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The Holocaust: The History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War

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The Holocaust: The History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War, By Martin Gilbert. (New York: Henry Holt; Owl Books - Reprint Edition, 1987. Pg. 976) ISBN: 0-8050-0348-7


Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - January 7, 2002

When World War II started, there were about 8 million Jews in Europe. During the war, at least 6 million Jews were systematically murdered. Had the Nazi's had more time to carry out their genocidal 'final solution', every Jew on Earth would have been annihilated. In this classic work of Holocaust literature, Sir Martin Gilbert chronicles the near destruction of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazi death machine, and the minions that supported it. Following a chronologically driven methodology, Gilbert offers the reader a brief overview of anti-Semitism before 1933. Building upon this foundation, he embarks upon the gruesome task of detailing what happened to the Jews during World War II. Throughout, he tries to show how these horrific events occurred, and most important, why they happened.

The Holocaust is a sobering book that was written with consummate skill. Deftly, Gilbert interweaves the mind numbing statistics with eyewitness accounts of the atrocities. These accounts serve to bring the statistics, all too horribly, to life. With chilling intensity, these personal accounts describe how the individuals felt when the Nazi's came to power, and the tragic impacted that the Nazi regime had on their lives. These accounts also detail what it meant to be driven from your home, how it felt to witness the murder of loved ones and to forced to work as a slave laborer. They also recount the untold miracles that occurred, which allowed the handful of survivors, to survive. Throughout, Gilbert gives special emphasis to the estimated 1.5 million Jewish children who died during the Holocaust, and the methods by which they were murdered.

These accounts cover life in prewar Germany and the effect of the Nuremberg Laws. They also graphically depict deportations and life in the ghettos, slave labor camps, and the concentration camps that dotted the Nazi empire. These narratives also detail how mass-murder was carried out, with a factory like efficiency, in the concentration camps. Even more horrifically; they also detail less efficient means of murder, such torture and shooting. Please keep in mind that the term 'less efficient' is subjective. For example, on September 29-30, 1941, over 33,000 Jews were shot to death alongside a ravine called Babi Yar, which is located near Kiev, in the Ukraine.

In addition to chronicling the efforts and methods used to kill the Jews, Gilbert also addresses more controversial issues. Such as, why did millions of Germans and other Europeans actively assisted and participated in the murder of their Jewish neighbors? He also takes a hard, although somewhat superficial look, at the unsympathetic response of the Allies to the plight of the Jews. Gilbert also recounts the efforts of the countless heros who helped to save Jews. Sometimes these heros were nameless individual. Sometimes they were entire countries. For example, Bulgaria, although a German ally, made a political and ethical decision to resist German pressures to deport the country's Jews to Nazi concentration camps. Consequently, the entire Jewish population of Bulgaria was saved!

Gilbert also devotes substantial space to the role of the Jewish resistance movements, including large scale movements, such as the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, as well as smaller, personal acts of resistance. As Gilbert points out, for many, survival was the greatest form of resistance that they could realize. And it was resistance, via survival, that gave many the willpower and the stamina to actually survive. And it is from these survivors that Gilbert garnered much of the material that he used in this book. But most important, the stories and eyewitness accounts of the survivors serve to give voice to the millions dead, who are unable to speak for themselves.

Gilbert also candidly recounts the fact that liberation did not always equal life. In the hours, weeks, and months after the war 'officially' ended, thousands of Jews died as a result of the treatment they received at the hands of the Nazi's. Countless more where permanently injured, both physically and mentally, from the ordeals that they endured. Others, upon learning that they were the only member of their family to have survived, found that they could not go on alone and took their own lives.

Gilbert also points out the tragic truth that many of the survivors where abused by their liberators. For example, many Jewish women were raped by the very same Russian soldiers who liberated them. As well, after the war ended, the killing did not. Untold numbers of Jews, who somehow managed to survive the Nazi onslaught, were brutally murdered as they attempted to return to their homes. Sometimes they were killed by opportunistic thugs, other times by old neighbors unwilling to return property that they had stolen after the Jews had been marched off by the Germans.

Martin Gilbert has written over 30 books, most of which deal issues and people connected with World War II. The Holocaust must have been the hardest book he has ever written, for it is definitely a hard book to read. This book may give you nightmares, and it will surely haunt your thoughts. So you may ask, why read it? The answer is simple - to remember. While the events detailed in this book may seem like ancient history to many, the scars that these events left are still raw. And worse, the threat of anti-Semitism is as real today as it was in June of 1941, when the Holocaust officially began. In 1905 when George Santayana wrote "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it!" He could never have imagined that this line would become the epitaph of an event of mass murder, on an unprecedented scope, that was to become know as the Holocaust.


Related Reviews:

Auschwitz: A New History, by Laurence Rees.
A sweeping history Auschwitz, the notorious death camp. This account includes information garnered from more than a hundred interviews that Rees conducted with both camp survivors and Nazi perpetrators.

The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism, by Barbara Epstein.
A detailed history of the Minsk Ghetto and the Jewish underground movement that grew out of it.

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