Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Banality of Evil and the Technology of Extermination.

My nephew has just visited Lithuania in search of ties to the various strands of his family – one strand being my wife’s parents’ family. This prompted me to contemplate (again) the fate of my own ancestors and the communities in which they lived.

Most of the Jews of South Africa came from Lithuania – as did three of my four grandparents. At one time there were 250,000 Jews there, much smaller than the 3 million in Poland, where reportedly ninety percent of the world’s rabbis lived and died in the holocaust; but it was a great center of Jewish learning and of Jewish commercial achievement, notwithstanding that many Jews lived impoverished lives in very small villages (like Varna from where my paternal grandparents came). Pretty much all of the Jews who were there in 1941 were murdered and there are very few left there today, maybe a few thousand.

What may not be widely known is that the Jews of Lithuania did not die in the gas chambers. The Nazis started systematically exterminating Jews (and other "undesirables") before the “final solution” of the gas chambers was put into effect. Instead, hundreds of thousands of east European Jews (not only in Lithuania) were lined up in the woods in front of their own graves that they were made to dig, and shot by groups of soldiers and local collaborators known as einsatzgruppen.

A couple of things strike me about this.

One is that for every one Nazi there were five local collaborators. The Lithuanians were particularly culpable in this – worse even than the Poles. Without their collaboration the project could not have been carried out.

Second, it is testimony to the effectiveness of old-fashioned (low-tech) technology in achieving a high death count – something that became quite evident later in the case of Ruanda. The Nazis moved from hands-on, face to face murder to gas chambers reportedly not for efficiency reasons, but because of the “emotional stress” that the firing squads caused the Nazi soldiers. [Ultimately the einsatzgruppen killed between 5 and 6 million people, of which about 1.3 million were Jews. The most famous atrocity occurred at Babi Yar.]

There is not much left of a once great Jewish civilization in Lithuania. In the 1950’s the Soviets destroyed most Jewish cemeteries to make room for development and those that remain in the small villages have been badly vandalized and defaced.

As far as I know there has been no Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Lithuania and reportedly anti-Semitic sentiment is still quite common. [But see also here.]