Review of Frank Beer and Markus Roth, eds. Von der Letzten Zerstörung

Helmut Walser Smith

Frank Beer and Markus Roth, eds. Von der Let­zten Zer­störung. Die Zeitschrift Fun let­stn churbn” der Jüdis­chen His­torischen Kom­mis­sion in München 1946 — 1948. Trans. (into Ger­man) from Yid­dish by Susan Hiep, Sophie Licht­en­stein, and Daniel Warten­berg. (Berlin: Metropol Ver­lag, 2021). 1032 pp. € 49.00.

Sometimes books perceptively change scholarly fields. In Holocaust research, Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, and the two volumes of Saul Friedländer’s Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933-1939 and The Years of Extermination, 1939-1941 are such books. 1 1 Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago: Quadrangle Book, 1961); Christopher Browning Ordinary Men. Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperCollins, 1993) (1992) Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939 (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), Saul Friedländer, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 2007). Put together, they also tell a story. The story begins with a focus on the perpetrators (and especially the bureaucratic side of the genocide), then it zeroes in on who did the killing and why, and finally it presents an “integrated narrative” that brings together the perspective of victim and perpetrator. Progress, one feels, has been made.

Now there is another such book to be added to this list. However, this new addition upsets the story of scholarly progress, for it suggests that elements of the integrated narrative have been in plain sight all along. Expertly edited and introduced by Frank Beer and Markus Roth, Von der letzten Zerstörung is “the full and complete” translation into German of the Yiddish journal Fun letstn khurbn, published in ten installments in Munich between August 1946 and December 1948 (38). The journal has been on the shelves in a number of libraries and archives in North America, Europe, and Israel for a long time. One can also find Fun letstn khurbn cited occasionally in serious secondary works on the Holocaust. Most recently, Christoph Dieckmann used it in his foundational work on the German occupation of Lithuania. 2 2 Christoph Dieckmann, Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941–1944 (Göttingen: Wallstein, Göttingen 2011). But generally speaking, the journal has long been overlooked.

In its time — the immediate postwar period — the reports, testimonies, eye-witness accounts, essays (even from children), photographs, sketched maps, and recorded songs published in Fun letstn khurbn constituted a major breakthrough. While professional historians in Germany and abroad offered guarded insights into what happened during the Holocaust, the journal published devastatingly precise accounts. “Give the names of those who murdered us,” the editors urged, and listed the names of those who were killed, as did Sore Kerbel in her account of “The last 45 Children of Kielce” (240-241). The editors also counseled survivors to tell of the Jews who bravely resisted, like Marla Zimetbaum, whose story Tseshe Schiling recounts (912-914), and to praise those few non-Jews who helped, even as most testimonies speak of the far greater number of locals who took massacres as an opportunity to enrich themselves.

The journal was an expression of a wider movement of Holocaust survivors working as amateur historians. Beginning in Warsaw, Lodz, and Bialystok, this movement soon migrated to the DP camps of the American zone of occupation, which, by 1946, had become a veritable hothouse of historical collecting and writing. The “Central Historical Commission” was at the center of this work. Headed by Israel Kaplan, a survivor of Kaunas and Riga, and Moshe Yosef Feigenbaum, who survived in hiding in Poland, the Commission sent out thousands of questionnaires in its three years of existence; it gathered nearly thirty thousand Nazi documents, rescued over a thousand photographs, and secured hundreds of artifacts of ghetto and camp life. 3 3 Ada Schein,”Everyone can hold a Pen.” The Documentation Project in the DP Camps in Germany,” in David Bankier and Dan Michman, Holocaust Historiography in Context: Emergence, Challenges, Polemics and Achievements (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Publications, 2009), 131. In all, the Commission wrote down some 2,536 testimonies, most of them in Yiddish (and now deposited at Yad Vashem). Of these, Fun letstn khurbn published some 276 accounts, mostly from surviving Jews from Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary. If their accounts represent a mere slice of testimonies recovered, they nevertheless open a window onto the history of everyday life of the Jews facing the genocidal onslaught of the Nazis.

For Kaplan and Feigenbaum, the evocation of everyday life was not a mere catchphrase. It belied the considerable influence of Simon Dubnow, the towering figure of interwar Jewish history and director of the historical section of the Vilnius-based YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut). Dubnow’s scholarly attention to the daily life of Jews, and not just their politics or theology, profoundly influenced many historians. So too did his final plea to write and record Jewish life, a plea he reportedly uttered shortly before a Nazi murdered him on a cold Monday in December 1941. 4 4 Cited in Friedländer, The Years of Extermination, 262.

Write and record the survivors did, but from a different vantage point. Most contemporary documents, like the documents of the Nuremberg Trials, were documents of the perpetrators. For Kaplan and Feigenbaum, the point was not merely to add to the mass of material assembled by the victorious allies but to shift the angle of insight. If Nazi sources narrowed historical vision as if coldly peering through the scope of a rifle, the sources collected by the commission evoked the lived experience of those who were targets of mass violence. For example, Nazi documents almost never tell us that people screamed, wailed, shrieked, cried uncontrollably, sobbed, or shouted. They also never mention smell either. But the early testimonies are different. Sensory experience is everywhere. So too are seething emotions, as barely submerged disgust, rage, and thirst for revenge push through narrative surfaces. Moreover, what happened during the Holocaust is often described with unsettling precision — so that, for example, not simply the fact that Nazis murdered children is exposed, but the sound and the sight of it comes through as well. Readers can almost hear the guard dogs growl and tear at Jewish children in Dubno, northeast of Lviv, as Nazis and Ukrainians hurry the young ones to the ditch where they are to be shot (135). Some documents actually tell of such horrors through the eyes of the children. Genya Shurts, a nine-year old girl from the Polish town of Podhajce, recounts her experience of beatings, hunger, ghettoization, and the “most terrible moment in life, having to wait for death” (952).

The documents also help readers overcome “backlighting.” According to the scholar Simone Gigliotti, backlighting occurs when the last event in a series of traumatic occurrences is made into the site of the whole traumatic event. In the case of survivors, most recollections focus on their experiences in the concentration camps, blotting out, however harrowing, what came before. Deportation and transport, is, for example, often reduced in later testimonies to a bare recounting of the number of days it took to get to the camp, while what actually happened inside the cars is pushed off to the far recesses of memory. 5 5 Simone Gigliotti, The Train Journey. Transit, Captivity, and Witnessing in the Holocaust (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009), 16. Not so here: in Fun letstn khurbn, survivors even divulged details they suspected others would not believe. Muritsi Kraut, for example, a survivor of KZ Gross Rosen and Buchenwald, told of cannibalism in the death trains, drinking urine to quench thirst, and people so tired they rested their heads on corpses (p.257).

Hunger, of course, was a constant companion. In these reports, we hear of the hunger experienced in the camps and on death marches, but it is in the ghettos that a veritable culture of desperate craving for food arose. For example, folk sayings alluding to the joys of the luxurious turnip reveal the despondency of sipping watery soup, or the gratitude for receiving a piece of bread as a wedding present — which helps to explain why there were so many ghetto marriages (269).

Several accounts tell of one of the last horrors survivors endured before liberation: the so-called “death marches.” Many of the Jews in the DP camps, including Kaplan, had barely survived these forced treks from liquidated concentration camps. Long ignored in major works of Holocaust historiography, the death marches are treated in a special issue (Number 5, from May 1947) and mapped out, with towns labelled in German and Yiddish. 6 6 The topic was at the center of Holocaust historiography by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executionaers. Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1996), 327-374. See Daniel Blatman, The Death Marches: The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide, translated by Chaya Galai (Cambridge: Mass: Harvard University Press, 2011). Characterized by obdurate cruelty on the part of the perpetrators, extreme exhaustion, hunger, and thirst on the part of the victims, these marches are described in extremely precise detail. Documented as well are the very last days, when, as Kaplan puts it, the Jews “were free people, but not yet liberated” (398).

There are also stories of heroism in these testimonies. In later years, these stories would become foundational for the state of Israel. Here their utter desperation is unfiltered. One testimony recounts the Polish village of Lachwa (now in Belarus), where, in September 1942, the small Jewish ghetto erupted in rebellion in the face of impending liquidation and certain death. Another tells of the revolt in the Jewish ghetto in Tutschyn, Ukraine. As the Nazis began to liquidate the ghetto, a revolt broke out and it ended in mayhem, with some 2,000 Jews escaping to the forest. The Nazis and their helpers captured nearly half of the Jews, while most of the other escapees did not survive the harsh conditions or subsequent denunciations. If heroic, such resistance was almost always doomed. This was also true of cultural resistance. Fun letstn khurbn reveals a great deal about cultural life in the shadow of destruction in cities such as Warsaw, Lodz, and Vilnius. It is especially detailed about Kaunas; we learn about its ghetto orchestra, its religious life, its schools, and much else.

Finally, the testimonies are remarkable for what they disclose about the perpetrators. They are not depicted as ordinary men. Instead, the tormentors are brutal and vicious, their violence often gratuitous, and many are outright sadists. As is well known, the attribution of sadism to the Germans and their East European accomplices is a recurring thread of early testimonies, and the testimonies recorded in the DP camps are no exception. 7 7 See, for a start on this research, Mark Roseman, Barbarians from Our “Kulturkreis,”: German-Jewish Perception of Nazi Perpetrators (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Lectures and Papers, 2016). More surprising is how this attribution shaped survivor narratives. Recent survivors knew camp commandants by name, and they knew if he was an ordinary Nazi or a “criminal type and a sadist,” as Moishe Vaisberg said of one of the inspectors of the German occupation in the Dubno region (134). The testimonies even measure time by noting who ran the camps. “In the period of Schwamberger and Hartmann” is how one survivor named the periods of particularly brutal commandants, marking out, in this case, everyday life in Mielec, a satellite of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp system (154).

Since the publication of Annette Wieworka’s The Era of Witness in 2006, the broad community of historians who work on the Holocaust have understood that a largely untapped mine of testimonies, mostly in Yiddish and recorded right after the war, remains to be read, consulted, engaged with, and written about. 8 8 Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness, trans. Jared Stark (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2016). Over the course of the last decade and a half, historians have published a series of works illuminating the contributions of those who collected Yiddish sources and wrote Holocaust history in Yiddish. The new scholarly works include, inter alia, Samuel D. Kassow’s reconstruction of the creation and then rediscovery of the Ringlblum Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, Laura Jockusch’s wide-ranging survey of the activity that went into gathering testimonies across Europe (including the testimonies in Fun letstn khurbn), Hannah Polin-Galay’s close-reading of Yiddish testimonies from Lithuania, and Mark Smith’s collective biography of the major historians writing about the Holocaust in Yiddish (principally Philip Friedman, Isaiah Trunk, Nachman Blumenthal, Joseph Kirmisch, and Mark Dworzecki). 9 9 Samuel D. Kassow, Who will write our History?: Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes archive (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007); Laura Jockusch, Collect and Record!: Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Hannah Polin-Galay. Ecologies of Witnessing: Language, Place and Holocaust Testimony (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018) Mark Smith, The Yiddish Historians and the Struggle for a Jewish History of the Holocaust (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2019) In addition, a great deal of new work addressing the writing, publication, and dissemination of Yiddish literature as it pertains to the Holocaust has also appeared. 10 10 See, for example, David G. Roskies and Naomi Diamant, Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide (Waltham, Mass: Brandeis University Press, 2012); Jan Schwarz, Survivors and Exiles: Yiddish Culture After the Holocaust (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015). And yet, a point made in In geveb by the historian Alan Rosen in an article entitled “Yiddish and the Holocaust,” published six years ago, still holds. “The study of the Holocaust,” Rosen argued, “has often been pursued without the slightest nod to Yiddish.” 11 11 Alan Rosen, “Yiddish and the Holocaust.” In geveb (August 2015): Accessed May 06, 2022.

The new scholarly work, as well as the translation of the journal Fun letstn khurbn, now makes this oversight untenable. The former is reconstructing a very different Holocaust history that was there from the start, while the latter is providing those without the linguistic skills to read the testimonies a fuller and more precise sense of their richness. But the published documents only represent a small part of a vast reservoir. To enter more deeply into the world of early testimonies, students and scholars will have to learn Yiddish as part of the toolbox of serious Holocaust research. This is what the skillful editors Frank Beer and Markus Roth, and the excellent translators (Susan Hiep, Sophie Lichtenstein, and Daniel Wartenberg) of Fun letstn khurbn, have shown us. For they have helped us understand a remarkable historical project, carried out by survivors nearly eighty years ago, to write and record the truth of things when others were already beginning to look away. And for this we are very grateful.

Walser Smith, Helmut. “Review of Frank Beer and Markus Roth, eds. Von der Letzten Zerstörung.” In geveb, May 2022:örung.
Walser Smith, Helmut. “Review of Frank Beer and Markus Roth, eds. Von der Letzten Zerstörung.” In geveb (May 2022): Accessed Nov 30, 2023.


Helmut Walser Smith

Helmut Walser Smith is the Martha Rivers Ingram Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and the author of, among other works, The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town (W.W. Norton, 2002), The Continuities of German History (Cambridge UP, 2008), and, as editor, The Oxford Handbook of Modern German History (Oxford UP, 2011). His most recent book is Germany. A Nation in its Time. Before, During, and After Nationalism, 1500-2000, published in 2020 by Liveright, an imprint of W.W. Norton.