The Holocaust refers to the genocide of nearly 6 million Jews by the Nazis and Nazi collaborators. There is no doubt that the Jews were singled out for systematic extermination. However, it is also important to keep in mind that the Nazis murdered or sent to slave labor camps millions of non-Jews as well. Over 3 million Russians died as prisoners of war and in concentration or labor camps established by the Nazis.
Max Hastings documents that by February 1942, “almost 60 percent of the 3.35 million Soviet prisoners in German hands had perished; by 1945, 3.3 million were dead out of 5.7 million taken captive. (Inferno, 488). A large percentage of Russian civilians sent to Nazi forced labor camps—170,000 out of 2.77 million workers—perished there, along with large numbers of Polish and Italian prisoners of war. (Inferno, 489).
The Nazi policy of deliberately starving the inhabitants of conquered territories—in Holland, Poland and the Soviet Union–in order to channel food and supplies to their soldiers and to native Germans led to the slow and painful deaths of millions of innocent people. Their deaths, and their suffering, are part of the Holocaust and should also be commemorated and remembered.
Auschwitz statistics tell a grim story about the Nazi regime’s countless victims. According to Max Hastings, out of the over one million Jews who arrived at the camp only 100,000 survived, against all odds. Only half of the non-Jewish Polish prisoners survived in the camp. By the end of August 1944, when the Gypsy camp was liquidated, only 2000 out of the 23,000 Gypsies incarcerated at Auschwitz made it out alive. (see Inferno, 486).
Ruth Maier, a young Jewish Austrian woman, considered this more universal dimension of the Holocaust shortly before she herself was sent to die in Auschwitz:
“If you shut yourself away and look at this persecution and torture of Jews only from the viewpoint of a Jew, then you’ll develop some sort of complex which is bound to lead to a slow but certain psychological collapse. The only solution is to see the Jewish question from a broader perspective… We’ll only be rich when we understand that it’s not just we who are a race of martyrs. That beside us there are countless others suffering, who will suffer like us until the end of time… if we don’t … fight for a better…” (cited in The Diary of Ruth Maier, translated by Jamie Bulloch, Vintage Books 2010).
Ruth didn’t finish her sentence. She perished in Auschwitz on December 1, 1942. In 2010, her diary appeared in an English translation by Jamie Bulloch under the title of Ruth Maier’s Diary: A Jewish Girl’s Life in Nazi Europe. Some have compared her writing to that of Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag. Others have likened it to the journal of Anne Frank. Indeed, her diary offers not only an eloquent individual testimony about the Holocaust but also an important universal message: The Holocaust targeted Jews first and most, but the Nazi ethnic cleansing touched millions of lives and would have annihilated entire peoples and nations had Hitler realized his evil dreams. Ethnic hatred poisons the lives of countless people, often reaching far beyond the victims it isolates and targets first.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon