Black Earth
Author:Timothy Snyder

Black Earth by Timothy Snyder


In the fashionable sixth district of Vienna, the history of the Holocaust is in the pavement. In front of the buildings where Jews once lived and worked, ensconced in sidewalks that Jews once had to scrub with their bare hands, are small square memorials in brass bearing names, dates of deportation, and places of death.

In the mind of an adult, words and numbers connect present and past.

A child’s view is different. A child starts from the things.

A little boy who lives in the sixth district observes, day by day, as a crew of workers proceeds, building by building, up the opposite side of his street. He watches them dig up the sidewalk, just as they might in order to repair a pipe or lay some cable. Waiting for his bus to kindergarten one morning, he sees the men, directly across the street now, shovel and pack the steaming black asphalt. The memorial plaques are mysterious objects in gloved hands, reflecting a bit of pale sun.

“Was machen sie da, Papa?” “What are they doing, Daddy?” The boy’s father is silent. He looks up the street for the bus. He hesitates, starts to answer: “Sie bauen…” “They are building…” He stops. This is not easy. Then the bus comes, blocking their view, opening with a wheeze of oil and air an automatic door to a normal day.

Seventy-five years earlier, in March 1938, on streets throughout Vienna, Jews were cleansing the word “Austria” from the pavement, unwriting a country that was ceasing to exist as Hitler and his armies arrived. Today, on those same pavements, the names of those very Jews reproach a restored Austria that, like Europe itself, remains unsure of its past.

Why were the Jews of Vienna persecuted just as Austria was removed from the map? Why were they then sent to be murdered in Belarus, a thousand kilometers away, when there was evident hatred of Jews in Austria itself? How could a people established in a city (a country, a continent) suddenly have its history come to a violent end? Why do strangers kill strangers? And why do neighbors kill neighbors?

In Vienna, as in the great cities of central and western Europe generally, Jews were a prominent part of urban life. In the lands to the north, south, and east of Vienna, in eastern Europe, Jews had lived continuously in towns and villages in large numbers for more than five centuries. And then, in less than five years, more than five million of them were murdered.

Our intuitions fail us. We rightly associate the Holocaust with Nazi ideology, but forget that many of the killers were not Nazis or even Germans. We think first of German Jews, although almost all of the Jews killed in the Holocaust lived beyond Germany. We think of concentration camps, though few of the murdered Jews ever saw one. We fault the state, though murder was possible only where state institutions were destroyed. We blame science, and so endorse an important element of Hitler’s worldview. We fault nations, indulging in simplifications used by the Nazis themselves.

We recall the victims, but are apt to confuse commemoration with understanding. The memorial in the sixth district of Vienna is called Remember for the Future. Should we be confident, now that a Holocaust is behind us, that a recognizable future awaits? We share a world with the forgotten perpetrators as well as with the memorialized victims. The world is now changing, reviving fears that were familiar in Hitler’s time, and to which Hitler responded. The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.