had some 200,000 artifacts. But, as Friedländer notes (with an arched eyebrow), one key administrator "soon had to leave his cultural endeavors to become the last commandant of Theresienstadt."

The Nazis were maddest not when they were sadistic, but when they were systematic—stereotypical orderly Germans on crack. They meticulously recorded the names and ages of those they were annihilating, and counted them obsessively; Himmler berated statisticians who "have consistently fallen short of professional standards of precision." Their efficiency soon overwhelmed them: forced-labor camps began to overflow, and Auschwitz burned out three of its four crematoriums. Transporting millions to their deaths diverted resources and personnel from the real-world war, against Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. Later, they realized the war was lost, and that they would have to answer for their services to the Reich—which they'd clearly known were crimes in the real world, but not in the world they were imagining. They tried in vain to kill all the witnesses, dig up and burn all the buried corpses, destroy all the crematoriums. Himmler was mad enough to think that he could negotiate with the Allies, set free a few thousand Jews and—do what? Get on with his life?

It's not hard to guess where all the insanity must ultimately have originated: by looking at a fellow human and seeing an abstraction called "The Jew." That fantasy displaced reality when, in Friedländer's account, a charismatic demagogue met a traditionally anti-Semitic culture that was ripe for an enemy. After that, everything else became thinkable, then doable. Before the sane and the innocent understood what had happened, the real world had disappeared and Zalman Gradowski found himself shoveling out its ashes. All he could do was refuse to avert his eyes.