With sixty-three pages of endnotes and boasting a sixty-one page index, Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War is a meticulously researched book, a powerful example of “bottom-up” history. Clocking in at 828 pages (not including the endnotes and index) The Holocaust is a heavy book, both in weight and in content. But if you’re not a professional historian don’t let the page length scare you off. It reads easy and you don’t need a strong background in the topic to follow it. In fact, aside from Night by Elie Wiesel, this is the only book on the Holocaust I’ve ever read to date.
Gilbert comes to the table with a personal stake in his subject. It’s hard for someone writing about the Holocaust to stay distant and neutral in any case, but Gilbert reveals in a brief passage that a distant relative of his died in the hell of a concentration camp. In fact, the entire project doesn’t try to be anything more than an accounting for as many Jews as possible.
One of his favorite sources was a man named Emanuel Ringleblum, a man who took it upon himself to record as much as he could of the Warsaw ghetto and his life at Pawiak prison. Ringleblum, like several other Jews mentioned in The Holocaust, knew that the experiences of the Jews would shock most of mankind. Like the scribes of old in Jewish memory, he hoped to write and record the Jewish trials and tribulations. His accounts are extraordinarily detailed and give us a good picture of life in the ghettos. His letters were found in a glass jar near a crematorium. Ringleblum didn’t survive the war.
Wherever he could Gilbert interviewed survivors, trying to continue what Ringleblum and others began during the dark years. The Holocaust is short of context but great in detail. Gilbert actively tries to include the names of as many Jews as he can. And in one paragraph he appeals to the readers to help find relatives of a Holocaust survivor who continued his search for family into the 1980s. This is both a great strength and a weakness of the book. It feels almost wrong to say this, but Gilbert records deportations, arrests, beatings conducted by the Nazis at every turn and it isn’t always a good thing. Gilbert also includes the names of every Nazi guard and sympathizer whenever he knows it, the reverse side of his recording of Jewish names. By identifying the criminals he places blame and guilt and removes the impersonal façade that sometimes comes along with war crimes. But often times the Nazi tactics didn’t change. The Nazis were often predictable and routine in their executions and harassment. So at times The Holocaust can be repetitive. But as a historical tool to preserve the names of the victims and the criminals, this book is remarkable.
The other downside from this “bottom-up” approach to history is that context is sometimes missing. The agency of humans in the Holocaust can sometimes be lost. Hitler seems to be mentioned only a handful of times, as are Himmler and Eichmann. Sometimes it seems almost as if the Holocaust was a string of random acts of violence. And The Holocaust could have used some more detail when discussing inconsistencies in Nazi behavior. I would have liked to have known why small acts of resistance on the part of Jews could result in instant execution sometimes, and drawn out deportations in other instances. Gilbert could have tried to explain these instances. Were the Germans at one site short on ammunition? Were they more humane than at others? Was there no standard operating procedure? To use another example, Gilbert doesn’t explain why it took a relatively long time to put down the Warsaw Uprisings. To be fair, the subtitle of the book makes clear this is a book about the Jewish experience, not Nazi procedures. Still, a little more detail might have shed more light on Nazi motivations at the camps.
The holes in his research become clear when dealing with the Jewish resistance movements. While he spends several chapters dealing with the subject, the reader never gets a good feel for how the movement operated outside of the ghettos and concentration camps. Gilbert includes lots of examples of Jews escaping from the camps or the death trains and marches, but there isn’t a whole lot of context. The reader gets the feeling that each Jew was on his or her own in the world, which was true in a lot of cases. But there were active partisan groups, and I’m sure in 1985, when the book was written, there were plenty of survivors with whom to talk. If Gilbert wanted to write a definitive history of Jews in Europe, as the subtitle suggests, he could have done more with the forest partisans or with the Jews serving in Allied armies. Still, among historians Gilbert’s The Holocaust is considered definitive, and overlooking the limitations of the narrative is easy. The book is more detailed and more powerful than many other books I’ve personally read about massacres and genocides.
If you’re new to the Holocaust, read this book. If you’re an experienced World War II hand, read this book. At the time of its publication it did more for Holocaust research than most other historical works. To this day it remains the definitive account of the Jewish experience, though other works undoubtedly have elaborated on events Gilbert glosses over. Gilbert does an admirable job recording the names of Jewish victims and preserves their memory wherever possible. He does a great service to the Jewish people, continuing what the victims themselves started by writing in journals and on scraps of paper. Even greater is the service Gilbert does to mankind as a whole. We may say “never forget,” but Gilbert gives us the tool to make sure we never do.