Holocaust

12th January 2001 at 00:00
THE HOLOCAUST CAUSES. By Pat Levy. THE DEATH CAMPS. By Sean Sheehan, Hodder. Wayland pound;11.99 each.

The challenge for anyone writing about the Holocaust must be to find something new to say. We have seen so much film, so many photographs, documentaries and books, yet there is always something new, especially for the young.

These two books put the Holocaust into historical context without losing its unique horror. Causes traces antisemitism from its medieval roots through Luther's anti-Jewish preaching to the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" forged by the Tsarist police. The Death Camps shows what a vast industrial operation the Holocaust was, both in its use of slave labour to underpin Germany's war, and in the quasi-industrial nature of the killing in the camps, their factory-like crematoria chimneys filling the air. Even as the allies drove further into Germany at the end of the war, the SS was still using precious resources in pursuing its own war with the Jews, gypsies and other Untermensch.

What is particularly striking about these books is the illustrations, many in colour and many unfamiliar. As so often, it is the faces that haunt. A young boy looking scared but incredibly bave in his ID photo at Auschwitz; a young girl smiling into the camera, quite unaware that her picture will be used to instruct German schoolchildren on the facial characteristics of subhumans.

The extracts from survivors' testimonies or those of guards and camp commandants are similarly powerful. One member of a Nazi special action squad, exterminating Jews in Poland, writes in a letter: "I am grateful for having been allowed to see the bastard race close up. We are ruthlessly making a clean sweep with a clear conscience." Who was he writing to? His mother?

There will always be an important place for in-depth treatment of this quality in any school. The authors address some of the arguments and debates surrounding the Holocaust, including the accusation that German firms cashed in on a "Holocaust bonanza" of cheap labour. Importantly, they also question the common assumption that the Holocaust was a unique event, somehow outside the norms of history. Pictures of victims of ethnic killing in Rwanda and of concentration camp inmates in Croatia, both images from recent history, are a reminder that it was not.

Sean Lang is head of history at Hills Road sixth form college, Cambridge


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