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Martin Winstone – The Holocaust Sites of Europe

Martin Winstone is the author of The Holocaust Sites of Europe: An Historical Guide. In this podcast Martin talks about the geography of the Holocaust, the sites where the atrocities took place, and the different kinds of camp which existed.

So we’re here today with Martin Winstone, who wrote the book The Holocaust Sites of Europe, thank you for coming in today Martin.

Thank you.

So can you tell us about your book?

Sure, it’s, essentially in many ways a guidebook, which might seem a very bizarre concept – it’s a guide to the Holocaust sites across Europe, primarily focusing on 19 countries. It includes camps, other killing sites, cities, also I wanted to included sites associated with the murder of people of disabilities and Sinti and Roma. And it’s essentially for people visiting those sites, but I hope also it works as a history book, in the sense that by going through the history of each of these places, one is getting a country by country, and site by site history of the Holocaust, which I think is actually quite unusual.

So why did you decide to write about the Holocaust sites?

The simple, facile answer is that nobody else had. Millions of people visit some of these sites, for example Auschwitz-Birkenau is the most visited Museum in Poland, receives well more than one million visitors a year. And I was visiting these sites myself and seeing that there wasn’t really very much literature available for people. Obviously that raises the question of why I was visiting the sites, and I think I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust, and I have taught the Holocaust, but what really prompted this, was researching my partner’s family history. Her great-grandparents were Litvaks; Lithuanian Jews, who came to the UK at the end of the nineteenth century. But at that time people had very large families, lots of people stayed behind, and many of them were affected by the Holocaust, and so we went to Vilnius, to explore sites of Jewish heritage, and sites associated with the Holocaust, and then on to Poland. So I think it’s that that really made this into what I really wanted to do. And also I think when I was first planning the book, my original intention was to focus simply on Central and Eastern Europe. And it was actually Sir Martin Gilbert who suggested that I should do the whole continent. And as I did that another point that really came home was that many of these places are really not well known at all. That means that there are key aspects of the Holocaust which are often overlooked; and I think it’s quite important that people should be aware of them.

So many people when they hear the term ‘concentration camp’, they think of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but obviously there are other types of sites, and other types of camps. Could you [talk a bit about that]?

Sure yes, in many ways Auschwitz was in many ways unique, and it’s actually that uniqueness that makes it so well known. The fact that it was both an extermination and a concentration camp, and actually slave labour camp as well, means that when Jews were brought to Auschwitz, there were the selections which is one of the things that people are well aware of from the Holocaust, but that was not really repeated elsewhere. And it may seem counter-intuitive but, just as more Jews were killed at Auschwitz than any other place, more actually survived because of that selection process, because people might be used as slave labour. And so there’s no other place like that, and in fact actually the other camps which tend to be well known in the west, are places like Buchenwald, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen. Which were also essentially concentration camps, places where people were interned, originally for political reasons, and they actually were only really important in the very last months of the war, as the German army retreated, prisoners who had survived Auschwitz were then sent westwards to the camps in Germany, and so those were the camps which were liberated by British and American armies, and therefore they are the well known camps along with Auschwitz. But actually many of the key sites in the Holocaust are very little known. With camps first of all, there are probably three other types of camp which are worth highlighting, most importantly the extermination camps.

As I say Auschwitz had that extermination function but other functions as well. On the whole the other extermination camps didn’t. In particular, there are the three camps of the so-called Aktion (Operation) Reinhard, the murder of the Polish Jews, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. And they were camps which existed purely for murder. As an illustration of that, Belzec is actually one place where we have an almost precise figure for the number of fatalities; we know that at least 434,508 people were murdered there. And there were only two survivors. Or similarly the other major extermination camp Chelmno in western Poland, where maybe about 150,000 people were murdered, three known survivors. So understanding those places I think tells us about the Holocaust that perhaps Auschwitz doesn’t entirely, and brings home just how the Nazis were determined to murder every single Jew in Europe. So the extermination camps are crucial to understanding the Holocaust.

But apart from Auschwitz and maybe Treblinka, most people have never really heard of them, there are even other sites which were used for short periods as extermination camps, which even many historians overlook, for example there was a camp called Sajmište in Belgrade, which in the space of just two months in 1942, was basically used to murder all remaining Jews in Serbia. Additionally though, other important types of camp, there were so-called transit camps, because of course for people to be sent to places like Auschwitz, they had to be held somewhere first. In eastern Europe, they were already mainly imprisoned in ghettos, in other parts of the continent, special camps were established to hold people, and probably the best known are Drancy, just outside Paris and Westerbork in the Netherlands, where Anne Frank was held, before deportation. And these were an important part of the process, and also I think raise another issue, that in some of the places like Drancy, for some of its history they were not actually administered by the Germans. Drancy was controlled by the Vichy police forces. And that highlights the other type of camp, which is worth knowing about – that there were camps were murders took place, which were not actually run by the Germans. Most obviously in Croatia, which was ruled by the Ustaše, the Croatian fascists, where there were a number of labour camps where genocide of Jews and Serbs and Roma was carried out. The best known of these was a site called Jasenovac, where at least 70,000 people were murdered. So there’s actually an array of camps, all of which in different ways, are not the same as Auschwitz.

But of course a very large proportion of the victims of the Holocaust didn’t die in camps; so I think when we’re talking about Holocaust sites as well, we also need to focus on what’s been termed the Holocaust by bullets – the mass shootings of Jews, mainly in the Soviet Union, but also in Serbia and in Poland, probably at least 1.5 million were murdered at these places. Some of them are reasonably well known like Babi Yar outside Kiev, but there are thousands of these sites across eastern Europe, not only have most people never heard of them, but in many cases they’re unmarked, I think actually one project which is worth knowing about is a French priest, called Father Patrick Debois, who has undertaken this amazing mission in Ukraine to try and locate as many mass-grave sites as possible, has interviewed local people to locate them, used German plans and tried to erect memorials in all of these places. During the Communist period, the Soviet authorities had no interest in erecting memorials in most cases, and even if they did, they were simply to victims of fascism, rather than specifically mentioning who was killed there. So the mass killing sites of the east are essential to the story of the Holocaust. But also one other type of place I wanted very much to include in the book was cities. Most of Europe’s Jews lived in towns or cities, across the continent, but particularly in eastern Europe, and these were the places where obviously ghettos were established, even before the Nazis had taken the decisions to launch murder, thousands of people died in these places of disease and starvation. And again, they were also transit points on the journey towards the extermination camps, for example in Paris, the cycling stadium was used to hold people, or in Prague, an exhibition hall. And also though, I think what’s really important is, and one of the key reasons I wanted to include cities alongside murder sites in the book is also these were the places where people had lived for hundreds of years, where they’d developed cultures, a civilisation. And if we really want to understand what the Holocaust is about, then we really need to understand that civilisation as well.

Why do you think it’s important that we understand the scale, geographically speaking of the Nazi Persecution today?

I think for a number of reasons, first and foremost it helps us to better understand the Holocaust, to understand what the Holocaust was. And in so doing, helps us to really, perhaps learn lessons from that today and to properly remember the Holocaust. The most obvious facet, the geographical impact, is it really does again, bring home the Nazi – the totality of the Nazi vision. I think perhaps what distinguishes the Holocaust from other genocides is its scale, both in the sense that the Nazis aimed to kill all Jews, and to do so on a continental scale. Which is ultimately without parallel. I think in particular focusing on the geographical scale helps us to understand how they were able to try to achieve that. It would perhaps be comforting to imagine that the Holocaust was simply the result of a small number of evil people but sadly that was not the case, even within Germany itself, it is often assumed it was just the SS who were the perpetrators. But actually a wide range of people were involved – in some parts of Europe it was actually the Werhmacht, the German army, in other cases, reserve police men, or what Germans called desk-bound killers, people who didn’t kill anyone themselves, but who signed documents which led to people dying. But I think perhaps more importantly, it really brings home the fact that it wasn’t just Germans who participated in this. There were governments, in some cases who carried out murders themselves, particularly in Croatia and Romania. In other cases, governments who collaborated, for example Vichy France or Slovakia. Slovakia’s particularly interesting because it was the first country to hand over its Jews, and it actually paid the Germans to take them away on the promise that they would never return. But also in a very famous phrase associated with the Holocaust, ordinary men and women. Perhaps best known in the Baltic states, the Ukraine, there were often locals who took part in the shootings, often it’s believed that more people were actually killed by local collaborators than by the Germans themselves. And the John Demanjuk case highlighted that even in the extermination camps there was often a non-German involvement. In fact in the three Aktion Reinhard camps, in each camp, there were only around at any given time twenty to thirty SS men there, and much of the work in the camps was done by people who were recruited by Soviet prisoners of war and volunteers from across the Soviet Union. And they were the people that really made those camps operate. So I think that’s rather troubling that it shows how widespread participation in the genocide was, but I think at the same time it was, in terms of contemporary importance, it really brings home the idea that it’s about choices, moral choices that people make, and that’s what makes genocide possible. It’s not simply enough to have a handful of supposed fanatics who take the decisions.

And a very important point I think about the Holocaust is contrary to often widespread opinion that most of these people who collaborated or participated were not actually in danger of their own lives, that it’s often believed that if they didn’t take part they would be shot themselves. That’s simply not true in most cases. So I think in terms of focus on the perpetrators, the geographical scale is really important, but also I think it highlights the fact that there were other ways in which people responded to the Holocaust. Again, the breadth of it across Europe shows us that in different places and amongst different people there were very different responses; and we’ve got to be careful not to condemn particular states or nationalities, but we do see this range of reactions in some cases, acts of rescue – both by individuals but also by groups – most famously the Danish resistance, saving the Danish Jews, of protest, perhaps the best known example is in Amsterdam in 1941. Even before the murders and deportations had started, there was a general strike. And similarly in Greece, Archbishop Damaskinos of the Orthodox church, was regrettably the only leading churchman in Europe, in terms of head of the church, who spoke out against the Holocaust. So we get people reacting in those ways, and also simply another form of positive reaction which fits in with the theme of HMD 2012, is simply reporting on what was happening. That there were people across Europe who were compiling information, one example is the Polish underground, and worker Jan Karski, who infiltrated the Warsaw ghetto, and visited possibly the Belzec extermination camp, possibly the Izbica transit ghetto and it’s also worth bearing in mind that within that, we should include Jewish reactions as well. There are often these stereotypes, perhaps not so prevalent today, but perhaps in the past of Jews being led like sheep to the slaughter, whereas in fact across Europe we see a whole range of reactions which encompass armed resistance, rescue, preserving Jewish culture, and it’s important again to perceive that in our understanding of the Holocaust. To show that there were people who actually did take a stand. And I think also talking about Jewish culture and Jewish reactions – the geographical nature of the Holocaust brings home the diversity of the victims. There’s a tendancy perhaps for people to see victims as this sort of faceless mass, just all Jews, which is of course, how the Nazis saw them. But we’re actually talking about very different communities and cultures, a huge array of languages, different histories across the continent. And again, if we really want to understand what the Holocaust was about, then we need to see that it was not just the great numbers, but the stories of these different communities and cultures, and of course of different individuals and families.

So I think understanding just how geographically widespread the Holocaust was, is in a way quite troubling; it raises difficult moral questions, but I think also it at the same time it does help us to see that it’s not all a black story, that there are positive things that come out of it. And in, at least some parts of the continent, that we can highlight acts of resistance and heroism, which can help to inspire us to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.

Is there anything else that you would like to talk about with regards to your book?

As I said, one of the most often overlooked is Jewish reactions to the Holocaust, and I think particularly Jewish resistance, and Jewish acts of rescue. We’ve all heard of Oskar Schindler and Frank Foley and Raoul Wallenburg, but actually, huge numbers of Jewish lives were saved by other Jews, I think one of the most spectacular – I’m amazed that particularly after Defiance that no one’s made this into a movie – is in Belgium, three young resistance fighters, one of whom Youra Livschitz was a Jewish doctor; organised an attack on a train carrying people to Auschwitz. As far as we’re aware that’s the only attack anywhere in Europe on a – essentially – a death train, and they were armed only a pistol and a hurricane lamp covered in red paper to make it look it look like an alarm signal, and they were able to secure the release of a couple of hundred people from the train – people who otherwise would have almost certainly gone to their deaths. So I think seeing the Holocaust in its European context brings home all these little incidents that maybe tend to get overlooked, with the normal focus perhaps that there is, simply on the process of the murders.