Anti-Semitism and Holocaust

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The Need to Know
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By Elli Wohlgelernter
As more countries and companies open up their Holocaust archives, what secrets still have not been uncovered?
Imagine you're a historian, and your field of expertise is the Holocaust. You have been studying and researching every aspect of the subject, and are intimately familiar with the tens of thousands of books published in the past 54 years.

So what's left? What secrets are out there that you still yearn to know? As we reach the year 2000, what black hole remains in our knowledge of this greatest tragedy of the last century?

The Jerusalem Post put the question to a handful of the world's preeminent Holocaust historians: If they could walk into any archive in the world, what would they want to know? What do we all still need to know?

Although each researcher - who include Yehuda Bauer, Raul Hilberg, Martin Gilbert, Saul Friedlander, Michael Berenbaum and Efraim Zuroff - has a specific sphere of interest - a country, a company, a Jewish community - they all agree that they would love to see the archives of the Vatican to answer the question of the Catholic Church's culpability in the slaughter of millions. These scholars argue that the Church knew what was going on, and they are consumed with finding out what the Vatican knew, when it knew it, and what it did with the information.

"The question that really remains is what were the internal debates in the Church at the highest level, the level of the papacy itself," says Friedlander, professor of history at Tel Aviv University and UCLA, and the author of the 1964 classic, Pius XII and the Third Reich.

"We do not know on what basis the decisions of what I would call the measure of passivity - although individual help was given - were taken. There must have been internal debates about this between the pope and his closest advisers, and that to me remains one of the essential questions, not only because of its factual importance, but also because of the incredible moral importance of the answers."

Bauer, director of Yad Vashem's International Center for Holocaust Studies and author of many books, says knowing the inner workings of the Vatican is critical to learning how information about the mass murder reached the pope.

"When did they reach the Vatican, by whom, and what did these reports contain?" he asks. "I would like to know the details about the daily or bi-daily notes that were passed between the pope and the secretary of state of the Vatican, the discussions that were held in the Vatican between the secretary of state and some of the main cardinals who dealt with Vatican's policy, what they thought, how they decided to react, what they decided to present to the pope and what they decided not to present to the pope and how the pope reacted - in other words, the way that any government acts. This is crucial."

Berenbaum, former director of the Research Institute at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and now head of Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, says the archives in Rome are essential because the Church must have known early on what was happening.

"The Vatican had the largest intelligence network in all of Europe," Berenbaum says. "We don't ordinarily think of it as an intelligence network, but it had priests who heard confessions and reported through a neutral ambassador to the Vatican in virtually every place where the Holocaust was taking place. The inner reasoning and the memos should be fascinating."

Not only priests, but papal nuncios stationed all over Europe were collecting information and sending it back to Rome, according to Nazi-hunter Zuroff, director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

"To what extent did these papal representatives have contact and input with local rulers in Catholic countries?" asks Zuroff, author of the forthcoming book, American Orthodoxy and the Holocaust: The History of the Vaad ha- Hatzala Rescue Committee.

"Slovakia was a Catholic country headed by a priest - to what extent did the papal nuncio get instructions from Rome to go speak to him and say, 'No, don't do this' [assist in the murder of Jews]. Some of this is known, a lot of it is not."

Moreover, says Zuroff, after the war, when Nazi war criminals fled Europe, "Catholic priests were out there providing help to escaped Nazis, including the most important ones - Eichmann, Stangl, Mengele. Priests were involved, [and] we don't know to what extent the Church knew about it. A very important question, a very interesting question."

The issue of exploring closed archives has been a major focus over the past few years, as the 50-year statute of limitations ends in some countries, allowing many previously closed archives to open. The probe of Swiss banks and insurance policies has also forced more countries and companies to search their own records and archives for the truth.

Last March, the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with Jews issued a 14-page document, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah." The Vatican described the paper as an "act of repentance" for the failure of Roman Catholics to deter the mass killing of Europe's Jews, but it was heavily criticized for skirting the issue of the Vatican's long silences during the Nazis' reign of terror.

Then in November, Bobby Brown, the prime minister's adviser on Diaspora affairs, published a so-called "dirty list" of more than a dozen international organizations, both public and private, which Israel said are withholding information on Holocaust victims and other related activities.

"These are archives which create conditions that stop Holocaust investigative scholars, researchers and plain Jews searching for the truth from getting the information contained within them," Brown said then. "We, as the Jewish people, have the right to know everything that happened. There are no more secrets. We call on all archives - national, corporate, private, organizations - that contain information about this period to open up."

The historians queried by the Post all cited problem areas where access has been difficult, but agreed that there is more access now than ever before.

"There are certain gaps, the Czech Republic is one of them," says Hilberg, McCullough professor of political science at the University of Vermont, and author of the 1961 seminal work, The Destruction of the European Jews. "There are some others - Croatia, Serbia, Belgrade - but I don't know how long this impasse in one place or another will last.

"I think we are now on the brink of seeing - not all, but a very substantial number of the documents that were hidden from us. Eventually the French will come out - it might take another 10 years in France - I don't know how long it will take on Bohemia/Moravia, the Czech Republic. Czech is seemingly still a holdout, giving us difficulty, probably because they want to disguise the fact that they collaborated quite a lot.

"There are [also] difficulties in Germany, because of the law against releasing items with names of people that are not notorious or well known. That's a problem."

A similar obstacle exists in the American archives, according to Bauer, where files contain a large number of documents with sections blacked out, either because of security considerations or because the archivist wants to protect private individuals.

"You don't know if these considerations or judgments are valid or not," Bauer says. "Sometimes when you talk to archivists, their concerns are actually quite logical and quite sensible. Although in principle you are in favor of opening all archives, sometimes you have to admit that this could violate the privacy of those [private] individuals, who are still alive from those years, or their immediate relatives.

"One has to examine each individual case, and as a historian you can't do that. That's the job of the archivist, and that's the reason archivists and historians are very often at loggerheads with each other."

Bauer admitted that the issue is very complicated, but says the premise should first be that all archives must be opened. "Then, after everyone agrees that that should be so, you can then say, 'Look, if you have somebody [who is not an accomplice] who is mentioned in a derogatory way in a document, and he or she is still alive, or their sons or daughters are around and you know where they are, then there may be a case for this particular document to have a section blacked out."

Friedlander cautioned patience on exploring more archives. He says that in his recent research into Swiss activity during the war, as well as activity by German companies, he discovered "underground relations in the economic field and others, that I had no notion of before, that were really unknown in many ways. So, by now, we may be sure that what exists will steadily and surely open within the next years, with the exception of the Vatican archives which will remain closed on principle unless there is a real change of mind.

"While the Czech archives are partly closed today, the very pressure of historical inquiry will open them in the near future. We really have made considerable progress, and there is no reason why this progress should stop."

Surprisingly, archives are still sealed in Jewish organizations as well.

"We have maybe 12 Jewish organizations [that kept records during the war], and half of them probably have not yet opened their archives," says Hilberg from his home in Vermont. "But we have a lot of them - we do have some of the files from the Jewish labor organizations and we do have some of the Orthodox files, but there are many others."

As more sealed archives open up, more and more knowledge is being uncovered that touches on areas that were heretofore unknown, some of them of major importance.

"For instance, in the last couple of years the question of archives of banks, major corporations - we never thought of that before," says Bauer. "And if we did, we thought this was priority number 15. Now it turns out that we do need these archives - some of them are open and available, some of them are partly available, and some are not available at all. It differs with each company, and in the same country you may find completely different attitudes to this by different groups, different companies."

Berenbaum, most recently the co-editor of Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, says that there is much to learn from going through the records of major corporations that established businesses adjacent to concentration camps.

"Volkswagen just did a very good study of their own corporate records, and that was the most honest corporate study that has been done in Germany, but we would need to do that corporation after corporation after corporation.

"I'd also like to see a companion study of the American corporations that were in Germany during this period of time. Questions were just raised about General Motors and Ford - I'd like to see those records. I'm an empiricist, so I'm not making charges, I'm merely saying I'd like to see the records that show the relationship between American corporations and German corporations, and the moment at which they were severed."

Sir Martin Gilbert, author of one of the major compendiums of the Shoah, The Holocaust - A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War, says while there is a place for inquiries into the archives of countries and corporations, but he would prefer to focus on the victims.

"I'd like a thousand times more material on Jewish acts of defiance - in the ghettos, in the deportation trains, in the camps. That is the great missing archive... . We are so intent now on flagellating the British, the Americans, the Vatican, the Swiss, the Swedes, the German banks, [that] we forget our own strengths. We forget our own incredible inner courage at that time. We're seeking enemies, and we're getting further and further away from our own extraordinary accomplishments under the most terrifying of threats.

"The more you attack a German bank - which I agree has to be done, I don't belittle those who do it - but with every frontal assault on a German bank, we are somehow undermining what we ourselves managed to achieve: the courage within the ghettos, the maintenance of the educational systems, the struggle for life even when it was clear that it was pretty well a hopeless struggle.

"That, I suppose, was the great lesson of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt - if it had been discussed at a chief-of- staff meeting in Washington or London, they would have said it's hopeless, don't do it. But our people had a different perspective, and I think it's evidence of that perspective, this incredible desire, imperative, to record what is happening - you know, the mother who urges her son to somehow survive, to get away, to escape, to run away, in order to pass on the story... . This element of inner strength - the Jewish determination to survive - is so strong that in a way it is the great missing archival quest."

Gilbert says getting the information on acts of Jewish defiance requires searching through local archives for material gathered throughout Europe by villagers who may have recorded what they saw.

"You might be talking about a Ukrainian's diary which ostensibly has no relevance to the Holocaust," says Gilbert, from his home in London. "But who knows, if you go to [a small village], and you find some local material tucked away, hidden away, you might get those crucial clues.

"You have to go and find it, and you have to persuade these people to open their archives."

And then there are archives that may or may not exist, but which top every historian's wish list. Both Friedlander and Zuroff mentioned the bureaucratic files of the Gestapo, which certainly existed at one time but are believed to have been destroyed.

"The thing that everyone wants to see, but I don't think exists, are the SS archives," says Zuroff. "They were destroyed by the Germans at the end of the war. Especially [interesting would be] the files from the Reich Security Main office, the RSHA, the agency that implemented the Holocaust. The enormity of the documentation there, and its importance from an historical point of view, is obvious."

Friedlander says that while finding the files would be of great importance, "I do not know whether they have been destroyed. But if they [are being] kept somewhere, then this would be of immense importance because it would obviously reflect all the innermost decision-making process of the Final Solution. The holy grail of Holocaust inquiry is Adolf Hitler, while every aspect of his life and mind has been written about, there remains the elusive question: Did the FŸhrer ever give a specific order in writing to carry out the 'Final Solution?' "

"I frankly don't know how much more one can discover about Hitler," says Hilberg, "because we've followed every year of his life. Some of it is of course lost, but still there are books about his health, his Vienna years, Linz, the '20s, the '30s, his stocks in Mercedes Benz - you name it."

Friedlander says that no one will discover the makeup of Hitler's personality and the origins of his hatred of the Jews through archives. It is a matter of conjecture and will remain so, he says.

"We have debated endlessly the measure of his direct involvement, and the orders, mainly the orders," he says from his UCLA office. "By now I think one can piece the picture together pretty well - recent German documents found in the Moscow archives give a pretty clear picture of when his instructions were given to Himmler, and we can more or less piece together the course of his direct intervention in the process."

Gilbert says even if there is no written statement, "Hitler talked about it all the time - day after day after day, he talked and discussed the need to murder the Jews."

Berenbaum says he's interested in seeing all the documents that came out of Hitler's office, "because we've all been looking for the document, if there was a document in writing, in which he ordered the 'Final Solution.' My assumption is that it existed as a mind-set - 'I have it on highest orders directly from the FŸhrer.' I don't think there is a written order."

Bauer is certain that such an order does not exist, and never did. "There cannot be one - Hitler would never have done that," Bauer says. "He didn't have to. All he had to do was to agree to proposals that were put before him, or to radicalize proposals that were put before him. It was sufficient that he said, 'OK.' He was a radicalizing factor, so when they put things before him he said, 'Well, why don't you do it more radically than you suggested?'

"He didn't deal in details, he probably never bothered about how the Jews were killed in Auschwitz or in Sobibor, he had no interest in that as long as it was done. An order by Hitler would be totally impossible, in my view. He made general statements that were taken as law, and he knew exactly what was happening because he received detailed reports."

So if Hitler's holy grail will elude us forever, then perhaps enough pressure can be brought to bear on breaking the last big Holocaust riddle: What did the Vatican know, and when, and what were they thinking?

Hilberg says it's not likely that historians will find the answers soon.

"The Vatican has still not released the inquisition of Galileo, so don't hold your breath, it might take a little longer," he says.

© Jerusalem Post 1999

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