The Holocaust Survivor Who Deciphered Nazi Doublespeak

Historians in the News
tags: World War II, Holocaust

They didn’t wait for the war to end. 

In August 1944, as soon as Soviet troops swept the Nazis out of eastern Poland, a group of Jewish intellectuals rushed to cities like Lublin and Lodz to begin collecting and recording, scouring for any trace of the still fresh horror that had taken their own loved ones. They wanted evidence. 

Among them was Nachman Blumental, a philologist obsessed with the uses and misuses of language. He had escaped into the Soviet Union in 1939 and returned to find that his wife, Maria, and young son, Ariel, had been killed. Places once teeming with Jewish life were gutted. His whole world had effectively vanished.

To make some sense of it all, Blumental got to work. Along with an assortment of historians, ethnographers and linguists, he established the Central Jewish Historical Commission. They transcribed 3,000 survivor testimonies between 1944 and 1947, scavenged for Nazi paperwork in abandoned Gestapo offices and meticulously preserved fragments of day-to-day ghetto life — a child’s school notebook or a food ration ticket.

And Blumental, from the beginning, gathered words. 

In every Nazi document he came across, he circled and underlined innocuous terms like “abgang” (exit) or “evakuierung” (evacuation). He knew what these words actually meant when they appeared in memos and bureaucratic forms: They were euphemisms for death. A mission of his own took shape: to reveal the ways the Nazis had used the German language to obscure the mechanics of mass murder and make genocide more palatable to themselves.

We now have a glimpse into the mind of Blumental and his fellow survivor historians. The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which contains the largest Holocaust collection in North America, acquired Blumental’s personal papers in February, composed of over 200,000 documents. According to YIVO’s director, Jonathan Brent, it is “one of the last great remaining archives of the Holocaust.” 

Its significance is its range, 30 boxes of material that had gathered dust and been chewed on by mice over the years since Blumental’s death in 1983. Unpacked now for the first time, they contain his postwar collections — Hitler stamps and pieces of anti-Semitic propaganda. One thick folder is filled with hundreds of previously unseen poems and songs Jews composed in the ghettos and camps, which he transcribed from survivors. Some items are more visceral, like a piece of leather from his dead son’s shoe.

But the artifacts are dwarfed by thousands of note cards covered in minuscule cursive handwriting. Each one contains a few sentences of Nazi writing and the etymology of a specific German word, both its original meaning and its distorted one. This was research for Blumental’s Orwellian undertaking: a Nazi dictionary. 

“For him, coping with the experience of the war was both personal and extra-personal,” Brent said. “And his papers, as a result, contain the most intimate thing imaginable and essentially the linguistic grid of Nazism.” 

Blumental received a master's degree from Warsaw University with a thesis called “On Metaphor” and he knew nearly a dozen languages, from Hebrew to French to Ukrainian. He saw words and their usage as the clearest window into human culture. After the war, he wandered amid the ruins like a folklorist, an austere man in owlish glasses, compiling the Yiddish expressions and jokes that circulated among Polish Jews facing death.

His dictionary of Nazi words was, at one level, a desperate undertaking: If he could reverse-engineer the language, he might be able to figure out how everything he had known and loved had been destroyed. But the project had other, more practical functions as well. He hoped that such a lexicon would be useful for prosecutors during the many postwar trials of the late 1940s — three of which Blumental attended as an expert witness, including the trial of Rudolf Höss, the Auschwitz camp commandant. And he was aiming, too, at the future, for a time when the documentary evidence of the genocide might be indecipherable without some kind of linguistic key.

Read entire article at New York Times

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