Linz was Hitler’s favorite town. It’s where he started and where he wanted to end up. Austria’s largest concentration camp, Mathausen, is close by. That’s where the granite was quarried for the Nibelungen bridge. We see it every day.
We knew this about Linz. We talked about it before we moved here. Friends and family asked how that felt. They wondered if there is still anti-semitism here. It’s fine, we said. The war was a long time ago. Linz offers a healthy serving of left-wing goodness. Vegan hamburgers. Birkenstocks. Climate change activism. Progressives.
I do think about it though — everything that happened here.
The Holocaust is personal — since I’m a Jew. I thought about it a lot as a kid. I also saw a lot of movies about it. It turns out they weren’t so accurate.
In my teens — in the 1980’s — I was lucky to have HBO. Back then there were a handful of “filler” movies — movies that played all the time — almost every day. One example was The Neverending Story. It literally never ended.
Another filler movie was about the Holocaust. It was called Playing for Time. About a group of violinists in Auschwitz. I watched it whenever it was on. Maybe fifteen or twenty times.
There was also this nine hour documentary about the Holocaust- Shoah. Again in the 80’s. Lots of death footage.
I was a depressed teenager. This shit did not help. For the long term, too, the imagery sticks.
So. Here I am. In Linz. A middle-aged American Jew and his family — with a brain full of these HBO and PBS Holocaust images.
I want to replace those images — not with butterflies and rainbows — but with something more informed than this version from the 1980’s.
That means reading about Hitler.
I decided to start with a book called The Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder. It’s a fuller picture. It’s not about Hitler. It’s about Hitler and Stalin. It ’s not about Jews, it’s about Jews, ethnic Poles, Ukranians, Romanians, and others. It’s not about Germany, or Austria, it’s about the places between them and Russia, where most of these people were systematically murdered.
I especially like it because it clarifies some American misconceptions about that time.
Only a few chapters in — here’s the story so far.
- A few hundred thousand Jews lived in Austria and Germany. Over three million lived in Poland
- Hitler’s strategy required the annexation of Polish farms, and the murder of Polish farmers, in order to feed the Wehrmacht.
- More Germans lived in Poland after WWI than in all of Austria.
- During the German occupation of Poland, more Jews and ethnic Poles were killed in mass shootings than ever made it to the camps.
Ok. So far this is similar to the HBO version. A little different maybe— but not much. But neither HBO, nor PBS, ever taught me about Stalin. In fact, I grew up thinking the Soviets saved the Jews! That they liberated the camps. Technically that is true. They liberated the camps as the Western Allies encroached. But the “Nazis Bad, Soviets Good” story of the Holocaust is completely false.
- Stalin and Hitler attacked Poland together — as allies.
- The Soviets relied on the Nazis to “wipe the cities clean” before occupying Poland themselves.
- Eventually they created small uprisings against one another. But their actual policies were the same — mass murder. In the Ukraine, it was the Soviets who wiped the cities clean, while the Nazis waited their turn. Hitler then continued Stalin’s Ukranian mass starvation — as part of his “Hunger Plan.”
- Between the two sides — over 14 million unarmed civilians were murdered in similar, and systematic ways.
The final scene of Schindler’s List ends with the Soviet liberation of the Jews. If Spielberg had known better — he might have reshot the scene.
Two monsters. Not one. Working at the same time, on the same side, and finally in opposition. I think it’s good for me, at least — as an American jew — and a citizen of Linz, with another office in Gdansk, to really get that right.
Note: To be fair to the 1980’s, the Soviet archives had not been opened yet. For some reason, Russia let historians access tens of thousands of documents from Stalin’s Red Army around 1992.