As I have written before, the Covid lockdowns — coupled with Jewish streaming platforms and books ordered from Amazon — have enabled me to expand my knowledge of the history of the Holocaust. And with this knowledge has come increasing awareness of how challenging presenting the historic facts can be.
As I watched on ChaiFlicks the 2015 documentary BERLIN CALLING, I was bothered by the section about the Wannsee Conference (January 20, 1942) where the Final Solution – the systematic extermination of the Jewish people — was rubber stamped by the Nazi attendees. The documentary co-writer said: “… Reinhard Heydrich held a conference that would decide the fate of my family and all the Jews in Europe.”
In June of 1941 (six months earlier) when the Nazis broke the nonaggression pact with Russia by invading Russian-occupied lands, the Nazis used Einsatzgruppen death squads to kill thousands and thousands of Jews in situ (meaning these Jews never left their home regions; never were transported to concentration camps; were killed at places such as Babi Yar in the Ukraine).
While these murdered Eastern European Jews are counted in the six million, their Holocaust accounts can get lost in the accounts of the concentration camps.
The Wannsee Conference estimated that the Nazis would kill 11 million Jews after England and other as-yet-not-occupied countries would also be conquered. Yet the actual plans for the carrying out of the Final Solution focused more on the Jews of Western Europe than the Jews of Eastern Europe, who were already being efficiently exterminated. (The buildup of Auschwitz as a death camp began in the spring of 1942 after the Wannsee Conference in January of that year.)
We must be very careful when we educate about the Holocaust to ensure the context of the information is very clear.
In my October 12, 2021, Times of Israel post “Setting the Record Straight About the Sonderkommando Uprising at Auschwitz”
I took issue with the September 10, 2021, Times of Israel opinion piece by Rich Brownstein about his recommendation of the movie THE GREY ZONE as “the greatest Holocaust film ever made.”
One of my reasons for taking issue with this movie recommendation was:
The Greek Jewish Sonderkomandos are not given credit for their part in the Sonderkommandos’ attack on the Auschwitz crematoriums.
Just now on December 29th (2021) I read this brief item in The Forward newsletter:
On this day in history: Shlomo Venezia, a Holocaust survivor and memoirist who owned a clothing store in Italy, was born on Dec. 29, 1923. During his time at Auschwitz, he worked for the Sonderkommando, a team of prisoners that was forced to help dispose of those killed in the gas chambers. Most of the Jews assigned this task were later killed so they could not reveal the horrors of the camps. Venezia managed to survive, and spoke about his experience on TV, film and at schools and conferences. His book, “Inside the Gas Chambers,” has been translated into more than a dozen languages and his story served as inspiration for the 1997 movie “The Grey Zone.”
After ordering Venezia’s book from Amazon, I went to Wikipedia – and imagine my surprise when I read:
“Shlomo Venezia (Greek: Σλόμο Βενέτσια; 29 December 1923 – 1 October 2012) was a Greek-born Italian Jew.”
According to Wikipedia:
Venezia was born in Thessaloniki, where he was arrested with his family in March 1944; they were deported to the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the three main camps that made up the Auschwitz complex. During the selection made by Nazi doctors to separate deportees deemed fit to work from those “useless”, which were immediately sent to the gas chambers, Venezia was saved along with his brother Maurice (Morris) and two cousins. During his imprisonment he was forced to work in the Sonderkommando (“special units”), teams of inmates that dealt with disposal and cremation of the prisoners killed in gas chambers. The members of these teams were killed to keep the secret about the conduct of the Final Solution.
While for purposes of parentage Venezia may have been considered Italian, his birth in Thessaloniki means that he was a Greek Jewish Sonderkommando.
Thus my point about the failure in THE GREY ZONE of not talking about the Greek Jewish Sonderkommandos is even more relevant.
In conclusion, the vastness of Holocaust information does often hinder portraying all the relevant information for a specific topic in one book or one movie or one documentary.
Yet, when we can, we should be careful to add qualifying information to our presentations, particularly so that we do not give Holocaust deniers fodder for their denials.