Holocaust account fuses objective, subjective reports

The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War, by Martin Gilbert. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 959 pp. $24.95. The tendency to avoid thinking about it, the disinclination to dwell on it, the predisposition of some historians to limit mention of it to a paragraph or footnote is not hard to understand.

As a child I knew that members of my mother's family had been killed by the Nazis, but I did not want to know the details. In college, I wrote a term paper about Auschwitz: The idea was not mine, but the suggestion of a wise and perceptive professor. Some of my non-Jewish friends asked to see my paper, which they read with genuine astonishment. It was news to them. Our high school history texts had expended countless pages on the subject of tariffs, but only sentences on the murder of 6 million Jews and another 6 million gentiles.

Even among survivors of the camps there were many who longed to forget, or if not to forget entirely, then at least to be free of the nightmare, and who have only now been able to bring themselves to remember it again, after the passage of 40 years and the threat that the Holocaust might, in the words of one who has studied the phenomenon of genocide, ``slip down the memory hole,'' as genocide has a tendency to do.

The prodigiously productive historian Martin Gilbert, a fellow of Merton College, Oxford, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, and author of ``Auschwitz and the Allies'' (1981), has now written what will doubtless stand as a classic history. ``The Holocaust'' is not definitive: The subject is too vast and Mr. Gilbert has not attemped to recapitulate or summarize every other account of these events. But what he has written is indispensable for the material it contains, for the soundness of its scholarship, and for Gilbert's ability to narrate and present this history in a style that bears the weight of the subject matter.

Gilbert has made extensive use of primary sources -- personal interviews and previously unpublished eyewitness documents -- to reconstruct not only the horrors that befell the Jews of Europe during the war, but the ominous years of the 1930s that built up to the implementation of the ``final solution.''

A distinctive feature of this book is the degree to which Gilbert is able to fuse the approach of the objective historian with that of the subjective witness. The anguish of the witness can be heard in his own words, yet it is clarified and focused by the historical narrative.

Historians, trying to maintain objectivity, take pains to discount the natural human tendency to exaggerate. Yet in dealing with the Holocaust, witnesses and historians alike have often resorted to understatement, baldly setting forth the bare facts to speak for themselves. When events beggar description, description may seem not merely superfluous, but inadequate. Ironically, when the mass killings were going on in the death camps, there were many, like some of the Jews in Poland's Lodz Ghetto, who, even after the hardships and brutality they had experienced, were still unable to believe the horrifying stories that filtered back from places like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Majdanek, Chelmno, Dachau, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

In Raul Hilberg's pioneering history, ``The Destruction of the European Jews,'' there is a documentary quality -- strictly factual, deliberately unemotional. More oddly, in the brilliant, controversial work of Hannah Arendt, we may observe an attempt to back away from the immediate horror of the events in favor of abstracting from them a model of the totalitarian system. But, more recently, historians like Martin Gilbert and Lucy S. Dawidowicz have shown a greater willingness to come to grips with some of the emotional implications of the subject. And from this book in particular, it is possible to gain a sense of how utterly fathomless the powers of evil must have seemed in those dark years: the relentless ingenuity of those who practiced it and the chilling indifference of so many who did not.

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