For the past several months, my friend Bradley Smith has been stuck on a question. He began by directing the question to Deborah Lipstadt, knowing just how that would go. He has since directed the question to historians and working scholars, some of whom have responded with testy amusement.
Some people find Bradley's question to be impertinent, or even offensive. Others confidently assert that the question has already been answered, probably in excruciating detail, by people presumed to who know what they're talking about. There are also those who think Bradley is being an ass.
Bradley's question isn't rhetorical. Nor is it very interesting, as questions go. It is, however, undeniably provocative. It goes like this:
Can you provide the name of one person, with proof, who was killed in a gas chamber at Auschwitz?
Think you can answer it? Think you know someone who can? Perhaps you think it's a trick of some flavor? Or just the sort of irrelevant noise one might expect from a certifiable kook? Those are the usual outs.
Me, I think it's a good question. A reasonable question. A jurisprudential and empirical question. I think it's precisely the sort of question that should be asked of scholars, without courting stigma. I also think there's a real chance someone will be able to answer it, with compelling evidence and due specificity. Trouble is, the historians are disposed to ignore old Bradley. Or to scoff in good form.
A while back, I stepped into the comments thread appending a post by Michael Blowhard. Michael's volley was devoted primarily to the prickly gender politics of one F. Roger Devlin, but there was also some emphasis on the question of when and whether it may be ill-advised to take impolite ideas for a test-drive. On that tangential point, Michael's hook was phrased in the spirit of thoughtful exchange. He asked:
...what do you think about the idea of reading a piece by someone who has written for The Occidental Quarterly? Am I an irresponsible blogger for having linked to the likes of Devlin? Or are those who won't take a flyer on some far-out reading the real fools?
I chimed in with some thoughts on Devlin's essay, but I was more keyed to the broader question -- the one that rebounds to the loosely defined locus of my nine-banded meanderings. So what I did was, I brought up the Holocaust skeptics. The deniers or revisionists or assholes, or whatever you prefer to name them, who are so quickly dismissed as miscreants and nutjobs. I suggested that reading the work of these intellectual pariahs amounted to a kind of litmus test, one that cuts to the pulsating gristle of the question put. I suggested that the issue assumed arguable urgency because Holocaust dissidents stand virtually alone as victims of real state-sponsored persecution and censorship in most western democracies. I mentioned Bradley, but not his question. I mentioned Arthur Butz, whose "banned book" I read years ago.
It seemed relevant. I didn't mean to derail things, but I should have known better. To his credit, Michael remained gracious as things unfolded, or imploded. Even when Bradley stopped by with his question, which probably was off topic.
But this is perhaps too much in the way of backstory. The point is that someone took a shot at answering Bradley's question. Credit goes to a commenter writing as "blah," who offered the following account:
Némirovsky, a Kiev-born Jewish woman, had settled in France with her wealthy family after the Russian revolution; become a literary celebrity on a par with Colette in 1930s Paris; was refused French citizenship shortly before the second world war broke out; and, in 1942, was deported to Auschwitz where she died, a stateless Jew, aged 39....
Similarly her husband wrote frantically to the German ambassador in Paris after Irène's arrest, pleading for her to be released: "[E]ven though my wife is of Jewish descent, she does not speak of the Jews with any affection whatsoever in her works." The letter didn't save his wife - she died from typhus in Auschwitz on August 17 1942. Michel was arrested and gassed in Auschwitz on November 6.
Blah backed up his (or her) cut & paste with a link to an article published in The Guardian, which centered on the controversy surrounding Irène Némirovsky following the posthumous publication of her novel, Suite Française. This was hardly a primary source. The article didn't offer anything in the way of proof, or even evidence, for the claimed fate of Némirovsky's husband. It was just an assertion.
But still, there was a specific date and a specific person -- a man whose full name I soon learned was Michel Epstein. A few rounds of obligatory Googling turned up a number of references to Epstein's death at Auschwitz. Most of these references, like the one in The Guardian, were attached to discussion of Némirovsky's novel and her alleged anti-Semitism. Some confidently repeated the claim that Epstein perished in a gas chamber, perhaps along with his two brothers and a sister. Other accounts ventured that this was "almost certainly" the case.
It may be that there is some compelling reason to believe that Michel Epstein was murdered in a Nazi gas chamber. The commenter known as "blah" made no effort to provide any such reason, but the fact that the claim is so often repeated would suggest that it has some basis. After all, it is not claimed that Epstein was shot, or that he died of typhus or some other affliction. He is said, in most web-accessible references, to have been murdered in a gas chamber, the Nazi-preferred weapon of mass destruction. Specifically, on November 6, 1942. Someone must know what they're talking about.
And so, just for the hell of it, I've decided to do what our Googling commenter couldn't be troubled to do. I'm going to follow the trail and see where it leads. I will begin by reading the Némirovsky biographies and checking the sources. If necessary, I will contact Yad Vashem and the USHMM, to make use of their registries. I will consult genealogies and archives and whatever other resources are suggested along the way. Perhaps I will hit paydirt in short order. Perhaps I will end up running in circles. All I know is I have a name, a date, and a specific and oft-repeated claim about one man's tragic fate in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.
I don't know if I will be able to provide Bradley with a definitive answer to his question. But I am going to try. I will report back.