Why Is Remembering the Non-Jewish Victims Important to All?
American Jews are often chastised for their focus on the Holocaust. They are criticized, as well, for their focus on Jewish suffering during World War Two, to the exclusion of the suffering of others targeted by the Nazis. What about the Nazis' non-Jewish victims, people ask? What about the communists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Gypsies?
An example of this exclusive focus: in 2003, Bozenna Urbanowicz-Gilbride resigned from the National Polish-American Jewish-American Council. Urbanowicz-Gilbride had referred to herself as a "Polish Catholic Holocaust survivor." The Council objected to Urbanowicz-Gilbride's self-identification. In supporting the Council's decision to refuse to allow Urbanowicz-Gilbride to refer to herself as a "Holocaust survivor," the Polish-American priest John T. Pawlikowski said, "The USHMM recognizes only the six million Jews as victims of the Holocaust."
One might conclude that it is unfair to insist on an exclusive focus on Jewish suffering and to reject recognition of Polish Catholic victims. In fact, though, any fair assessment of American Jewish focus on the Holocaust, and on Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, will recognize several historical factors. First, before the Holocaust began, America and the Western World did not accord Hitler's rise, or his anti-Semitic threats, the attention that they deserved. One reason for that is that anti-Semitism and other forms of racism were widespread in the West. In fact, the American Scientific Racism movement, largely a response to immigrants to America from Eastern and Southern Europe, had supplied Nazism with key ideas, texts, laws, procedures, justifications and precedents. Hitler's threats against Jews, Slavs, communists and others were all too acceptable to too many in America, England, France, and other Western nations. People had been trained to view Jews and Slavs as inferior people, as troublemakers, who might benefit from the strong, disciplined hand of a superior race, the Germans.
During the war, the Holocaust did not receive the attention that it should have. One book addressing this is aptly entitled: "Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper." The title indicts the New York Times for the crime of not paying enough attention to the Holocaust of European Jewry while it was happening. Polish-Jewish novelist Jerzy Kosinski and historian Peter Novick bitterly observed that the American press and public accorded the Holocaust much more attention decades after World War Two ended than during the actual event.
One might think that the world would have put its anti-Semitism away and learned to show compassion to Jewish victims after the Holocaust. If US Army footage of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp could not open human hearts, what might? Sadly, the world was still anti-Semitic enough after World War Two that the most famous Holocaust account, the diary of Anne Frank, was tweaked in order to make Anne appear less Jewish. The excellent 2004 documentary "Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust," describes Jewish Hollywood studio moguls who often chose, before, during and even after the war to pay scant attention to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust.
That's what was going on in the West. The situation was even worse under the Soviet Empire. From the end of World War Two until 1989, Auschwitz, as well as Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek, Chelmno, the Warsaw Ghetto, the Lodz Ghetto, all located in Poland, were all under Soviet influence. The Soviets were even less invested in representational, historical truth than the West. They blatantly manipulated the facts of the Holocaust to meet their own ideological needs, needs that changed as political winds changed.
If the Soviet system demanded that the Jewish identity of Auschwitz victims be underplayed, or even erased, then that is what happened. Tourists who visited Auschwitz during communist days were told that Auschwitz's victims were "enemies of fascism."
Finally, there is a very good reason that Jewish suffering must be emphasized: the Nazis murdered Jews with a thoroughness that they did not devote to other groups. The Nazis murdered over sixty percent of the Jews in Europe. Poland was a cradle of European Jewish civilization. There, Jewish cultural and biological life was all but completely snuffed out.
American Jews who emphasize the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust are mindful of the above history. They know that the world did not pay enough attention to Jewish victims when that attention might have saved lives. They don't want the murderous anti-Semitism and indifference of the past to be allowed to continue. They want the world to know about the six million Jews murdered under Nazism, and it is right for them to work as hard as they can to get that message out.
Again, there are very good reasons for American Jews to focus on Jewish suffering during World War Two. A problem has resulted from this approach, however. After schoolchildren learn the number "six million," they sometimes learn another number, "eleven million." That number invites the inquisitive schoolchild to reflect: what about the other five million? Who were they? Why were they killed? What is their story? The sad truth is, in the same way, as described above, that the facts of Jewish suffering under the Nazis have been politicized and distorted in order to meet ideological ends, the facts of the suffering of the "others" – the five million others – have also been politicized and distorted to meet ideological ends.
Just one example: in 1989, Commonweal, a Catholic publication, ran an article, "Close Enough to Step on Toes," attempting to explain the then-current controversy over the establishment of a cloistered convent near the Auschwitz concentration camp. Leon Klenicki, "director of the department of interfaith affairs of the Anti-Defamation League and liaison representative to the Vatican" stated that, during World War Two, "Poles were killed by accident … there was not a national ideology leading to the destruction of the total Polish population." Commonweal offered no corrective to this false and misleading statement. One must not forget that Commonweal is a Catholic publication that a Catholic publication participated in the distortion of Polish realities during World War Two.
Years later I received an instructive warning from an editor about to publish my own work addressing Polish victimization during World War Two. I had referenced Adolph Hitler's famous "Armenian quote," including these words, "I have placed my death-head formation in readiness – for the present only in the East – with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language." I mentioned, also, that the Nazis had stockpiled enough Zyklon B to kill twenty million people – much more than was needed to kill Jews alone. My editor adjured me to eliminate the Armenian quote, and the reference to the large amount of Zyklon B the Nazis had stockpiled. If it appeared that I was focusing too much on Polish suffering under the Nazis, I was warned; I would never publish, and never be read.
Into this dangerous breach steps the heroic Teresa Pencak Schwartz and her courageous and unique work on the Forgotten Holocaust, a name she has given to the five million non-Jewish victims of the Nazis. In spite of every considerable obstacle, including condemnation and marginalization, Pencak Schwartz has shown the remarkable determination to tell a story that must be told.
Why must this story be told?
Why must this story be told, one might ask? Given that the Nazis' industrial slaughter of six million Jews is so historically important, and, indeed, so riveting of human consciousness, so important to our ethical conscience, why spend any time on non-Jews? Why not just write off the Nazi murder of non-Jews, as Commonweal magazine was willing to do, as "accidents"?
Sometimes people dismiss my own work on stereotyping of Poles as unimportant because, they insist, it really is just all about "Suffering Olympics." In fact, in the unfortunate, and yet typical, Commonweal article cited above, that's exactly how Polish suffering was written off: "It becomes a matter of perception, of saying 'I suffered more than you.'" The use of the word "perception" is interesting. This approach is often used when Polish non-Jews mention their victimization under the Nazis. Jews, it is acknowledged, really did suffer. Poles, "perceive" themselves to have suffered.
James Carroll's "Constantine's Sword" won the 2001 National Jewish Book Award. In it Carroll wrote that "Polish Catholicism is particularly inclined to define itself around the idea of its victimhood." Jews really suffered under the Nazis; Polish non-Jewish "perceive" themselves to have suffered; They "define" themselves as having suffered; They want to compete in a Suffering Olympics; They want to say, "I suffered more than you". Too often, any mention of simple historical realities about the Nazi victimization of non-Jews is dismissed using these denigrating tropes. Another method used to dismiss and denigrate any mention of the suffering of non-Jews is to insist that the speaker is a chauvinist, interested only in "protecting Poland's good name," or, alternately, in "protecting Christianity's good name" or "Catholicism's good name."
It is difficult to penetrate this thicket of hostility to the story of the Nazi victimization of non-Jews, but Terese Pencak Schwartz has done so, admirably. Pencak Schwartz's success is to everyone's benefit; without the kind of information that she insists on presenting, we cannot begin to understand what we do know of the Nazis, or of the Holocaust. The exclusion of the history of the Nazi victimization of non-Jews has resulted in a de facto revision of Nazi, World War Two, and Holocaust history, and, indeed, a de facto revision of immigration history and Jewish-Christian relations.
Every semester, I ask my university students, "What was the first and last group of people the Nazis mass murdered?" They are confident of their reply. "The Jews," they say, without hesitation. Some, adopting an air that indicates that they imagine themselves privy to information others lack, report "Homosexuals," or "Communists."
No one ever gets it correct. I ask others, as well, including the PhDs among my colleagues. They don't know, either. The first and last group that the Nazis murdered was handicapped people. When I tell my interlocutors this, they are shocked. They assume I am wrong. They promise me that they will google this question. How could they be so misinformed about something so important? Often they ask, "But what do Christians have against handicapped people?" They ask this because they believe, without question, that Nazism was merely an extension of Christian hostility to Jews.
This idea is epitomized in Pastor A. Roy Eckardt's characterization of John's Gospel as "the road to Auschwitz." Christian sins against Jews are legion and cannot be forgotten. But characterizing Nazism as an extension of Christianity is historical revisionism of epic proportions. This mischaracterization of both Nazism and Christianity prevents those blinded by it from seeing Nazism for what it really was.
It makes perfect sense for the Nazis to have mass murdered handicapped people first and last. That mass murder is entirely in line with Nazi ideology. The Nazis, as Richard Weikart demonstrated in "Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress," founded their genocides on a consistent ethic. Their ethic was inspired by atheism, neo-Paganism, and Scientific Racism. Their ethic was voiced before Hitler ever rose to power, by the Scientific Racists in the US who reacted with horror to new, undesirable, peasant immigrants from places like Poland and Italy. Before Hitler, Madison Grant, an American Scientific Racist, argued for the "elimination of the unfit." Lothrop Stoddard, Kenneth L. Roberts, and Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, presented Scientific Racist ideas that were embraced by Ivy League universities, the mainstream and scholarly press, and American presidents. The one institution conspicuous by its resistance to Scientific Racism was the Catholic Church. For their resistance, Christians who protested against Grant's placement of a human being in the Bronx Zoo were denounced in the New York Times as behind the times and unaccepting of modern science.
We need to understand Nazism, and we will not do so until as many people who know the number "six million" also know the number "five million." We need to know that the five million were not killed "by accident" but very much in line with Nazi ideology. Terese Pencak Schwartz is a heroine in this battle for truth and understanding.