Yom Haschoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorates the Nazi mass murder of nearly 6 million European and Russian Jews, including 1.5 million children, during World War II in a period lasting from June 1941 through April 1945.

The Holocaust is deeply imbedded in my psyche. Born in New Jersey in 1947, I was removed in time and space from this trauma, but my father, Samuel, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1923, lost half his extended family to Hitler’s Final Solution.

My father’s hometown of Wolkovisk (now in Belarus) was part of Russia at his birth in 1904, then of Poland from 1920, and of the Soviet Union from September 1939. A small but historic and prosperous city, it served as a market center, railway hub and military base. Jews comprised nearly half its populace of about 17,000.

In June 1941, when Nazi Germany staged a massive attack on the Soviet Union, Wolkovisk was surrounded and cut off by a German army pincer movement, trapping its Jewish residents.

Heavy bombing in advance of the ground offensive destroyed much of the Jewish section of the city, including its homes, shops and synagogues. What subsequently happened to the city’s Jews is chronicled in an account by Moses Einhorn, a New York physician born in Wolkovisk, who tracked down and interviewed the handful of survivors. Einhorn’s account is one of many “Yizkor” (remembrance) tracts authored after the war to document the Holocaust’s impact on Jewish communities under German control.

The occupiers, led by the S.S. and Gestapo, brutalized the Jews of Wolkovisk, confiscating their property, summarily shooting hundreds, and, in November 1941, herding the rest into a makeshift concentration camp in overcrowded underground bunkers on the outskirts of the city. Some 20,000 were housed in this camp; 7,000 from Wolkovisk and 13,000 from surrounding communities. In November 1942, trains began transporting them to death camps at Treblinka and Auschwitz and, by the end of January 1943, Jewish life in Wolkovisk had ceased to exist.

When my wife and I toured Wolkovisk in 2005, there were no Jews left there and no vestiges of its once vibrant Jewish community other than a handful of teetering and fallen headstones in an abandoned cemetery.

The only traces that still exist of my Wolkovisk family are some old photographs.

One, a group photo, was taken in the late 1930s by an aunt who traveled from New Jersey to Wolkovisk to visit. It shows her posing with a dozen well-dressed family members, including my paternal grandparents, an uncle, two aunts and seven young cousins, in a fenced yard surrounded by forest.

Another photo is of my father’s teenage niece (my cousin), Malka Epstein, who wished to emigrate to the U.S. but never got the chance. To my eye, her face radiates a sweet soulfulness evocative of the iconic image of Anne Frank.

It would be comforting to believe that genocide on the scale of the Holocaust could never occur again in a civilized world, but similar catastrophes have happened numerous times since World War II (though, thanks largely to the creation of the state of Israel, not to Jews). There have been killing fields in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and the Sudan. Amidst the increasing anarchy and religious, tribal and sectarian violence of Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, genocide could erupt at any time. Indeed, a valid argument could be made that it’s happening right now in Syria.

A 2015 book by Yale Professor Timothy Snyder titled, “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” analyzes the factors that led to the genocide of World War II. Conventional wisdom has is that the Holocaust was the product of Hitler’s hateful “racial” ideology, his dictatorial control over the German Reich and a longstanding tradition of anti-Semitism in Europe. These were certainly causal factors, but, as Snyder points out, the forces driving the Holocaust were more complex.

The Holocaust did not begin in Germany and Western Europe and spread eastward. It began in the German-conquered territories of Poland, the Baltic countries and the Soviet Union. These were areas where sovereign governments and the rule of law had ceased to exist because of savage warfare, conquest and decapitation of local leadership.

In this vacuum, the Nazis were free to experiment with and employ innovative methods of mass murder without the restraints of the legal process, bureaucracy or diplomatic pressure and able to attract their most energetic collaborators and auxiliaries — locals eager to prove their loyalty to their new masters, save themselves from starvation or execution, and share in the booty stolen from Jews.

It was, therefore, in Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland that the destruction of Jewry was most thorough, and in Poland that the largest and most lethal death camps operated.

For me, the takeaway from Snyder’s analysis is that the disintegration of statehood can be as conducive to genocide as over-expansion of state power, and that the world’s countries must band together to try to prevent failed states and the anarchic and wanton slaughter which usually follows in their wake. Otherwise, the Holocaust will not just be past but prologue.

Elliott L. Epstein, a local attorney, is the founder of Museum L-A and author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be reached at [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.