- Murder in Plain Sight
The incredibility of the Holocaust has been a central theme of both Holocaust literature and scholarship from their inception. In 1951 Hannah Arendt stressed the extent to which the Nazis relied on the likelihood that the wild improbability of the scale of their crimes would guarantee that, should they lose the war, they and their preposterous lies would be believed, while their victims would be derided as fantasists: “The Nazis did not even consider it necessary to keep this discovery to themselves. Hitler circulated millions of copies of his book in which he stated that to be successful, a lie must be enormous—which did not prevent people from believing him as, similarly, the Nazis’ proclamations, repeated ad nauseam, that the Jews would be exterminated like bedbugs (i.e., with poison gas) prevented anybody from not believing them.” Abba Kovner, the commander of the Jewish underground in Vilna, wrote, “That they could all be murdered, the Jews of Vilna, Kovno, Bialystok, Warsaw, the millions with their wives and children—hardly a single one wanted to believe that. What was the meaning of this? Was it just blindness?” Arendt offers an answer: “There is a great temptation to explain away the intrinsically incredible by means of liberal rationalizations. In each one of us, there lurks such a liberal, wheedling us with the voice of common sense.”
Nowhere was the incredibility of Germany’s campaign to destroy Jewry more extreme than in Hungary. In Night, the “non-fictional novel” that has long been considered the classic personal account by a Hungarian survivor of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel records the following conversation in Auschwitz between a veteran prisoner and a newly arrived one: “‘You’d have done better to have hanged yourselves where you were than to come here. Didn’t you know what was in store for you at Auschwitz? Haven’t you heard about it? In 1944?’ No, we had not heard. No one had told us. He could not believe his ears.”
As the historians Raul Hilberg and Randolph Braham have observed, by 1944, Hungary, with its 750,000 Jews, was the only important area of Europe still untouched by deportations to the killing centers. But in March the Germans overran the country, the only time when the organizers of mass murder knew that the war was lost as they began their operations. The Hungarian Jews were almost the only Jews in Europe who had full warning and knowledge of what was to come while their community was still unharmed. [End Page 669] The mass deportation of Hungary’s Jews was also unique because it was carried out openly, in full view of the whole world.
Rudolf Kastner, associate president of the Zionist Organization in Hungary, writes: “In Budapest we had a unique opportunity to follow the fate of European Jewry. We had seen how they had been disappearing one after the other from the map of Europe. At the moment of the occupation of Hungary, the number of dead Jews amounted to over five million. We knew very well about the work of the Einsatzgruppen. We knew more than was . . . necessary about Auschwitz. . . . We had, as early as 1942, a complete picture of what had been happening in the East with the Jews deported to Auschwitz and the other extermination camps.” Nevertheless Adolf Eichmann had only to set up a Judenrat to publish all German orders to the Jews, and to assure them they had nothing to fear if they cooperated. In a period of just seven weeks (15 May–9 July) 430,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Did they repress the detailed knowledge they already had about the five million already murdered and deliberately fool themselves, or is Yehuda Bauer correct in arguing that information and knowledge are not the same thing? “The information was there all the time, including information regarding the ways in which the Nazis were misleading and fooling their victims,” he says. “The point is that this information was rejected, people did not want to know, because knowledge...