Tributes to Sheldon Seevak

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Posted August 06, 2009 in Nazis, Hitler, and the Holocaust
Pacho Lane (and reply by Timothy Snyder), "'Holocaust: The Ignored Reality': An Exchange," NY Review of Books (August 13, 2009)

To the Editors:

Congratulations to Professor Timothy Snyder ["Holocaust: The Ignored Reality," NYR, July 16] for expanding the conventional understanding of the mass killings of European civilians in the 1930s and 1940s beyond the symbolic limits of Auschwitz and the Gulag—with one exception.

Certainly, as Snyder remarks, "memory has made some odd departures from history...." Curiously, his article makes its own odd departure from history. There is not a single word in his otherwise wide-ranging exposition about the other group singled out for extermination on racial grounds—the Romani, or "Gypsies."

As Ian Hancock, a Romani and a professor at the University of Texas, points out, "Holocaust scholarship over the past forty to fifty years has been conducted primarily by Jewish researchers, so it is almost entirely about Jews, as is natural. The Gypsies lacked educated people to write." Estimates of Roma exterminated by the Nazis from 1935 to 1945—with the enthusiastic collaboration of other peoples allied with or occupied by the Germans—range from 225,000 to 1,500,000. Whatever the exact figure, it appears that the percentage of the Romani population of Europe exterminated in the Holocaust equaled or perhaps even exceeded the percentage of Jews....

Pacho Lane
Ethnoscope Film & Video Rochester, New York

Timothy Snyder replies:

The subject of my article was the five largest policies of mass killing of civilians carried out by Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union: the German attempt to exterminate European Jews (circa 5.7 million deaths); German starvations of Soviet citizens (circa 4 million); German mass reprisals against civilians (at least 750,000); Soviet starvations of Soviet citizens (circa 5.5 million), and the shootings of the Soviet Great Terror (circa 700,000).

I argued that our understanding of European mass killing should be modified: that Auschwitz was less important to the Holocaust than Operation Reinhardt in occupied Poland and the death pits in the occupied USSR; that the Germans planned to kill more non-Jews than Jews and in the end killed the two in about equal numbers; and that German and Soviet killing policies overlapped in territory and should be considered together as part of a larger phenomenon.

On these five important examples, and a few others, I suggested that there are roughly three groups of European victims of comparable size: Jews killed by Germans, non-Jews killed by Germans, and Soviet citizens killed by the Soviet regime. In the essay I did not mention smaller groups of victims that belong to all three categories: I omitted, for example, the 60,000 Jews of the Warsaw ghetto who died of starvation or disease (1940–1942) in the first category; the Polish intelligentsia shot by the Germans in Operation Tannenberg (1939) and the AB-Aktion (1940) in the second; or murdered peasants and Orthodox priests in the third. These examples could be multipled. The German crimes against the Roma and Sinti, like the others committed primarily in Eastern Europe, fall into the second category.

Unlike Mr. Lane, I would reserve the word "Holocaust" for the first category, the German mass murder of the Jews. When its use is expanded to other policies, its meaning blurs. I would disagree with the view attributed to Professor Ian Hancock to the effect that the Holocaust is a Jewish subject because its researchers are Jews. I would maintain that it is a Jewish subject because its victims were Jews. The Final Solution was linked to other policies of mass killing in a number of ways, some of which I indicated; but its distinctiveness justifies semantic prudence. Only clarity of terms allows us to place the Holocaust against its historical background, as the most systematic killing policy implemented during Europe's period of mass murder.

Mr. Lane's letter raises two further important issues of method. The first is the value of careful estimates about numbers of dead. In almost every case, they decline over time and upon examination. As a rule of thumb, the first number in a range (for example, 225,000 to 1,500,000 in Mr. Lane's letter) usually turns out to be closer to the truth. The second is that people who are murdered by the state, regardless of how well their stories are known, deserve a place in the historical record. There are no famous literary accounts of gassing at Treblinka, or of famine in Ukraine, or of reprisals in Belarus; the same can be said of the repression of the Roma and Sinti (although Erich Hackl's 1989 novel Abschied von Sidonie is to be recommended).

I wish that I had mentioned the German mass murder of the Roma and Sinti. The persecution of these groups was never as systematic as that of the Jews, but it bears comparison. Roma and Sinti were arrested in Germany beginning in 1938 and later deported to Poland or subjected to sterilization; shot by police in occupied Poland throughout the war; shot by Einsatzgruppe D in occupied Soviet Ukraine; shot in reprisal actions in Serbia; killed at the Jasenovac camp of Germany's puppet ally Croatia (about 15,000); ethnically cleansed from territories conquered by Germany's ally Romania; included in the killing orders during the massive German reprisals in Belarus; gassed at Che mno (about 4,400) and at Auschwitz (about 4,600, in addition to about 20,000 who died of hunger, disease, or mistreatment there). 225,000 is a reasonable preliminary estimate of the number of Roma and Sinti killed by the Germans and their allies. It is to be hoped that further research will allow us greater certainty.

August 2, 2009, marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of the liquidation of the Zigeunerlager, or gypsy camp, at Auschwitz. In view of the rise of anti-Roma sentiment in today's Europe, Mr. Lane's reminder is timely.

Category: Nazis, Hitler, and the Holocaust