Of all the difficult passages that I was forced to confront in Timothy Snyder’s extraordinary history, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, this is the one that has stuck with me:
Prisoners sang at Treblinka, at German orders, but also for themselves. “El Malei Rachamim” (the funeral prayer) was chanted for the Jews killed each day.
Let’s try and imagine the scene. A group of Jewish men have been tasked with the impossible: to handle the bodies of the recently gassed. Bodies that in all likelihood included their wives, babies, teen-agers, and parents. Their job was to burn these bodies. Try and see them at the end of such a day saying this prayer, knowing that the next day, or the day after, or by the end of the week, others would be repeating it for them.
The mind can’t go there easily and yet we must. We all need to read this account-backed up by brilliant analysis and solid research- of how 14 million innocent Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Belarusians, and Russians were murdered in 12 years.
You will notice that I include, rather than separate, the Jews in with the other victims. This is in-keeping with Snyder’s analysis. Rather than look at each group of victims in isolation, we need to look at the totality. We need to understand the geography of where these people lived to fully comprehend how and why they died. Snyder defines this geography as the “Bloodlands”: Poland, Belarus, the Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These contested areas suffered three violent occupations in a very short span of time: Stalinist, Nazi, and Stalinist.
Stalinism and Nazism, though different in some aspects, were both “isms” whose leaders believed that the utopian end justified whatever means. It was in the Bloodlands where these ideologies played themselves out most fully. The areas of starvation, the areas where the death facilities were located, and the areas where victims were shot over pits were all located in the Bloodlands.
While some Jews may be taken aback by the grouping together of the victims, Snyder’s approach presents a different Holocaust, in many ways, a far worse Holocaust. For years, Auschwitz was held up as the lowest depths of hell that man had ever sunk. Snyder points that if you look at the entire history of this area, you realize that it was not the “height of the technology of death” even though this is what we have thought to this point. In his Preface, Snyder writes:
“Auschwitz is the most familiar killing site of the bloodlands. Today, Auschwitz stands for the Holocaust, and the Holocaust for the evil of a century. Yet the people registered as laborers at Auschwitz had a chance of surviving, its name is known. Far more Jews, most of them Polish Jews, were gassed in other German death factories where almost everyone died, and whose names are less often recalled: Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzec. Still more Jews, Polish, Soviet or Baltic Jews, were shot over ditches and pits. Most of these Jews dies near where they had lived, in occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Soviet Ukraine, and Soviet Belerus.”
According to Snyder, Jews in Auschwitz had a change of survival. In Treblinka, they did not. As a necessary corrective to how we have viewed Auschwitz to date, Snyder devotes a lot of attention to the Treblinka death camp. His presentation is easily the hardest reading I have ever done.
I was left with the impression that there is still so much we don’t know and that there are so many victims that have not been accounted for. During my reading, I was frequently reminded of a New York Times article “The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking” (March 1, 2013) where researchers at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum concluded that there were far more ghettos, camps, extermination sites than originally thought. A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France by Caroline Moorehead (2011) leaves a similar impression of France where schools and playgrounds became prisons and execution sites.
Snyder writes in his Epilogue: “Fourteen million people were deliberately murdered by two regimes over twelve years. This is a moment that we have scarcely began to understand let along master.” As researchers like Snyder pore over these documents and look at events through different lenses, as archival material becomes more available, we are likely going to be confronted with a far more sobering picture of those dozen years.
Historians like Timothy Snyder are a gift. We owe them for their perseverance to do the hard work of learning new languages, testing difficult ideas, visiting places that we would rather forget, gathering stories we don’t want to hear. When people produce this kind of work, we need to read it as difficult as it is and despite the nightmares that they inevitably bring. We need to confront this history. We need to understand what human beings are capable of. We need to “go there” in our imaginations, to feel those men chanting the “El Malei Rachamim” to avoid going there in reality. As Snyder writes in his Preface: “Today there is widespread agreement that the mass killing of the twentieth century is of the greatest moral significance for the twenty-first.”
You don’t have to be a historian to read this book, but you need to be brave. It is transformative reading. You will not be the same person after.
Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books: 2010)