Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bloodlands: I thought then of the loneliness of the dying

More quotes from Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder. Chapter 9 (“Resistance and Incineration”) looks at Jewish resistance, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April/May 1943), the destruction of that ghetto and the construction of a concentration camp on the same spot, the Warsaw Uprising (August/September 1944), and the destruction of Warsaw just before the Soviets arrived.

In retaliation for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Jewish resistance against shipment from the ghetto to concentration camps), the police leader of the Warsaw district ordered the ghetto to be burned:
The Germans had attacked the ghetto on 19 April 1943, the eve of Passover. Easter fell on the following Sunday, the 25th. The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz recorded the Christian holiday from the other side of the ghetto walls, recalling in his poem “Campo di Fiori” that people rode the carousel at Krasiński Square, just beyond the ghetto wall, as the Jews fought and died. “I thought then,” wrote Miłosz, “of the loneliness of the dying.” The merry-go-round ran every day, throughout the uprising. It became the symbol of Jewish isolation: Jews died in their own city, as Poles beyond the walls of the ghetto lived and laughed. Many Poles did not care what happened to the Jews in the ghetto. Yet others were concerned, and some tried to help, and a few died trying.

The concentration camp built on the remains of the ghetto proved to be a lower circle of hell than previously seen:

This was Concentration Camp Warsaw. It was an island of very conditional life located within an urban zone of death. All around were blocks and blocks of burned buildings, with human remains rotting within. Encircled broadly by the walls of the former ghetto, Concentration Camp Warsaw was encircled narrowly by barbed wire and watchtowers. The inmates were a few hundred Poles and a few hundred Jews. These were not, for the most part, Polish Jews but, rather, Jews from other parts of Europe. They had been deported from their home countries to Auschwitz, selected for labor there rather than gassed, and then sent to Concentration Camp Warsaw. They came from Greece, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and in 1944 from Hungary. The conditions that they found in Concentration Camp Warsaw were so appalling that some of them asked to be sent back to Auschwitz and gassed.

As the Soviet Army approached Warsaw, the Poles realized they had little upside being “liberated” by the Soviets. The Warsaw Uprising was planned, in part, to establish a Polish government before the Soviets arrived in Warsaw. Even though they liberated Concentration Camp Warsaw, the Poles failed to take key military positions in the city. The Germans brought in reinforcements that had little care for niceties:

Kaminskii and his Russians [defectors] were given personal permission from Himmler to loot, and they accepted this part of their assignment with gusto. They entered Ochota, a southwesterly neighborhood of Warsaw, on 9 August 1944. Over the course of the next ten days, they concentrated on theft, but also killed several thousand Polish civilians. As one of Kaminskii’s officedrs recalled, “Mass executions of civilians without investigation were the order of the day.” The soldiers also became known for systematic rape. The burned down the hospital of the Marie Curie Institute, killing everyone inside, but scrupulously raped the nurses ahead of time. As one of Kaminskii’s men characterized the Ochota campaign, “they raped nuns and plundered and stole anything they could get their hands on.”

At the end of the war, a policy to kill was no longer necessary since neglect could perform the job just as well:

In these last few months of war, from January to May 1945, the inmates of the German concentration camps died in very large numbers. Perhaps three hundred thousand people died in German camps during this period, from hunger and neglect. The American and British soldiers who liberated the dying inmates from camps in Germany believed that they had discovered the horrors of Nazism. The images their photographers and cameramen captured of the corpses and the living skeletons at Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald seemed to convey the worst crimes of Hitler. As the Jews and the Poles of Warsaw knew, and as Vasily Grossman and the Red Army knew, this was far from the truth. The worst was in the ruins of Warsaw, or the fields of Treblinka, or the marshes of Belarus, or the pits of Babi Yar. The Red Army liberated all of these places, and all of the bloodlands. All of the death sites and dead cities fell behind an iron curtain, in a Europe Stalin made his own even while liberating it from Hitler. Grossman wrote his article about Treblinka [“Treblinka Hell”] while Soviet troops were paused at the Vistula, watching the Germans defeat the [Polish] Home Army in the Warsaw Uprising. The ashes of Warsaw were still warm when the Cold War began.

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