Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Forgotten Holocaust in the East

Tim Snyder (whose magnificent Eastern European history lecture course I took in college) on the perils of letting Auschwitz dominate our consciousness of the Holocaust:

The very reasons that we know something about Auschwitz warp our understanding of the Holocaust: we know about Auschwitz because there were survivors, and there were survivors because Auschwitz was a labor camp as well as a death factory. These survivors were largely West European Jews, because Auschwitz is where West European Jews were usually sent. After World War II, West European Jewish survivors were free to write and publish as they liked, whereas East European Jewish survivors, if caught behind the iron curtain, could not. In the West, memoirs of the Holocaust could (although very slowly) enter into historical writing and public consciousness.

As horrible as it was, Auschwitz was only a small part of the Holocaust. Few Polish Jews and almost no Soviet Jews (the two largest groups of victims) died at Auschwitz. Several years ago while visiting an overgrown, out-of-the-way and almost completely anonymous mass grave outside Svencionys, Lithuania, it struck me, as it strikes Snyder, that here are victims who have no Primo Levi to represent them, but whose story needs to be told, too.