An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Remembering the Holocaust

Apr 19, 2012 by

The Sowers by Thomas Hart Benton, 1942. One of a series of eight paintings in which Benton portrayed the barbarity of fascism. Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration.

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, we recently did an interview about Andersonville Prison, which appeared here, and now I understand you are to speak on a college campus about the Holocaust. First of all, tell us about the event.

During the Second World War, Adolf Hitler’s regime presided over the extermination of approximately 6,000,000 individuals that were deemed undesirable. While various groups like Gypsies and homosexuals were targeted, the vast majority of those who were executed were Jews. This act of genocide is known as the Holocaust.

  1. Obviously, the Holocaust was one of the worst events in world history. Are there worldwide events that allow us to reflect on the horrors there?

At the same approximate time that Hitler presided over the extermination of 6,000,000 people, the leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, was responsible for the death of 20,000,000 million of his citizens. Sadly, this was also a time period that saw atrocities by the Japanese that resulted in the deaths of millions of Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese. So, while the Holocaust is clearly horrific, it is by no means a singular atrocity.

  1. There were several concentration camps- Dachau, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Thierenstadt- are there any books that chronicle this heinous period of history?

There have been many books that discuss the concentration camps run by the Nazis. The best book I have come across is “Masters of Death,” by Richard Rhodes.

  1. I know Viktor Frankl has written about his experiences as well as several other authors, like Primo Levi- but from a purely historical point of view- who are the most well known historians who have written about the Holocaust?

A historian by the name of Martin Gilbert wrote a book called “The Holocaust,” and that book made him probably the best known historian on the subject.

  1. I have actually been to Dachau and seen the crematoriams, and read the town literature that acknowledges that the event did in fact occur. Why would certain world leaders deny that such an event happened, when there is so much photographic evidence to the contrary?

It seems unfathomable that anyone can dismiss the Holocaust, but obviously some people did, and still do. For some, it is simply inconceivable that a supposedly cultured and civilized society like that of 20th century Germany could oversee the extermination of millions of individuals simply because they were regarded as inferior. For others, unfortunately, it appears that anti-Semitism fuels their denial of the Holocaust.

  1. I realize it is hard to approximate this, but in general, approximately how many people died in the concentration camps during World War II?

The standard figure quoted is 6,000,000, and I feel this is a very reliable number. I believe this to be true, because the Germans were meticulous in their record keeping.

  1. Most people associate the Jewish population as being decimated, but what other ethnic groups were impacted, or were killed in the camps?

Unfortunately, many groups incurred the wrath of the Nazis: Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, Communists, and political dissidents all were targeted for extermination.

  1. When the camps were liberated, were there differences between these various places? Were some prisoners of war treated humanely?

Unfortunately, it seems that all concentration camps were brutal. Oscar Schindler and a few others tried to help, but the few thousand individuals who received better treatment through their efforts were statistically meaningless.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

These were good questions on a troubling aspect of history.

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