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Monday, Dec. 23, 2013

The Destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto

A chilling account of war, genocide and political calculation

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 Many historians refer to the 1944 revolt against the Nazis by the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto as the first battle of the Cold War. Realizing that the Nazi regime was coming to defeat, SS chief Heinrich Himmler plotted a post-Hitler Germany in league with the Western Allies against the USSR. Ironically, Stalin’s calculations ran on a parallel track. At his orders, the Soviet army did not assist the Polish underground’s attempt to throw out the Germans because he did not want a pro-Western Poland to rise from the ruins of war. Soviet forces waited as the Nazis destroyed Poland’s capital, letting the Germans do their work for them.

During the war, the people of Warsaw underwent beatings, executions, rapes and maimings, along with the total annihilation of the Jewish Ghetto and its inhabitants. In 1944 what was left of the city and its population became the target of two invading armies, one after the other.

Utilizing a massive archive of photographs and documents accrued by her father-in-law, who was a Polish resistance fighter, Alexandra Richie, relates the complete history in Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising (Farrar Straus Giroux). “In one evening, Himmler and Hitler had decided that the entire population remaining in one of Europe’s great capital cities was to be murdered in cold blood. Then the city…was to be completely destroyed.” Himmler, though, was looking beyond this meeting with Hitler: “By this point in the war Hitler was quite deranged.” Himmler “tried to calm Hitler down” to no avail. “He and Himmler drafted the Order for Warsaw that evening. It stands as one of the most chilling documents of the war.”

It is chilling in another way, too: Himmler knew Hitler was demented and believed, with twisted logic, that the Allies and Germany might be drawn together if the Soviets finished the Nazi plan of extinction—therefore becoming the world’s most hated country! The Polish fighters fought the Nazis, but in the final analysis their efforts were in vain. Opposed by Stalin and unable to gain support from the Allies, the Polish Home Army faced the fury of Hitler and the most efficient killing machine known to the modern world, Himmler’s SS. Before the end of the war a special medal was created for those SS troops.

Aghast when he visited Warsaw at war’s end, General Dwight D. Eisenhower said that “nowhere have I been faced with such destruction.” Yet, “Allied Amnesia” is how Richie rightfully describes the aftermath. There has not been a sustained and enduring account of the vast horror of Warsaw 1944 until her well-researched and -written book. Reading the author’s shocking, vast historical narrative is to recognize evil when we see it. Such recognition of this magnitude is always too late.

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