1 year ago




HOLOCAUST EDUCATION IN PEDAGOGY, HISTORY, AND PRACTICE 70 It is important here to note that Kertész referred to the importance of Auschwitz in the “story” or “tale” of the Holocaust, and not in Holocaust fiction—that is novels that use the Nazi-dominated Europa as the stage and the persecution of the Jews as a background. He had in mind the stories that people actually tell each other, and not those that are intricate works of art created draft by draft. He thought of stories that are shared, and that bring people together into a community, and that, therefore, must have a simple, linear and memorable structure that suggests that the world has an order, and purpose, and that, therefore, even the unavoidable pain, loss and suffering has meaning. 11 When Kertész reflected on the centrality of Auschwitz in the story of the Holocaust, he had in mind such meaning-giving tales—tales like Elie Wiesel’s story Night or Claude Lanzmann’s 10-hour movie Shoah or Art Spiegelmann’s comic book Maus, or the thousands of stories told by survivors in their family circle, in schools, synagogues and in front of camera teams creating the great oral history archives. These are the stories that have shaped, and continue to shape, our post-Auschwitz civilization. As a teacher who understands his vocation as akin to that of a story-teller, I appreciate the idea that the “spirit of story-telling” may be responsible for having chosen Auschwitz. But as a historian, I also need additional reasons which can be understood through reason and verified with empirical methods. I count ten such reasons why Auschwitz became so central to our understanding of the twentieth century as the Age of the Camps. I’ll enumerate them one-by-one. 1 Number of Victims Auschwitz was the site where the single largest group of Jews were murdered. According to Raul Hilberg’s rather conservative figures, which I hold to be the most reliable estimate of total Jewish deaths, the Holocaust claimed 5.1 million Jewish lives: over 800,000 Jews died as the result of ghettoization and general privation, over 1.3 million were murdered in open-air shootings, and up to 3 million died in the camps, mostly in gas chambers. Of these, Auschwitz had the highest mortality with 1 million Jews, followed by Treblinka and Belzec with 750,000 and 550,000 Jews respectively. 12

2 Scope of Nationalities Auschwitz was also the destination to a greater national range of Jews than any other. From at least twelve European countries Jews were deported to Auschwitz, and as such the history of Auschwitz testifies to the pan-European character of the Holocaust. In addition, Auschwitz was a place where the Germans killed tens of thousands of non-Jewish Poles, Sinti and Romani, and Soviet prisoners of war. These people died with Jews and died the death of the Jews, and as such gave Auschwitz a particularly universal character. 3 Modernity Auschwitz was in its technology and organization thoroughly “modern.” Many have interpreted Auschwitz as the juncture where the European industrial system went awry. As the nexus of technological prowess, bureaucratic discipline and ideological determination, Auschwitz was not only thoroughly modern, but also “civilized.” The architects who designed the camp were university graduates, like the doctors who conducted the selections. Only in Auschwitz did modern, well-designed crematoria become the sites of continuous murder. These buildings offered in their logical arrangement of undressing rooms, gas chambers, and crematoria ovens a carefully thought-out production facility of death. As the question of the beneficial and/or perditious nature of modernity lies at the heart of our interpretation of the twentieth century, the modernity of Auschwitz places it at the center. 13 71 HOLOCAUST EDUCATION IN PEDAGOGY, HISTORY, AND PRACTICE 4 Iconography The crematoria, with their chimneys, were also powerful symbolic images of destruction. In the Jewish memory of the genocide, the traditional symbolic images of fire and smoke, which are associated with the stake on which Jews were burnt in earlier times, predominate. Hence also the ease with which first English-speaking Jews and later Jews in the diaspora as a whole accepted the term “Holocaust” as the proper way to refer to the murder of the six million. André Schwarz-Bart’s novel The Last of the Just (1959)

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