This is Part Two of my review of Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. Click here for Part One

Snyder does not have an easy task packing so much material and information in a book that’s just slightly over 300 pages long. Just for a somewhat related example, Ian Kershaw’s excellent biography on Adolf Hitler is close to 2,000 pages and still leaves many unanswered questions. However, if Snyder was writing “the book” on the Holocaust, he wasted a lot of pages which could have been better allocated. He spends several chapters on rescuers and their motives an addition to a large section related to the Polish Government’s ties with Zionist leaders, as both wanted the Jews to leave Poland. Since the topic of Nazi policy towards the Jews is so vast and extended from France to the gates of Moscow, it would have been better to focus on some other aspects in this space.

One country omitted altogether was Norway. Norway would be what Snyder considered a total puppet state similar to Slovenia or Croatia. Yet in Norway, “only” 50% of the Jews were murdered, far less than in the total puppet state of Croatia.

In Italy, “only” 25% of Jews were killed by the Nazis, and this occurred only after Mussolini was ousted around the time of the invasion of Sicily. Snyder comments that if Mussolini was in charge, no Jews would have been murdered, however, he does not mention another fact. The Italians largely hid the Jews, especially in the capital of Rome. Had Hitler won the war, the Jews likely would have been exterminated whether they had lived in Vichy, Mussolini’s Italy or in Lithuania. One reason the Nazis did not get to complete the deed is because they ran out of time and started with the Jews in the USSR (at the time of Barbarossa). Therefore, no matter how strong or weak a puppet state or ally was, the real reason the Jews were spared is that the Germans ran out of time.

Many topics were omitted in what I think is crucial for understanding the war and the war against the Jews. Snyder never mentions the differences between many of the secular Jews of Germany and other “Western Countries” versus the “Ostjuden.” While many Jews in Eastern Europe had become less religious (or totally secular), the capital of both the Hassidish and Litivish Jews (commonly grouped today as “ultra Orthodox,” the difference between them is beyond the scope of this review) was almost exclusively located in Eastern Europe. One example, the City of Brest-Litovsk, is known as Brisk in Yiddish and was considered one of the top Yeshivas in the world. Lithuania was the “capital” of the Litvish, who referred to the Capital of Lithuania (and by extension Poland). Further south, Galicia (in former Poland) and Hungary were the spiritual centers of the Hassidim. See Rabbi Barel Wein’s Jewish History – A Trilogy for more on this topic.

So why is this important? Because the areas where most of these Jews lived ended up being the stateless i.e. Poland – areas described by Snyder. These people (unlike in Germany) were visibly Jews in dress. Even if they tried to appear totally secular to evade the Nazis, it would have been very hard. These Ostjuden spoke Yiddish as a first language, went to synagogues, lived in Jewish areas, had Mezzusos on their homes, and knew little about Christianity (in fact, in Jewish law it is forbidden to learn about other religions at all). They had far fewer relatives or friends that were Mischling, Christian, Aryan or totally Jewish who could help them. Contrast this with Germany, where in (albeit an extreme) case, Wehrmacht soldiers would walk into the SS office and demand that they release Jewish relatives! How could a religious Jew overnight “become” a Roman Catholic in Poland? It is clear that these religious Jews would have a far higher death rate, as it was harder to conceal their Jewish identity.  For more on this topic, see Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers.

Snyder responded to my question about this stating:

“Definitely a good point and certainly in Poland people who were assimilated, prosperous, urban etc had a better chance. But consider the death rate in the Netherlands at 75% and then in the Soviet Union at 94%; in both cases Jews in general assimilated.”

My problem is first: in the Soviet Union, only the Jews who had lived under Bolshevism since 1917 were assimilated. As religion was practically banned, anyone practicing Judaism was treated harshly, and the Jews were assimilated. However, most of the Jews in the USSR Snyder mentions were living in Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary until the late 1930s or early 1940s, and there was a significant religious population specifically in Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. Second, Snyder does not mention the point of religious versus non-religious Jews at all in his book.

WWII Poland
Poland and other parts of Europe under Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement

Poland and elsewhere – Saviors

Snyder devotes several chapters to the topic of those who saved the Jews. He seems to go out of his way (unnecessarily) to show that many of those who saved Jews had ulterior motives and that things were more grey then they may seem. He diminishes the bravery even of people like Witold Pilecki, who volunteered for Auschwitz to find out what was going on there. Snyder remarks that Pilecki only did this to help the resistance in Poland — as if that was his only motive and/or makes him less of a hero – not only for Poland but for humanity.

He also gives the “extreme example” of Kurt Triborn, who was responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of Jews and saved several personal Jewish friends of his. Snyder says that Triborn is an example of someone who “in one setting he was a rescuer, and in another a killer.”

While Snyder is right that there is little black and white in this area, there are certainly darker and lighter shades of grey. We need to look no further than the Fuhrer himself. Hitler was worried that every German would try to save “their favorite Jew,” as Heindrich Himmler said in a speech, “All the 80 million upright Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. They say: all others are swine, but here is a first-class Jew.” However, Hitler himself saved the Jewish doctor who had cared for his mother when she was dying cancer. Does this make Hitler a savior too? Of course not! See Hitler’s First War. Himmler also went on to save Jews, as it was clear the war was lost.

Yet, this is just one of many examples. Hermann Goering, the number two man in the Reich, adored his Jewish step-father. Although Goering was in charge of the hunger plan in the East under which millions would starve (and would cause many other crimes), the Reichsmarschall himself intervened to save elderly Jews who helped Goering while in hiding during the failed Munich putsch. For more on Goering

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