Studying the Holocaust by Shira Griff

It hasn’t been more than a few months into the MA program, and I’m already getting some of my many questions about the Holocaust answered. As I’ve been reading through the material, I keep asking myself more and more: Is Germany entirely to blame for the Holocaust? Even if I manage to capture the essence of German society, the antisemitism that rose from its particular context, the complexities of a modern racial war, is it enough to explain the Holocaust in Lithuania? in the Ukraine? in Romania? in Hungary? and in so many different places throughout Europe? In many countries, the local situation often led to occurrences of the Holocaust that were perpetrated actively and sometimes independently by the local population, often in more sadistic and atrocious ways than some of the German-perpetrated events. It turns out that this has been a subject of research for the past 15 years, and that many Holocaust scholars have begun to examine the Holocaust as a pan-European phenomenon, that must include other factors and social-psychological aspects that begin to answer why so many different countries all over Europe were engulfed in these waves of savage violence, all in this general atmosphere of genocide yet each with its own internal motives and distinctive characteristics.

As this is the sort of approach I sense I will be taking with me towards my thesis, it seems I have come into the right mindset, because this is exactly the sort of discussion I find within works of historians like Wendy Lower, Jan Gross and Dieter Pohl. All understand the need to address the relationship between Germans and their collaborators, the dynamics of state organized, systematic violence and local mob violence, or to use Wendy Lower’s words: “The events that comprise ‘the Holocaust’ represent an intersection of German history and the varied local and regional histories of Europe.

Another topic that really struck me is the topic of Thomas Kühne’s book Belonging and Genocide. He introduces us to the world of the German recruitment camps as the Nazis took control of every single German and led each male through mandatory educational facilities that worshiped the ‘Volk Community’ of Germany, the ideal of Comradeship over the self and the individual, and discusses what young people were forced to go through in order to be accepted in this society. Under a rule of terror and with an extreme need to “belong”, it appears that most Germans had no other choice but to go through harsh indoctrination facilities, from a very young age and on into the only career opportunity it was acceptable to aspire to – the lines of the SS. When young boys are taught to erase their identity, their individuality, to worship ideals of violence, humiliation of the weak and the emotional, male comradeship, isolation from women, active abuse of anyone who does not fit the norm, collective punishment, sacrifice for the sake of the group over any other moral – it is almost easy to imagine these people becoming cold blooded murderers, some more sadistic than others. The need to belong was so great, that violence, rape, humiliation and abuse among themselves was commonplace – even considered a rite of passage. These boys had to prove themselves Aryan men.

After reading Thomas Kühne, I finally had an understanding I hadn’t had before: So many Germans had ceased viewing themselves as human beings, so many had gone through “concentration camp-like environments” as their upbringing, so many acts of violence where happening around them that would later reoccur and reappear in much more twisted and enhanced form in the concentration camps for the Jews and Gypsies – one almost feels – if they didn’t see themselves as human, how easy would it be to dehumanize the other, the enemy, the Jew. So much of what would subsequently be perpetrated against the Jews was a reflection of how these people viewed themselves, dehumanization was an elemental part of Nazi German Society.

So it’s exciting so far in the MA program for me, I can only imagine the things I’m going to discover and the ideas that are going to reshape my thinking. Nothing is obvious when studying the Holocaust. No subject is closed and done with, as this is possibly the most complex field of study for any historian.  

Shira Griff

I can only add to this the highlight of my week – the Research Forum. We have guest lecturers and testimonies by people whom I’d never thought I’d ever meet, and every week I think I’ve met the most exciting person I could have imagined, the following week just gets better and better and then I meet people like Dr. Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who actually proves to me that the subject of the Holocaust is as alive as ever, and here is someone who is actually hunting Nazis every day – what could be more relevant than this? There is a lot of important work still to be done, and I get to witness those who are doing this work, when gradually hopefully I too will be taking some small part in it.

Shira Griff received her B.A. (Cum Laude) from Tel Aviv University, double majoring in History and The Interdisciplinary Program in Humanities. She explored a wide range of fields, including cultural history, art history, psychology, religion studies and east-Asian studies. Her B.A. also included a semester at the Venice International University. Shira speaks five languages, and has traveled through Berlin, Vienna and New York among other places. She has recently found a place to express her life-long connection with the subject of the Holocaust, joining the International M.A. in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa. Here she aspires both to deepen her understanding of the complex historical-psychological aspects of German society leading up to the Holocaust, as well as confront the many problems surrounding the worsening conditions of Holocaust survivors in Israel in recent years, and how it reflects on Israeli society.


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