Monday, January 24, 2005

Was The Holocaust Really That Bad?

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camps. The event is being marked in a number of ways: religious services are being held across Europe, world leaders are gathering in the camps themselves, films and TV documentaries have been specially commissioned so as to mark the sombre date.

Yet some people are beginning to ask whether we are seeing the Holocaust in a skewed and negative light. These revisionists even wonder whether the notorious 'Final Solution' might possibly have had 'a good side'.

Jakob Viljeon is a Dutch Jew, who was deported from Rotterdam to the Auschwitz complex in May 1943; he remained an inmate until that cold January day in 1945, when the Red Army liberated the camps. He says today: 'Some of the people who were imprisoned in Auschwitz, they were just "moaning minnies": they were looking for something to pick holes in.' He chuckles as he imitates them. '"My ten-man bed is too hard, this gruel is cold, what's that horrible smell of roasting..."' Jakob sighs. 'Yadda yadda yadda. You could put these guys in a suite at the Savoy and they'd still be nit-picking...'

This startling perspective is shared by other Holocaust survivors. Esther Manning is a British Jew. She was living with relatives in Warsaw when the Nazis invaded Poland. For six months she was confined in the Jewish ghetto, then she was transferred to Dachau, near Munich. There she worked in the so-called Joy Division, the part of the concentration camp reserved as a brothel for German soldiers.

For three and a half years she was continually raped by SS officers, on a daily basis. Yet she still remembers her days in Dachau with a certain cheery fondness. 'Oh, it wasn't all doom and gloom, not by any means. I remember one day, when the German guards set an attack dog on a naked Latvian rabbi, we were all standing around watching this dog chew the rabbi, and then one of the sparkier inmates piped up and said: "That's what you get when you stint on the Winalot". It sounds awful, but we had to chuckle. Well you have to, haven't you?'

She pauses, and goes on. 'OK yes, it was tough. Of course. This was a death camp where we faced the constant possibility of being gassed, or being experimented on, medically. But nothing is ever black and white. There were some good times, too.'

Many people are outraged by these sentiments. They point to the fact that, on top of the estimated six million Jews liquidated in the Final Solution, millions of gypsies, homosexuals, political radicals and Soviet prisoners-of-war also met their deaths in the ovens. How could anyone regard such an enormity in an even-handed way?

Yet some do. Francois Millau, a dissident Catholic priest from Lyon, who survived the extermination camp of Birkenau, says this: 'I know it won't make me popular, but there were certain positive aspects to the Shoah. For instance, the cattle trucks, while admittedly crowded, always ran on time. You could set your watch by them, it was amazing. And as for the death marches, when the Gestapo forced the Jews to walk day and night until they dropped dead - well, at least it got you out in the open air. Comme ci, comme ca?'

Josef Tremschen was a "sonderkommando" at Belsen - i.e. a Jewish orderly employed to retrieve the corpses from the gas chambers, and then incinerate them in the ovens. Even he has a surprisingly warm memory of his days in the camps: 'It was great work if you ever needed a spare pair of false teeth... or some spectacles.' He grins. 'You know, these people who bang on and on about the Final Solution, saying Oh it was all so bloody terrible... I think that they're just professional whingers. They really get my goat. If it wasn't the Holocaust it would be something else.'

Shocking? Disgraceful? Perhaps. But as we enter the 21st Century it may be time to listen to some dissenting voices on this, the defining moral event of our times. As Josef Tremschen puts it: 'You know what I like to say? Holocaust - Schmolocaust!'

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