Primo Levi’s reflection on humanity in crisis: Survival in Auschwitz (If This is a man)

Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, translated by Giulio Einaudi), is not just about the author’s survival in the notorious Nazi concentration camp, but above all about the survival of his humanity after enduring such a grueling process of dehumanization. Published in 1947 under the Italian title If This is a Man (Se questo e un uomo), the author doesn’t claim to offer new information in this autobiographical book. Nor does he wish to level fresh accusations against the Nazis. Written in a calm, observational tone, Survival in Auschwitz sets out “to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind” (9).

Thoughtful and thought provoking, the narrative constitutes a reflection on the power—and limits—of forgiveness. In an interview published by the New Republic on February 16, 1986, Levi announces that he did not harbor feelings of hatred towards the Germans. He explains: “I regard hatred as bestial and crude, and prefer that my actions and thoughts be the product, as far as possible, of reason. Much less do I accept hatred directed collectively at an ethnic group, for example at all the Germans.” Levi views the Holocaust not as a reflection of the German nation, but as a much broader crisis of humanity. Nation after nation fell under the Nazi spell and power as many engaged in terrific acts of cruelty.

Does this mean that the author absolves the Nazi of moral responsibility for their actions? Not at all. In the same interview, Primo Levi qualifies: “All the same, I would not want my abstaining from explicit judgment to be confused with an indiscriminate pardon.” He explains that he can only forgive those who show–through their actions, not just their words–that they take responsibility and feel guilty for their crimes against humanity. He is speaking, above all, of the crimes of ordinary men and women.

In Survival in Auschwitz Levi describes how inflicting harm upon other human beings becomes completely routine. Without harboring any particular hatred, Nazi officers conduct the selection process and send hundreds of thousands of people—including practically all women and children—to their deaths in the gas chambers. One of the questions that continues to preoccupy Levi throughout his life is how this mass murder can become commonplace—little more than doing one’s job–and how much the German population at large knew about it and allowed it to happen.

In the 1986 New Republic interview Levi, characteristically, offers a very reasonable answer: because totalitarian regimes function very differently from democracies it’s not possible to have a dissemination of truthful information and open criticism of despicable actions in totalitarian regimes that we can have in democratic societies. Yet, by the same token, Levi remarks, “it was not possible to hide the existence of the enormous concentration camp apparatus from the German people. What’s more, it was not (from the Nazi point of view) even desirable. Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of undefined terror in the country was one of the aims of Nazism.”

Perhaps one of the most profound observations in Survival in Auschwitz is the statement that just as absolute happiness is impossible, so is absolute unhappiness, even in the hellish conditions of the Nazi concentration camps. Human beings gradually adapt to each phase of the process of dehumanization: starting with the isolation from the rest of the population in Jewish ghettos; to the order to gather by the train station to be transported in cattle trains to the concentration camps (he describes how lovingly mothers pack for the trip clothes and nourishment for their children, p.91); to the brutal conditions of the camps themselves. At each phase, victims focus on the moment-to-moment fight for survival. Heroism in such adverse conditions becomes almost impossible; while, conversely, as Levi observes, “to sink is the easiest of matters; it is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp” (Survival in Auschwitz, 90). In such a context, the quest for survival assumes heroic dimensions in itself, as is the ability to endure extreme hardship while remaining human and humane. Few are able achieve this: among those few is Levi’s friend, Lorenzo, the man who motivates him to do the same and whom he remembers fondly for the rest of his life.

When asked, in the New Republic interview, why a grander, more ambitious heroism didn’t occur in the camps—“How is it that there were no large-scale revolts? —Levi reminds readers that in the heavily guarded concentration camps, “Escape was difficult and extremely dangerous. The prisoners were debilitated, besides being demoralized, by hunger and ill treatment. Their heads were shaved, their striped clothing was immediately recognizable, and their wooden clogs made silent and rapid walking impossible.” Moreover, the prisoners were in a foreign country whose inhabitants were largely hostile to them or, at best, indifferent to their plight and whose local language they didn’t speak. As for revolts, Levi points out, they existed—in Treblinka, Sobibor and Birkenau. However, “They did not have much numerical weight. Like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, they represented, rather, examples of extraordinary moral force. In every instance they were planned and led by prisoners who were privileged in some way, and consequently in better physical and spiritual condition than the average camp prisoner.”

Although he remained, philosophically speaking, a humanist and rationalist throughout his life despite the severe trauma he experienced in the Nazi concentration camps, Levi eventually succumbed to its effects: the depression and nightmares that haunted him throughout his life. In April 1987 he died after falling from his third-story apartment in Turin, which many close to him considered a suicide. Yet he did not write, suffer and die in vain. Through his memoirs, books and interviews, Primo Levi left behind an invaluable intellectual legacy that helps us recall, commemorate, and understand better the worst humanitarian crisis in our history.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Post-war Germany and Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies


DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 PIctures' BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg, is the story of James Donovan, an insurance lawyer from Brooklyn who finds himself thrust into the center of the Cold War when the CIA enlists his support to negotiate the release of a captured American U-2 pilot.

Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII, the Allies divided Germany into a larger democratic parliamentary state (the Federal Republic of Germany) and a communist state (the German Democratic Republic). Within a few years after its establishment, by the mid-fifties, the capitalist West Germany enjoyed a thriving economy. By way of contrast, East Germany, controlled by the Soviet Union, mirroring its police state (the Stasi was modeled after the KGB) and exploited for its needs, sank into economic depression.

Like a microcosm of the divisions within Germany itself, Berlin was divided into a communist and a democratic part: East and West Berlin. In 1961 the East Germans erected the Berlin wall, officially called the “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall”, under the pretext of protecting their population from fascist elements. In actuality, they were striving to put an end to the exodus of people fleeing East Berlin into West Berlin. The wall, along with the East German soldiers shooting upon sight any person trying to climb over it, turned out to be highly effective. Before the wall was built, over 3 million refuges fled East Germany into West Germany. After the building of the Berlin Wall—namely, between 1961 and 1989–hardly anyone from East Germany escaped into West Germany.

Steven Spielberg’s new historical drama, Bridge of Spies (October 2015), captures the chaos and brutality during the erection of the Berlin war as well as the atmosphere of mutual suspicion between East and West during the Cold War. The movie focuses on a New York lawyer’s (James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks) efforts to represent a man accused of being a Soviet spy (Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance). Ironically, in the country that supposedly represents democratic freedom and due process, nobody except for Donovan himself seems willing to offer the captured Soviet agent a fair trial. The judge, the press, and the public have all made up their minds about Abel’s guilt and push for the death penalty.

Donovan himself becomes an outcast when he insists upon due process and a fair trial for his client. At one point, his willingness to stand up for his convictions even risks his family life, as someone shoots into his home and nearly kills his oldest daughter. There’s more than just conviction at play in this historical movie that is also, and above all, a drama. Donovan respects his client’s unflappable calm and the fact that he’s not willing to abandon his principles and loyalty to the Soviet Union despite the risk of being convicted and getting the death penalty. Abel’s situation appears hopeless.

It’s only when two American citizens—U.S. pilot Gary Powers, sent to fly on a recognizance mission over Soviet Territory, and graduate student Frederic Pryor—get caught in the East Block that the CIA proves willing to spare Donovan and trade him for the two young Americans.

Donovan goes to Berlin to negotiate a difficult tripartite swap of prisoners—offering Abel to the Soviet Union in exchange for retrieving the student from East Berlin and the pilot from the Russians. This is no easy task since East Germany initially resists being lumped together in a negotiation with the Soviet Union. While still in the grip of the communist Super Power, East Germany desires to be recognized as its own autonomous communist state and hence negotiate its own independent exchange with the West. Donovan’s tenacity and his ability to stand up for his principles eventually triumphs in this historic prisoner swap that momentarily defies the logic of the Cold War. This film, which masterfully combines drama, spy thriller and historical fact, is bound to become, much like Schindler’s List, a Spielberg classic.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon


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Elie Wiesel’s Night: Shedding Light upon the Darkness

Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night (New York, Hill and Wang, 2006, translated by Marion Wiesel), is one of the best-known and most highly acclaimed work about the Holocaust. The New York Times called the 2006 edition “a slim volume of terrifying power,” yet its power wasn’t immediately appreciated. In fact, the book may have never been written had Wiesel not approached his friend, the novelist Francois Mauriac, for an introduction to the French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France, whom he wanted to interview. When Mauriac, a devoted Catholic, mentioned that Mendes-France was suffering like Jesus, Elie Wiesel responded, in the heat of the moment, that ten years earlier he had seen hundreds of Jewish children suffer more than Jesus did on the cross, yet nobody spoke about their suffering. Mauriac appeared moved and suggested that Wiesel himself write about it. The young man took his friend’s advice. He began writing in Yiddish an 862-page manuscript about his experiences of the Holocaust. The Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina published in Yiddish an abbreviated version of this book, under the title And the World Remained Silent. Wiesel later translated the text into French. He called it, more simply and symbolically, Night (La Nuit), and sent it to Mauriac, who helped Wiesel find a publisher (the literary and small publishing house Les Editions de Minuit) and wrote its Preface. The English version, published in 1960 by Arthur Wang of Hill and Wang, received strong critical acclaim despite initially modest sales. Elie Wiesel’s eloquent and informed interviews helped bring the difficult subject of the Holocaust to the center of public attention. By 2006, Oprah Winfrey selected Night for her high-profile book club, further augmenting its exposure.

This work is definitely autobiographical—an eloquent memoir documenting Wiesel’s family sufferings during the Holocaust—yet, due to its literary qualities, the text has been also read as a novel or fictionalized autobiography. The brevity, poignant dialogue, almost lyrical descriptions of human degradation and suffering, and historical accuracy of this multifaceted work render Night one of the most powerful Holocaust narratives ever written.

Elie (Eliezer) Wiesel was only 15 years old when the Nazis entered Sighet in March of 1944, a small Romanian town in Northern Transylvania which had been annexed to Hungary in 1940. At the directives of Adolf Eichmann, who took it upon himself to “cleanse” Hungary of its Jews, the situation deteriorated very quickly for the Jewish population of Sighet and other provincial towns. Within a few months, between May and July 1944, approximately 440,000 Hungarian Jews, mostly those living outside of Budapest, were deported to Auschwitz aboard 147 trains.

Wiesel’s entire family—his father Chlomo, his mother Sarah, and his sisters Tzipora, Hilda and Beatrice—suffered this fate. Among them, only Elie and two of his sisters, Hilda and Beatrice, managed to survive the Holocaust. However, since the women and the men were separated at Auschwitz upon arrival, Elie lost track of what happened to his sisters until they reunited after the war. In the concentration camps, father and son clung to each other. Night recounts their horrific experiences, which included starvation, forced labor, and a death march to Buchenwald. Being older and weaker, Chlomo becomes the target of punishment and humiliation: he’s beaten by SS officers and by other prisoners who want to steal his food. Weakened by starvation and fatigue, he dies after a savage beating in January 1945, sadly, only a few weeks before the Americans liberated the concentration camp. Throughout their tribulations, the son oscillates between a paternal sense of responsibility towards his increasingly debilitated father and regarding his father as a burden that might cost him his own life. Elie doesn’t dare intervene when the SS officer beats Chlomo, fearing that he himself will become the next victim if he tries to help his father. In the darkness and despair of Night, the instinct of self-preservation from moment to moment counteracts a lifetime of familial love. Even when Elie discovers the death of his father in the morning, he experiences through a sense of absence: not only his father’s absence, as his bunk is now occupied by another inmate, but also the lack of his own human response: “I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!…” (112)

Night is offers a stark psychological account the process of human and moral degradation in inhumane conditions. Even the relatively few and fortunate survivors of the Nazi atrocities, such as Elie, became doubly victimized: the victims of everything they suffered at the hands of their oppressors and the victims of everything they witnessed others suffer and were unable or, perhaps more sadly, unwilling to help. Although Night focuses on the loss of humanity in the Nazi concentration camps, the author’s life would become a quest for regaining it again, in far better conditions, if at least one condition is met: caring about the suffering of others. As Wiesel explains to his audience on December 10, 1986 during his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize in Oslo, his message to his son–and his message to the world at large—is about the empathy required to keep the Holocaust memory alive. He reminds us all, “that I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. … We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” (118).

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Rendering the past immediate: Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness

When Luisa Zielinski interviewed the Hungarian writer, Nobel Prize winner (2002) and Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz in the Paris Review during the summer of 2013, the author was already suffering from Parkinson’s disease. (See Imre Kertesz. “The Art of Fiction”, Paris Review No. 220, interviewed by Luisa Zielinksi) Despite being seriously ill, Kertesz spoke with characteristic lucidity about his fiction as well as about the Holocaust. Born in 1929 in Budapest, Kertesz was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 for a short period of time, and then transferred to Buchenwald. His works deal with the Holocaust, yet they are not strictly speaking autobiographical. Fatelessness (Vintage International, 2004) in particular seems to parallel Kertesz’s experiences in Nazi concentration camps, but the author focuses on the subject’s historic-philosophical dimensions. Kertesz views his description of the Holocaust in Fatelessness as a rupture of civilization that the entire world should examine and take seriously rather than an anecdote of his own trying experiences during adolescence. “I was interned in Auschwitz for one year,” he recalls. “I didn’t bring back anything, except for a few jokes, and that filled me with shame. Then again, I didn’t know what to do with this fresh experience. For this experience was no literary awakening, no occasion for professional or artistic introspection.” Writing as a mode of reflection and communication with others rather than in order to come to terms with his painful personal experiences assumed, at some point, primary importance for him.

Yet, as Kertesz recounts during the Paris Review interview, he didn’t feel destined to be a writer. Rather, he became a writer by painstakingly editing his own texts. The process of writing wasn’t easy, both because of the difficult subject matter he chose and because he had to hide his endeavors from the Communist regime. In fact, the experience of totalitarian repression forms a common thread between his experience of Nazism and of the repressive regime that followed it. “I was suspended in a world that was forever foreign to me, one I had to reenter each day with no hope of relief. That was true of Stalinist Hungary, but even more so under National Socialism,” he declares.

Despite the broad socio-political sweep of his themes, Kertesz’s fiction, particularly the novel Fatelessness, reads like an intimate psychological account of a young man’s disconcerting and painful experience of being uprooted from his family, schoolmates and friends to be thrust into the alien and brutal world of the Nazi concentration camps. Gyorgy Koves, the 15-year old protagonist, first loses his father, who is deported to and dies in labor camp. His stepmother and a Hungarian employee continue taking care of the family business, a store, and are fortunate enough to survive the war and eventually marry each other. But Gyorgy (George) lacks such luck. Along with a throng of teenage boys, he’s rounded up by the Hungarian Arrow Cross and sent to forced labor, then deported to Auschwitz. Fatelessness depicts his experiences there.

There are countless books on the Holocaust. The subject has been written about so much that some readers risk being jaded to it. This novel is especially effective in rendering this familiar topic new and touching. One of the most unique aspects of the novel is its present temporality: the adolescent narrator describes his experiences in the present, as if writing in a diary, noting every character’s expression and interspersing realistic dialogues without offering much judgment or analysis. Kertesz considers this observational technique as appropriate for a child narrator. As he explains, “a child has no agency in his own life and is forced to endure it all”. While few Jewish victims had much agency during the Holocaust, adults at least had the emotional maturity to realize what was happening to them and understand some of the socio-political reasons why. Child victims, on the other hand, were swept by the Nazi extermination machine without being able to comprehend the events that destroyed their lives or do anything about it. Given the almost existentialist nature of Kertesz’s writing, how much of Fatelessness is based on the author’s life and how much of it is historical fiction becomes far less relevant than the narrative’s powerful and immediate connection to generations of readers.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Quiet Neighbors by Allan A. Ryan: The Legal Immigration of Nazi Collaborators into the U.S.


Allan A. Ryan’s Quiet Neighbors (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984) recreates some of the horrors Jewish victims lived through in the Nazi death camps and describes the often lengthy and challenging process of bringing the Nazi victimizers and their collaborators to justice. In the short span of a year, from July 1942 to August 1943, the Nazis murdered nearly a million Jews at Treblinka. As Ryan recounts, “The guards drove the dazed and fearful Jews like livestock from the trains to be processed—clothing removed, hair shorn—some snatched out of the streams of people and told to stand aside. Families who had managed to stay together during the suffocating train ride slowly fell apart, their screams, their outstretched arms no match for the disciplined and experienced guards. After their hair was removed, the naked cargo was herded onto a dirt path packed hard by the feet of thousands of people before them. At the end lay gas chambers and, beyond them, deep smoldering pits that sent up thick black smoke to darken the sky” (Quiet Neighbors, 2). Some of the guards, many of whom were Ukrainian in origin, were particularly cruel and relished in humiliating and torturing the victims before killing them. One of the worst sadists among them was Ivan Marchenko, the man who pumped carbon monoxide into the gas chambers. Known as “Ivan the Terrible” among the prisoners and staff of Treblinka, Ivan was a mountain of a man infamous for beating victims with an iron pipe or cutting off body parts, just for sport, before killing them.

Amazingly, Marchenko, as well as other notorious Nazi collaborators, found refuge in the U.S. and blended seamlessly among American citizens. In fact, Ryan notes that in an ironic twist of justice, it became easier for former Nazi collaborators to immigrate legally to the U.S. after the war than for the survivors of the Holocaust. Ivan changed his name to John Demajanjuk and came to the U.S. in 1952. He and his wife moved to a small town, Seven Hills, in Ohio and raised together three kids. They were well liked by neighbors and no one suspected Ivan of wrongdoing, much less of crimes against humanity. It took nearly thirty years for the authorities to catch on that Demajanjuk was in fact Ivan Marchenko, the Terror of Treblinka, and strip him of his American citizenship.

Ryan argues that the fact that the U.S. was more likely to harbor victimizers rather than the victims of the Holocaust is not entirely accidental. The U.S. leadership, as we’ve seen in an earlier article, never wanted to portray WWII as fought to save the Jews. Even American Jewish leaders hesitated to apply too much pressure upon the government lest they unleash a wave of anti-Semitism in the country. In the summer of 1948, President Truman signed the Displaced Persons Act, which allowed 200,000 people to immigrate to the U.S. over a two-year period. (16) The vast majority—about 85 percent–of Jewish refugees who wanted to immigrate was excluded from this bill. By way of contrast, immigrants from countries that collaborated with the Nazis were welcome: “Having excluded nearly all the Jews,” Ryan observes, “Congress then extended America’s hand to the Balts. It required that 40 percent of the immigrants be from countries that had been “de facto annexed by a foreign power”—a diplomatic euphemism for Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, whose incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1944 the United States had never officially recognized” (17). The immigration bill also privileged farmers (offering them 30 percent of the available slots), which formed a high percentage of the non-Jewish Eastern European immigrants and a very low percentage of the Jews. As a New York Times journalist aptly summarized the situation, “As matters stand, it is easier for a former Nazi to enter the United States than for one of the Nazi’s innocent victims” (19).

Quiet Neighbors not only follows the extradition trials of some of the most notorious Nazi collaborators who made their way legally into the United States, but also puts on trial, as it were, America’s topsy-turvy postwar immigration policy, which privileged victimizers over victims.


Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon



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The concentration camp commandants: Review of Soldiers of Evil by Thomas Segev

Thomas Segev’s dissertation, Soldiers of Evil (Jerusalem: Domino Press, 1987), goes a long way in explaining the psychology and social background of the Holocaust’s most ruthless mass murderers: the concentration camp Commandants. The book relies upon eyewitness accounts, victim testimonials, court documents as well as interviews with some of the Commandants themselves, their acquaintances, colleagues and family members who were willing to talk about the past. Segev notes that during Oswald Pohl’s trial (he was the SS Commander in charge of administering the entire Nazi concentration camp system) it was estimated that the Nazis imprisoned about 10 million people. (Soldiers of Evil, 15) By the end of the war, in January 1945, only 700,000 were found alive by the Allies. Of those, tens of thousands died shortly after liberation. Close to one million non-Jewish prisoners and 6 million Jewish prisoners were killed in the Nazi extermination camps.

One might expect that those who directed the mass murder of millions of innocent people would be prone to sadism. In his study, Segev observes that this was true only in some cases, but not most. Certainly men like Amon Goth, the Commandant of Plascow (so vividly described by Thomas Keneally in Schindler’s List), qualifies as sadistic. Goth would notoriously go on random shooting sprees of the defenseless inmates weakened by hard labor and hunger. Sometimes he would sick his dogs upon them to tear them apart limb by limb. He enjoyed the process of selecting his victims and witnessing their torment. His widow, Ruth Kalder, a woman with sadistic predispositions herself, became enchanted with Goth’s cruelty. In her eyes, it gave Goth an aura of a God, as he wielded the power of life and death over Plascow’s helpless inmates. After the war, she described her life with Goth in the concentration camp with longing and in idyllic terms, comparing her husband and herself to the King and Queen of a fiefdom. Like Goth, she showed no empathy for the prisoners, particularly the Jews, whom she considered subhuman. In an interview she gave in 1975, Kalder stated, “They were not human like us. … They were so foul” (Soldiers of Evil, 201).

Likewise, Arthur Rodl, Deputy Commandant to Karl Koch at the Buchenwald concentration camp, enjoyed killing inmates with his own bare hands. Segev recounts that on January 1, 1939, Rodl forced several thousands prisoners to line up, selected five among them, ordered them to strip and then proceeded to whip them until the morning to the sound of the camp orchestra. (Soldiers of Evil, 133) The Commandant of Buchenwald, Karl Koch, and his wife, Isle, who herself was known as “the monster of Buchenwald,” were equally notorious for their cruelty to inmates. They lived at Buchenwald in a gorgeous mansion known as “Villa Koch”, like royalty in the midst of the squalor of the concentration camp. Both took great pleasure in abusing and killing prisoners. Segev recounts that Isle would dress up in a provocative manner and ride around the camp on horseback. If any of the inmates looked at her, she would sometimes beat them with her own hands or, more commonly, ask her husband or the SS men to savagely attack them while she watched. There were rumors that Isle Koch even had lampshades made out of tattooed prisoners’ skin. Eventually the Nazi government tried Karl Koch not for his cruelty to prisoners (which was extreme even by Nazi standards), but for stealing stolen goods—the money, jewelry, clothes and extracted gold teeth—that the Nazi regime took from the Jews.

Despite such examples of sadistic behavior, Segev’s research indicates that the Nazi Commandants of concentration camps had a diverse background. Most of them were not predisposed to sadism, he found. However, all of them had a strong ideological background, the propensity to dehumanize others and lacked basic human empathy. As Segev observes, “There were among them men of different types: bureaucrats, opportunists, sadists, and criminals. The great majority of them were political soldiers” (Soldiers of Evil, 124). He further notes that most of the Nazi concentration camp Commandants “saw themselves first and foremost as soldiers: two thirds of them had served in the army before joining the Nazi party and the SS. Most of them had volunteered for the army before, during, and after the First World War” (Soldiers of Evil, 60). For many, the experiences of the war served to desensitize them to human suffering and to habituate them to the act of killing. Some of them received special ideological training in Theodor Eicke’s Death’s Head squads, an elite formation in which Eicke, described by Segev as a “Nazi grand seigneur,” recruited very young men with Aryan features whom he indoctrinated with a toxic combination of Romantic nationalism, Nazi ideology and rabid anti-Semitism.

Perhaps the most revealing inside look into the concentration camps’ Commandants’ mentality are the testimonies of Rudolf Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, and of Franz Stangl, the Commandant of Treblinka. Neither of them was particularly drawn to sadism yet both of them could kill hundreds of thousands of human beings as easily as one kills a gnat. In his 1971 interview with the British writer and historian Gitta Sereny, Stangl is asked how he could kill so many human beings. He nonchalantly compares the Jewish inmates to a herd of cattle trapped in their pins and headed for slaughter. Sereny asks him: “So you didn’t feel they were human beings?” Stagl responds: “Cargo. They were cargo” (Soldiers of Evil, 201-2).

Rudolf Hoss, responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million Jews at Auschwitz, dehumanized his victims in a similar fashion. In a conversation with his brother-in-law, Fritz Hensel, during the latter’s 4-week visit to Auschwitz, Hensel asks him how he could kill human beings. Hoss responds that the Jews were subhuman (Untermensch). Hensel asks for a clarification of the term “subhuman”. According to his account, Hoss sighs and replies: “You always ask and ask… Look, you can see for yourself. They are not like you and me. They are different. They look different. They do not behave like human beings. They have numbers on their arms. They are here in order to die” (Soldiers of Evil, 211). Using circular reasoning, the concentration camp Commandants dehumanized human beings through extremely cruel and inhumane treatment, then saw the results of their dehumanization as proof that their victims weren’t really human. Most of them were not prone to cruelty but could be exceptionally callous and cruel for ideological and political reasons.

Segev’s research indicates that sadistic Commandants like Goth and Koch did not in fact meet the SS ideal. Their evil could not be controlled and channeled in service to the Nazis. They killed for their own pleasure; stole for their own profit. The most successful concentration camp Commandants were those like Hoss and Stangl: “political soldiers” who killed millions of innocent human beings without conscience or remorse in order to fulfill the needs and ideals of the Nazi regime.

Claudia Moscovici

Holocaust Memory

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Could the Holocaust happen again? Simon Wiesenthal’s answer

Alan Levy’s study of the life and works of Nazi hunter and world-renowned author Simon Wiesenthal, Nazi Hunter: The Wiesenthal File (New York, Barnes and Noble Books, 1993), probes the question that is at the bottom of any profound understanding of the Holocaust: Could the Holocaust happen again? Wiesenthal’s answer, found throughout several of his works, is unequivocally yes. It could happen again, even though it’s not likely to start in the same country, or in the same conditions, or even with the same group of victims. But in raising this question, Wiesenthal’s underlying concern is not only will there be another Holocaust against the Jews in particular, but rather against any social groups that other groups wish to obliterate from the face of the Earth. The core of Nazism was racial hatred and intolerance. The Jews were the initial and most relentlessly pursued victims, along with the Gypsies. Both groups were deemed “inhuman” and a plague to humanity by Nazi ideology. The Slavs, whom the Nazis considered subhuman, were next on their list for enslavement and possible extermination. We never know where the Nazi mass murder hit list would have stopped had the Nazis themselves not been stopped by losing the war.

Wiesenthal argues that it’s not accidental that the Holocaust happened to the Jews—a minority group discriminated against in most European countries who didn’t have a country of their own—but the also maintains that genocide could happen again, to the Jews or to other groups of victims, if the following six conditions are met:


  1. Hatred. Wiesenthal believed that “Hatred is the juice on which those two monsters of human history, Hitler and Stalin, survived” (23). He argued that most of the Nazi leaders, including Eichmann, wouldn’t have used their skills for genocide had it not been for Hitler’s rise to power.


  1. Dictatorship. Genocide is the result of hateful sociopathic leaders who assume total or near-total power in a country. Without establishing totalitarian control of their nations, neither Hitler nor Stalin would have succeeded in killing millions of innocent people.


  1. Bureaucracy. Eichmann was first and foremost an efficient bureaucrat; a behind-the-desk mass murderer. The Nazi bureaucratic machine, set up in most countries controlled by or allied to Germany, enabled the extermination machinery to run smoothly.


  1. Modern technology. Wiesenthal believes that only modern technology facilitates genocide on such a massive scale. He speculates that had this technology been available to the Spanish Inquisition, they too might have killed the Jews en masse rather than given them the “choice” to convert or die.


  1. A world crisis or war. Without the war, and particularly without the World War caused by Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler couldn’t have engaged in such a massive and brazen genocide. WWII focused the Allies’ energies and attention on their primary objective—winning the war—as opposed to the enormous humanitarian crises caused by the Nazi regimes.


  1. Minorities as victims. Wiesenthal suggests that the targeted minority groups could be of any kind—racial, ethnic, religious, or political. If a given minority group is oppressed and blamed by sociopathic rulers for their country’s problems, they could become the victims of mass discrimination and eventual extermination in the right circumstances. Wiesenthal states: “when the Turks killed a million and a half Armenians almost a hundred years ago, those six components of genocide were there and they were there, too, when the Spanish Inquisition put twenty people on a stake and burned them. And I can promise you that Hitler has studied very carefully those holocausts.” (See Nazi Hunter, 24). The technology and mass media available to Hitler—which, of course, weren’t available during the Spanish Inquisition–only made his powers of destruction that much greater. As Wiesenthal asks, not purely rhetorically, “What will happen to this world when the haters today, the terrorists, come into possession of the technology of our time?” (Nazi Hunter, 25) We are still in the midst of grappling with this question, which has become increasingly relevant since Wiesenthal raised it.


Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon


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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, Could the Holocaust happen again?, genocide, Holocaust Memory, Nazi Hunter by Alan Levy, Simon Wiesenthal