The Shoah, Hebrew for catastrophe, means the Holocaust to most Jews, especially Hebrew-speaking Israelis. And it remains a focus of attention seventy years after the camps were liberated of their last survivors. Partly because, despite genocides of the past, the Shoah was unique. There was never anything like it before.
Partly also because as Nickolaus Wachsmann says in his new KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, which ably demonstrates how Auschwitz, the central camp of modern memory, was only one of many, much of the extant evidence of the camps is only now coming to light. As Nazi records long hidden in the former Soviet Union are finally uncovered and analyzed. As survivors, nearing their ends, finally speak.
And, as always, there’s lingering fascination with the Nazi brand of systematic, industrialized murder—even in the face of today’s ISIS, freelance Jihadis, and wholesale African tribal slayings.
“Wachsmann’s discussion of the fate of children in the camps is the hardest to endure. Here we read about the special barrack in Majdanek for children and babies. The SS regularly emptied the barrack, sending the children to the gas chamber. ‘The children screamed and did not want to go,’ the Majdanek survivor Henrika Mitron remembered. On the way to Auschwitz, Wachsmann writes, another child, ‘little Samuel Langfus sobbed inconsolably, screaming again and again: ‘I want to live!’ ”
As comprehensive as Wachsmann’s 880-page history is, even he cannot encompass it all: “Wachsmann omits from his history the death factories the Nazis built on Polish soil in late 1941 and 1942: Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka. These were never work camps, but rather extermination centers for the Jews of Europe. They can be classed with the work of the Einsatzgrüppen who swept across conquered Soviet territory in these years and who murdered with bullets nearly half the Jews who were to die in the Holocaust.”
UPDATE: Another, perhaps unique, take on the Shoah, from the diaries, letters and reports of the Nazi perpetrators whose ordinariness (quite without horns, tails or fangs) is especially chilling.