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date: 22 October 2020


Abstract and Keywords

This article presents some concluding thoughts from the authors. It argues that no book can claim finality and closure regarding Holocaust studies and that the ending(s) of the Holocaust itself have not yet reached finality and closure, and probably never will. It details four Holocaust-related incidents illustrating that fact. Like the Holocaust itself, the field of Holocaust studies does little to encourage optimism about humanity's future and progress. Both entail darkness and invite despair. This book is but a fleeting episode in history's unfolding, and the ending(s) of both will come only with time's passage.

Keywords: Holocaust studies, humanity, history

Every book draws to a close, but its final pages scarcely determine the ending(s). Reader responses influence a book's destiny and fate. In the case of this Handbook of Holocaust Studies, unfinished and future events also will affect its durability. These prospects reflect a governing principle in the field: desires for finality and closure never should trump critical inquiry that corrects and reformulates what is “known” and searches for discoveries about what is still unknown. That principle means not only that no book can claim finality and closure regarding Holocaust studies but also that the ending(s) of the Holocaust itself have not yet reached finality and closure and, arguably, never will. As work on The Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies approached its conclusion at the end of 2009, four Holocaust‐related incidents illustrated that fact.

On 30 November 2009, a trial began in Munich. The accused, John Demjanjuk (b. 1920), a retired autoworker stripped of American citizenship and deported, faced charges that he was an accessory in the murder of more than 27,000 Jews at the Sobibor death camp in Nazi‐occupied Poland in 1943, where he worked as a guard. Two decades earlier, in 1988, Demjanjuk had been convicted of Holocaust‐related crimes and sentenced to death by an Israeli court, but then he was set free in 1993 when new evidence revealed that he had not been the sadistic Treblinka functionary known as “Ivan the Terrible.” Although mistaken identity will not intervene in Demjanjuk's favor at his Munich trial, a verdict had not been reached at the time of this writing. Doctors found the ailing defendant fit enough to stand trial, but whether he would live to hear the court proclaim his guilt or innocence (p. 738) remained to be seen. Clearly, however, Demjanjuk's trial is among the last of its kind, for a rapidly diminishing number of the Holocaust's perpetrators and accessories remain alive. Scholars will write the last chapter of the Demjanjuk saga, but the ending of his trial and his life will bring little finality and closure because no one can say for certain, once and for all, what the significance of his or any Holocaust trial will turn out to be. If that claim is plausible, similar quandaries about the significance of the Holocaust and Holocaust studies also arise in connection with three other episodes.

On 2 October 2009, about two months before the Demjanjuk trial began in Munich, a physician named Marek Edelman (b. 1919) died in Warsaw. In 1943, while Demjanjuk worked at Sobibor, Edelman was among the tens of thousands of Jews crammed into the Warsaw ghetto. A witness to the deportations that escalated in the summer of 1942, Edelman was often present at the Umschlagplatz, where the trains were loaded with Jews destined for the gas chambers at Treblinka. The Germans tried to reassure the deportees that they were being resettled to more favorable circumstances, a ruse that sometimes included temporarily excusing ill Jews from the journey. Edelman's job as a messenger for the ghetto hospital gave him opportunities to rescue some Jews by presenting documents certifying that they were too ill to travel. He used these opportunities to save people useful to the ghetto resistance movement in which he increasingly was involved.

When the Warsaw ghetto uprising began on 19 April 1943, Edelman was one of its leaders. By escaping with others through the ghetto's sewers as the Germans put down the uprising several weeks later, Edelman lived to resist the Nazis again in the 1944 Polish uprising in Warsaw. After the war, he took up his medical studies, became a highly respected cardiologist in Łódź, endured the upsurge of antisemitism in communist Poland, and became a leader in the Solidarity movement. News reports at the time of Edelman's death said that he had been the last surviving commander of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. His passing drives home awareness that only a few years hence no survivors of the Holocaust will be alive. No one can say for sure, once and for all, what the significance of that reality will be, but its approach assures that the Holocaust will no longer be a first‐hand memory, let alone an immediate experience, of anyone on earth. The unfolding of Holocaust studies will have to take that fact into account.

On 19 December 2009, Pope Benedict XVI (b. 1927) confirmed the 2007 findings of a Vatican committee that attributed “heroic virtues” to the controversial Holocaust‐era pontiff Pius XII (1876–1958), moving him a significant step forward in a vetting process that can culminate in Roman Catholic sainthood. Pius XII now can be beatified when a miracle attributed to his intercession is officially acknowledged, and the recognition of a second miracle would set the stage for canonization. For decades, few if any Holocaust‐related controversies have been more fraught than that surrounding Pius XII's behavior during and toward the Holocaust, a matter exacerbated by the delay in the opening of the Vatican's archives pertinent to his (p. 739) reign (1939–1958). At this writing, no one can be certain that sainthood will be conferred on Pius XII, let alone precisely what the reverberations, one way or the other, will be. It seems likely, however, that his canonization is coming and that understanding of the Holocaust itself will be different as a result. The implications—historical and political, ethical and religious—of the Vatican's posture and decision in this matter are that important.

Probably the timing was a sheer coincidence, but in the predawn hours of 18 December 2009—one day after Germany announced an $87 million contribution to the Auschwitz‐Birkenau Foundation to enhance preservation of the death camp as a museum and memorial and one day before Pope Benedict XVI affirmed Pius XII's “heroic virtues”—another highly symbolic act took place: thieves stole the historic “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign that mockingly spanned the entrance of Auschwitz I. Within hours of the theft's discovery, police dragnets sought the robbers, rewards were offered for the sign's recovery, and news reports and bloggers' commentaries rapidly multiplied in print and electronic outlets. International shock and outrage erupted. The lack of video surveillance tapes aroused comment and hindered detection of the thieves, but early conjectures dismissed the notion that they were thoughtless vandals and focused instead on the likelihood that they must be neo‐Nazis or opportunists aiming for profit in sales of Nazi memorabilia.

About seventy‐two hours after discovery of the theft, police in northern Poland recovered the metal sign, which the thieves had cut into three pieces, one for each of its infamous words. Five Polish men were taken into custody and sent to Kraków for questioning, but early stages of the investigation suggested that someone outside of Poland orchestrated the theft. “Case closed” may soon be said, but in crucial ways that judgment will be premature. Conviction of the thieves and restoration of the sign to its proper place are unlikely to put an end to the matter. Beyond the obvious question—how could such a theft happen?—the aftereffects of this episode may expand in ways that influence Holocaust studies and understanding of the Holocaust itself. The last words have not been written about the history behind the Auschwitz sign, its meaning before, during, and after the Holocaust, and the people who erected it and suffered under it. Furthermore, what difference will it make that the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign was stolen from Auschwitz I? What importance will that episode have ten, twenty, or a hundred years from now? Much depends on what investigators discover about the motives behind the crime.

Questions of this kind lead to the much larger, much more important one that this handbook cannot answer: What importance will the Holocaust and Holocaust studies have ten, twenty, a hundred years, a millennium from now? Presently, as this book's chapters document, the Holocaust and study about it are deeply embedded in human memory, memorialization, scholarship, and teaching. A generation of younger scholars will carry forward the work that those before them have begun. But the world will not be the same as time passes. Holocaust scholars and Holocaust‐related institutions and education programs will continue (p. 740) their work. Assessment of their accomplishments will be needed, too, but to what end(s) all of this effort will be expended is less than clear.

Will “Holocaust fatigue” eventually dissipate widespread interest in the history of the Holocaust and its implications? What will happen to the “warnings” and “lessons” of the Holocaust in a world where mass atrocities and genocides show few signs of abating? Who can say with certainty that catastrophes worse than the Holocaust are not in store? What of the Holocaust's status—so often claimed—as a watershed event unprecedented, if not unique, in human history? Events may be in play that will lead eventually to the extinction of much or all of human life. What would the Holocaust and studies about it amount to then?

Like the Holocaust itself, the field of Holocaust studies does little to encourage optimism about humanity's future and progress. Both entail darkness and invite despair. The Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies is but a fleeting episode in history's unfolding, and the ending(s) of both will come only with time's passage. How the Holocaust is studied, the care given to that work, may or may not affect the outcomes that await, but if this book and its ending(s) keep summoning inquiry and discovery, resisting finality and closure in the process, then perhaps the intellectual and creative labor recorded in and by these pages will not have been in vain.