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Book Review:

Tim Cole on Martin Gilbert


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Author: Tim Cole
Department of Historical Studies, University of Bristol

Sun, 4 July 1999


Martin Gilbert. Holocaust Journey. Travelling in Search of the Past. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. xvi + 480 pp. Photos, maps, bibliography, and index. $16.95 (paper), ISBN 0-231-10965-2.

"Piotrkow is not the same place that it used to be"

Holocaust Journey does not offer easy reading. In it we join the historian Martin Gilbert, the Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott, eleven of Gilbert's graduate students and a number of other fellow travellers on a two-week trek through Central Europe in the summer of 1996. Their journey from the Third Reich landscape of Berlin, through the ghetto landscapes of Theresienstadt, Cracow, Warsaw and Piotrkow and to the camps of Auschwitz, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka and Chelmno, becomes our journey. We become virtual fellow-travellers, who -- like Gilbert's students -- hear the readings chosen for the sites which we pass through. It is these readings -- in the main from survivors' memoirs -- which provide the link between the past and the present in these Holocaust sites.

But the journey takes in more than simply these infamous Holocaust sites. Along the way, Gilbert comments on the many small towns and villages we pass. Each has its own history of Jewish habitation as well as Jewish destruction, which Gilbert briefly sketches out in short diary entries. By writing in a diary format which gives us not simply this journey broken down into days, but quite literally into minutes, we get a strong sense of the slow passing of time. The cumulative effect is a harrowing narrative of relentless killing. The whole journey is a seemingly never-ending story of destruction, as community after community was destroyed in a few short years in the early 1940s. And this is what makes this narrative such a powerful one.

Rather than being arranged chronologically, the text is arranged geographically. Thus whilst Gilbert does begin self-consciously in Berlin -- he comments after visiting Wan[n]see that "we have seen where the paperwork was done and the decisions made to murder millions of people; soon we will see where so many of those people taken and killed" (p. 51) -- he does not opt for the classic chronological approach which starts with the Nazi rise to power and then moves on year-by-year to the end of the war, as he did in his The Holocaust. The Jewish Tragedy.[1] Rather, Gilbert strays away from the confines of a strict chronological approach to the Holocaust, by taking us on a Holocaust Journey through real places, which stresses the spatial rather than the temporal. Whilst the content in terms of both the historical events described and the readings chosen is fairly familiar material to the historian of the Holocaust, the approach is not. In quite consciously adopting the narrative form of a diary description of a journey, Gilbert gives us a poignant reminder of the sheer geographical scope of the destruction.

As I read, I was reminded of The Valley of Communities memorial at Yad Vashem. There, carved into the rock, is a maze-like map of Europe complete with the names of the Jewish communities devastated by the Nazis. Gilbert's book is in some ways an equally powerful -- indeed more powerful -- textual equivalent to this map-like memorial. Whilst at Yad Vashem it only takes five minutes or so to walk through this scaled-down maze of Europe, Gilbert's journey took two weeks. Of course the frightening reality is that even such a relatively long journey with such a packed schedule, barely touches the surface of Holocaust Europe. Gilbert could have travelled further north or east to the destroyed communities of the former Soviet Union. He could have gone south into Hungary and Romania, or west into the Netherlands and France. Such a trip would have taken months rather than merely weeks. As one of the students on the trip commented afterwards, 'when one spends hour upon hour visiting Jewish community upon Jewish community, and ends the day at the site of their mass murder, one becomes deeply conscious of the scale of the Shoah. And that was one road, to one camp, in one country" (p. 400).

Unfortunately such reflection by Gilbert's students, and Gilbert's own self-reflection on the journey, are relatively rare. The text is dominated with what happened in these places in the past, rather than giving us an insight into the burden of visiting these places in the present. The reflections of the students who made the trip are gathered in a short epilogue, and there are places in the text where Gilbert reflects upon the sheer emotional implications of leading such a trip as this. For example, he questions his plan to take the Bratislava-Cracow express to Auschwitz, asking "was it too much to have decided to make this journey by rail?" (p. 119), and admits, "often I find the readings very difficult. On three occasions today -- and two at Sobibor two days ago, and one at Majdanek yesterday -- I was not able to read out a piece I had chosen ... it seemed too painful, too direct, too raw. I always apologised for not being able to do so. The hardest thing to read about, or to think about, is the children" (pp. 320-21). However self-reflection on the problematic nature of teaching about the Holocaust in general, and taking a group to the sites of destruction in particular, is surprisingly limited.[2]

Moreover, the focus upon what happened in these sites of Holocaust history in the past means that what is happening in these sites of Holocaust memory in the present is largely ignored. There are places -- such as at Wansee and Auschwitz -- where the politics of memory are reflected upon, but on the whole this increasingly important theme remains neglected. Thus for example, the group's visit to the site where Hitler and Eva Braun's bodies were burned -- "today it is a children's playground . No plaque or memorial marks the spot: only, ironically a dustbin" (p. 27) -- does lead to "a discussion about whether it is right or wrong to have no memorial here, and to have a children's playground on this spot of hideous association" (p. 27). However, it is a discussion which we are not privy to. Throughout, Gilbert largely fails to explore the ways in which societies choose both to remember and forget the past. His is a book which is ultimately more interested in what happened at these sites in the past -- given to us through a series of historical narratives and survivors' memoirs -- than what is happening (or not happening) in these sites in the present. Whilst you get the sense in reading, that this journey, or pilgrimage, was as much a journey of Holocaust memory as it was a journey of Holocaust history, the former aspect remains largely implicit.

Saying that however, is not to detract from a book which I intend to use as a central text with my undergraduate and graduate students. Holocaust Journey is a powerful reminder that the Holocaust happened not simply over time, but also over space. Reading Gilbert's journey, once more brought home Milan Kundera's poignant reflection that Central Europe lost "its soul after Auschwitz, which swept the Jewish nation off its map".[3] As the survivor Ben Helfgott reflects when walking through his former home town, "Piotrkow is not the same place that it used to be ... The Jews -- the ingredients -- have gone. The yeast is not there" (pp. 360-61). What is true of Piotrkow is true of the entire Central European landscape which Gilbert expertly guides us through.


[1]. Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust. The Jewish Tragedy (London: Williams Collins, 1986)
[2]. Compare this with Andrew Charlesworth's thoughtful reflections on leading student trips to central Europe in Charlesworth, Andrew. "Teaching the Holocaust through Landscape Study: The Liverpool Experience", Immigrants and Minorities 13, No. 1 (1994)
[3]. Kundera, Milan. "The Tragedy of Central Europe", The New York Review of Books 31, No. 7 (26 April 1984) p. 37.



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