"Why" Instead of "How Many"

By William Markiewicz

Readers’ "Search Strings" this month show a lot of interest in the topic of how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. As many of the questions seem sarcastic, I understand that they come from persons who don't really care, or think that their number was still not enough. As Nazi sources gave the order that the number should remain a secret forever, "how many" should be replaced by "Why" – which may also be easier to answer.

If the biblical Jews were ferocious fighters, Diaspora Jews have completely lost the notion of struggle, even for self - defense. In the Darwinian Universe, living without self-defence is as hard as surviving without oxygen. From the beginning, the Jews were pushed into the diaspora in crowded communities – ghettoes, which, in turn were surrounded by even denser communities of the original inhabitants. When it came to pogroms, there was no ability for self-defence; no place to hide. In the great majority, the Jews probably had to die with no attempt for defence or escape. When the Jews arrived more to the East, as for instance in Poland, there were still numerous and dense forests they could escape to.

In Poland there were no ghettoes. The Jews were negotiated with and protected by the aristocracy who placed the Jews where they wanted them. The majority were sent to regions already densely populated by the locals who certainly didn’t like it too much – would you like to suddenly be forced to live with total strangers with a different culture, religion, language? But the local population had no choice. When relations between Jews and nobles started to deteriorate, apparently mostly for financial reasons, the nobles simply stopped protecting the Jews and the peasant inhabitants had an opportunity to say, “Now it’s between you and us.” The Jews went to hide in the deep forest. After about a year, a Papal Bull ordering an end to pogroms against Jews came from Italy. It is not that the Italians were not in a hurry but travel in those times was slow. The Jews started to return from the forests but relations never improved; on the contrary. The nobles put pubs in the villages and placed Jews in control. They had to squeeze money from the peasants to line the nobles’ pockets. But in the eyes of the peasants, the first profiteers were Jews. And the Jews’ panic and fear of the peasants and the nobles became traditional as it was everywhere else. The Jews were declared ‘chosen victims.’ All village economy concerning, for instance, cutting trees in the forest, etc. was assigned to the Jews and the peasants’ hatred was reinforced.

From the beginning of Jewish presence in Poland, the nobles generously gave them autonomy, according them many rights, one which should never be solicited nor accorded was that Jews could declare neutrality in conflicts between Poland and its enemies. In my view, when you enter to live in a country you unavoidably become part of the country. There is no neutrality possible. Otherwise it sounds alien and not friendly from the beginning. It couldn’t have played in the Jews’ favour. Polish Jewish hero, Berek Joselewicz, was stricken with excommunication by the rabbinate only because he went to fight for Poland. In the time of Chmielnicki the Jews started to form volunteer units to fight for Poland but the Polish Jewish hatred was already too entrenched. Sometimes in the middle of a battle, enemy sides might simultaneously turn against the Jews. After a long time, the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz tried to form a Jewish legion in Turkey to fight for Poland. The number of Jewish volunteers must have been quite important if a legion could be created. Mickiewicz addressed himself to the Vatican to ask for Papal Benediction but the Pope, I believe it was Pope Gabriel, answered brusquely: “I will not give a blessing!” Mickiewicz pleaded desperately for a Papal change and the Pope ordered the Swiss Guard to send him away from the Vatican. The project of a Jewish legion disappeared. In modern Poland, Jews were drafted like everybody else and in Katyn where the Polish officers were mass murdered by the Soviets, I believe that 15 per cent of the officers were Jewish, some of them with full Jewish first and last names.

Returning at the end to the first question -- “How many Jews were exterminated?” -- in no way could the number be deduced. Already before the war there were ships on the sea with Jews trying to escape from Germany and save their lives. The Jews either committed suicide by jumping overboard because nobody wanted them or went back to Germany and to certain death. Mass escape was difficult. From Canadian government sources came the expression: “None is too many.” Therefore, without knowing the number we can assume that the Holocaust was the greatest extermination in human history.

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