Ron Cardy/Rex USA, Courtesy Everett Collection
Two months after VE Day, Meyer Levin visits Europe and is astonished to find that the Continent’s Jewish community has been annihilated. Even the few survivors can’t believe it.
Before the war there were sixteen million Jews in the world. Little more than half are left. Nobody really believes in the annihilation of the Jews of Europe. There are certain facts so massive that the human mind for a long time rejects them, and this has happened with the story of European Jewry. The survivors themselves, after living these years within the massacre, don’t believe their own knowledge of its completeness.
In a village near Weimar I met a man who had escaped from one of the last columns marched out of Buchenwald. For three hours, sitting on his pallet on a factory floor, he told me about the two years he had worked on the Auschwitz train platform, where Jews had arrived for extermination. He estimated that he had seen four million arrive; he knew that only one in ten was selected for slavery, the rest went to the gas chambers. He knew that the chosen slaves had about one chance in a thousand of living more than a year. Two years ago he had seen his own sister arrive on a death train. And yet, after speaking to me only of death—death in Auschwitz, death on the icy trains, death on the road marches, death in the work camps—this man seized my arm and said, “You go to all the concentration camps, you see all who remain alive—write down the name of my sister, Perhaps you will find her. Perhaps she has survived.”
Of all the survivors I talked to, none was without a story of sisters, brothers, mother, father gone, and yet none ever said these loved ones were dead unless he had actually seen them killed. “They were taken to Drancy, and from there deported”; “I heard of him last in Warsaw, but from there he may have been deported.” Always they spoke as though myriads of Jews might somewhere yet be found alive as we went farther into Germany.
Finally we had been through all Germany, and found only the remnants in the concentration camps, and the few dozens in each city, and the scattered survivors of the last trains that started from Buchenwald and Auschwitz toward the Alps and halted wherever they ran out of fuel, while the guards shot a few last Jews and seized automobiles and fled from the approaching Americans.
It has been estimated that there are a million and a quarter Jews alive in Europe outside of Russia. This estimate may not stand, for the Poles in renewed pogroms are killing off the few hundred thousand who escaped the Nazis, out of Poland’s four million Jews. Moreover, twelve thousand of those found alive in Bergen Belsen died after the camp was liberated, and after six weeks were still dying at the rate of fifty a day.
A million and a quarter people form a considerable community; this is nearly twice as many Jews as there are in Palestine. How can it be said, then, that European Jewry has been wiped out?