ALEX MAWS: From the Holocaust Educational Trust, I’m Alex Maws and this is the 70 Voices podcast. 70 Voices is a digital commemorative project from the Holocaust Educational Trust marking 70 years since the end of the Holocaust by documenting its history through 70 unique sources. Follow the project as it unfolds online at www.70voices.org.uk or download the 70 Voices app available for most smartphones and tablets. I’m joined this week by Martin Winstone, my colleague from the Holocaust Educational Trust, who researched 70 Voices. I think we should start our first episode of this 70 Voices podcast, Martin, by talking a little bit about the 70 Voices project itself. This is our first podcast of the series that’s specifically designed to accompany our new technological platform, and to those of you who are listening to this podcast at the end of our first week of 70 Voices updates on our app, congratulations, you’re the early adopters, and to those of you who might be discovering us a little bit later on, you’re very welcome as well and we do hope that you’ll catch up. Now, Martin, you literally wrote the book on Holocaust sites, it’s called The Holocaust Sites of Europe. It documents hundreds, I think, of sites and commemorative spaces around Europe, and now you’ve actually helped to create a commemorative space but a very different type of commemorative space, a digital one. So, what do you think are the prospects for digital commemoration, is this a valid form of commemoration like anywhere else?
MARTIN WINSTONE: I think so because I think, ultimately, what any form of commemoration comes down to is, really, content. The content that’s included in this 70 Voices project is essentially text which is taken from a wide variety of sources: from archives, from books, both things which were written during the era of the Holocaust and later on. I think having a digital project of this sort actually enables all of these materials to be brought together all in one place. No one really has the time or the energy to be able to access every single important or significant source related to the Holocaust, but hopefully by bringing them together in this format, in a very accessible format, it will enable users to have a much better understanding of the history of the Holocaust, and not just the history, but, I think, what the Holocaust can tell us about issues such as human behaviour which I think is what you will find one of the themes that run through this. And, in a way, I suppose, almost the project is quite traditional in a sense that there are a lot of historical documents here, but they are presented, hopefully, in an attractive (both in terms of the design but also in terms of the manner in which they’re edited to be very readable) form in which people will be able to understand and thereby to better comprehend. The very first voice that we have this week is Zalman Gradowski who was a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau who wrote a manuscript whilst working in the most horrific conditions in Auschwitz. He wrote that he knew he was going to die, he was writing for the future, he wanted people to comprehend the reality, and he was writing on scraps of paper he’d found amidst the immense destruction of Auschwitz – essentially it’s not so much the medium that is the important thing but really the content.
AM: Very well put. You know, I think, better than anyone that there are all manner of different ways of commemorating the Holocaust; some sites are very interpretive and abstract and some are much more literal. You said in your response just a moment ago that this is a very content-heavy type of commemoration and I think that’s very appropriate but, you know, I think one of the, well, there’s probably no right or wrong way to commemorate anything and there are examples of all different varieties of Holocaust commemorations whether they be events or places. I do think it’s fair to say that it’s very hard for anyone to commemorate something that they don’t actually know anything about, and so one of the key underlying aims of the 70 Voices project is really just to ensure that we are learning while we are reflecting and while we’re remembering.
MW: Absolutely, I think so. And, there is, it might seem strange, but there is still so much that all of us really don’t know about the Holocaust because it is such a vast event, and an event that was unprecedented in scale and we’ll maybe come back to. We are still always finding things out. But I think also another factor that runs alongside this is, very deliberately, by focusing on this idea of voices, we are hopefully reminding readers that the Holocaust is not something that’s abstract, that we are talking about real people, people from very different backgrounds, people as we will see who had very different roles in the history of the Holocaust. But every single one of those people who was involved was an individual just like us, and it’s very easy - as some of the content has stressed this week - to think in terms of the Holocaust in terms of big abstract numbers, but we need to remember that behind those numbers there are all of these personal stories. And as users go through the weeks ahead hopefully they will see those stories begin to come through quite powerfully.
AM: You said that there’s still so much that we’re still learning about the Holocaust and when we talk in our field about this term ‘the contemporary relevance’, to me that is one of the key points that makes the Holocaust so contemporarily relevant. It’s not something that’s just in history that we can draw a line under and can say “We know everything there is to know about it”, we’re still learning so much about it, it’s still very much a part of the world in which we live in. And so that’s very important. And I think that’s actually a good segue as well to the theme of this, our first week of the 70 Voices commemorations, and, really, we wanted to start off thematically by just getting at the issue of ‘What is the Holocaust?’ And as someone who does a lot of educational work with students and also teacher training, I would say this fundamental underlying point is probably one of the most common areas of misconception, isn’t it? And I think, fair enough, there isn’t a formal universally agreed upon definition of the word Holocaust, the word itself is quite problematic. Can you talk a little about what the definition of the Holocaust is and how others define it?
MW: Yes, maybe if I start with the word itself which comes from classical Greek which essentially means a burnt sacrifice, a burnt whole literally, but this refers to sacrificial practices amongst the Greeks and amongst early Jewish communities. That in itself is problematic for some people, to use this term for the loss of life on such an immense scale. I think in terms of the semantics of it, the word Holocaust, over time came to be used for a major catastrophe, a great disaster, and after the Second World War people began particularly to apply this term to the murder of Europe’s Jews. And today, that pretty much is what it means, that is the established term of the murder of approximately 6 million Jewish men, women and children.
There are sometimes, we often find, people who use broader definitions because, of course, Jews were not the only victims of the Nazis; millions of other people, for example more than 3 million Soviet prisoners of war lost their lives in Nazi captivity. Other major victim groups are eastern European civilians, Sinti and Roma, people with disabilities. They absolutely were all victims of horrific persecution and ultimately murder under the Nazis. At the same time, though, as we use the term Holocaust, and certainly as most historians use it, it is ultimately, although there might be nuances here and there, it is ultimately the murder of the Jews. That’s not to belittle in any sense the experiences of other people; we can’t say that one group’s suffering was worse than another; murder is murder. But I think pretty much most historians would say there is something different that happened to the Jews and rightly or wrongly, the term Holocaust is the word that has become used to describe that.
And I think as you say, it’s absolutely important when people think about this issue they are precise in the definitions they use, so it’s thinking about why is it that the Holocaust is somehow, in certain respects, different to the experiences of other victim groups. And only by thinking about each victim groups’ experiences on their own terms can we really comprehend them, because different groups of people were persecuted for different reasons and ultimately the form that persecution took varied quite considerably.
AM: Absolutely. As we are recording this, it’s in the lead up to Holocaust Memorial Day here in the UK and many other countries around the world. I know that in the UK our Holocaust Memorial Day tends to commemorate the Jewish victims of Nazi persecution and others as well. I think that many other people tend to look at the Holocaust as an all-inclusive term with absolutely the best of intentions. It’s not that they’re trying to either exclude certain groups or be overly inclusive and lump everyone into this term that then ultimately becomes meaningless. I take your point that ultimately, we need to be specific, that different groups of Nazi persecution were persecuted for different reasons, their experience as victims was different depending on which victim group they may have come from and of course, many other factors, factors relating to time and place and things like that. So it’s very difficult to try and pin down a specific definition. How do historians and academics tend to delineate?
MW: Well, I think that ultimately, virtually all academics would tend to use the word Holocaust for the murder of Jews and it comes down to partly the questions of reasons for persecution but ultimately I think more importantly to the aims of the Nazis and the consequent form that that persecution took. So that although racism was at the heart of the Nazi world view and that led to the persecution of many groups of people, for example people with disabilities, Germans and Austrians with disabilities, were murdered from 1939 onwards and that was for very directly racist reasons because it was considered they were weakening the racial purity of the German nation.
With Jews there’s something slightly different I think here, which influences how people definite the Holocaust. One of the greatest historians of the Holocaust, who himself is a survivor, is Saul Freidländer who grew up in Prague, lived in hiding during the Second World War, and he developed this term that he called ‘redemptive antisemitism’. Of course, antisemitism existed sadly for a millennium at least. But in the eyes of the Nazis there was this view of Jews as somehow uniquely evil, Jews were the existential enemy of, certainly, of Germany in Nazi eyes, but essentially of European civilisation. So in that world view, Jews were a threat to the survival of European culture and therefore ultimately the Nazis came to the view that one way or another that threat had to be eliminated. And, although it sounds terrible, that with other forms of Nazi persecution and maybe with other genocides that have happened subsequently, the motives can somehow be seen as utilitarian – which doesn’t justify them at all – but it was seen, as for example the starvation of citizens in the Soviet Union in the Second World War was justified partly on the basis that the food was needed by Germany, whereas with Jews, its driven by ideology in which this idea that the Jews, all of them, have to be eliminated. And that then leads into what I think is ultimately what I think is the distinctive feature of the Holocaust which to some extent separates it from other forms of Nazi persecution and from previous and later genocides, which is the attempt to murder every single Jew, which was not actually the case with any other victim group of the Nazis and generally has not been the case with other genocides.
We tend to say “The Nazis aimed to murder every Jewish man, woman and child in Europe”. In fact, really, beyond: there were Jews living in France’s colonies in Africa who were also victims; the Nazis had plans, had they been victorious in Egypt, to go into British Mandate Palestine to murder the Jewish community there. That totality - the idea of murdering every single person who belonged to a particular group – as an aim was unprecedented, and sadly there have been many genocides since and, as you said, in Britain, with our Holocaust Memorial Day, we also have commemoration of some subsequent genocides and each of those is clearly an immense tragedy. At the same time though, as I said, there is this distinctiveness about the Holocaust and also the idea of murdering every single Jew also gives the Holocaust a scale which is perhaps greater than other genocides. Not just numerical scale, but also geographical. For example, the Armenian genocide in the First World War was concentrated in one particular area of the Ottoman Empire; there were other areas of the empire where Armenians suffered persecution but they were not murdered. The Holocaust was across the whole of Europe, every country that was occupied by Nazi Germany, most countries that were allied to Nazi Germany and one – I don’t want to give too many spoilers – thing which may turn up in subsequent releases with the app is the Wannsee Conference in 1942.
AM: I don’t think that’s a spoiler!
MW: Some people may have heard of this. Where the Nazis essentially, they didn’t decide on the Holocaust, as is sometimes suggested, at Wannsee, but more said about how they could coordinate this programme of mass murder. And in the minutes of the conference they included a document which was circulated to participants which listed the estimated Jewish population of every country in Europe, not just occupied or allied countries but also neutral countries like Sweden or Switzerland and combatant countries fighting against the Nazis such as Great Britain. So that sense of trying to wipe out an entire group of people across the continent, and also that means an entire culture: one of the readings this week, the poem about the Jewish Shtetl by an anonymous author, talks about this loss of community and culture. Maybe I was wrong to say an entire culture, we’re talking really about cultures and communities because Jews lived in every country in Europe. Jewish communities in most of those countries had existed for centuries and developed very distinctive cultures which were often very different to each other – and the aim of the Nazis was to completely wipe those out. Sadly, in many parts of Europe, they pretty much did. To some extent, primarily in western Europe, fairly significant Jewish communities survived but in much of central and particularly eastern Europe, we are talking more than 95% of the Jewish communities were wiped out.
AM: It’s an important point you make. I notice that you used the word ‘unprecedented’ a few times and I know this is something that I’ve heard the eminent historian Yehuda Bauer use. At one point in his career he referred to the Holocaust as ‘unique’ but then sort of rethought his own views on that and sort of decided that a more appropriate word would be ‘unprecedented’. “It was the worst, the biggest, the most significant genocide that’s happened so far”, I once heard him say. Not necessarily unique, many of the other, many of the same components that existed in the Holocaust could be found elsewhere but certainly were unprecedented. I wanted to follow up on the point that you were just making about Jewish culture and the diversity of Jewish life – and this is something that we will talk about in future podcasts – as it relates to defining what the Holocaust actually is. There’s a point to raise which is that people often talk about Jews being murdered simply because of their religion. Now in fact, Jews weren’t actually murdered because of their religion, Nazi racial ideology was just that, it was based on a racial fear, on pseudoscience anyway, and I guess it’s an important distinction to make that Jews, whether they were particularly observant and religious or secular, they would have been persecuted either way.
MW: Absolutely, and I think that is such an important point to grasp. Many of the victims of the Holocaust, obviously, probably the vast majority of victims, were religious and defined themselves as Jewish, but ultimately it was what the Nazis considered that determined someone’s fate. So there were large numbers of people that were not particularly religious, not religious at all, or in some cases were Christians, who converted to Christianity or their families had converted to Christianity sometimes a generation or two earlier, but still in terms of Nazi racial theory that was irrelevant. And I think I mentioned earlier that antisemitism had a very long history. I think it’s an important point to grasp that’s what differentiates modern antisemitism in Europe from its historic predecessor; in earlier times in history Jews were persecuted because of their faith and the attitude of those who persecuted them was that “If you convert, if you become Christians, we will leave you alone”. Still, obviously, that’s appalling, but with Nazism that was irrelevant so there are well documented cases of people who saw themselves as Christians, sometimes didn’t see themselves as Jewish at all, but still being victims of Nazi mass murder.
Within Jewish communities as well, I mentioned that there were different Jewish communities and cultures in different countries, similarly, within each country there were often very wide differences, for example generational. Younger people across Europe tended to be slightly more secular than their parents’ or their grandparents’ generation and in a way Germany is the supreme example of a highly assimilated Jewish community; Germany’s Jewish community was a very small proportion of the population, less than 1% of the German people. We don’t want to generalise too much but certainly many German Jews, probably most, regarded themselves essentially as Germans, some of whom had a different faith to other Germans and some of whom actually didn’t. This is reflected, for example in the 1920s by extraordinarily high rates of supposedly mixed marriage, of Jews marrying non-Jews, and these people in disproportionate numbers had served in the German army in the First World War and been decorated for bravery, so people who saw themselves as patriotic Germans, to the Nazis that was all irrelevant. And so, again, that takes us back to this idea of the Holocaust being unprecedented; that victims were essentially determined by their persecutors, it was the Nazi definition of what makes someone a Jew that determined their fate and ultimately everyone who belonged to that group was earmarked for destruction.
You mentioned Yehuda Bauer who is the historian who has perhaps written most perceptively on this question of definitions, I have a quotation here from him where he says “The whole horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t” and I think that he’s right there, that sadly this is not a unique event in history in terms of murder and suffering, but he’s right to say that it’s unprecedented on this scale: seeking to eliminate an entire group of people is not something that had happened before and, thankfully, not something that has happened since despite all of the many appalling genocides there have been. I think that has huge implications. We have talked about individuality and humanising earlier and I think in a way this takes us back to this because the Holocaust is unprecedented essentially in terms of the number of victims but, equally, at the same time, to carry out mass murder on such an unprecedented scale also meant a vast number of perpetrators, and that is a theme that will be explored in subsequent weeks as well. When we were creating this something that had to be considered was ‘Do we want to include the voices of perpetrators?’ I think one can understand that there are good arguments perhaps not to but, ultimately, we do have to understand how this happened and what made it possible, and if we don’t think about perpetrators then either it just seems like some sort of, almost like a, natural disaster, a catastrophe that comes from nowhere or simply something that’s perpetrated by inhuman monsters; and by hearing the voices, as we will, of some of those perpetrators, we begin to understand that these were human beings just like ourselves who ultimately made moral choices; they were not forced to do this, and it’s that makes the Holocaust possible.
Going back to Yehuda Bauer, one of the reasons why he stressed this idea of the importance of thinking about and understanding the Holocaust is because it is the most extreme example of the what might be seen as the depravity of human behaviour, it helps us to understand about human nature in those extremes, it helps us to understand what human beings are capable of and we have to try to understand that. Both because we owe it to the victims whose voices are represented in amongst these 70 voices but also we owe it to help us to understand what it is to be human.
AM: Absolutely. We’re almost out of time but I’m very excited about this, our first podcast and the first week of 70 Voices. So I was wondering just briefly maybe if you could just tell us as the person who did the research, who came up with all of the different voices, the different daily stories that we’re getting through the app and on the website. Just talk briefly about some of what we’ve read this week and how did you go about choosing those particular sources?
MW: Choosing them was very difficult. I think for people who are familiar with the history of the Holocaust, who maybe have read a little about it, some of them will be familiar, but most of them, perhaps, will not. It is an immense challenge because, as I say, this is an event which involves so many people in so many countries. It was a case really of ploughing through an enormous amount of sources, some of which I’d read before and some of which we have used previously in our educational activities, others which were new. Really it was partly a question of thinking about ‘What are the themes that we want to bring out here?’ but also looking through the sources, and it feels terrible saying ‘Well, we’re going to use that one and not use that one’. But hopefully I think readers will find that most of these examples of content which are in one way or another, very powerful.
Some of them, for example, with the ones that we looked at this week, I mentioned earlier the very first one Zalman Gradowski, a man writing in unimaginable circumstances, he was a member of the Sonderkommando (they were prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau who worked in and around the gas chambers, prisoners who knew they were going to die). The very fact of him writing about his experiences and burying this for future generations to find, is in itself extraordinary, but also, the way in which he writes, writing to us, to future readers, I think is so powerful. And similarly, if I can pick maybe on other example of content this week from Israel Lichtensztajn who was a teacher in the Warsaw Ghetto who buried the archives of Oneg Shabbat, which was a huge project in the Warsaw Ghetto which we will return to in future weeks, which sought to record Jewish life there. He writes this incredibly moving last testimony, particularly writing about his daughter. I actually came across this a few years ago when I was researching my most recent book – just to get the plug in – and my own daughter was about the same age when I first read this and it made me cry. We don’t want the purpose of this to be to make people cry but I think inevitably when one is looking at the history of the Holocaust, one is going to find a lot of texts which, emotionally, are very powerful. And so when it comes to choosing things, I think, it’s partly about the literary power of the text or the insights that it provides. For example, in later weeks when we look specifically at perpetrators, I think it’s quite interesting, some of the texts that we discovered there give us quite significant insights, through their own words into their mind-set. But it’s also about having as far as possible a diversity, so, different types of voice, different countries, and also different formats so we will see – although there are a fair number of post-war texts, testimonies that people created in one condition or another after the war – mainly, they are contemporary sources: speeches, diaries, letters, the last couple of examples this week have been poems. Collectively they hopefully give us a very broad picture but at the same time what we always have to remember is that these are the people who left something behind and that is such an important point to realise. There were many people like Anne Frank, who also turned up this week, who were writing partly at least with posterity in mind but most victims of the Holocaust did not have that opportunity or perhaps they wrote things which have not been preserved. And so we also need to remember those millions of nameless voices who in one way or another were involved.
AM: Absolutely, and that is why this is something that we aren’t really referring to as an educational app or platform though it may be educational, but a commemorative one because it is ultimately intended to encourage people to remember, to reflect on those lives which were lost. Martin, thank you very much. Congratulations on the launch of 70 Voices. We are all very excited about it here in the HET team; and to those of you listening out there, we very much hope you will join in the conversation online, on social media platforms. You can tweet at us, we’re @HolocaustUK and I’ve been tweeting using the hashtag #70Voices. So we hope to see you online and we hope that you will join us again next week for our second instalment of our weekly podcast to accompany 70 Voices. Thanks very much.
Read more by Martin Winstone: www.amazon.co.uk/Martin-Winstone/e/B003W3SI1U/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0