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Knowledge of the Holocaust: the meaning of ‘extermination’

Did ordinary Dutchmen know of the Holocaust during the war? That might seem an easy question to answer. Research has shown that the illegal press, Dutch radio broadcasts from London, and even exiled Queen Juliana characterized the deportation of the Jews almost from the beginning in the summer of 1942 as mass murder, destruction and, in the Queen’s words, “systematic extermination.” Allied warnings and even German propaganda also spoke of destruction and annihilation. So did Dutch diarists. Analysis of 164 wartime diaries finds 67 that used such terms to describe the Jews’ fate. That seems to answer our question and confirm what has been the conventional wisdom since Walter Laqueurs path breaking The Terrible Secret (1979): the Holocaust in fact never was a secret at all.

Or was it? Let us look at one telling, and typical, example of such a diarist: Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish aspiring writer and student of Russian, whose diaries and letters written in 1941-1943 have gained some renown, and have been translated in many languages. When she heard about the upcoming deportations in early July 1942, she wrote, “What is at stake is our impending destruction and annihilation, we can have no more illusions about that. They are out to destroy us completely.” On 11 July she cynically reported “lovely stories” of Jews being killed by poison gas.

However, on the very same day, she wrote:

I catch myself making all sorts of minor but telling adjustments in anticipation of life in a labor camp. Last night when I was walking along the quay beside him [her lover] in a pair of comfortable sandals, I suddenly thought, ‘I shall take these sandals along as well, I can wear them instead of the heavier shoes from time to time.’

Which, she added a little later, was necessary, because:

My biggest worry is what to do with my useless feet. And I just hope my bladder heals up in time, or else I’m bound to be a nuisance when we are all herded together. And I must go to the dentist soon – so many essentials that I have put off endlessly but are now, I think, urgent.

Urgent because “that would really be awful: suffering from toothache out there,” she wrote a few days later. She decided to get a good-quality backpack and pondered what to take along—her Russian dictionary for sure, so she could keep up her language skills. Perhaps, she mused, those language skills would render her a ”special case”, and might even land her in Russia, “although God alone knows by what circuitous route.” To deal with her “most difficult moments” she was determined to keep in mind “that Dostoevsky spent four years in a Siberian jail with the Bible as his only reading matter. He was never allowed to be alone, and the sanitary arrangements were not particularly marvelous.”

What to make of this? Etty believed herself to be under “no more illusions” about the “impending destruction and annihilation” of the Jews. But she clearly had no idea what awaited in Auschwitz and Sobibor. “The East” to her meant a new and difficult life in a camp where one could probably not get a toothache or bladder treated, but where one could store an extra set of shoes and some books, and where there might be employment for a teacher of Russian. It might in fact resemble Dostoevsky’s banishment.

So how, then, do we explain her use of terms like “extermination” and “destruction”? Was she of two minds? Did she recognize the truth one moment, and repress it the next? I think the answer is less complicated: to her, “extermination” and “destruction” did not mean what it means to us, namely immediate murder. Extermination to her meant forced emigration to some uninhabitable place, where in the long run many would die.

And she was not alone. Two-thirds of the diarists who used such terms to describe that fate of the Jews also suggest they would be put in camps and put to work. None clearly state that the deportees would be killed upon arrival. When they envisioned the “annihilation” or “destruction” of the Jews, they imagined a deadly combination of expulsion and forced labor. Which should not surprise us, as that is how, up to the summer of 1941, the perpetrators themselves imagined the future extermination of the Jews would come about.

Thus the widespread use of terms like “extermination” and “destruction” is less revealing than it seems, and does not justify the conclusion that ordinary people in occupied Europe knew of the Holocaust.

Featured image credit: Architecture bridge building dawn by Pexels. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Annette k

    My husband’s Dutch grandfather was executed the SS on the front yard of their home in Eindhoven The Netherlands two days before the end of WW2 in that Country. The grandfather and grandmother were not in the Dutch Underground, so I was given information from the Dutch Records Bureau 1998. The Dutch were very aware of the extermination of the Jews, Gypsies, and others. Why would so many hide the families or individuals when possible,? How would the press today prove that so many Dutch were executed along with the families found hidden later sent to death camps. No hidden agenda, but one word, one facial expression, one snoopy neighbor which one does this writer think turned the family into the Gestapo? As with Anne Frank and family speculation, usually neighbors, though there was a Dutchman who hunted Dutch families or individuals who hid victims of Hitler’s Genocide. This fellow was working in the Brabant area. So, to speak truth does any one listen?

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