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What Can and Can’t Be Learned from a Visit to Auschwitz

Jan. 30 2018

The site of the Nazis’ largest and best-known concentration camp has been preserved for visitors, with museum-style exhibits, tours, and even a concession stand. But can seeing the train tracks, empty barracks, and remains of the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz convey anything of the horrors that occurred there? Daniel Krauthammer reflects:

It was not easy to look at an empty bunk and imagine how it looked overcrowded with terrified prisoners, much less what it smelled like, sounded like, and felt like to be one of those poor souls, starving and brutalized. The barracks we saw, about the size of a small stable, officially held 744 prisoners. But what does 744 people look like? What does a crowd that big feel like crammed into a space that small? Human intuition quickly reaches its limits as numbers rise this high.

The problem of comprehending scale is endemic to Auschwitz. At first, the sheer size of the site has an emotional impact all its own. The primary subcamp stretches for 422 acres, dotted with the remains of brick prison barracks as far as the eye can see. But one soon realizes that the size of a site does not map directly to the scale of its crimes. The greatest center of death did not lie here, but in another area all its own—an extermination camp that feels much smaller, more secluded, and less remarkable than the vast concentration camp surrounding it. . . .

The vast majority of the 1.1 million Jews deported to Auschwitz never entered its concentration camp at all. They didn’t last the few weeks that most other prisoners, [who normally died of disease or starvation], did. They lasted less than an hour. When their trains arrived, these Jews (and it was only the Jews who were brought this way) were pulled from the lethally packed cars, stripped, and separated into men, women, and children. A few adults were pulled aside if they looked healthy or were known to have special skills. The rest were marched a few hundred yards down the line to the gas chambers. . . .

Some 960,000 Jews died at Auschwitz. . . . But there are no mass graves at Auschwitz, no physical markers that convey the magnitude of what happened. All that a visitor can see are the ruins of a half-sunken gas chamber, which the Nazis blew up as they retreated before the Red Army. It is less than half the size of a regulation basketball court. There were six other such chambers at the camp— all together making up an area no larger than a high school gymnasium. One looks at their mangled ruins—some charred brick, a bit of twisted metal, an empty hole in the ground—and the mind reels. How could a million souls have disappeared into a space so small? Human beings are simply not equipped to handle such a mismatch in scale.

Read more at Weekly Standard

More about: Auschwitz, History & Ideas, Holocaust

Israel Agreed Not to Retaliate During the Persian Gulf War—and Paid a Price for It

Feb. 19 2018

During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, Saddam Hussein fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, killing one person and causing extensive property damage. Under intense pressure from the first Bush administration to sit still—ostensibly because Israeli involvement in the war could lead Arab states to abandon the White House’s anti-Iraq coalition—Jerusalem refrained from retaliating. Moshe Arens, who was the Israeli defense minister at the time, comments on the decision in light of information recently made public:

[W]hat was George H.W. Bush thinking [in urging Israel not to respond]? His secretary of state, James Baker, had accompanied the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles (Chas) Freeman, on a visit to King Fahd in Riyadh on November 2, 1990, two-and-a-half months before the beginning of the war, to obtain the king’s approval for additional deployment of U.S. troops in his kingdom in preparation for the attack on Iraq.

He was told by the king that although they would not welcome Israeli participation in the war, he understood that Israel could not stand idly by if it were attacked by Iraq. If Israel were to defend itself, the Saudi armed forces would still fight on America’s side, the king told Baker. So much for the danger to the coalition if Israel were to respond to the Scud attacks. Israel was not informed of this Saudi position.

So why was President Bush so intent on keeping Israel out of the war? It seems that he took the position, so dominant in the American foreign-policy establishment, that America’s primary interest in the Middle East was the maintenance of good relations with the Arab world, and that the Arab world attached great importance to the Palestinian problem, and that as long as that problem was not resolved Israel remained an encumbrance to the U.S.-Arab relationship. If Israel were to appear as an ally of the U.S. in the war against Iraq, that was likely to damage the image the U.S. was trying to project to the Arabs.

In fact, immediately upon the conclusion of the war against Saddam Hussein, Baker launched a diplomatic effort that culminated in the Madrid Conference in the hope that it would lead to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It didn’t. . . .

Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: George H. W. Bush, Israel & Zionism, Israeli history, Peace Process, Persian Gulf War, US-Israel relations