If you’ve been reading RealityChek for any meaningful length of time, you know that I’m not big on using terms like “disgusting,” and “vile.” But those were the first words that came to mind last night after finishing an April 28 New York Times Magazine article titled “For Some Holocaust Survivors, Even Liberation Was Dehumanizing.” And they were still my reaction after having slept on it.
If you’re not experiencing the same repugnance upon seeing this headline or reading the entire piece, just ask yourself what its point could possibly be? It can’t be to tar every member of the U.S. and Russian forces who first entered Nazi concentration camps in late 1944 through the official end of World War II in Europe (whose 75th anniversary came yesterday). The author, France-based “freelance writer and university lecturer” Jennifer Orth-Veillon, explicitly describes acts of (what she, at least, sees as) exceptional compassion and what may be called “re-humanization” of the prisoners by the liberators (who, just to be as accurate as possible, didn’t shoot their way into the camps but found facilities from which most of the Nazis and their non-German underlings had fled).
But readers are also told that:
>”According to accounts, not all soldiers acted equally when confronted with that responsibility [of helping the prisoners regain “their lost humanity”] and some further mistreated them, extending the trauma they had endured while imprisoned. It’s hard to imagine that survivors could have suffered further….”
>”[T]he portrayal of liberation in some of their memoirs reveals that the end of the Holocaust opened new wounds.”
>One survivor wrote in his memoirs that (in Orth-Veillon’s words), “At the beginning of their internment, prisoners who weren’t selected for the gas chamber learned quickly from Nazi guards that they weren’t viewed as humans but as animals. Orders were barked, compassion was nonexistent. Semprún [the memoirist] hadn’t expected that his liberators would view him in the same way.”
>”Semprún’s brush with his liberators echoed Primo Levi’s description of his interactions with the Soviets at Auschwitz in January 1945.”
>”Some of these [liberators’] reactions suggest soldiers were experiencing a kind of shock, while others point to anti-Semitism, even within the most senior echelons of the military. After inspecting displaced persons camps in Germany in summer of 1945, Earl G. Harrison, a lawyer and American representative to the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, expressed harsh criticism of the ways Jews were treated by the Americans, claiming evidence of conditions similar to the Nazi-run concentration camps from which they had been freed. He summarized his observations by stating, ‘We appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.’ When President Harry Truman read the report, he ordered Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to inspect displaced persons camps. During a visit to a camp in Bavaria, Gen. George S. Patton told Eisenhower that he blamed the refugees for the squalor. He complained they were ‘pissing and crapping all over the place,’ and wanted to open his own concentration camp ‘for some of these goddamn Jews.’ Maj. Irving Heymont, who was stationed at the Landsberg displacement camp, said in his letters that some Americans proclaimed that they preferred German civilians, who seemed normal, to the Jewish survivors, whom they characterized as animals undeserving of special treatment.”
Again, Orth-Veillon described much nobler liberator reactions, too. But there’s no need to engage in an exercise comparing article space devoted to one set of reactions versus the others to wonder about the value of presenting instances ranging from insensitivity to outright anti-Semitism at all. The author not only doesn’t go so far as to allege that these contemptible liberator words and deeds typified their reactions. Her piece contains no data or other material indicating that such responses represented the majority of liberator reactions. Nor do readers see anything indicating that these reactions even remotely approached levels that could legitimately described as significant – by any standard.
Instead, while writing of the record of what Orth-Veillon describes as the activity of “more than 30 American military units,” including entire divisions (which during World War II generally contained 15,000 troops), she repeatedly uses the describer “some.”
To which it needs to be asked, in the snidest and most indignant way, “So what?” As the author makes clear, most of troops were either in their late teens or barely out of them. They were confronted with sights and sounds and smells that the literature’s greatest authors had never even imagined outside renditions of the underworld. They had spent varying amounts of time during the preceding months experiencing their own horrors fighting their way across western Europe.
And “some” were bigots to begin with? And “some” looked away in shame or embarrassment or simple bewilderment (or covered their ears after hearing the latest of many survivor tales, as Orth-Veillon quotes another memoirist as contending)? And “some” in general didn’t act with all the skills of psychologists or other career care-givers? What is to the slightest extent even notable about these episodes, either individually or collectively?
Don’t expect any useful guidance here from the author. The “end of the Holocaust opened new wounds”? Could anything else be expected by anyone who’s thinking is minimally adult? Ditto for the passage reporting that once the prisoners “attained long-awaited freedom…the way some [that word again!] liberators treated them reinforced the idea that they had become less than human.” Because no one before her had ever recognized that the end of months and even years of the most bestial treatment, however ardently desired, wasn’t going to be a day at the beach even in the most ideal circumstances?
News flash: These difficulties are so widely known that the mental health profession has not only long identified a group of issues known as “Holocaust Survivor Syndrome,” they’ve discovered that it can be passed on in even physiological form to survivors’ children. And don’t think that the liberators themselves have been immune to struggle (to a much less extent of course). My own late father, who worked for a time in the camps as a Yiddish language translator, stopped believing in God as a result. I hate using anecdotes to make points, but is it imaginable that his experience was unique? Or so decidedly exceptional?
Don’t expect any useful guidance on supposed lessons learned from The New York Times itself, either. The article is introduced with the observation that it’s part of “a series…that documents lesser-known stories from the war….” And the editors valued this offering because it “explores the complex and sometimes dehumanizing interactions between the concentration camp prisoners and the Allied soldiers who liberated them.” In other words, they considered illuminating enough to justify literally thousands of words the insight that human behavior among participants of various kinds in the immediate aftermath of arguably the most monstrous atrocity in human history can be “complex.” P.S. – note another use of a conveniently cover-your-butt modifier – “sometimes.”
So should the episodes described in this article be swept under the rug by scholars like Orth-Veillon, and by news organizations like The Times? Actually, the operative verb is “ignore.” Because on top of being so morally obtuse as to qualify as repugnant (unless the author, and her editors, are incapable of distinguishing right from wrong?), this article is much more troubling than the kind of shamefully slanted and thoroughly inaccurate historical revisionism represented by another New York Times endeavor – the 1619 Project. After all, for all its fatal factual and interpretive flaws, this (completely inappropriate) Times venture into scholarship – which seeks to reduce the entirety of American history to a tale of slavery and racism – at least has the intellectual honesty to claim that its findings justify major rethinking of long-held ideas.
Orth-Veillon (and her editors) display none of that forthrightness. Instead, they’ve served up a product that’s difficult to explain other than as a gratuitous, sensationalistic (“clickbait-y,” in more contemporary terms) effort to pollute the reputation of servicemen and women who accomplished nothing less than ridding the world of an historic and dangerous evil. So yes – completely ignore these findings, at least until some evidence emerges of noteworthy scale. Recognize that they’re as deserving of attention as a typographical error. And if you don’t agree, send a letter to The Times asking for an article relating how some of the concentration camp guards really weren’t so bad. After all, no doubt there were “some.”