The Holocaust Survivor Who Made the Nazis’ Language of Murder Decipherable

A polyglot and linguist who evaded Hitler by fleeing Poland for the Soviet Union, Nachman Blumental (1905-1983) returned in 1944 and joined a group of Jewish intellectuals working to document the slaughter of European Jewry. Gal Beckerman writes of the task Blumental took upon himself:

Along with an assortment of historians, ethnographers, and linguists, [Blumental] established the Central Jewish Historical Commission. They transcribed 3,000 survivor testimonies between 1944 and 1947, scavenged for Nazi paperwork in abandoned Gestapo offices, and meticulously preserved fragments of day-to-day ghetto life—a child’s school notebook or a food-ration ticket. And Blumental, from the beginning, gathered words.

In every Nazi document he came across, he circled and underlined innocuous terms like Abgang (exit) or Evakuierung (evacuation). He knew what these words actually meant when they appeared in memos and bureaucratic forms: they were euphemisms for death. A mission of his own took shape: to reveal the ways the Nazis had used the German language to obscure the mechanics of mass murder and make genocide more palatable to themselves.

His dictionary of Nazi words was, at one level, a desperate undertaking: if he could reverse-engineer the language, he might be able to figure out how everything he had known and loved had been destroyed. But the project had other, more practical functions as well. He hoped that such a lexicon would be useful for prosecutors during the many postwar trials of the late 1940s — three of which Blumental attended as an expert witness, including the trial of Rudolf Höss, the Auschwitz camp commandant. And he was aiming, too, at the future, for a time when the documentary evidence of the genocide might be indecipherable without some kind of linguistic key.

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More about: Holocaust, Jewish history, Language, Polish Jewry


Understanding the Background of the White House Ruling on Anti-Semitism and the Civil Rights Act

Dec. 13 2019

On Wednesday, the president signed an executive order allowing federal officials to extend the protections of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to Jews. (The order, promptly condemned for classifying Jews as a separate nationality, did nothing of the sort.) In 2010, Kenneth Marcus called for precisely such a ruling in the pages of Commentary, citing in particular the Department of Education’s lax response to a series of incidents at the University of California at Irvine, where, among much elase, Jewish property was vandalized and Jewish students were pelted with rocks, called “dirty Jew” and other epithets, and were told, “Jewish students are the plague of mankind.”

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel on campus, U.S. Politics