Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is observed within the Jewish world this year from sundown, Sunday, May 1 until nightfall of May 2nd.
Four years ago, I engaged in an inexact but illuminating exercise to get at the immensity of the Holocaust. Using the approximate start date of June 22, 1941, the beginning of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union—when the Einsatzgruppen began their mass shootings of whole communities—I calculated that an average of over 29,000 Jews were murdered each week until the war ended on May 8, 1945. This was over 4,000 per day; in other words, the European Jewish population of 11 million suffered the equivalent of more than one and a third 9/11 size catastrophes everyday for three years and ten months. (The Jews of the world have still not quite recovered to equal the pre-Holocaust population of 18 million.)
The height of this slaughter occurred during the summer of 1944, with the gassing of 12,000 Hungarian Jews per day (over 300,000 in total) in Auschwitz. This occurred despite the Herculean efforts of two escapees from Auschwitz, Rudolph Vrba and Fred Wetzler, who reported in great detail on the death camp’s operations and the fact that the Jews of Hungary were the Nazis’ next target. But their efforts ultimately saved about 120,000 Jews, making this (in effect) the most successful rescue of the war.
This entire incredible tale is depicted in an hour-long documentary telecast this week on the US Public Broadcasting System (PBS). In the words of the program’s transcript:
On June 15th, the BBC broadcast the horrific details of the [Vrba-Wetzler] report. Five days later, extracts were published in the New York Times. …
America’s first official response was to threaten reprisals against anyone involved in the Hungarian deportations. The Vatican added the Pope’s condemnation. …
On July 2nd, the US Air Force attacked Budapest, raining bombs on the Hungarian capital. Horthy [the Nazi-allied Hungarian head of state] believed the raid was punishment for his refusal to stop the deportations. But in fact, the timing was a complete coincidence.
…. The trains ground to a halt. …
Among the knowledgeable talking heads are the renowned historians, Martin Gilbert and Yehuda Bauer. The latter is a left-Zionist Israeli, long associated with the kibbutz movement, Mapam (the socialist-Zionist party) and its current successor, the Meretz party.
One thing that amazes me is that despite the fact that the Allies now knew of the Holocaust, when the concentration camps were finally overrun and liberated in 1945, the soldiers reacted as if this was a complete surprise. My feeling is that it’s because the revelations on the BBC and in the NY Times were not frequently repeated (if at all) and the Allies never made the saving of Jewish lives a priority.
The “Escape from Auschwitz” documentary also touches upon the complicated story of Rudolph Kastner or Kasztner, a Jewish community representative who attempted to make a deal with Eichmann to save the Jews of Hungary, and did in fact succeed in saving one trainload of about 1600 (in other words, according to Martin Gilbert, more than Oscar Schindler saved).
But the fact that so many Hungarian Jews were not saved and that he was accused (understandable but probably unjustly) of favoring a handful of Jews, including his own family, incited great anger against him. The tragic tale of the court case he fought and lost in Israel, and of him becoming a political fall guy and murder victim there, was depicted in a documentary film reviewed in The Forward by a scholarly member of the Meretz USA board, Jerome Chanes, in 2009.
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