YESTERDAY was the 75th anniversary of the opening of the first Nazi extermination camp. On March 17, 1942, 15,000 Jews, transported by train from a Polish ghetto to the Belzec camp, were gassed by the SS. The Final Solution had begun
It has never been more important to remember the hells on earth that were Belzec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Chelmno, Majdanek and, most notoriously of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau. When I was growing up in the Leeds Jewish community in the 1960s and 70s, my parents’ and grandparents’ generations found it understandably hard to talk about the Holocaust. During the Second World War, only 20 miles of salt sea had separated them from extinction. In some ways, it was a taboo subject.
Today, quite rightly in my view, it seems to be endlessly discussed. Some cynics think there is an obsession with the Nazis in schools and popular culture. The latest TV offering is SS-GB, a counter-factual history drama based on Len Deighton’s novel. It imagines what London under Nazi control would have looked like, although is a bit too genteel for my liking. It is also a bit too gentile, having very little to say about the fate of the capital’s Jewish population.
To understand the true significance of Belzec and the other killing centres, I would recommend a nine-and-a-half hour documentary called Shoah. Claude Lanzmann’s masterpiece remains the most important Holocaust film ever made. Avoiding traditional archival footage, and relying instead on first-person testimony, it paints a horrific portrait of the day-to-day mechanics of physical annihilation.
“It was at Belzec that the system of mass murder was conceived and refined,” Franz Suchomel, a low-level SS guard at Treblinka, tells the French director. Christian Wirth, one of the leading architects of Operation Reinhard (the Nazi programme to exterminate Polish Jewry), “carried out experiments to determine the most efficient method of handling the transports of Jews, from the time of their arrival until the time of their murder and burial”. From March to May 1942, 80,000 people were killed and buried in pits covered with a shallow layer of earth. In total, between 430,000 and 500,000 Jews are believed to have been killed at the camp.
Chaim Hirszman, one of the few survivors of Belzec, remembers that “a transport of children up to three years of age arrived. The workers were told to dig a big hole into which the children were thrown and buried alive. I cannot forget how the earth rose, until the children suffocated”.
I went through a long period of my life not wanting to read, or think, about such things. But we are living in counter-factual times – and I am not referring merely to growly, unfathomable, Sunday-night thrillers. Unbelievably, there are some people who still question the authenticity of the Final Solution.
Holocaust denial is making a comeback – some would say it never went away – with a new internet generation discovering myriad online “exposés” of the “holohoax”. Six million Jews were not, apparently, murdered. The gas chambers, it is claimed, are a figment of our collective imagination. Hitler never actually carried out his plan for ridding Europe of its Jews.
Maverick historian David Irving, who has dismissed what happened at Auschwitz as “Disneyland”, was labelled “anti-Semitic and racist” by a judge during an infamous libel trial in 2000. This hasn’t prevented more than 200 of his fake history lectures being available on YouTube. “There is a general belief among people out there that they are being misled,” he argues. “The people I’ve called the traditional enemy are very worried about this phenomenon. They don’t have a handle on it.” The traditional enemy, by the way, is Irving’s term for Jews.
Seventeen years ago, as portrayed in the recent film Denial, Irving lost a courtroom battle with Deborah Lipstadt. The American historian, played by Rachel Weisz, had accused him of falsifying history. “There was nothing, zilch, in the historical claims that he made,” says Lipstadt. “We proved that. But this is the world we are living in. Where facts don’t matter any more… and it’s absolutely terrifying. I’ve no idea of knowing if his claims about his newfound popularity are true or not but you’d have to be living under a rock not to see that this proliferation of racism and anti-Semitism is being disseminated by the internet. This has nothing to do with freedom of speech. It’s about truth and lies.”
Jews were not the only victims of the Nazi horror. Roma, gay people, the disabled, socialists, communists and trade unionists were also murdered. But – again unbelievably – it has become necessary to point out that Jews were specifically targeted for extermination. The Nazis, themselves, referred to “the final solution to the Jewish problem”. The OED defines the Holocaust as “the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis in the war of 1939-1945”.
And yet, another counter-factual school of thought has emerged which denies that Jews were singled out. It has even found a home in the White House. On Holocaust Memorial Day, President Donald Trump’s administration put out a statement which began: “It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.” There was no specific reference to Jews.
Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is the former chairman of the far-right Breitbart website, which has flirted with anti-Semitic tropes, referring to one pundit as a “renegade Jew” and another as “a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned”. Hardly a week seems to go by without the Bannonites being accused of twisting the truth.
As Weisz’s character states in Denial, there is such a thing as historical truth. “Slavery happened,” she says. “The Black Death happened. Elvis is not alive.” And nearly half a million people perished at Belzec – almost all of whom were Jews. This is not an alternative fact. And it should not be airbrushed from history.
Anthony Clavane is an author and commentator. His latest book, A Yorkshire Tragedy, is published by Quercus.
The Polish League Against Defamation has asked us to make it clear that whilst it accepts that the ghettos were located in Poland, the PLAD rejects the proposition that they were created, organised, and/or run by Polish people.