As a young adult, thanks to accompanying my late mother on her weekly trips to the local library, I read extensively about the Holocaust. So much so, that I became somewhat burned out on the topic, and have largely avoided it since then. Somehow, I felt compelled to read this book, and am glad I did.
First, I am in awe of Cesarani’s knowledge on the topic. The extent of the sources, and his masterful grasp of the material is majestic.
Second, the narrative is one that flows smoothly, albeit that may seem something of a contradiction in terms given the horrible subject matter. But there is a story, and it is one that is told well. In essence, this is about how the war against the Jews was planned (to the extent that it was planned) and executed, and the different contributing factors. For example, the book explains thoroughly the competing factions within the Nazi state, and the alternating need to have Jews as a workforce, or as fodder for the killing machines.
Third, the book covers the nasty and brutish treatment that Jew visited upon Jew, when lives were under threat; selling out one another, or enforcing the will of the Nazis, was no minority event, sadly. But he balances this well with an incredibly measured and objective tone that vividly sets out the horrific moral dilemmas facing communal leaders and families. It’s all very well for us to pontificate on what the right thing to do might have been, but we were not there facing the darkest threats in these dreadful times. Who is to say we would have done any better?
Fourth, this is the first book on the topic that has given me a fairly complete understanding of why (in the main) the Jews went so meekly to their deaths. That does not make it easy reading, especially as the central core of the book consists of mass murder event upon mass murder event.
Fifth, Cesarani also covers the rest of the world’s response to the news about mass killings of Jews. There is a good explanation about the British and American political environments, complete with sharp insight about their concern as to the potential effect of them opening their borders to refugees with nowhere else to go. The British position as holders of the mandate over Palestine, and their promises to restrict Jewish (but not Arab) immigration to the Holy Land, certainly doomed many. And there’s a short but balanced look at the contrasting military and moral priorities when it came to directing war resources.
Finally, the publisher’s spiel says that this book is also different because it does not stop at the end of the war, but continues up until the foundation of Israel, when the Jews in the DP camps finally had somewhere to go. That part, unfortunately, is the weakest part of the book. Compared to the rest, the coverage is superficial, and he appears to be shying away from content that might have been more critical of the hypocritical British authorities. There is some criticism, but it is muted.
That last blemish is a minor one. The book is an outstanding, unrivaled piece of history that it is well worth reading. It is long, frequently difficult to read because of the awful events it describes, but is a story that needs to be recorded, and told and told and told again.
Regrettably, the author did not live to see this masterpiece in print. Wherever he is now, I hope he will excuse my impudence in daring to critique the fruit of his life’s work. It is a masterpiece – a magnificent testament to the contribution he made to the remembrance of the Holocaust. (Check out his biography on Wikipedia.)