Books: The Holocaust: Denial and Dealings
Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
by Nicholson Baker.
(Simon & Schuster, 566 pp. $30)
In Human Smoke, writer Nicholson Baker departs from his usual genre of fiction to ask whether World War II was a “good war” and “did waging it help anyone who needed help?” Eschewing narrative and analysis, Baker provides us with snapshots of unfolding events, day by day, month by month, allowing the reader to follow what people said at the time as opposed to how historians have depicted the war. A pacifist who ultimately believes that no war is a “good war,” Baker finds both the Allies and the Axis guilty of choosing war when a negotiated peace was possible.
Only someone clouded by a specious moral relativism could find any equivalency between Adolf Hitler, on one side, and Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt on the other in history’s most destructive war. Yet Baker sees little difference between the two sides’ conduct of the war.
Baker’s revisionist history describes Churchill as eager to not only push his country into war against Germany but also ready to endorse the deadliest weapons, including poison gas. However, what Baker does not understand is that given the racist and militaristic nature of the Third Reich, Churchill realized that the defeat of Hitler’s Germany was imperative lest the world be reduced to unprecedented barbarity. “It would be better that the civilization of Western Europe with all its achievements come to a tragic but splendid end than the two great democracies should linger on, stripped of all that made life worth living,” Churchill said, expressing his resolve. Under these circumstances, Churchill used all means necessary to defeat an enemy bent on world domination. Consequently, once the United States entered the war in December 1941, Allied policy toward Germany demanded “unconditional surrender.” The result, Baker writes, was an escalation of the Allied “terror bombing” of major German cities, calculated to turn Germany’s population against its leadership, and a naval blockade that prevented food from reaching civilians in German-occupied Europe.
In addressing Germany’s persecution of the Jews and the efforts of pacifists to prevent the conflict, Baker dedicates his book to the “memory of…American and British pacifists…. They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe…and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.” But what were they right about? Baker seems to seriously believe that peace between Hitler and the Allies would have endured and implies that peace, regardless of its consequences, is preferable than the most just war.
In addressing the Holocaust and the Final Solution, Baker focuses on the failure of the Madagascar Plan, which Nazi Germany proposed as a solution to its “Jewish problem.” Following the fall of France in 1940, Germany wanted to ship Jews in German-occupied Europe to the French colony in Madagascar, but this required the defeat of Great Britain, which controlled the sea-lanes leading to the colony. The plan failed but Baker implies that had Churchill not stubbornly refused to negotiate with Hitler, Jews would have been deported to Madagascar and the Holocaust would not have occurred. Baker, however, has little to say about Madagascar itself; had the plan succeeded, it would have resulted in the slow death of millions of Jews in an environment that lacked a survival infrastructure.
Germany’s failure to defeat Great Britain led Hitler to attack the Soviet Union and soon after to implement the Final Solution. Had Churchill recognized Germany’s territorial ambitions in Europe, Hitler still might have invaded the Soviet Union, which he saw as the cradle of the Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy. Although the Germany-Russia pact lasted from August 1939 to June 1941, it was only a matter of time before Hitler invaded his arch foe.
Given Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism and contempt for humanity, Baker’s belief that peace rather than war would have prevented the Shoah lacks plausibility. The author is wrong, therefore, when he implies no Churchill, no war, no Holocaust.—Jack Fischel
Jack Fischel is editor of the Encyclopedia of Popular American Culture (Greenwood).
Kastner’s Train: The True
Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust
by Anna Porter.
(Walker & Company, 464 pp. $26.95)
Few of us know the name of Rezso (Rudolph) Kastner, the man who bought the lives of Jews from Adolf Eichmann and his cohorts. Anna Porter’s new book attempts to rectify this by describing his life in meticulous detail.
The deals that Kastner made with the Nazis raise questions about moral choices one should ever have to make. If you were given the right to choose the passengers for one train out of Hungary and into safety, whom would you choose—your family, your friends, the rich, your coworkers? Or would you have kept your hands clean by not dealing with the Nazis? When is such a negotiator considered a Nazi collaborator—or a rescuer of Jews?
Kastner was the leader of the Jewish Rescue Committee in Hungary. By pretending that he represented world Jewry and could authorize trading Jews for trucks that the Nazis needed, delaying some of the murders and save lives. Hungarian Jews, who had lived in that land for centuries, naively believed that their government would protect them. They were told that they were being sent to labor camps. When they finally realized they were death camps, they had no weapons to fight back. And it was, possibly, worse for those who served on the Jewish councils and had to carry out the orders of the Nazis. Kastner was one of the very few among these Jewish council leaders who dared to negotiate with the Nazis. He went to Eichmann and other Nazi leaders over and over again, claiming that he could deliver military equipment and bribes in exchange for Jewish lives. Kastner bluffed his way into persuading the Nazis to let at least one train leave Hungary to safety, and put 20,000 Jews “on ice,” as they called it, until he could deliver the funds and the equipment that he promised.
Kastner survived the Holocaust and made his way to Palestine in late 1947, but once there no recognition and appreciation awaited him. Instead, there was a long trial in which he was accused of being a collaborator, of favoring his own family over others and of being a partner with a Nazi in exploiting the Jews. He lost the trial in 1955 and emerged from it a broken man. On appeal, the verdict was reversed, but shortly before the verdict was announced, in 1957, Kastner was assassinated.
The trial has to be understood in the light of the mood of Israel in the 1950s. The idea that Jews went passively to their deaths was bewildering to the Israelis. There had to be someone to blame for this passivity, and Kastner, who had supposedly kept the truth of what was happening from the Jewish community, was the scapegoat. The trial became a way to embarrass Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and the left wing, who were accused of being weak-kneed, both in their relationship with the Germans and with the British during the war.
Today, there is a reassessment of Kastner in Israel, an understanding of the impossible situation in which he worked. His archives were recently put on display at Yad Vashem as a way of refuting his demonization. Yosef Lapid, chairman of Yad Vashem and a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, said: “There was no man in the history of the Holocaust who saved more Jews and was subjected to more injustice than Rudolph Kastner.”
Porter’s is part of the ongoing reassessment. She writes Kastner’s story with much sympathy for a man whom she believes did his best under horrible circumstances. Porter relates what happened to those whom Kastner rescued. One became a successful businessman in Toronto, another a distinguished research professor in Texas; some of the children grew up to make great contributions to society. And, ironically, Shmuel Tamir, the attorney who demolished Kastner on the witness stand, ended up as Yitzhak Rabin’s emissary at the negotiations for the release of Israeli prisoners in the First Lebanon War: 3 Israelis for 1,100 terrorists. —Jack Riemer
A Mad Desire to Dance
by Elie Wiesel. Translated by Catherine Temerson.
(Knopf, 288 pp. $25)
Is it possible to separate reputation from performance? Can one distance the continuing, fierce passion of Elie Wiesel, the internationally revered icon, from an objective assessment of his latest work, the novel A Mad Desire to Dance?
If such questions are not sufficient to engender debate, here’s another one: Does a novel originally written in another language complicate matters? Although Catherine Temerson, the translator of Wiesel’s book has many books to her credit, it has been said that Marion Wiesel’s renditions from the French best express the language and spirit of her husband’s work.
With A Mad Desire to Dance, the title alone gives pause. The narrator-protagonist Doriel Waldman is obsessed: “Madness is what I’ll talk to you about—madness burdened with memories and with eyes like everyone else’s, though in my story the eyes are like those of a smiling child trembling with fear.” It’s not clear, however, as he is the first to say, what he means by madness: a pathological state of mind that can be addressed by an analyst, the inevitable condition of a traumatized soul in an irrational, amoral world or an antic disposition assumed defensively that backfires.
The action of the book, which unfolds mainly as a first-person narrative, is frequently advanced in the interrogative mode: Doriel constantly asks rhetorical questions suffused with literary and philosophical references but doesn’t wait for answers. He has reluctantly agreed to sessions with a Freudian therapist, Thérèse Goldschmidt, and then proceeds to badger her: Where was God during the Holocaust? Am I mad if concentration camps are a product of a rational world? He seems to enjoy taking a belligerent stance with the doctor and an absurdist one with the reader: “This was our third meeting. Though there really wasn’t a second one.” The structure is, to say the least, challenging. Stories open up into other stories, sequence seems arbitrary.
When Doriel is not asking questions, he is remembering childhood experiences, though he’s not always sure whether what he recalls is real. He’s made other attempts to exorcise his demons, of course, he tells the therapist: “The leading medical experts in New York and Paris, Amsterdam and Los Angeles, know my case.” Once, concluding that he really needed “a miracle,” he went to visit a poet-mystic in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to whom he declared that he always felt himself to be mad. “Mad about my parents first, then about God, study, truth, beauty, and impossible love.”
Unlike Wiesel, Doriel Waldman was not in a concentration camp, though family members were. His mother, a resistance fighter, was killed with his father in a car accident after the war, but she haunts his memory. The therapist feels that his mother may well provide a clue to Doriel’s “mad” condition, which includes his having remained a bachelor and several failed or fantasized love affairs.
Though a literate and impassioned inquiry into the inheritance of fear and alienation, A Mad Desire to Dance may frustrate readers looking for evidence that fiction can often bear witness, in uniquely powerful ways, to man’s efforts to emerge from the darkest of nights.
Jewish Best Sellers
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by Geraldine Brooks. (Penguin, $15, paper)
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3. Beat the Reaper: A Novel by Josh Bazell. (Little, Brown, $24.99)
4. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $11.99, paper)
5. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. (Harper Perennial, $15.95, paper)
1. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman. (W.W. Norton, $14.95, paper)
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3. The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets for Reigniting Desire and Restoring Passion for Life
by Shmuley Boteach. (HarperOne, $25)
4. The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest, and Saved 1,200 Jews by Peter Duffy. (Harper Perennial, $14.99, paper)
5. Men Are Stupid…and They Like Big Boobs: A Woman’s Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery by Joan Rivers and Valerie Frankel. (Pocket, $25)
Courtesy of www.MyJewishBooks.com.