A Normalized Holocaust

Tim Duggan Books

I hope to soon read Timothy Snyder’s “Black Earth: The ­Holocaust as History and Warning,” which was just published and which is receiving thought-provoking reviews in pretty much every publication I read. Two great adapted excerpts are available online: Here at the New York Review of Books, and here at The Guardian.

And though I haven’t actually read the book yet, I wanted to bring up something in the powerful New Yorker review of the book by Adam Gopnik. Much of it is about reconciling the specific, brutal, man-killing man aspects of the Holocaust with a more abstract, notional, political sense of the period — that is to say, the process of writing and reading history itself. Here’s how Gopnik defines Snyder’s mission in “Bloodlands,” his previous book, of which is what “Black Earth” is, in part, a defense:

He sought to re-center our attention on the “forgotten” Holocaust, on the reality that at least as many Jews were killed in mass actions in Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and the Baltic states as were dispatched in the death factories of Birkenau and Treblinka. Soldiers machine-gunning people on the edge of a pit that they’d dug themselves and that already held the bodies of their families — that was the true image of the Holocaust, more so than trains running on time to industrialized gassings and burnings. Auschwitz, in this view, is, to put it brutally, almost a tourist trap for historians. What distinguished the horror from other horrors was not lists on graph paper and bureaucratic requisitions for Zyklon B gas. It was a soldier writing home to his wife about killing Jewish babies in Belarus: “During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it. By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children, and infants. . . . Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them to pieces in flight.”

I want to point the reader to another piece of literature. Tadeusz Borowski’s short story collection “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” shocked me when I read it because it did exactly the distinguishing Gopnik says “Black Earth” does, in fiction. Holocaust fiction is almost invariably about stories of escape and tragedy in the camps. Rarely is it the backdrop for someone else’s drama. This is mostly the case because to make the Holocaust the backdrop for someone else’s life would be, well, tasteless and a trivialization of the most tragic and brutal event in history. Consider the fretting that preceded the release of “The Zone of Interest,” Martin Amis’ love story set during the Holocaust. But in a soldier’s letter to his wife, shooting babies is a job, it is somewhat normalized.

“This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” is a work of fiction that succeeds in using the Holocaust as a backdrop without making it exploitative. The banality is shocking. There are stories that, if you had no sense of history, would be Alice-Munro-esque realism about the daily domestic dramas between family members and coworkers. You keep waiting for the hammer to drop, for the murders you know are happening in the background to invade the story’s foreground and become consequential, to alter the narrative in some way. The way the stories are shocking are the way they don’t. Nazis go on with their days in ways that they would had a genocide not been happening in their background. They are utterly unaltered, and Borowski conjures it in a way that isn’t at all forced. It’s horrifying. “War makes ordinary people do horrible things,” Gopnik writes. The terrifying thing is when, in war, ordinary people continue to do ordinary things.

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