Genocide: Ch 1 Approaching the Holocaust

Chapter 1 Approaching the Holocaust

At the Pit of Destruction

. . When it came to our turn, our father was beaten. We prayed, we begged with my father to undress, but lie would not Undress, lie wanted to keep hi's underclothes. He did not want to stand naked....

Then they tore the clothing off the old man and he was shot. I saw it with my own eyes. And then they took my mother.... She said, let us go before her, but they caught mother and shot her too. Then there was my grandmother, my father's mother, standing there: she was eighty years old and she had two children in her arms and she was shot on the spot with the babies her arms....

And finally my turn came. There was my younger sister, and she wanted to leave; she prayed to the Germans; she asked to run; naked, she went up to the Germans with one of her friends; they were embracing each other; and she asked to be spared, standing there naked. He looked into her eyes and shot the two of them. They fell together in their embrace, the two young girls, my sister and her young friend. Then my second sister was shot.... and then my turn did come....

We were already facing the grave. The German asked, "Whom shall I shoot first?" I did not answer. I felt him take the child from my arms. The child cried out and was shot immediately. And then he aimed at me. First he held on to my hair and turned my head around; I stayed standing; I heard a shot, but I continued to stand and then he turned my head again and he aimed the revolver at me and ordered me to watch and then turned my head around and shot at me. Then I fell to the ground into the pit amongst the bodies; but I felt nothing. The moment I did feel I felt a sort of heaviness and then I thought maybe I am not alive any more, but I feel something after I died. I thought I was dead, that this was the feeling which comes after death. Then I felt that I was choking, strangling, but I tried to save myself, to find some air to breathe. I felt that I was climbing towards the top of the grave above the bodies. I rose, and I felt bodies pulling at me with their hands, biting at my legs, pulling me down, down. And yet with my last strength I came up on top of the grave, and when I did I did not know the place, so many bodies were lying all over, dead people. I wanted to see the end of this stretch of dead bodies, but I could not. It was impossible. They were lying, all dying; suffering; not all of them dead, but in their last sufferings; naked; shot, but not dead. Children crying "Mother," "Father"; I could not stand on my feet....

Approaching Genocide and the Holocaust

The film Genocide is the story of millions of people who were systematically murdered during the most traumatic period in Western civilization. For us as viewers, it is difficult to comprehend these events and painful to witness human degradation of such magnitude. How this could have happened in an "advanced" society remains an enigma.

To convey this message, Genocide utilizes a variety of media techniques: Still photographs, movies, slides, sound, and words all combine to offer a unified experience which makes demands on us as

Genocide focuses on the destruction of European Jews because the Jews alone were singled out for total annihilation. Although millions of soldiers and civilians died at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust, there was never a master plan to kill all of the Poles, Czechs, Gypsies, or any other group.1

When the Nazis murdered approximately 10,000 Polish intelligentsia, in 1939-1940, and Polish Catholic priesthood in western Poland, for example, they were trying to prevent these groups from becoming a political and spiritual force that could unite the country against them. Similarly, when the Nazis murdered over two and one-half million Soviet prisoners of war, they were killing a military force that had fought them on the field of battle.

European Jews, on the other hand, were the only people marked for complete destruction. To the Nazi leadership, the Jews were a satanic force that controlled both the East and the West and, therefore, posed a physical threat to the German nation. There was no way to stop this alleged international Jewish conspiracy from gaining total control of the world, the Nazis reasoned, except to physically destroy every Jewish man, woman, and child. Failure to do so, Hitler believed, "would not lead to a Versailles treaty but the final destruction, indeed, to the annihilation of the German people."2

When the executioners questioned their superiors about the need to kill every Jewish woman and child, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, asserted that he would not have been "justified In getting rid of the men-in having them put to death, in other words-only to allow their children to grow up to avenge themselves on our sons and grandsons. We have to make up our minds, hard though it may be, that this race must be wiped off the face of the earth."3 Yehuda Bauer concluded that, "In a very real sense, the Nazi attack on the world, costing millions of lives and causing havoc and destruction unequaled before or since, was at least in part an ideologically or pseudoreligiously motivated struggle against the imaginary Jewish adversary. Antisemitism was a central cause of World War II."4

Perhaps the best way to understand the difference between what happened to the Jews and non-Jews is to distinguish between genocide and Holocaust. According to Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term in 1943, genocide is "effected through a synchronized attack" on the political, social, cultural, economic, religious, and moral "aspects of life of the captive peoples." It also involves a "policy of depopulation, promoting procreation by Germans in the occupied countries, introducing a starvation rationing system for nonGermans, and mass killings, mostly of Jews, Poles, Slovenes, and Russians."5

What Lemkin described is what happened to many peoples in Nazi Europe, but not to the Jews. In countries under Nazi rule, political, social, cultural, religious, and economic institutions were transformed into serving the Germans, but in general the people running these organizations were not killed. Mass murder on a "selective" basis did occur, to be sure, within these countries, but it involved only those who posed a threat or were perceived as a danger to the Nazis. The majority of the people under Nazi rule were kept alive to help build the Third Reich.

Since Jews did not share the same fate as the other peoples in Nazi Europe, we need another term to describe their unique plight. The term "Holocaust," or "Shoah," is often used to describe this phenomenon. It is important to note that by distinguishing between what happened to Jews and non-Jews, we are not trying to demean the suffering of any other group of victims. This is not a "contest to measure pain or degrees of victimization," as Henry L. Feingold notes. "What is being measured," he maintains, "is the importance of the event in history, and there clearly the Holocaust is an entirely different order of events in terms of its historical weight. History is not democratic, it does not assign equal import to like events. To forget that difference, to permit it to be subsumed in facile comparisons with every trespass human flesh has been heir to, is to risk losing the possibility of retrieving some meaning from the event. When that meaning is found, it will be in its specificity rather than in what it shares with other catastrophies."6

By focusing on the unique position of the Jew in the Holocaust, we can learn much about the nature of Western civilization and culture. European Jewry, after all, "was not a dissident minority in a remote corner of the world, but by virtue of its thinkers [Einstein, Freud, Marx, Kafka, Proust] an important component of European civilization which dominated the pre-Holocaust world. What died at Auschwitz was not merely the corpus of a people but Europe's hope that its social system can endure .... Who can escape the bitter irony that European Jewry was destroyed by a perverse use of the very industrial process which everywhere is the hallmark of modernity?"7

Ultimately, the Holocaust raises the question of whether our civilization will accept the existence of the Jews and other minorities living in its midst as distinct entities with their own group consciousness. It is clear that Antisemitism and racism are still pervasive elements in American society and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. While the Jewish people have succeeded in surviving Antisemitism, the question that remains is whether the West can "survive its persisting nature."8

While Genocide compels us to learn from the past, it is not intended to engender hate or prejudice towards other groups or nations. Franklin Little, a Protestant theologian, has suggested that we approach the study of the Holocaust as social pathologists studying a sick society in order to discover how people from practically all segments of German society participated in the destruction process. Indeed, what is so alarming about the Holocaust is the involvement of average people, many of whom participated not so much out of hatred of Jews, but because this was part of their job. Christopher R. Browning notes that the "Jewish experts" in the German Foreign Office, for example, were not forced by "any external physical threat" to carry out policies against the Jews and that Antisemitism was only "a contributing factor but not the decisive one" in determining their actions. The main reason they complied was because "they were dominated by an internal compulsion to keep their records unstained. This compulsion was so strong that it blotted out any sense of individual responsibility. They viewed their activity... solely from the point of view of how it affected themselves, not what they were doing to others. In short," Browning concludes, "they became dehumanized."9

Equally frightening was the assertion by Heinrich Himmler that those involved in the annihilation of the Jewish people had remained decent. "Most of you know what it means to see one hundred corpses piled up, or five hundred, or one thousand, " Himmler told a group of SS leaders in Posen on October 4, 1943. "To have gone through this and-except for instances of human weakness-to have remained decent, that has made us tough. This is an unwritten, never-to-be written, glorious page of our history."10

As long as we allow this page of history to remain in the past as if it were unwritten, we will never be able to sensitize our fellow citizens to the dangers inherent within Western culture. The Holocaust is, after all, the most extreme example of what Western society-with its civil service bureaucracy, modern technology, advanced scientific and business communities, centralized government, and highly trained police force and military-is capable of doing when mobilized for destruction.11 In the final analysis, we are not sure whether "Auschwitz has become an eternal warning, or merely the first station on the road to the extermination of all races and the suicide of humanity."12


1. Jacob Robinson, And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight (New York: Macmillan Co., 1965), pp. 92-99; Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of A uschwitz (New York: World Publishing Co., 1959), p. 137; Uriel Tal, "Holocaust and Genocide," Yad Vashem Studies XIII (1979): 24-46.

2. Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman, and Abraham Margaliot, eds., Documents on the Holocaust: Selected Sources on the Destruction of the Jews In Germany and Austria, Poland, and the Soviet Union (New York: Ktav, 1981), p. 89. See also Lucy S. Dawidowicz, A Holocaust Reader (New York: Behrman House, 1976), pp. 32-33.

3. Helmet Krausnick et al., eds., Anatomy of the SS State (London: Collins, 1968), p. 123. See also Hoess, Commandant, pp. 165-166.

4. Yehuda Bauer, American Jewry and the Holocaust (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1981), p. 19.

5. Quoted in Yehuda Bauer, The Holocaust in Historical Perspective (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978), pp. 3435; Yehuda Bauer, "Whose Holocaust?" Midstream (November 1980): 42-46.

6. Henry L. Feingold, "Determining the Uniqueness of the Holocaust: The Factor of Historical Valence," Shoah (Spring 1981): 10-11.

7. Feingold, "Determining the Uniqueness," p. 6. See also Jacob L. Talmon, "The Jewish Component in World History," Midstream (March 1972): 8-26; Jacob L. Talmon, "Prophetism and Ideology: The Jewish Presence in History," The Jerusalem Quarterly 3 (1977): 3-16.

8. Arthur Hertzberg, "Anti-Semitism and Jewish Uniqueness," The B.G. Rudolf Lectures in Judaic Studies (April 1973): 19-20.

9. Christopher R. Browning, The Final Solution and the German Foreign Office (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1978), pp. 179-

10. Karl Dietrich Bracher, The German Dictatorship (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971), p. 423.

11. Richard Rubenstein, The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1978), pp. 2, 6-7. See also Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago: Quadrangle Press, 1961); Henry Friedlander and Sybil Milton, The Holocaust: Ideology, Bureaucracy, and Genocide (Millwood, NY: Kraus International Publications, 1980).

12. Jacob L. Talmon, From Holocaust to Rebirth (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1974), p. 72.

For Further Reading

Bauer, Yehuda. "Whose Holocaust?" Midstream (November 1980): 42- 46.

The Holocaust in Historical Perspective. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978.

Bracher, Karl Dietrich. The German Dictatorship. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971.

Hertzberg, Arthur. "Anti-Semitism and Jewish Uniqueness. The B.G. Rudolf Lectures in Judaic Studies (April 1973).

Talmon, Jacob L. "Prophetism and Ideology: The Jewish Presence in History." The Jerusalem Quarterly 3 (1977): 3-16.

Sensitive Issues about Holocaust Films

The visual impact of film footage showing Nazi atrocities raises a number of sensitive issues for the viewing public. Confronted by piles of naked corpses, the onlooker must consciously come to terms with personal attitudes to violence and horror. The unpleasant immediacy of newsreel film showing women being herded naked into pits by the Einsatzgruppen (SS mobile killing units) raises issues which any audience must confront.

Nudity and naked corpses in Holocaust films are not used to evoke a macabre sense of sadistic sex. Nudity in the context of "selection" and "death" is part of the Nazi degradation of prisoners and the destructive set of rules aimed at intimidating the victims. One Polish artist, a survivor of Buchenwald, stated that issue perfectly:

I would like to ask you to print as an absolute necessity the drawings where prisoners parade naked. Such was the reality of camp life. The first breaking of a human being depended on brutally stripping clothing off one's body, which began in the first hours of our arrival in the camp and ended with a pile of naked corpses near the crematorium. False prudishness is not needed here.1

Nudity in this context should evoke neither guilt nor shame, since it was intrinsic to the emotional and physical violence used by the SS for controlling prisoners. Film footage showing nude women covering their breasts and pubic hair surrounded by SS men with guns were unofficial films. They were often amateurish "home movies" of relatively poor quality made by the perpetrators before killing their victims. The presence of the camera held by the perpetrators influenced the behavior of the victims; they attempted to protect vital organs in the chest and stomach. The women's hands are not a reflection of shame, rather of self-protection. The films were not intended as newsreel footage, but for the private amusement of the cameramen, who were identical with the killers. Thus, the context of nudity in Holocaust documentary films raises important issues about false problems in extant historical footage.

Repetitive images of horror on the screen require audience outrage, rather than numbed surrender to the effect of piles of corpses, eyeglasses heaped in containers, and skeletons. In a broadcast from liberated Buchenwald on April 16,1946, Edward R. Murrow stated: "I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words.... If I have offended you by this rather mild account, I'm not in the least sorry."2 It is very difficult for a post-World War 11 generation of younger Americans raised on televised situation contretemps of life in a POW camp), or heroic battle films like Patton, or resistance epics like The Counterfeit Traitor to relate to documentary footage evoking the stench of decaying corpses in mass graves, starvation in the ghettos, and Jewish resistance. Even Hollywood horror films, with their contrived scares created by sophisticated special effects, do not prepare the average American viewer for footage of deportations, the Concentration Camps, and the heaps of corpses found by the Allied armies in 1945. It is harder to engage audience sympathy for 500 murder victims than for one carefully delineated person, but a conscious educational use of historical narrative accompanying the visual images of "horror" must transform the emotional impact of stunned silence and tears into a visceral and intellectual understanding of the scope and nature of Nazi criminality. Visual literacy and understanding of photographic footage must make the "unthinkable" events of Nazi Europe a part of current historical consciousness.

Holocaust footage also poses serious problems about the violation of the victims' and survivors' privacy. The victims did not give their consent to be photographed; they did not know that their private agony would be recorded for posterity. They felt that some record of their agony and passage should survive, but they did not live to screen or assent to the extant historical footage. The world of the camps involved the use of numbers, not names; the pervasive lack of privacy in daily functions like eating, toilet use, sleep; physical demoralization; and the terrorization of the victims. Even death occurred en masse, not as a private event. Stock shots of concentration camp scenes reveal that the inmates' survival depended on the ability to work and obey, the fear of pain, and the will to live. The depersonalization and deprivation imposed in the camps affected every survivor. Thus, sensitive texts and use of memoirs must accompany the film footage, which is more limited and repetitive. Few victims had cameras; Mendel Grossman's record of the Lodz ghetto is, perhaps, unique. The film footage was made by the perpetrator as a "home movie" or an official record of his "victories." The victim was thus victimized doubly when the surviving record, however accurate, is one-sided and taken by Nazi cameras. Art done by victims provides a balance to the official Nazi photographic record.

It is important to analyze film footage on the Holocaust. Available material reveals a very selective visual remnant: deportations, synagogue burnings, ghettos, and Concentration Camps. There are no known film shots of partisan units, no images of Jewish survival by use of bribery, sabotage, smuggling, or passive resistance. It is a truism for analyzing film that the historian must augment photographic images by documents and historical information. But the moral shock of Auschwitz is all too real on film; audience sensitivity to the "incredible" must be taught. The immense significance of Holocaust footage is obvious, even though it deals with only a fraction of the material available in written, oral, and documentary form. The dimensions of the problem of studying the of the Holocaust film footage a potent tool for the educator. Complex analysis about the historical dimensions of the event must supplement and enhance the use of visual images.


1. Karol Koniecny's letter to Janina Jaworska in Art of the Holocaust, by Janet Blatter, Sybil Milton, and Henry Friedlander (New York: W.H. Smith-Rutledge, 1981), pp. 141, 253-254. See also Bruno Bettelheim, Surviving and Other Essays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), pp. 274- 314.

2. Edward R. Murrow, In Search of Light (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), p. 90.

For Further Reading

Blatter, Janet; Milton, Sybil; and Friedlander, Henry. Art of the Holocaust. New York: W.H. Smith-Rutledge, 1981.

Craig, Gordon A. The Germans. New York: G.P. Putnam's

Freund, Gisele. Photography and Society. Boston: David R. Godine, 1980.

Friedlander, Henry, and Milton, Sybil, eds. The Holocaust: Ideology, Bureaucracy, and Genocide. Millwood, NY: Kraus International Publications, 1981.

Leiser, Erwin. Nazi Cinema. New York: Collier Books, 1974.

Rubenstein, Richard. The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1978.

Smith, Paul, ed. The Historian and Film. Cambridge, London,

Modesty and Self-Dignity in Holocaust Films

The issue of viewing the naked bodies of Jewish victims of the Holocaust takes on another dimension when one considers the religious background of a large percentage of this group. Traditional Judaism's attitude towards the body is decidedly neither Greek nor Victorian. It rejects the notion that beauty, being sacred and true, is best expressed in the nude, whether the human form is captured in classical statuary or in the gymnasium. Despite ascetic tendencies, it similarly rejects the approach that there is something either expressly or vaguely "wrong" with the human body that clothes are meant to hide and disguise.

The Jewish approach to the body is subsumed under a broader category of human deportment: modesty, or tsnzut. To walk modestly with one's God and in society is a general religious imperative that permeates Jewish law in both its letter and its spirit. As applied to matters affecting the body, it has meant a valuing and treasuring of the body, as underscored by its creation by God. In much the same way that the Torah (scroll of law) is carefully encased within its mantel (cloth coverlet), the human body is also seen to need suitable garments.

The properly dressed religious man wears a four-cornered poncho, the arba kanfot, which has specially tied fringes, or tsitsit, at each of the four corners. It may be likened to a ritual vest. It is worn either under or over the shirt, with the fringes either tucked in or left out. The Westernized religious Jews, in Germany and Lithuania, for example, were not given to outward display and, therefore, wore the garment under the shirt with the fringes tucked in. The garment's purpose is to remind the Jew of his religious duties (Num. 15:37-41). His head is covered at all times with a kipah or a yarmulke (hat or skull cap). On the Sabbath and holidays, many-especially the Hasidim-wear the streimel (fur-lined hat). The covered head indicates submission to the divine yoke.

Other than work clothes, the religious man wears muted conservative clothes. Many Jews, for example, wore a kapote or bekeshe (long black coat or caftan). Males often wear long, curled earlocks, payot, either hidden behind the ear or left dangling, in fulfillment of the biblical injunction, and grow beards as a guard against "evil impulse." This distinctive dress doubtlessly serves to further group solidarity and cohesion-especially for those who wear the kapote or bekeshe, the streimel, let their tsitsit "out," and have long payots and beards; but its main purpose is to serve the specific aims of piety and modesty.

Women are also obligated in the laws of tsniut. Religious women are careful to keep their legs and arms covered and refrain from also keep their hair-symbolic of sexual attraction -covered in public. They usually wear either a sheltel (marriage wig) or a t1khl (cloth head covering). A minority have shaven heads under the head coverings. These self-imposed dress restrictions are not meant to make women shabby or dowdy. Indeed, Jewish women have never lost their desire to be eminently presentable. The goal is to mute one's public sexual identity.

A double nakedness and a double shame were imposed upon the Jews caught by the Einsatzgruppen or interned in the camps. The terrible effects of being stripped naked have been discussed by Sybil Milton in her article, "Sensitive Issues about Holocaust Films." But there was another nakedness: the violent removal of that "outer" religious garb which expressed the Jews' innermost spiritual convictions. This was a purposeful shaming. The Nazis knew how to assault one's self-dignity. To Jeeringly pull the hair from the "glory of a man's face," the hadrat panim of his beard, was to serve notice, painfully, that this man no longer had a God to serve.

Ripping a woman's dress sleeve meant that her desire for modesty was meaningless because she was a "nonperson." This distinction between the stripping of religious garb and total nudity was, to a certain degree, of course, artificial. People tended to form a unified image of themselves. Simply put, although further and worse indignities awaited them, the Jew and Jewess, who stood for the first time in their adult lives with their heads forcibly uncovered, already felt themselves naked.

The viewer of a Holocaust film, sensitive to the religious standpoint of many of the victims, is in a quandary. Jewish tradition, in many places and in many ways, urges us not to gaze upon the shame of our fellow man. What right do we have to look at the shame of the wretched sufferers of the Holocaust? The making of Genocide reflects this problem. The amount of footage showing the naked women being driven to their deaths was reduced from the original script, and that which was used was put through a blue filter to partially mute the scene. Still, the naked image is not really obscured; the tableau of men and women shorn of their customary clothing is frequently present on the screen.

Perhaps we show and watch these film clips because we feel impelled to demonstrate-to ourselves, no less than to others-that this event has happened. Ironically, when we do see the evidence, the brutality and rawness of it all, it tends to make us distance ourselves from it, to avert our faces and "deny" that it is there. But somehow, movement from viewing to alienation does not prevent us from looking again. This dialectic continues until a resolution of sorts is achieved: We believe the unbelievable as we watch the unbearable.

I am not sure if even this need to know gives us the right to see the shame of others. As Sybil Milton indicates, we don't have the opportunity to request permission. Considering the exquisite care that so many of the victims took to guard their modesty, one can never glibly assure us that they would have given their permission. And if even only one person would be further shamed by our viewing, would we have the right to look?

If we do look-and we do-it must be through biblical eyes. The Eikhah, The Book of Lamentations, offers descriptive and graphic depictions of the slaughter and degradation of the Jews during the destruction of the First Temple. When one reads its lines and the rabbinic commentary, the shame of those who suffered in Jerusalem sears the imagination. The communal recital of the Book of Lamentations during the fast of Tishah be-Av (commemorating the destruction of the Temple) attempts to do more. Avoiding a possible "numbing" effect that such a litany of horrors may eventually cause in the reader, it moves one beyond sympathy to empathy. Anyone viewing Genocide must undergo a similar leap into identification, understanding that we may never really know what it was like to be there. Their shame in some small way must become ours.

For Further Reading

Berkovits, Eliezer. Crisis and Faith. New York: Sanhedrin Press, 1976.

Soudet, Pierre. "Misuses of the Holocaust by the Film Industry. Centerpoint 4 (Fall 1980): 151-152.

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