AUTHOR: Prof. Zehavit Gross
Chairholder, UNESCO Chair for Values Education, Tolerance & Peace and the Sal van Gelder Center for Holocaust Research & Instruction, School of education, Bar Ilan University, Israel
Introduction – The Holocaust as an unprecedented event in human history
The atrocities of the Holocaust are among the most devastating in human history. The aim of the Nazi ideology was to destroy completely Jewish civilization. Following their military conquests, they systematically turned various locations in Europe into mass murder and killing sites, while other sites where Jews were incarcerated became huge experimental laboratories to test the limits of human endurance, both physically and psychologically. The Nazis set new levels of human evil, especially through their implementation of industrialized murder. (Gross, 2011). This led to the systematic genocide of the Jewish people through unprecedented methods and efficiency. The war against the Jews, carried out so effectively during the Holocaust, led to Hitler and the Nazis prioritizing the destruction of European Jewry over other aspects of the Second World War. This was because it stemmed from pure ideological motives of racism, in the belief that the world should be cleansed and purified from the Jews who were perceived by the Nazis – due to their race and for no other apparent reason – as a menace and a threat to human civilization. In effect, the Holocaust was an unprecedented attempt to alter human civilization while completely obliterating the legacy of humanism and enlightenment.
The term Holocaust was given to the annihilation of European Jewry and the genocide against Jews in all areas controlled by the Nazis and their allies during World War II (1939-1945). Before the Holocaust, Europe was the largest Jewish center in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many Jewish cultural, ideological and social movements flourished there, such as Hasidism, the Musar movement, Haskalah (Enlightenment), Zionism and the Jewish Labor Bund. Many yeshivas were founded there, along with Jewish schools of various religious ideological philosophies (Gross, 2010). All of these were completely destroyed during the Holocaust. World War II was fought mainly on European soil, and to a lesser extent in North Africa and Asia. As a result, most of the Jews who were murdered the communities that were lost were considered part of the Ashkenazi Jewish community. However, there were Sephardi Jews in Yugoslovia, which included Serbia and Croatia, with 66,000 of 80,000 Jews in Yugoslavia being murder (Birri-Tomovska,,2012). In the Balkans, especially in Thrace, Macedonia and Greece, including Salonika, Jews were also annihilated, with 98% of the Jews living in these areas being murdered (Matkovski, 1982). The Sephardi Jews in North Africa suffered from the Nazi conquest, especially in Tunisia where concentration camps were established, but most were not deported to the death camps of Europe. Rommel’s drive through North Africa was stopped at el-Alamien before the German army could advance further into Egypt and occupy the Arab countries, so that the Mizrachi Jews escaped the Nazi destruction, as did the Jews of the Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel) in Mandate Palestine.
One of the Jewish centers in Europe was the Jewish community in Bačka, which had a vibrant Jewish life with a strong Jewish community and active Jewish institutions that created a Jewish culture which had its own unique features, drawn from the characteristics of that part of the Southeastern Europe,including its prayer style and other special cultural traditions, but also had characteristics similar to those of Jewish institutions in other parts of the world. Following the imposition of direct Nazi control of the Horthy government in Hungary and the German forces entry into Hungary in March 1944, including the territories annexed by it, among which was Bačka Jews across the country were hounded into ghettos. From May deported largely to Auschwitz-Birkenau where the majority were sent directly to the gas chambers. Within two months almost half a million Hungarian Jewish were murdered. This was the fate of the Jewish community of Bačka: the Jews were deported and the majority murdered with its members annihilated. The purpose of this impressive book, entitled The Deportation of Jews of Bačka in 1944, edited by Nebojša Kuzmanović, is to describe and analyze the extermination of the Jewish community in Bačka through accurate historical documentation. Daniel Goldhagen (1996) argues that the Holocaust was the greatest and unprecedented genocide of the twentieth century due to the embedded hatred of Jews in the German people and their having the means to carry out this genocide. The Holocaust is more than just a major historical landmark. Its unprecedented character enables us to construe the past in a different light and also helps shape our perception of seminal developments in our own time.
The importance of the book and the case of the Bačka community
This is an important book which makes a key contribution to Holocaust scholarship for three reasons: 1. Issues of historical and cultural justice; 2. Epistemological reasons; and 3. Cultural-educational reasons, which I will expand and elaborate on below.
1. Reasons of historical and cultural justice
Until the current study, the story of the deportation and annihilation of the Bačka community was lost from the pantheon of collective memory of the Holocaust. Even though I am familiar with all aspects of the Holocaust in the various communities I do not remember ever hearing the name Bačka, nor did I hear a word about its connection with the Holocaust. A search of the available databases via google yields limited general basic information about the place, but until the publication of this book there was no in-depth study that could serve as the basis for what is known in research circles as systematic scholarship of memory. I have no doubt that the reason for Bačka’s omission from the pantheon of collective memory of the Holocaust stems from socio-political reasons. Theories dealing with social justice are based on the theory of John Rawls (1971). Rawls, a 20th century American philosopher, established the demand for fairness and justice in social infrastructure structures ( 2001 ) and I would like to extend the definition to cultural structures as well. Theories of justice claim that all human beings are equal and that everyone has equal human and civil rights and is therefore entitled to have equal access to the world’s resources and economic, social or environmental abundance. In this context, I will extend the definition to cultural abundance as well. Rawls ( 1971) demanded that there be an orderly and transparent system that would manage the social, economic and political institutions in such a manner as to enable an equitable distribution of the word’s economic, social and cultural resources. Unfortunately, in the field of Holocaust research, documentary injustice is evident, since some places, mainly in Poland, have received extensive and detailed documentation, and considerable financial resources and human capital have been invested in them, while other places in Europe, such as Transnistria and the Balkans, have been less extensively documented and, consequently, we have relatively sparse information about them. The budgetary difficulties faced by the Bačka Holocaust documentation project attest to this lack of fair distributive justice in the Holocaust remembrance commemoration project and needs to be addressed by the key institutions and granting bodies involved in this field. This book is intended to address this specific gap and provide cultural justice to this culturally rich and important community of Bačka in the Balkans that was destroyed and was unable to recover from the Holocaust to this day.
Thus, this book is not only a significant intellectual contribution but also addresses an important omission and provides historical cultural justice to the community and especially enlightening our scholarship of an area that has been neglected and has not yet received the attention that it deserves. Thus, in practice, the book returns the Jews of Bačka in particular, and the Jews of Serbia and the former Yugoslavia in general, to the pantheon of collective memory of the Holocaust and gives them a place of honor in its commemoration.
2. The epistemological aspect: history versus memory
The exclusion of Bačka’s memory from the pantheon of memory is puzzling and particularly striking in view of the fact that most of its residents were deported and murdered mainly in Auschwitz, although they were also dispersed to other death camps. Their exclusion from the collective memory of Auschwitz is also thought-provoking and will require in-depth research that goes beyond the boundaries of this study.
Benedict Anderson (1983) argued that memory and forgetting are political and social categories and are determined through social negotiation processes. According to Anderson, every nation is fundamentally an imagined community that is formed around myths, representations and seminal memories that create a sense of shared destiny. Collective memory is therefore a key tool in shaping national identity and is the one that determines the national ethos of the community. In effect, in a long dynamic social and political process, each community chooses what it should remember and what it should forget. It is the dominant hegemony that determines the contents of memory perceived as overrepresented compared to memories perceived as underrepresented. Thus memory is not what is remembered but what a community chooses to remember. Hence the categories of memory and forgetting are an a priori political pursuit.
For generations, the Jewish people has chosen to accentuate certain historical memories and obliterate or downplay other historical memories for various reasons. As stated, according to Anderson (1983) memory is a political phenomenon of conscious choice, as is oblivion. In effect, every nation decides what to remember and what to forget and which myths it wants to rely on and base its history on. It does so through intricate dynamics, sometimes as a planned action, sometimes out of laziness and inertia and sometimes simply out of an ostensibly unintentional oversight.
From an epistemological standpoint, it is worth noting that over the years a great deal of knowledge about the Holocaust was lost for several reasons: First, important documentation was destroyed by the Nazis or by their local collaborators who feared that it would harm them and that the material would be used against them in court, and it was important to them to destroy evidence from the scene of the crime. Additionally, it was difficult to take testimony and interview the survivors since some refused to speak and preferred to remain silent because they were afraid they would not be believed. Most of them were in a state of post trauma and were unable to talk about it (Gross, 2018) . There was also a shortage of researchers capable of systematically extracting what is known as oral history that enables systematic extraction of the vast knowledge possessed by the victims (Gross, 2015 ). As well, for over forty years after the end of World War II and the subsequent Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe, Communist obfuscation denied the specificity of Jewish victimhood during the Holocaust, blocking research into Jewish communities across the region (Rutland 2015). Subsequent access to archives is often very challenging and difficult, again often due to social and political factors. Yet, such research is essential, since each community and region had its own, unique features. Even in Auschwitz, the Soviets did not permit specific reference to Jews, even though the vast majority of those murdered there were Jewish.
Since 1991, efforts have been made to rectify the gaps in our knowledge due to Communist obfuscation but these efforts have faced challenges. This book intends to correct the absence of the story of one of these communities, the Bačka community, representing an historical omission emerging from these factors and to include this history in the official hegemonic memory of the Holocaust.
As intimated above, it is possible that those engaged in commemoration until the present day have defined political agendas that prioritize documentation of certain sites of destruction over others as well as documentation of perpetrators and victims. Even in Auschwitz today there are limitations. Given that Auschwitz was given a central place in the memory pantheon, many Jewish communities, such as Bačka, are not mentioned. However, it turns out that even within the documentation of Auschwitz there were over-represented groups and under-represented groups, and this requires further study.
One of the serious problems of the field of Holocaust research, as evidenced by a detailed report recently published by the National Academy of Sciences in Israel (2020), is that only a few researchers are proficient in European languages. Therefore, there is an accumulation of vast knowledge waiting in the basements of the archives for redemption and systematic professional exposure. In this book, the archival material was translated from Hungarian, Serbo-Croatian and German into English, and this important work makes the documentation accessible to a wide audience of researchers. Additionally, it will enable more researchers to study various other aspects of the Bačka community. In this respect, the book represents a significant innovation and contribution to Holocaust research.
An in-depth look at the current book confirms the assumption that from an epistemological standpoint, it can be stated that much knowledge about specific small communities has disappeared. The current book presents new knowledge about Bačka, about which the socio-historical-political debate has not yet begun. In this respect, the book represents a significant innovation and a major contribution to Holocaust research in the context of small unique communities.
This book on the deportation and destruction of the Bačka community, deals with what is known as the “core of the Holocaust” and I will explain what this means. As mentioned above a grave report recently published in the State of Israel deals with the state of Holocaust research in the State of Israel. The report claims that Holocaust researchers focus on the aspect of commemoration but neglect the aspect of pure historical research carried out through documents that are supposed to provide a true picture of what really happened there, and that Holocaust historians ignore a comprehensive analysis of the ideological background of the Holocaust (p.9-10). This book is intended to address the lacuna pointed out by the authors of the expert report of the National Academy of Sciences (2020), by providing us with an up-to-date and true picture of what really happened in Bačka, through documents, interviews and first-hand testimony. The abundance of material presented in the book allows for the creation of validity and reliability based on triangulation, enabling us to see the strength of the facts presented and draw broad historical conclusions about what took place in this specific area.
History and memory are considered to have a central role in the internalization of values and knowledge, and to help to crystallize the collective memory of the younger generation in different states and integrate it into the process of nation building. Pierre Nora (1989) argues that:
Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived. History on the other hand is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete of what is no longer. Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, abound typing us to eternal present, history a representation of the past” (1989, p. 8).
Nora differentiates between history, a positivistic scientific objective construct, and memory, a constructivist subjective entity subject to the diverse vicissitudes of life and contexts. The book presents us with such an historical “reconstruction” through objective archival material that presents documented facts, enabling the construction of processes and pathways of meaning. This book provides us with unique material translated from the European languages of Hungarian, Serbo-Croatian and German into English that will allow further research in English and possibly in other languages as well (Hebrew, for example). The book includes a list of names of the victims which, on the one hand, allows an authentic presentation of those who perished and can also form the basis for genealogical research. On the other hand, the book allows for the commemoration of those who were lost among the pages of history, since the place of burial of many of those who perished is unknown and those who were murdered deserve to be commemorated.
In light of the historical debate among researchers as to the number of victims of the Holocaust, the exact record presented in the book shows the extent of the atrocities. In the context of the issue of scope and count, the question arises whether to count non-residents or only locals? Should only those who were brutally taken and killed in the death camps be counted or should those who were murdered and died en route in the deportation process be counted as well? And should a distinction be made between them? It is worth noting that the deportation stage was deadly and destructive and an integral part of the extermination machine and therefore counting the deportees and not only of those murdered in the extermination camps is extremely important. These questions raised in the book are, on the one hand, specific to the methodological issues that the book’s editors professionally deliberated with regard to the documentation of the Bačka, but they are also general questions of principle underlying the study of “the core of the Holocaust” and “what actually happened there.”
The book on the Bačka community allows for what Clifford Geertz (1973) called a “thick description,” since it presents us with objective archival material of documents and facts on the one hand and, on the other hand, enables a subjective look through an in-depth study of chilling testimony (firsthand reports) of survivors about what they “actually” went through, supplementing the objective documentation found in the various documents and records and in the various inventories. As part of the professional documentation, the book presents the orderly construction of chronologically organized material and can serve as an example to other small and as yet undocumented Jewish communities on how to organize archival material optimally and systematically and formulate a culture of remembrance.
3. A reflective culture of Holocaust remembrance
The material collected in this book enables the construction of a Reflective Culture of Holocaust Remembrance (RCoR). The concept of a reflective culture of remembrance is a new concept that I developed (Gross,2014) in a study that I am carrying out in Israel on Holocaust education in Israeli schools on behalf of Israel’s National Academy of Sciences. A reflective culture of remembrance is required in addition to the collection of memories, in order to raise difficult questions and provide complex answers to questions which, for reasons of political correctness, could not be asked until now, such as the question of the limits of responsibility raised in the book. More specifically, who is responsible for what happened to the Jews of Bačka and what are the limits of responsibility of the countries directly or indirectly involved in the tragedy that took place in this community. These questions are related to questions of memory as well as questions of citizenship and identity that extend beyond the boundaries of our discussion and should be addressed separately. However, this research can serve as a foundation for nurturing and breeding a culture of remembrance (Gross, 2008,2020 ). This kind of culture has the potential to reinforce, extend and further the aims of antiracist education and also has the potential to undermine racist beliefs.
These issues are discussed in the book explicitly and implicitly. In the context of the deportation and annihilation of the Bačka community, there arises the question of whether the responsibility lies with Yugoslavia, the country they lived in. Or of the Hungarians who occupied Yugoslavia and committed heinous crimes as part of their collaboration with the Nazi regime, serving as their henchmen, or should all the blame and all the responsibility lie with the Germans, who were the inventors and operators of the extermination machine? An echo of this dilemma appears explicitly in the book:
Indeed, this conclusion is with regard to several countries since Bačka, during the war, was occupied by Miklós Horthy’s Hungary. Therefore, during the war, the Jews of Bačka were citizens of Yugoslavia while during the hour of their demise they were Hungarian citizens. The blame is shared by Germany as well. Its war machine at the time had at its disposal the majority of the personal information pertaining to those that it sentenced to death by deportation (Kuzmanović, 2021 p.50).
This question concerns many places in Europe today and the new Polish law that forbids mentioning the crimes of the local population only intensifies the question and the problems involved in raising it in public.
The book could form the basis for the human rights education of the enlightened Western world, which is presented in the Holocaust at its height of human humiliation and as an empty vessel (Gross, 2010,2015). The book about the Bačka community illuminates the processes of acceleration of evil and shows how the victims were first divested of their belongings, money and property, and were then divested of their human dignity. The systematic, professional and accurate documentation shows how the operating mechanism of evil and sadism and the industrialization of murder worked in practice.
The book also traces the boundaries of evil – where it begins and where it ends – what was the Nazi deportation process? How was the deportation carried out from the moment the order was issued until the deportees become dehumanized numbers? The process of dehumanization presented in the book requires an in-depth discussion of questions of human rights in an enlightened world and the definition of human rights.
There are other questions that arise while reading the book. In terms of historical research, it is important to show the similarities and differences between what happened in the community of Bačka compared to other communities in Europe, since before World War II Jewish communities flourished, the Jews wanted to integrate as equals and the Holocaust came as a complete surprise to them in contrast to the efforts of the Jews to integrate into the European civil space in the various countries ( Bauer,2001,2010, Gross, 2009).
It is worth noting that the documentary collection in this book about the Bačka community is of historical value but also educational value in order to build a heritage for the Bačka Jewish community. The material that was collected may give the next generation a sense of pride, belonging and commitment, creating intergenerational continuity in the Bačka community in particular and the Balkan communities in general. The book provides a glimpse into the life of a community that survived despite the hardships and against all odds. The question of the survival and sustainability of the Bačka community joins the question and the conundrum of Jewish survival and existence that continues to this day. Therefore, the book is not only about the past but also about its potential and significance for the future of the region’s next generation (Gross& Rutlad,2014).
This book makes new knowledge based on extensive documentation accessible to a wide readership. It also encourages researchers to update the research map of the Jewish communities and add unique cases that can be learned from and compared to other places, thereby contributing to the cultural and historical justice of this community in particular and other Serbian and other former Yugoslav communities in general. The book provides us with an example and case study of research on small communities that have been excluded from the discourse, such as the Bačka community. However, it shows us how to take the ruins of a community which was destroyed, and construct its history and its memory. This will serve not only the past but also the future of the next generation of the Bačka community, and indeed also in the regions of Vojvodina and Serbia for the whole community. This community will now carry its historical and cultural tradition for the benefit of the generations to come.
Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.
Bauer, Y. (2001). Rethinking the Holocaust. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Bauer, Y. (2010). Understanding the Holocaust: some problems for educators. Prospects, 40, 2: 183–188.
Birri-Tomovska, Kristina (2012). Jews of Yugoslavia 1918-1941. A History of Macedonian Sephards. Bruxelles et al.: Peter Lang.
Geertz, C (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Book
Goldhagen, D. J.(1996). Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Gross, Z. (2008). “The Culture of Remembrance and Its Significance.” Paper presented at the European Research Consortium, Vienna, Austria, 11-12.
Gross, Z. (2010). Holocaust education in Jewish schools in Israel: Goals, dilemmas, challenges. Prospects, 40(1), 93-113.
Gross. Z. (2011). A typology for the development of Holocaust education scholarship. Coping with a national trauma. Curriculum and Teaching, 26(1), 81-95
Gross, Z. (2012). Holocaust Education and Antisemitism in Western Countries. (pp. 442-460) In: Davidovitch, N and Soen, D. (Eds.) The Holocaust Ethos in the 21st Century. Dilemmas and Challenges. Krakow: Austeria publishing house.
Gross, Z. (2014). Teaching the Holocaust within the domain of religious education. In S. G. Parker, R. Freathy, & L. J. Francis (Eds.), History, remembrance and religious education. Oxford, UK: Peter Lang.
Gross. Z. (2015). Between involuntary and voluntary memories: A case study of Holocaust Education in Israel. In Z. Gross & E. D. Stevick (Eds.), As the witness fall silent: 21st century Holocaust education in curriculum, policy and practice (pp. 111-135). Cham: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-15419-0_8.
Gross, Z. (2018). Holocaust memory and cultural trauma: Israeli adolescents’ poetry and heritage journey to Poland. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/01596306.2018.1458022
Gross, Z. and Rutland, S. D. ( 2014). Intergenerational challenges in Australian Jewish school
education. Religious Education, 109(2 ) March/April.
Kuzmanović, N. (2021). Deportation of the Jews of Bačka in 1944 . Archives of Vojvodina
Nora, Pierre (1989). “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire.” Representations 26 (Spring 1989): 7-25.
Matkovski, Aleksandar (1982). A History of the Jews of Macedonia. Skopje: Macedonian Review Editions.
Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Oxford University Press
Rawls, J.( 2001). Justice as fairness: A restatement. Harvard University Press.
Rutland, Suzanne D. (2015) ‘“Returning to a graveyard”: Australian debates about March of the
Living to Poland’. In: Auerbach, K. (Ed.) Aftermath: Genocide, Memory and History, pp.141-165. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing.
The State of Art of Holocaust education in the Israel Universities and Colleges. Jerusalem: Israeli Academy for Science,2020.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank to honorary consul of the Republic of Serbia to Israel Aleksandar Nikolić, Dr. Rachel Levy – Drummer and Ambassador Dan Oryan Director of the Balkan Dpt. at the Israeli MFA, who invited me to write this introduction for this important book.
Professor Zehavit Gross (Ph.D.) is the Head of Graduate Programme of Management and Development in Informal Education Systems in the School of Education, Bar-Ilan University, Israel. She holds the position of UNESCO Chair in Education for Human Values, Tolerance Democracy and Peace and is the Head of the Sal Van Gelder Center for Holocaust Instruction & Research, School of Education Bar-Ilan University. She is the Immediate Past President of the Israeli Society for Comparative Education (ICES). In 28/1/16, she was invited to the UNITED NATIONS to participate and give an address in a special discussion on the future of Holocaust Education all over the world. Her main areas of specialization are peace education, interfaith and religious education and Holocaust education. Her research focuses mainly on socialization processes (religious, secular, feminine and civic) among adolescents. She is currently involved in four international research projects and is an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Sydney (NSW). Her book together with Doyle Stevick, entitled As the Witnesses Fall Silent: 21st Century Holocaust Education in Curriculum, Policy and Practice, was published (2015) by Springer and was sponsored by UNESCO. Her latest publication is Migrants and Comparative Education: Call to Re/Engagement (Brill/Sense, 2020). She is the recipient of a research grant for the years 2016–2018 from The Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Israel Scientific Foundation (ISF) grant on Holocaust Education in Arab and Jewish Schools, 2017–2021. She is the recipient of the 2017 Distinguished Scholar Award from the Religion & Education SIG at the American Education Research Association (AERA). She won recently (2020) the Israeli Hope in Higher Education Award from Ben Gurion University, Israel, for her unique interfaith project between Israeli Muslim, Christian and Jewish students.