Beyond the Auschwitz Syndrome

Dan Stone looks at how historians’ understanding of the Holocaust has changed since the end of the Cold War with the opening of archives that reveal the full horror of the ‘Wild East’.

Lev Rozhetsky was a schoolboy when the Romanian army, the Wehrmacht’s largest ally, occupied south-western Ukraine in 1941. His memoir, published in an important collection called The Unknown Black Book (Indiana University Press, 2008), is full of terrible stories: girls being tossed into latrines; Jews being tormented, tortured and shot; dogs growing ‘fat as rams’ on the bodies. The perpetrators in this region, usually led by a thin layer of German commanders, included Romanian gendarmerie and local Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans).What Rozhetsky also observed was the involvement of locals, not always in the murder process itself, but in the looting that accompanied it: ‘Having caught the scent of booty, all sorts of dirty scoundrels came running from every direction,’ as he put it.Another survivor, Sara Gleykh, a student from Mariupol in Ukraine, wrote that ‘the neighbours waited like vultures for us to leave the apartment’. The same neighbours then ‘quarrelled over things before my eyes, snatching things out of each others’ hands and dragging off pillows, pots and pans, quilts.’

As historian Joshua Rubenstein notes, in the Baltic region and western Ukraine especially, but throughout Eastern Europe in general, ‘it was as if the population understood,without much prodding by the Germans, that there were no limits on what they could do to their Jewish neighbours’. From Horyngrad-Krypa in Volhynia,where Ukrainians armed with axes, knives and boards spiked with nails murdered 30 local Jews, to Kaunas in Lithuania,where the famous ‘death dealer’ of the city was photographed clubbing Jews to death with an iron bar, there is no shortage of evidence to support Rubenstein’s claim.

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