[From The guardian]
In 1955, 10 years after his liberation from Auschwitz, Primo Levi published an anguished article about the “gigantic death-dealing machine” the Nazis had built to wipe out Jews such as himself. Levi was mainly concerned with the 1950s, however, not the recent past. He feared that the greatest crime imaginable, still so vivid in the minds of survivors, was in danger of being forgotten by the wider public. Levi railed against the “silence of the civilised world”, which regarded any mention of Nazi extermination camps as in bad taste.
How things have changed. Far from being forgotten, the murder of European Jewry has become a global benchmark for judging inhumanity. Levi’s own memoir of Auschwitz, If This Is a Man, which was initially met with indifference, has been recognised as one of the “truly necessary books” (Philip Roth), and every year sees a stream of works by survivors and historians, philosophers and novelists. The question is no longer: “Is this silence justified?”, as Levi asked rhetorically back in 1955. It is now: “Which of the countless studies should we read?”
Laurence Rees’s The Holocaust: A New History is puffed on its inside cover as “the first accessible and authoritative account of the Holocaust in more than three decades”. Such PR bluster does the book no favours. For there really is no shortage of important recent works, among them Saul Friedländer’s unsurpassed survey The Years of Extermination, which won the Pulitzer prize; Timothy Snyder’s bold reinterpretation Black Earth; and the late David Cesarani’s deeply researched and highly readable study Final Solution, which appeared only last year.
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