Posted by: Bevan | March 18, 2017

The Holocaust: A Powerful Introduction

Final Journey: The Fate of the Jews in Nazi EuropeFinal Journey: The Fate of the Jews in Nazi Europe by Martin Gilbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Holocaust appalls and demands attention. It can be approached from many perspectives – looking at the suffering, understanding the perpetrators, philosophy and in studying the functioning of the Nazi German state and how it directed and implemented its racial policies. One of the dangers of exposure to this story is becoming immune to its horrors, through reading too much and turning it into a matter of historical analysis or a succession of statistics. Yet it seems obvious that this is necessary. We cannot forget it, and as perhaps the ultimate expression of the limits of human cruelty (indeed inhumanity) we cannot and should not resist the need to attempt to understand it.
Martin Gilbert as a Jew and Zionist had a deeper reason for interest in the Holocaust than most of us. In his work to record the events of the twentieth century he applied his gifts as an historian to recording the Nazi persecution and attempted destruction of European Jewry.
In his later book The Holocaust he records how in 1959 he travelled through Poland and for the first time visited the site of the Treblinka extermination camp. Although in subsequent years he engaged in his most well known work, the biography of Sir Winston Churchill, he gathered material about the holocaust, enough to eventually fill a room in his home.
The late 1970s seem to be an important time in the popularisation of remembrance of the holocaust, and it receiving a wider public discourse. Contrary to some accounts however, it had not been forgotten before then. The 1974 landmark series The World at War featured an episode entitled “Genocide” dealing with these events and a popular 1972 World War II partwork featured a chapter dealing with the death camps. Certainly from a US point of view however the TV miniseries Holocaust from 1978 played an important role. Historian Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life describes the series as “the most important moment in the entry of the Holocaust into general American consciousness”. Genocide, an award winning documentary from 1982 further exposed many international viewers to its horrors.
Martin Gilbert was one of the writers of that documentary, and perhaps in response to the TV miniseries released Final Journey: Holocaust: The Fate Of The Jews In Nazi Europe, his first book on the holocaust in 1979. Although he subsequently published a number of other books on the subject, including the magisterial The Holocaust, Final Journey still stands as a useful, relatively short (224 pages) overview.
Rather than providing a full narrative of the course of Nazi Germany’s repression and extermination, chapter by chapter Gilbert selects aspects of the treatment of the Jews and zooms in on them. The focus is always on the victims. He keeps his own voice in the background, and as in all his books concentrates on telling the facts rather than engaging in extensive interpretation. He provides lengthy first person narratives and lets the participants tell their stories in their own words.
We begin with the first deportations, and the creation of “Lublinland”, Eichmann’s first destination for the Jews of Germany. He describes the ghettos, the beginnings of the death camps and in chapter 3 an insight into an area I had not read much about, the repression of the Jews carried out almost independently by Romania.
For a brief overview of the Holocaust, I would highly recommend this book. Rather than skimming over the vast detail of the story, the selection of particular episodes and generosity with their description makes this history more powerful than its brevity might suggest. In addition, although the book does not spend a great deal of time on the perpetrators (thus perhaps not engaging with some of our natural questions about how we would have acted and why this could happen) I think the victims are the right place to begin. Further books such as Gilbert’s other works, and recent books by authors such as Lawrence Rees and David Ceserani provide a greater level of detail and full narrative. This 38 year old book still stands as a good starting point for beginning to study the final journey of six million tragic victims.

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