Documenting Nazi Destruction


Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, research scholars in the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington are the lead editors of the center’s planned seven-volume “Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos in Nazi Germany and Nazi-Dominated Territories, 1933-45.” Research began 13 years ago, and the first volume was published in 2009.

The Jewish Week spoke to the two just prior to Yom HaShoah. This is an edited transcript.

Q: In your research, you documented 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe — far more than previously known. What has been the reaction to that revelation?

A: Megargee: There is a certain amount of pushback going on, with people saying there were not really that many camps and that we were including things for one or two people. But we included only camps that had a minimum number of people — say 20 or so — and that existed for some period of time, usually at least a month. And we included one or two very small places just as examples of how miniscule these sorts of arrangements became.

In light of your findings, do you believe the number of six million Jewish Nazi victims must also be increased?

Megargee: My impression is that the number of victims is getting more solid as time goes on; six million Jews is as close an estimate as we are going to get.

What was most surprising as you examined what the Nazis did?

Megargee: In terms of conditions, what surprised us were the variety of conditions and experiences people had. There was a spectrum, from the extermination system to concentration camps that were penal in nature and where they killed people just from abuse. And then there were forced labor camps and prisons at the other end of the spectrum that were for foreign nationals who were not abused and were well fed and kept in nice places.

Were all foreign nationals treated the same?

Megargee: A lot of this depended on race. Americans and British had the best conditions, and the French were not treated too badly because the Germans didn’t see them as racial enemies. But when it came to the Poles and especially the Soviets — anyone who was a Slav or people from the Asian areas of the Soviet Union — they were often rounded up in the POW camps and taken out and shot.

Among American and British prisoners of war the death rate was 2 to 3 percent; among the Soviets it was close to 60 percent. Between June and September 1941, the Nazis captured 3.33 million Soviet soldiers. By the spring of ’42, [two-thirds] of them were dead.

There were many death marches of Jews at the end of the war. What happened to the bodies of those who died or were killed along the way?

Dean: There were often attempts immediately after the war to document as many of these graves as possible. But of course, because the prisoners were marching along and the guards had no interest in marking the graves, it was very hard. Often they were marked by the local population at the time or shortly afterward. You didn’t just leave a dead body lying around — there were rules in Germany. But the person who was told to bury the body didn’t know who the [dead] person was, so graves went unmarked. Prisoners who vowed to each other that they would do something about this after the war very often did go back and tried to put up memorials. But obviously not everything has been documented.

What about elsewhere?

Dean: In the Soviet Union there was no recording of the deaths — or anywhere east of the German border. If you were put on a train to Treblinka, you were just put on without any record being kept. We have been finding the records of the Jewish Welfare Council with the names of the people who lived there before they left in 1940 or ‘41. Often they didn’t put the elderly or children on the train because they knew they would be killed, so they shot them in the town and they were buried in Jewish or Christian cemeteries. And some were put in unmarked mass graves.

Do you hope that your documentation will put an end to those who deny the Holocaust ever occurred?

Mergargee: There is no use arguing with the real diehard deniers, who are usually anti-Semites. But for those who heard what deniers have said and want to know more, we are compiling this encyclopedia.