My own new Holocaust-related book is not the only one about that subject I want you to know about. I'd also like to recommend to you a book I wasn't aware of until just recently -- The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews, by Father Patrick Desbois.
Oh, my. Prepare yourself for a difficult but moving read.
Desbois has devoted years now to uncovering the story of the way Germany murdered Jews in the Ukraine and other portions of eastern Europe before Hitler's government decided that shooting them one by one was too inefficient.
That lethal inefficiency led to the creation of the gas chambers in the six death camps in Poland, the country on which my co-author and I have focused in our book.
But before the death camps, in the early 1940s -- indeed soon after the start of the war in 1939 -- Jews often were ordered to dig their own mass graves and then shot one by one to fill those graves. Desbois' estimate, based on considerable on-site research (including gathering shell casings from bullets fired by German weapons), is that about 1.5 million Jews died in this horrible way.
Desbois, a Catholic priest from France, immersed himself in Jewish culture and tradition to try to understand the Holocaust from that perspective and to try to understand the long, sad history of anti-Judaism in Christian history. (For my own essay on that subject, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)
The book describes Desbois' own journey of discovery in which he meets and interviews elderly Ukrainians who, in many cases, had witnessed some of the murders. At one point he describes a circle of these people who stood in front of a burial pit and told of what they knew about the Jews, their neighbors, who died there:
"Every one of them recalled things more horrible than the last. And I stood there, stunned, unable to move, listening to these people delivering the secret of the Shoah in this village. I had only one desire: to scream and beg them to stop. But no one could stop what was happening. Each one of them was narrating, for the first time, the history of the execution of the Jews of Rawa-Ruska, the assassination of young people whose children and parents had already been killed."
And if this passage doesn't jackhammer your heart, you need some help:
"I am convinced there is only one human race -- a human race that shoots two-year-old children. For better or for worse I belong to that human race and this allows me to acknowledge that an ideology can deceive minds to the point of annihilating all ethical reflexes and all recognition of the human in the other. It happened in 1941, 1942, 1943, and 1944, in the very heart of Europe, one of the oldest civilizations in the world that had been shaped by centuries of Christian religious thinking and by the Enlightenment -- yet human beings had stopped recognizing their own fellows! Human beings had not seen that by killing others, they were killing themselves."
I believe it's important for all of us to know as much history as we can, in hopes of finding good models to guide us in our time and place and in hopes of avoiding the evils that have gone before us. History, however, tells me that we're not all that good at either. And yet we must continue to try. Which means, at times, staring this kind of brutish history in the face and acknowledging what our fellow human beings suffered as well as naming the fellow human beings who caused that suffering.
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PUBLIC RESPECT FOR RELIGIONS
The White House held a dinner for Muslims the other night. I like the idea of government officials paying respect to the various religions of Americans and see nothing wrong with such dinners, Christmas decorations, High Holiday greetings to Jews and so forth. I hope our elected officials never get skittish about such things. By the way, the author of the piece to which I've linked you, Eboo Patel, will speak in Kansas City in November as part of the annual KC Festival of Faiths.
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P.S.: Until Tuesday, Sept. 8, my Internet access will be sporadic at best. That means a long time may go by between you posting a comment here and it being published. Thanks for your patience.
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ANOTHER P.S.: Please plan to join me and my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, at one of the two upcoming (Sept. 10 and Sept. 13) events described here to launch our new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Rainy Day Books will be there to help you buy a copy and you'll even get to meet some of the people whose remarkable stories we tell in the book.