In the seventh of our blogs marking Holocaust Memorial Day, the Trust's Education Officer Martin Winstone reveals the largely forgotten story of a wartime German tourist guidebook and what it can tell us about the Holocaust.
Historians, do not, as a rule, regard the study of tourist guidebooks as central to their craft. A nineteenth-century Murray Handbook, for example, might offer some colourful insights into Victorian mores or leisure pursuits yet it would rarely be considered an essential source. Then again, few guidebooks have ever included a sentence like “Kazimierz... was later however, in part, the domicile of the Jewish population of Kraków (now free of Jews).”
Baedekers Generalgouvernement was issued by the world’s most famous travel imprint in the spring of 1943. The idea that any guidebook would be published in wartime Europe may seem bizarre enough, but is especially so in this case since the General Government (GG) – the first genuine Nazi colony and the home to the largest Jewish population under German rule – was the central killing ground of the Holocaust, in which at least one third of its victims were murdered. More extraordinary still, the book was written and researched at the very peak of these murders, in the second half of 1942 when well over a million people were killed in the GG. The same period further saw the beginning of a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing in which more than 100,000 Polish peasants were expelled from their homes in the Zamość region to make room for ethnic German settlers.
Yet, grotesque as it might seem, there was indeed tourism in the General Government, confirmed by numerous references to German sightseers, such as soldiers on leave or businessmen, in Jewish and Polish sources. Naturally, Baedeker concentrated on the ‘normal’ tourist sites such as spas, theatres and nightclubs – all for Germans only – in which such people could spend their leisure time. In one sense, therefore, the book exists merely as a historical curio, a largely forgotten monument to the deluded Nazi faith in Germany’s eternal mastery over the East, an impression reinforced by the fact that it was commissioned by the vain and corrupt Governor General, Hans Frank.
Yet, at a deeper level, the book hints at some important truths about the Holocaust. Hidden within its pages were often unwitting references – incautiously edited population statistics, for example – to the horrors taking place. Occasionally, the guide was more explicit, as in the already cited sentence on Kraków. Of course, there was no explanation as to how the city (or Lublin, the subject of a similar parenthetical entry) had become “free of Jews”. Yet, buried deep within the text, there were answers of sorts in the descriptions of three train routes: Lublin to Lwów, Chełm to Włodawa, and Małkinia to Siedlce. Although the anodyne entries focussed on brief descriptions of landscapes, these journeys would have taken readers past, respectively, Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka extermination camps.
Why is this significant? After all, the guidebook made no reference to the murders (Bełżec was mentioned but merely as a village where one could change to local bus services). Nonetheless, there is an obvious but often overlooked point here: the extermination camps were – had to be – on railway lines, lines which also served other traffic. This was particularly true for Bełżec which was located next to a major route connecting two of Poland’s largest cities. It was thus, at least partially, visible, as evidenced by the diary of a German NCO and the memoirs of a fugitive Jewish teenager who both passed the camp by train at around the time that the Baedeker was being written. The most remarkable features of both accounts are their descriptions of the reactions of the other passengers – jokes in the case of the NCO’s German companions, “subdued anxiety” amongst the Poles in the teenager’s carriage. That is, they already knew. The NCO’s fellow travellers had even promised to point out the camp to him.
A careful reading of the Baedeker thus reminds us that it was not only victims who were making journeys during the Holocaust: other travellers, whether willingly or not, could therefore become witnesses. In fact, no one living or travelling in the General Government could ignore the genocide unfolding around them. Knowledge of Bełżec and Treblinka especially, though by no means universal, spread astonishingly quickly. Indeed, such was the fame of Treblinka that a macabre stream of fortune seekers descended on neighbouring villages, hoping to share in the riches – the stolen property of murdered human beings – which the camp’s guards were trading for alcohol and sexual favours. And these were the sites where the Nazis did at least try to preserve a veneer of secrecy. Other aspects of the Holocaust in the GG, and elsewhere in eastern Europe, took place in plain sight: round-ups, deportations, and even mass shootings in public spaces such as Jewish cemeteries.
The oft-repeated post-war mantra that ordinary Germans knew nothing thus becomes ever harder to believe when one considers the numbers serving, in varying capacities, in the Nazi East – and the fact that there were people like those encountered by the NCO only too willing to share their knowledge. For the non-Jewish indigenous populations – Poles, Ukrainians and others – the confrontation with genocide was starker still, since mass murder was openly perpetrated in their home towns and villages. The Holocaust was not, therefore, a crime committed furtively, entirely out of sight of the people of Europe. Rather, it was often perpetrated visibly and unapologetically. The Holocaust, as historians are increasingly realising, was an open secret.
These themes will be explored further in Martin’s forthcoming book, The Dark Heart of Hitler’s Europe: Nazi Rule in Poland under the General Government, which will be published later this year.