THE HOLOCAUST

The Fate of European

Jewry, 1932-1945

By Leni Yahil

Translated from the Hebrew

By Ina Friedman and Haya Galai

Oxford. 808 pp. $35

"WE WILL always live in the post-Nazi era," Chancellor Helmut Schmidt reminded fellow Germans in 1979. But the message applies as well to us. Recent events only confirm the length of history's shadows. Each in its way, today's hopeful new Germany and agitated Middle East are both legacies of the great killing we have learned to call the Holocaust.

"There are various ways of confronting and responding to the events of the time; one of them is the writing of history," the Israeli historian Leni Yahil notes in the introduction to her powerful new survey. In fact, both her and our understanding of it has already been shaped by four great historical debates in the 45 years since the killing ended.

Among the oldest questions is what the Jews themselves might have done differently. A second debate challenged the apparent passivity of foreign leaders, including Americans. A third asked when the Holocaust became inevitable, and if other outcomes might have been possible. The most recent questioned the uniqueness of the Holocaust as such.

"There is no explicit reference to these debates herein, nevertheless readers will readily find answers to the questions raised," Yahil promises. She then shows how a sovereign state and global power pursued the extinction of the Jews.

First came laws and administrative guidelines to define Jews, and then deprive them of their civil rights, status, property and livelihoods. Then public agencies expropriated, relocated and -- sometime after 1940 -- debated whether and how to kill them. Then interagency committees allocated and coordinated the necessary budgets, personnel and resources.

Stalin's collectivization and purges, Pol Pot's Cambodian revolution, even the Spanish colonization of Mexico and Peru -- history has known other killing fields. But, as Yahil systematically shows, it has nothing to match the Nazi bureaucracy, exclusively created to isolate, victimize and finally exterminate the Jews of Europe.

Yet despite Hitler's virulent anti-Semitism, there is no conclusive evidence for a decision to kill the Jews before 1941. From 1933 onwards, major decisions seemed instead to be linked to collateral debates on foreign, political or economic policy, or the outcome of bureaucratic wars that were themselves a Nazi specialty.

Could foreign intervention have helped? Yes. But until the war, it would only have helped the Jews of Germany, Austria and Bohemia, who were Hitler's immediate victims and represented fewer than 10 percent of the Jews of continental Europe. Aid for them, in turn, meant vastly expanded immigration. This involved considerable political risk in a world barely recovered from the Depression, still full of breadlines and already full of refugees.

The trade-offs and dilemmas started here. Yahil herself acknowledges that it was hard to make a special case for Jews without also conceding that Jews were special, just as the Nazis claimed. From this alone, it followed that importing Jews almost certainly meant importing anti-Semitism.

The coming of war, and the German occupation of continental Europe, only made things worse. For the Nazis, extermination of the Jews was a war goal in itself. But if the Allies were to fight at all, let alone to the end, the last thing they needed was any suggestion that the war was "Jewish," i.e., fought especially to save the Jews.

This was no reason not to bomb Auschwitz. On the contrary, a raid on Budapest in early July 1944 actually led to suspension of deportations. But even with Hungarian Jewry in extremis and the SS seemingly keen to bargain lives in exchange for cash and materiel, there was no way a Western government could approve a deal for money and trucks. With the end of the war still over the horizon, the impact of such a deal on the hard-fighting Russians was reason enough to say no.

So what about the Jews? "One of the aims in writing this work was to liberate historians and our readers from the view that the Jews went to their deaths 'like sheep to the slaughter,' " Yahil declares at the outset. She makes her case. In principle, she argues, the Jews behaved much like the other peoples of occupied Europe. The difference was the stakes, which were absolute beyond anything faced by any other population.

There were successful appeals to such different monarchs as the queen of Belgium and the czar of Bulgaria. There were intricate escape routes via Shanghai and even Japan. Amazingly, there were even escapes from Auschwitz.

There were also Jewish partisans in the Baltic forests and scattered Jewish membership in underground movements from France to Yugoslavia. There was one recorded attack, in Belgium in 1943, on a train deporting Jews. There were even three revolts in the death camps. The losses still reached an estimated 57 to 60 percent of continental Europe's Jewish population.

Yahil spares no illusions on the dilemmas facing even the most hopeful and resourceful in a world where 750,000 starved, demoralized and defenseless prisoners were surrounded by 40,000 guards, and the imminence of Nazi defeat only increased the ferocity and tempo of their destruction.

Four options were theoretically available. But those immediately affected were likely to find labor the most promising. Self-defense was bound to seem most self-destructive, not least because it would lead to appalling reprisals. Hiding and escape were possible for individuals, but hardly for millions.

Both a lifelong student and member of the Holocaust generation, even Yahil yields occasionally to the tug of meta-history. But, as she herself both stresses and demonstrates, "the work of historians is based on research; it is a rational act that obliges one to strive for objectivity and maintain detachment."

In today's world where the Holocaust has too often been co-opted as a generic metaphor for evil or the last word in a debate on current events, the exceptional credibility and power of her book is a testimonial to just such traditional scholarly virtue. Exhaustive, direct and relentlessly clear-headed, it tells us neither more nor less than what happened to real people in real time in real places.

David Schoenbaum teaches history at the University of Iowa.