Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Holocaust Remembrance Week 2008--Not Just Auschwitz

Where we're running a series of posts in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year is on Friday, May 2.

I used a poem for the art in Monday's Holocaust Remembrance post, so today I'll use a painting.

I remember learning about this painting (right)--Lager, 1982--while in Germany. It's by Sigmar Polke and I was shown it as a contrast to the majority of the art that was coming out of Germany after World War II. Artists struggled for decades to incorporate some kind of coherent German aesthetic into their work--considering the country was divided, history (which makes identity) was burdensome, and a cloud of guilt followed everyone wasn't an easy task.

Yet their attempts were, in my opinion, a reflection of the nation's (and world's) reaction to what had happened from 1933-1945. Look at these cheerful works by Ernst Wilhelm Nay, for example. They reek of rationalization and ignorance to me. Or how about the famous "Concept Spatiale" (1959) by Italian Lucio Fontana? Sort of a creative way to get your anger out, don't you think?

The point is, I think that S. Polke's painting above is a more mature reaction to Germany's history. That it was painted in 1982 is meaningful, for by then there was time for an entire generation to come between the now and the Holocaust.

The reason why it is mature to me is that it is able to acknowledge the horror and the grotesqueness of the Holocaust and its concentration camp system--the fact that there is such an explicit rendering of a camp is itself important--while also pointing to the gray area in what the Holocaust really was. Whether he masked the area where the prisoners would be as a statement of victim anonymity, Germany's ignorance, or simply because their suffering is as dark as their cover--I don't know.

Even though the painting features a concentration camp, I wanted to write today a bit about how the concentration camp system is overstudied. The fact is that the Holocaust is far more than the forced labor, or the extermination camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The death camps are the most visible aspect of the Holocaust. And I wouldn't dispute the validity of this focus. But the fact is that the Einsatzgruppen also killed about one million Jews, the same number as Auschwitz.

Einsatzgruppen means "task force" in German, and they were in effect a special unit. As the German armies pushed East into Russia in 1941, these units filled in behind and disposed of the Jews in former Russian/Polish territories. They eventually became mobile killing units.

At first, these units killed mostly male Jews because the pretext that they were only killing political and physical threats still sufficed. The Germans also encouraged local anti-Jewish pogroms so that Jewish deaths could appear to be the result of grassroots hate.

But then Heinrich Himmler (who was in charge of the Einsatzgruppen) and others in charge decided they didn't want an entire generation of avengers to reach adulthood, and they began killing everybody.

Some of the killings you have probably heard about--Babi Yar, or "Erntefest"--and I don't think I have to go into much detail regarding the methods of killing or number dead, etc.

Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men, which I've linked to in numerous previous posts already, describes one such unit in thorough disgusting detail. He tells of the amount of alcohol that was distributed by the higher-ups before the killings, and about how the previously regular German police forces were hardened and transformed into cold blooded mass murderers.

I wanted to write all this up so that when we think of the categorical destruction of the Jews in the Holocaust, we think of more than just the concentration camps, the death camps, and the ghettos. The fact that these units were created specifically to round up civilians in former Russian territories and summarily kill them tells a whole other story.

It deepens our understanding of the Nazi plan to kill the Jews and helps us recognize the abhorrent ways they went about it. After all, these were eye-to-eye deaths. Human-to-human. This wasn't about pressing bodies into a gas chamber and shutting the door.

This was about killing one person at a person at a time...

...and they killed 1.3 million this way.