Tag Archives: the Holocaust

Survivors Club: A Family’s Legendary Tale

 

Survivors Club: A Family’s Legendary Tale

Michael Bornstein’s Holocaust survival story is the stuff that legends are made of. A few years ago, Bornstein ran across a photo of footage taken by Soviet troops of the recently liberated child survivors at Auschwitz. The documentary wasn’t actually from the day of liberation of the concentration camp. It was filmed as a reenactment a few days later. The children were asked to put on for the last time the striped, threadbare dingy clothes they wore in the concentration camp: only this time they wore them on top of the regular clothes they found in the “Canada” warehouse at Auschwitz, where the Nazis deposited the belongings of prisoners upon arrival. To his own surprise, Michael Bornstein, by now a grandfather, recognized himself in that photograph. He is the gaunt four-year-old boy with wispy, short hair standing in the front. It was miraculous that he had survived. The odds were heavily stacked against him.

Out of the millions of inmates at Auschwitz, fewer than 3000 were liberated by the Soviets and only 52 of them were children under the age of eight. Seeing this picture stirred something in him: not so much full-fledged memories, since Michael had been too young to remember the horrors of the Holocaust, as the desire to record his family’s incredible survival story. With the help of archival research, his father’s documents and interviews with neighbors and surviving relatives, Michael Bornstein and his daughter, NBC and MSNBC News producer Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, co-wrote his Holocaust memoir, aptly calling it Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). Although the title alludes primarily to the handful of children who survived Auschwitz, it also refers to Michael’s family. Out of the 3,200 Jews living in Zarki at the time of the Nazi invasion in September 1939, about 30 survived. Most of the survivors were members of the Bornstein family.

Historically, Michael Bornstein’s family and their neighbors experienced first-hand almost every stage of Nazi atrocities in Poland. Upon invading their little town, Zarki, the Wehrmacht burned it to the ground. They rounded up hundreds of Jews and shot them in nearby forests, in the streets and even in their own homes. Soon thereafter, the Nazis set up a Jewish Ghetto. Unlike larger ghettos throughout Poland, however, for most of its existence, the one in Zarki remained open, allowing some life-sustaining trade and interaction with the local Polish population. Michael’s father, Israel Bornstein, was elected Jewish Council President, a heavy responsibility that he reluctantly accepted. He and his resilient and courageous wife, Sophie, did their best to protect not only their own nuclear family—their older son Samuel and Michael, who was still a baby—but also the entire Jewish community of their town.

As in the case of the other Jewish ghettos in Poland, life for Jews in Zarki was a constant struggle to ward off hunger, forced labor, and the relentless waves of deportations to death camps. For awhile, Israel Bornstein managed to round up the resources to bribe the local Gestapo chief, Officer Schmitt, into giving their community more food and occasionally decreasing their burdens. Schmitt, though a callous man and a true Nazi believer was, fortunately, also venal. But small-scale bribery proved to be no match for the immense Nazi killing machine. By the end of September 1942, most of the Jewish inhabitants of Zarki were sent to die at Treblinka. Perhaps wishing to demonstrate his “humanity,” Schmitt made one exception. He spared Israel Bornstein and his nuclear family from death. They, along with Israel’s mother (Dora), were sent to a more lenient labor camp until they, too, were eventually dispatched to Auschwitz. As Michael was to find out later, his father and older brother both perished there.

Michael, by now a toddler, was placed in a children’s section of the concentration camp. Had his mother not managed to sneak him into the women’s camp after a few weeks, he most likely wouldn’t have made it. The older children, themselves starving, were constantly stealing most of his meager portions of daily gruel. Under the wing of his mother and grandmother, Michael managed to live in hiding from day to day. When his mother was reassigned to another labor camp, the little boy was left under the sole protection of his paternal grandmother. Ironically, it was illness that ultimately saved his life. Suffering from high fever, he was placed in the infirmary around the time the Nazis began to force the Auschwitz prisoners on the fatal death marches. From the infirmary window, Michael watched the beleaguered, freezing prisoners file away from the camp under the blows of the Nazi guards. The story of his liberation by the Allies a few days later is captured by the Soviet footage. But the inspiring tale of his survival—Survivors Club–has only now been told.

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IG Farben: Manufacturing Death

Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering

View of the Reichstag assembly after Hitler’s speech in Berlin on Jan. 30, 1937. Left first row, right: Adolf Hitler. Standing on the steps: the Prussian Premier Hermann Goering. (AP Photo)

IG Farben didn’t start out as a Nazi death factory, which is what it’s known for to this day. In fact, up to the mid 1930’s, its chief executives were not particularly anti-Semitic. Formed in 1925, IG Farben started out as a chemical company that manufactured dye. It was so successful, that by the 1930’s it became the largest chemical company in the world and the fourth largest company in general. One of its leaders, Carl Bosch, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1931 for the development of chemical high-pressure methods. In Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2008), Diarmuid Jeffreys describes the progression—or, more fittingly, regression–of IG Farben from Germany’s leading chemical company to a death factory during the Holocaust.

Jeffreys records one of the most telling moments of this transition: the episode when the company’s leader, Carl Bosch, who valued the scientific work of many of his Jewish colleagues and employees, paid a visit to Hitler himself in the attempt to change his anti-Semitic outlook by considering its impact on science. Needless to say, Hitler not only didn’t budge, but also refused to communicate with Bosch henceforth:

“Then Bosch, as delicately as he could, raised the “Jewish question.” Perhaps the Fuhrer didn’t realize the potentially damaging consequences of his policies, he suggested. If more and more Jewish scientists were forced abroad, German physics and chemistry could be set back a hundred years. To his alarm, Hitler erupted in fury. Obviously the businessman knew nothing of politics, he snarled. If necessary, Germany would ‘work one hundred years without physics and chemistry’. Bosch tried to continue but Hitler rang for an aide and told him icily, ‘The Geheimrat wishes to leave.’” (178)

When the company’s senior executives, who didn’t see much scientific or economic value in anti-Semitism–Carl Bosch and Carl Duisberg—retired, they were replaced by a new crop of leaders who toed the party line. The company started to follow a more “pragmatic” approach, catering to the gruesome needs of the Nazi regime.

By 1941, IG Farben became directly involved in the death machine at Auschwitz. It built a rubber factory called Monowitz, or Auschwitz III, monitored by IG Farben managers and run through the exploitation of slave labor. There prisoners were worked to death, in identical conditions to the rest of the concentration camp: fed the same insufficient and unnutricious food; guarded by the same brutal SS prisoners; lacking in health care, and subject to the same reprisals and torture as the rest of the prisoners of the Auschwitz complex. Most prisoners could only survive two to three months working in such harsh conditions. When they were no longer fit for work, they were sent to the gas chamber.

After the war, following the precedent set by the Nuremberg Trial, some of the leaders of IG Farben were indicted before a U.S. Tribunal led by General Telford Taylor. In 1947 and 1948, twenty-four defendants faced similar charges to those leveled a few years earlier against the Nazi war criminals:

  1. Planning and waging a war of aggression against other countries
  2. War crimes and crimes against humanity through destroying occupied territories
  3. War crimes against humanity through the enslavement, deportation, rape, torture and murder of civilians.
  4. Membership in the SS, a criminal organization
  5. Conspiring to commit the crimes outlined above

In the end, as General Taylor would remark with great disappointment after the trial, justice was not served. Only thirteen of the company’s senior executives received prison terms (one to eight years). (See Hell’s Cartel, 400) The rest of those indicted were released, and many became successful executives in other companies. After the war, IG Farben was fractured, but not annihilated. The Soviet Union took over part of it, while the Western part of the company continued to thrive, eventually becoming affiliated with Standard Oil. Because of its close affiliation with the Holocaust, the remnants of the company faced continual protests. Although IG Farben executives announced in 2001 that the company would dissolve by 2003, it continues to exist today, still in the process of liquidation. IG Farben thus remains a living testimony to the fact that business and science, if placed in the wrong hands, can be easily used for the most corrupt and amoral purposes.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Auschwitz III, Carl Bosch, Carl Duisberg, Claudia Moscovici, Hell's Cartel by Diarmuid Jeffreys, Holocaust Memory, IG Farben, the Holocaust

The Nuremberg Trial

 

Nurember-Trial-history.com

How do you punish the perpetrators of the biggest genocide in human history? Do they deserve a fair trial, which their millions of victims never got? These are some of the questions the Allies debated during and after WWII. They were eventually resolved by the Nuremberg Trial, which Ann and John Tusa describe in vivid detail in their book by the same name (The Nuremberg Trial, New York: Atheneum, 1986). Several options were suggested, even before the war was over and the Ally victory secured.

Documents released in 2006 from the British War Cabinet indicate that in December 1944 the Cabinet considered a swift and severe punishment of the Nazi leaders involved in crimes against humanity. Winston Churchill suggested summary execution of the top Nazi leaders. A year earlier, at the Tehran Conference, Joseph Stalin proposed executing 50,000-100,000 Nazi officers. Roosevelt appeared prepared to go on board with this idea, but at the time Churchill vehemently objected, stating that most of them were fighting for their country.

Roosevelt later considered a plan proposed by US Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau. Morgenthau called for the de-industrialization of Germany and the execution of the major Nazi war criminals. This proposed retribution, once publicized by the media, caused massive protests in the US, which dissuaded Roosevelt from pursuing it. The plan eventually adopted by President Harry S. Truman after Roosevelt’s death continues to serve as a precedent for prosecuting war crimes today in its fairness and legality. The trial that took place in 1945 and 1946 in the city of Nuremberg distinguishes itself from how the totalitarian regimes had administered “justice” by leveling false accusations against millions of innocent people and murdering them.

The Allies chose Nurermberg for the trial of the top Nazi leaders for several reasons:

1) its Palace of Justice was one of the few public buildings in major cities in Germany that had withstood the Ally bombings and remained relatively intact

2) the building included a large prison

3) Nuremberg was the ceremonial place where the Nazis held rallies and issued their infamous anti-Semitic legislature.

The International Military Tribunal tried 24 Nazi perpetrators for crimes against peace (planning and waging wars of aggression), war crimes (violations of internationally agreed upon rules of waging war), and crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, enslavement, rape and deportation of civilians).

Of course, not all of the leading perpetrators of Nazi atrocities were caught and punished. Hitler along with Goebbels and his family had committed suicide. Many Nazi war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann, scattered throughout the world and lived, for many years, in hiding. Others, including Heinrich Himmler, disguised themselves as ordinary soldiers in the many camps throughout Europe. As the Tusas point out, it was very difficult to catch these mass murderers:

 

“Given the vast number of such camps, not just in the Four Zones of Germany but in Austria and the liberated countries, all of which were constantly receiving new inmates, chacking them was time consuming and frustrating. There was too little communication between the searchers and the authorities who might hold their prey; up-to-date intelligence circulated haphazardly if at all. Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the roundup of many leading Nazi war criminals took months” (The Nuremberg Trial, 37).

 

Remarkably, given the post-war mass migrations and chaos, 24 of the leading Nazi war criminals stood trial in Nuremberg, including Hermann Goering (Hitler’s heir), Joachim von Ribbentrop (Nazi Foreign Minister), Rudolf Hess (Hitler’s deputy), Hans Frank (the ruthless Governo-General of occupied Poland), Wilhelm Keitel (Army Head), Wilhelm Frick (Minister of Interior), Erns Kaltenbrunner (Security Chief), Konstantin von Neurath (Governor of Moravia and Bohemia), Erich Raeder (Navy Chief), Karl Doenitz (Raeder’s successor), Alfred Jodl (Commander of Armed Forces), Alfred Rosenberg (the blood-thristy Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories), Baldur von Fritz Sauckel (Chief of Forced Labor), Albert Speer (Armaments Minister), Baldur von Schirach (Hitler Youth Leader), Julius Streicher (leading writer of anti-Semitic propaganda), Alfred Seyss-Inquart (the ingratiating Comminissioner for the Occuped Netherlands), and Martin Bormann (Hitler’s Adjuct, who was tried in his absence). (See https://www.ushmm.org/)

Despite their positions of leadership and direct communications with Hitler and Himmler, most of the accused claimed ignorance of the Holocaust. In the cases when, faced with irrefutable evidence, they were obliged to admit their involvement, they argued that they were merely following orders and serving their country. Most adopted an obsequious tone and seemed non-descript despite their previous prominence in the Nazi regime. The Tusas note two exceptions: Goering and Speer. Hermann Goering behaved in his usually flashy and bombastic manner. During the trial, he acted in control of the situation. When he was sentenced to death, he committed suicide in his cell rather than relinquish his power. Albert Speer, the Minister of Defense, put up an impressively argued defense and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Robert H. Jackson, the United States prosecutor, shone throughout the trial in his eloquence, precision and passion.

On October 1, 1946, the International Military Tribunal issued the verdicts. Twelve of the most notorious war criminals, inluding Goering, Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, Frank and SeyssInquart, received the death penalty. Three of the accused (Hess, Funk and Raeder) were sentenced to life in prison. Four men (Doenitz, Schirach, Speer and Neurath) received jail terms ranging from 10 to 20 years.

The Nuremberg trial is rightly described as “the greatest trial in history.” In this trial, the Allies showed incredible restraint, given the magnitude of suffering the Nazis caused. The trial could have offered a farce of justice, giving the war criminals a taste of their own medicine. But it didn’t. The Allies took the high road instead, which is why the Nuremberg trial continues to serve as a role model for how to deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity in as fair a fashion as possible, despite the understandable temptation for revenge and retribution.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, crimes against humanity, Holocaust Memory, Nazi war criminals, Review of the Nuremberg Trial by Ann and John Tusa, the Holocaust, the Nuremberg Trial

The true banality of evil: Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning

OrdinaryMencoverscribd.com

Hannah Arendt referred to Adolf Eichmann as the paradigm of the banality of evil: an ordinary man led by extraordinary circumstances to exceptional evil. However, given that Eichmann spearheaded some of the key initiatives of the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, I have argued that he was quite extraordinary: extraordinarily sociopathic and evil. The circumstances of Fascist Germany allowed his true nature to be revealed and his thirst for power through murder to be played out.

In Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993) historian Christopher R. Browning reveals the true nature of the banality of evil by recounting the transformation of members of the Order Police, the Police Battalion 101, from regular men to brutal killers. Although initially the Order Police was composed of young men sympathetic to Nazi principles, by the late 1930’s it included older men from all walks of life: policemen, workers, small businessmen. Browning notes that these Order Police units expanded during the war: “Twenty-one police battalions of approximately 500 men each were formed from the various police companies and training units in Germany, thirteen of them were attached to the armies invading Poland” (6).

While one can plausibly argue that the SS were chosen for their anti-Semitic outlook and brutality, that’s not the case of the Reserve Police Battalion 101. Yet this unit of five hundred “ordinary men” is responsible for the murder of 38,000 Jews and the deportation of an additional 45,200 in occupied Poland in 1942. Few of the perpetrators were tried for their crimes against humanity after the war.

For those who did face a trial, their main defense was similar to Eichmann’s: namely, that they were merely following the orders of their superiors. In their case, unlike in Eichmann’s, this defense sounded plausible. Few of these men were ardent Nazis. Even fewer had violent or sadistic tendencies. Most of them were middle-aged men who were found ineligible for military duty. They were sent to Poland to participate in Operation Reinhard, which included shooting en masse the Jews of entire small towns, such as Jozefow and Lomazy.

They did so voluntarily, although initially not eagerly. Most of these men hesitated to kill women and children in the beginning. Browning points out that, contrary to the later excuse they offered that they were merely following orders, those orders didn’t entail any serious negative consequences for those who refused to follow them. The commander of Unit 101 gave his soldiers the option of opting out of conducting mass murders if they did not have the “fortitude” to kill civilians. All they faced, at worst, was peer pressure from some of their more ruthless colleagues. And yet, Browning notes, remarkably, only 12 out of the 500 men in Reserve Police Battalion 101 opted not to shoot innocent people.

Seeing themselves as merely doing their duty, they rounded up and shot thousands of helpless civilians. As they got used to their “job”, they became more violent and sadistic. Some even smashed Jewish babies against the wall, or threw them up into the air and shot them. The rest became increasingly used to the mass murders, quickening the pace of slaughter and increasing the brutality as time went on. If any book can show that genocide can happen anywhere and be perpetrated by regular human beings placed in extraordinary circumstances, Browning’s well-researched and persuasive book is it.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Elie Wiesel’s Night: Shedding Light upon the Darkness

 

Elie-Wiesel-Quotehistorybyzim.com

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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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Memory, Night, Review of Night by Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust, the Holocaust in Hungary, the Holocaust in Romania

Rendering the past immediate: Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness

 

Fatelessnessbooksforkeeps.co.uk

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

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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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