Why were so few Jews saved during the Holocaust?

View of the Reichstag assembly after Hitler’s speech in Berlin on Jan. 30, 1937. Left first row, right: Adolf Hitler. Standing on the steps: the Prussian Premier Hermann Goering. (AP Photo)

View of the Reichstag assembly after Hitler’s speech in Berlin on Jan. 30, 1937. Left first row, right: Adolf Hitler. Standing on the steps: the Prussian Premier Hermann Goering. (AP Photo)

In her comprehensive historical study, The Holocaust, Leni Yahil asks a question which, decades later, we still haven’t satisfactorily answered: “Why were so few of the millions of Jews who had been living in Europe prior to the Holocaust saved?” (The Holocaust, Oxford University Press, 543) The rise to power of the Nazis in Germany has been explored in-depth. But why did the rest of the world allow the Holocaust to happen? And why did so many countries even participate in the Nazi mass murder of Jews?

Instead of engaging casting blame, Yahil examines the specific circumstances in each European nation that prevented or made possible the rescue of the beleaguered Jews in Europe between the years 1938 and 1945. Based on the historical information she analyzes, she’s able to reach a number of general conclusions. In order for effective rescue operations to be launched, a given country (or regime) depended on the following three main factors:

  1. a) Accurate information regarding the German intentions to obliterate the Jews of Europe;
  2. b) An acknowledgement of that information from those in power in a given regime and from the general public (via the press) and
  3. c) A rescue action prompted by the information and acknowledgement. (See The Holocaust, 544)

One of the most striking reactions to information about the Holocaust, acquired by the world’s leading democracies—the U.S. and Great Britain–via reliable Polish and German sources as early as 1941, is precisely the lack of reaction to the information about the Nazi mass murder of Jews in occupied Poland.

In a previous article, entitled “America First,” I have described in greater detail some of the reasons why the U.S. in particular did not launch a rescue operation to save the Jews, even when they had indisputable information about their genocide at Auschwitz and other concentration and death camps. Like the British government, the U.S. prioritized winning the war. The country’s leadership, and—more surprisingly–even many Jewish community leaders in the U.S., did not wish to undertake any massive rescue mission that would create the impression that the war was being fought in order to save the Jews. They feared this kind of perception would decrease popular support for the war.

Even if the U.S. and Great Britain had attempted some rescue missions, however, it’s not clear they would have been that effective. Aside from military and political considerations, Yahil points out that the Nazis were far more ideologically motivated to asserting the supremacy of their master, Aryan, race through the Jewish genocide and the conquest of the Slavs (among others) than the democracies were committed to saving the oppressed. As she points out, during WWII, the world’s democracies were engaging in a defensive war: a war not of their own making and aimed to preserve the status quo.

By way of contrast, the Nazis were far more motivated in their destructive drives. Nazi Germany was fighting a war for world domination: one which, according to their theories of racial supremacy, they felt fully entitled to achieve by any means necessary (diplomacy, war, deceit, enslavement of other populations, ethnic cleansing and genocide). The rise of the totalitarian Nazi regimes eliminated all sense of human value and boundaries, making possible the enormous bureaucratic machine that deliberately and systematically destroyed millions of lives:

 

“Freed of the constraints of moral judgment and the norms of human society, their [Nazi] behavior was directed by practical and rational considerations in implementing their doctrine. Thus, although their basic approach was informed by irrational drives, their actions were governed by practical logic. They forged their irrationality into an ideology that drove the immense bureaucratic machine of the Third Reich. This was the source of the unique combination of fervor and cold calculation, of Hitler’s blend of firm purpose and impromptu strategy” (The Holocaust, 547).

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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