The Holocaust Remembered
István Deák (review date 8 October 1992)
SOURCE: "Strategies of Hell," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIX, No. 16, October 8, 1992, pp. 8, 10-3.
[A Hungarian-born educator and historian, Deák specializes in Eastern European history. In the review below, he discusses books focusing on gentile bystanders and persecutors as well as Jewish collaborators and survivors.]
Three years have passed since my review in these pages of fifteen books selected from the enormous Holocaust literature published during the 1980s; hundreds more on the subject have since appeared. [For Deák's earlier reviews and commentary, see "The Incomprehensible Holocaust," The New York Review, September 28, 1989, and the subsequent "Exchanges" on December 21, 1989; February 1, March 29, and September 27, 1990; and April 25, 1991.] Writing about the Holocaust has become an industry in itself, one with a terrible and never ending fascination. Perhaps, however, a change is taking place in the general character of such works. While survivors' memoirs, historical accounts, and philosophical, theological, and psychological studies continue to appear, interest has been growing in previously neglected subjects, such as the experience of ordinary non-Jews who were involved in the Holocaust, whether as murderers, collaborators, bystanders, or saviors. Then, too, more writers have felt the need to discuss the fate of millions of non-Jewish victims of Nazism and to make at least passing references to other cases of genocide. It is not the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust that is being challenged but the tendency of earlier writers to remain strictly within the confines of the Jewish tragedy.
More and more studies discuss the adventures of Jews who survived by "passing," and who, as a consequence, lived simultaneously in two worlds. The best known examples of this recent trend are Louis Begley's Wartime Lies, a chilling, witty novel about a Jewish boy and his aunt who survive the Nazi years in Poland by acquiring false Aryan papers, and Agnieszka Holland's more recent film, Europa, Europa, about a Jewish boy who survived by becoming a member of the Hitler youth organization. But while Begley's novel, however much it may be based on experience, does not claim to be other than fiction, the appeal of Europa, Europa as an exciting adventure story is marred, at least in my opinion, by its claim to be entirely true. I simply do not believe that a circumcised Jewish boy could have avoided, year after year, the rigorous medical inspections and the male-bonding nudity that were regular features of the Hitler Jugend training camps. It is also a bit too much to have a long lost brother turn up in a concentration camp uniform not a second too late before the young Jewish hero, captured by the Red Army as a Nazi soldier, is to be shot dead.
Some of the books under review tell no less unlikely sounding stories, yet they are thoroughly documented and so must be believed. Jews in hiding often had no choice but to share the fate of the ethnic group within which they had found shelter. Jewish women who were passing as non-Jewish Germans were raped by the liberating Soviet soldiers who claimed to be avenging Nazi atrocities. Jews pretending to be Polish Christians were persecuted and in some cases murdered by Germans, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians, and by Soviet soldiers eager to kill Poles. Jewish refugees serving in Soviet partisan units were in danger of being shot by Polish, Ukrainian, or Lithuanian partisans fighting both Nazis and Communists. If they joined other resistance groups, they risked being executed by Soviet partisans as suspected German or Polish agents. As he assumed one role after another, the hero of In the Lion's Den, the young Galician Jew Oswald Rufeisen, was in danger as a Jew, a Pole, a German policeman, a nun, a Soviet partisan, and a Bolshevik commissar.
Jews in disguise invariably confronted the moral dilemma of having to identify, at least outwardly, with Gentile spectators of the Holocaust and sometimes even with the Jew-killers. The more effective their disguise, the more some were in doubt about their own identity. Success in passing often hinged, after all, on the degree of one's past familiarity with non-Jewish cultures. The Berlin Jewish girl hiding with Christian friends and shielded by her "Aryan" looks and manners felt she was primarily German. For some young Jews who survived the war in a Polish monastery or convent, a hastily acquired Christian piety became a genuine commitment. Other Jews survived by assisting the oppressors: Stella, the young woman described in Peter Wyden's book [Stella: One Woman's True Tale of Evil, Betrayal, and Survival in Hitler's Germany], hunted down Jews in Berlin on behalf of the Gestapo.
Recent Holocaust literature pays more attention than previously to the question of how widespread was the desire among Europeans to see an end to a large Jewish presence in their midst. All the evidence indicates that millions upon millions of Europeans, not only the Germans, were keen for this to happen. No doubt, most of these people hoped for a nonviolent solution of the Jewish question; they were even prepared to absorb a small number of Jews into Gentile society. Yet without a widespread consensus that it was desirable to be rid of most Jews, the Nazi extermination program would have been far less successful. Nor would the Final Solution have succeeded to the degree it did without the callousness and even, in some cases, the anti-Semitism of the British and American political leaders, foreign services, professional associations, trade unions, press, and public. [In a footnote, Deák continues: "The American historian Bruce F. Pauley reminds us in his new and important book, From Prejudice to Persecution: A History of Austrian Anti-Semitism (1992), that the US laws passed in the 1920s to restrict immigration were aimed to a large extent at the Jews from Eastern Europe. These laws and the many American state laws forbidding racial intermarriage were closely watched and applauded by Austrian anti-Semites. Public opinion polls conducted in the US between 1938 and 1942 revealed that only one third of the population would have opposed anti-Semitic legislation if the government had proposed it. Finally, between July 1938 and May 1939, the worst period of open anti-Jewish excesses in Nazi Germany, from 66 to 77 percent of the American public was opposed to raising the immigration quota to help Jewish refugees, even children. Pauley quotes … from a work, published in 1935, by a great scholar of anti-Semitism, Count Richard Coudenhove-Calergi: '[T]he overwhelming majority of non-Jewish Europeans today are more or less anti-Semitically disposed.'"]
One question still to be adequately addressed is whether the rejection of the Jews was a special phenomenon that can be explained by many centuries of anti-Semitism, or whether it was a particularly odious phase in a continuous process of ethnic purification that had been taking place for years in many parts of Europe. A case can be made for both propositions. That millions of European children were brought up thinking that the Jews were responsible for killing Christ, for example, surely would have affected popular attitudes at the time of the Holocaust. The general trend toward ethnic purification has not only been neglected, however, but seems to bear a particularly heavy share of responsibility.
The desire of the European nations to rid their lands of all types of minorities was given a major impetus by the French Revolution; but the movement became infinitely more vociferous and violent in our century. The French Jacobins and their nineteenth-century nationalist imitators in Europe aimed at assimilating such ethnic minorities as the Bretons and Jews in France, or the Romanians, Slavs, Germans, and Jews in Hungary; they would punish only those among the minorities who openly resisted assimilation. After World War I, the aim of the groups in power changed increasingly to forcible absorption, expulsion, or annihilation. The campaigns for ethnic purification undertaken during and immediately after World War II affected the lives of more than a hundred million people, including Poles and other Slavs killed, persecuted, or displaced by the Germans; Germans killed by East Europeans; Ukrainians and others killed by the Soviets and Soviets killed by Ukrainians; Serbs killed by Croats and Croats killed by Serbs—to name only some of the most terrible cases. Among them, the Jews, being both wholly defenseless and the object of an official Nazi policy obsessively bent on eliminating them, were the most unfortunate group of victims; but the fate of the others deserves more attention than it has had so far.
Among the more recent studies discussing the personal lives and character of the murderers, "The Good Old Days" [edited by Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, and Volker Riess] is particularly informative, in part because it is based on letters, diaries, and other documents that have been intelligently selected by three German compilers: a young writer, a jurist deeply involved in the investigation of National Socialist crimes, and a historian.
The photographs in the book tell even more about the behavior of the German soldiers than the documents. Wartime hangings with the executioners grinning under the gallows have long been a favorite photographic subject, but never was there more demand for such snapshots than during World War II. Scores of amateurish photographs depict SS and Wehrmacht soldiers posing beneath people hanging from a rope, or they record, in monotonously repetitive sequences, the mowing down of rows upon rows of shivering, half-clad women and children. The pictures were taken in spite of official orders not to do so, or to talk about what had taken place. It is true, as the records in "The Good Old Days" show, that the German murder squads sometimes delegated the job of execution to local East Europeans, but more often they did the work themselves.
In the accounts of mass murder, satisfaction over a job well done often mingles with self-pity over having had to perform such a demanding and unappreciated task. In fact, the murder assignments were unrewarding: policemen complained of not having received the cigarettes, schnapps, and sausages given the SS men following a successful joint massacre. Many members of the Einsatzgruppen, or murder squads, were not from the SS but were professional police and other middle-aged men drafted into the police forces. They were generally neither well paid nor well fed; not all had the opportunity to rob their victims. Few among them belonged to the Nazi Party and not all were convinced National Socialists.
As the documents show, these men killed to please their superiors; or because they knew that there were plenty of volunteers in regular army units ready to take their places, or because they feared to appear as weaklings. The SS man or policeman who did not like the idea of machine-gunning defenseless adults and smashing the heads of infants found that it was easy to say no. The worst that could happen to such recalcitrants was transfer to another unit. Others were sent home for being soft ("wegen zu grosser Weichheit"). In none of the vast literature on the Holocaust is there, so far as I know, the record of a single case of a German policeman or member of the SS having been severely reprimanded, imprisoned, or sent to the front—much less shot—for his refusal to participate in mass murder.
"Today gypsies, tomorrow partisans, Jews and such like riff-raff," notes one diarist. What both murderers and German military onlookers often objected to was not the killing itself but the methods used. Hence the gradual progression from pogrom-like clubbings and axings, which were usually left to Latvian, Lithuanian, or Ukrainian civilians, to machine-gunning by Germans and their uniformed auxiliaries, and, finally, to the setting up of death camps where efficient industrial killing could be carried out.
During the first months of the war in the East, when killings still took place in public, German sailors from the Baltic ports and soldiers from far away garrisons indulged in what "The Good Old Days" describes as execution tourism. These visitors raised objections to the officers in charge only when they observed that arms and legs, some of them still moving, were sticking out of the makeshift graves. The ground above the graves, some of the spectators noticed, continued to heave for several hours after the executions.
In perhaps the most distressing account in "The Good Old Days," two German divisional chaplains, one Catholic, the other Protestant, report on their investigation undertaken at the request of two lower-ranking military chaplains, again one a Catholic and the other Protestant, who were themselves acting upon the request of some soldiers, into the case of ninety Jewish orphans, in a Ukrainian village in August 1941. The children's parents had been killed by the SS at the request of the local army command only a day or two earlier. The two divisional chaplains, like the two other clerics before them, visited the house in which the starving and thirsty children were locked up, but left without offering them even a cup of water. They were scandalized by the atrocious conditions in which the children were held, but even more by the fact that the incessant wailing of the children could be heard by both soldiers and civilians. In their separate reports to the chief of staff of the 295th Infantry Division, the divisional chaplains insisted that locals not be allowed to enter the house "in order to avoid the conditions there being talked about further," and "I consider it highly undesirable that such things should take place in full view of the public eye."
Because two army divisional chaplains, i.e., high-ranking officers, were involved in the affair, there was a thorough investigation by the divisional general staff. Finally, the commander of the Sixth Army himself, Field Marshal von Reichenau, ruled that the execution of the children should be carried out as planned, although of course in an orderly manner. In a remarkable act of interservice cooperation, the Wehrmacht dug the grave, the SS arranged the executions, and the local militia were ordered to do the shooting. "The Ukrainians were standing round trembling," noted the SS lieutenant supervising the affair ("I had nothing to do with this technical procedure"), and when they finally fired, they did so poorly. "Many children were hit four or five times before they died," reported the lieutenant.
What strikes one is the full cooperation offered by regular army units, the high proportion of Austrians in the murder squads, and how lightly, if at all, the murderers and their accomplices were punished after the war. [In a footnote, Deák adds: "On the National Socialist fanaticism, murderous activities, and postwar self-acquittal of the German regular army from generals down to ordinary soldiers, read Omer Bartov's devastating but scholarly indictment: Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich (1991)."] The two Catholic chaplains who reported on the Jewish orphans were both ordained as bishops in the German Federal Republic.
Members of the SS and police murder squads were recruited from every sort of occupation. Several unit commanders were doctors of law; others had risen through the ranks. Many officers and men suffered acutely under the stress of their assignment: "The wailing was indescribable. I shall never forget the scene throughout my life…. I particularly remember a small fair-haired girl who took me by the hand. She too was shot later," complained the SS lieutenant supervising the execution of the children in the Ukrainian village. Others, however, remained steadfast: "Strange, I am completely unmoved. No pity, nothing. That's the way it is and then it's all over," wrote the Austrian Felix Landau in his diary on July 12, 1941. He was more worried, however, about his "Trudchen" cheating on him during his absence.
The Germans in "The Good Old Days" were generally low in the Nazi hierarchy. This is not so for Rudolph Höss, the commander of Auschwitz, whose memoirs have now been issued, the publisher tells us, in their first complete translation into English. It would have been useful, however, had the editor of Death Dealer pointed out precisely in what way his version differs from that of the 1959 English-language edition. Still, this edition is usefully supplemented by diagrams, a detailed chronology of the events at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the minutes of the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, at which representatives of the major German ministries and other services were told about the progress of the Final Solution.
Höss was sentenced to death by a Polish court and hanged, in 1947, in Auschwitz. He was similar to the murderers included in "The Good Old Days" in his limited intelligence, his desperate efforts to please his superiors, his determination not to appear weak, and his many prejudices. He was different because, unlike the average SS man and policeman, he was an "Old Combatant" and a dedicated National Socialist. Next to Adolf Eichmann, whose police and court hearings have filled thousands of pages, Höss is the best-documented Nazi killer. He wrote his lengthy autobiography, which is supplemented by detailed portraits of fellow SS leaders and, among other things, a report on the confusing rank order of the various SS service branches, while in a Polish prison. A Polish psychologist and the prosecuting attorney both suggested that he give an account of himself, but unlike Eichmann, who basically answered questions, Höss was free to put down whatever he wished. The result combines a considerable amount of accurate information and some genuine insights into his past with remarkable historical distortions. Like many other Nazi leaders, Höss had little sense of statistical reality, especially in connection with the Jews, whose numbers he vastly overestimated. He and Eichmann expected the arrival in Auschwitz of 4 million Jews from Romania, 2.5 million from Bulgaria, and 3 million from Hungary. In fact, there were no more than 1.5 million Jews in the three countries.
Höss was born into a devout Catholic middle-class family in Baden-Baden. He soon became "disgusted" with the Church, he writes, but remained forever a believer of sorts. Having distinguished himself as a front-line soldier in World War I, he joined the Free Corps of right-wing veterans after the war and began the typical career of a Nazi leader. He took part in the fighting in the Baltic countries between 1918 and 1921, which he describes correctly as one of the most brutal and vicious wars in modern history, a bellum omnium contra omnes involving Russian Whites and Reds, German Free Corps, Poles, Latvians, and other local forces. Later, because he took part in the murder of a man who had allegedly betrayed the Nazi terrorist Leo Schlageter to the French authorities in the Ruhr, he spent six years in Weimar Germany's prisons, an experience that taught him, he says, to respect the rights of prisoners.
A party member since 1922, Höss joined the SS in 1934 and was soon sent by Himmler to help set up one of the first concentration camps in Germany. In 1940 he was made commander of the new camp at Auschwitz. Höss writes that, at Auschwitz, his "children could live free and easy," and that his wife "had her flower paradise," but as for himself, he was never really happy. He resented the conflicting instructions he received: one day he was ordered to exterminate all the Jews; then he was told to select for slave labor all persons strong enough to work. He complains constantly about the greed, sloth, corruption, and intrigues of his underlings, and his memoirs largely consist of criticism of the inefficiency and brutality of the SS and the Kapos, the prisoners who were put in charge of the others. There is no evidence to show that he ever tried to alleviate the atrocious camp conditions, and he himself invented new methods of torture. Still, an imprisoned Polish artist assigned to work in the Höss household told the editor of this book that the family had treated him as a guest, and he had been invited to dine with the commander.
As Höss tells it, he felt sorry for all his victims: the Russian POWs and Polish political prisoners whom he had gassed as a rehearsal for the gassing of the Jews; the Gypsies, for whom he had much sympathy, but whom he sent to the gas chambers nevertheless; the prisoners in the Women's Camp who were worse off even than the men ("I have always had a great respect for women in general"); and even the Jews whom he alternately admired and despised. True contempt and dislike he reserved for his fellow SS officers.
In his farewell letters to his family and in his "Final Thoughts," Höss declared himself a National Socialist and had this to say about the Holocaust: "Today I realize that the extermination of the Jews was wrong, absolutely wrong. It was exactly because of this mass extermination that Germany caused itself the hatred of the entire world. The cause of anti-Semitism was not served by this act at all, in fact, just the opposite. The Jews have come much closer to their final goal." Standing on the gallows, he apologized to the Polish people. As Steven Paskuly, the editor of the memoirs notes in his epilogue, Höss, who greatly admired the Jehovah's Witnesses for their courage in the camp, thought of himself as a soldier of faith, a true believer whose religion was National Socialism.
An impressive work exclusively devoted to bystanders is Gordon J. Horwitz's In the Shadow of Death. His subjects are the Austrians in and around Mauthausen, a town located close to a notorious Nazi concentration camp, although not one primarily for Jews. Only 40,000 of the 119,000 people who died there between 1938 and 1945 were Jews, and therefore the people who lived near the camp (or camps, since Mauthausen had many subsidiary establishments) did not necessarily think of the camp inmates as Jews.
Set up in 1938, soon after the Anschluss of Austria, the Mauthausen camp housed German and Austrian criminals, "asocials," political prisoners, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and later, Poles, Spanish republican refugees handed over to the Germans by Vichy France, Soviet and other POWs, as well as, of course, Jews. With a large stone quarry at its center, Mauthausen camp was a thriving business enterprise for the SS but it was also a particularly brutal place. One form of punishment consisted of having to run up the 186 steps of the quarry shouldering a heavy slab of stone. The SS called those who fell, were pushed, or leaped into the pit "Parachute Troops" (Fallschirmjäger). In 1940 a gas chamber was set up in nearby Castle Hartheim, at first to kill only mentally ill and retarded Germans and Austrians, but later camp inmates as well. Subsequently, a gas chamber was set up in Mauthausen camp itself, with Soviet POWs as its first victims.
The center of Mauthausen, a small town of about 1,800, almost exclusively Catholic, inhabitants (there had been no Jews there before the war), was three miles away from the camp. The local people, as Horwitz's interviews and documents show, regularly witnessed atrocities being committed whenever new arrivals were driven across the town, or whenever local farmers and workers had to go near the quarry. A public road led directly across the camp, and although those using it were forbidden to linger, they heard and saw enough for the atrocities to become widely known and often discussed. Even in the early years of the camp, inmates were shot in full view of the peasants and left to die on the roadside. Eleanore Gusenbauer, a farmer, filed a complaint in 1941 about the tortures and the random shootings: "I am anyway sickly and such a sight makes such a demand on my nerves that in the long run I cannot bear this. I request that it be arranged that such inhuman deeds be discontinued, or else be done where one does not see it."
Complaining was not without its risks: some who protested what they saw happening were sentenced to a stay in a concentration camp, and when a man called Winklehner threw bread and cigarettes to the inmates, he was taken to Dachau camp, where he died. All in all, however, the locals learned to live with the camp. They resented the rowdiness of the SS but profited from the business the SS brought to the town. The civilians employed at Castle Hartheim soothed their consciences with the knowledge that they were not directly involved in the gassings. Near Hartheim, parts of human bodies littered the countryside and tufts of hair flew out of the chimney onto the street; but neither this nor the smell of burning flesh prevented the staging of popular candlelight festivals at the castle. Even the monks at the famous Benedictine monastery nearby at Melk accepted the sight and stench of the local subsidiary camp and crematorium.
On February 2, 1945, when hundreds of Soviet officers escaped from the camp, townspeople joined in the hunt. Only a dozen made it to freedom, thanks in part to a couple of brave local inhabitants, who thus helped persons who were clearly seen as the enemy. During World War I, Mauthausen had served as a giant POW camp; it must have been difficult for the townspeople to distinguish between prisoners of war, common criminals, political prisoners, and innocent victims. Still, the passivity and silence of most of the population is disheartening and so is that wave of acute anti-Semitism that swept the region immediately after the war, as it did throughout Europe from the Netherlands to Poland. Today, despite some efforts by the Austrian government to preserve the memory of the camp, no one really wants to talk about what happened in Mauthausen. Horwitz, who managed, after much effort, to find revealing sources, concludes: "The efforts [to address the past] are minimal compared to the enormity of the deliberate silences, evasions, and distortions of a generation that slowly mutely fades into the grave."
In the extensive literature on collaboration, a special place has always been reserved for Jewish collaborators. Perhaps the most dreadful accounts to appear on this subject are not about the Jewish Councils or the concentration camp Kapos but about the Jewish retrievers (Abholer), raiders (Ordner), stool pigeons (Spitzel), and catchers (Greifer) in Berlin, who brought other Jews to the collection centers and prevented escapes. The most trusted among them did the work of the Gestapo by detecting and arresting Jews who tried to pass as non-Jews. The "catchers" included the blonde, blue-eyed Stella Goldschlag, the subject of Peter Wyden's book [Stella: One Woman's True Tale of Evil, Betrayal, and Survival in Hitler's Germany]. Wyden is himself from Berlin; his family came to New York just before the outbreak of the war, and Stella, for whom he had a secret passion, was one of his friends and classmates in the luxurious private high school that Jewish upper-class youngsters attended after the Nazis had dismissed them from the state schools.
The picture drawn by Wyden of Berlin's Jewish upper class is not flattering, but he candidly admits that he doesn't know how he himself would have behaved had he been left in Berlin to face the Nazis. The Jewish elite had been too successful for their own good, Wyden argues in Stella, and too certain of their niche in German society. They were contemptuous of the Jewish refugees from the East and many among them were anti-Semitic.
Assimilated Jews, in Berlin or elsewhere, had enormous difficulties coping with their sudden decline to the level of the most downtrodden of East European Jews. How was a person called Siegfried to react to the Nazi order adding the middle name Israel to his first name? How was the decorated veteran of the First World War to behave when kicked in the behind, in public, by young SA louts who had never even been soldiers? Those who could emigrated; others became Zionists; still others kept affirming their devotion to the fatherland that had deserted them; some tried to join their persecutors.
At first, young Stella Goldschlag lived a semi-illegal life: during the day, she wore the yellow star while working in a factory, but at night she was a free and immensely attractive German woman who went to parties using an assumed name. Later, when she tried to live entirely as an Aryan German, she was arrested, tortured to reveal the names of those who had provided her with false papers, and at last talked into helping the Gestapo. Soon she was out in the streets, dressed elegantly, haunting the cafés and other places where Jews attempting to pass for Gentiles tended to gather. Together with other upper-class Jews in her team, she caught and delivered to the Gestapo people who had often been her friends and former classmates. What makes the story particularly harrowing is that Stella and her friends carried revolvers, probably the only Jews in the world so equipped by the Nazis. They needed the guns not only to make arrests but also to defend themselves.
Today it may seem almost inconceivable that these catchers never even thought of turning the guns on their masters, yet, for them, the notion of shooting German policemen would have been no less inconceivable. Like so many other victims, they also admired and desperately tried to imitate their oppressors. For other, worse-off victims of totalitarianism, they felt only contempt. After the war, Stella claimed that she had only tried to protect her parents. Yet, as Wyden shows, she continued in her job and became more active than ever after her parents had been sent to Theresienstadt. Stella and her friends enjoyed what they were doing because it gave them power and allowed them to identify with the dashing Nazis.
A surprising number of Jews survived the war in Berlin, the city that Hitler most wanted to be judenfrei. At least 1,400 managed to stay in hiding; several thousand others remained unharmed because they were married to Christians; thousands survived in camps in and near the capital; and hundreds got through the war in a Jewish hospital that was oddly allowed to exist. Immediately after the end of fighting, Stella was arrested and tried by the Soviet occupation authorities: she spent ten years in various East German camps and prisons. Following her release, she was tried twice by a West Berlin court and because she was sentenced each time to the same ten years she had already spent in Soviet custody, she was not again put in prison. Wyden visited her repeatedly in her comfortable West German apartment in 1990 and 1991: still attractive, mendacious, a professed "victim of the Jews," but very much isolated. Her daughter is a public health nurse in Israel; she says she hates her mother and has fantasies about killing her.
Those who migrated from Germany and Austria before the war tended to have money, the right connections, and relatives abroad who were both devoted to them and well-to-do. People like Stella's family, who had less money and no foreign friends, usually stayed put and were mostly killed. The unfairness of it all was one reason for Stella's bitterness and hatred. In Wyden's account, Berlin Gentiles applauded when Stella and the Gestapo were catching Jews. This is quite different from the picture that emerges from Inge Deutschkron's Outcast, a simple and charming memoir by a Jewish woman of how she survived as a girl in her late teens in wartime Berlin.
The daughter of a teacher, Inge Deutschkron found a job in a workshop for the blind in 1941. Then and later, she writes, she met with almost invariable kindness on the part of non-Jewish Berliners. Seeing her wearing a yellow star, a man insisted that she take his place in the subway, which she was, of course, not allowed to do. People slipped apples and meat stamps into her pocket. After the deportations to the East had begun, in October 1941, Inge and her mother went into hiding. Scores of Gentile acquaintances and people she did not know at all took enormous risks in giving work to the two women and in feeding and sheltering them. They were forced to change residences repeatedly, for no one could take the risk of keeping them for more than a few months; but the two women always found volunteers to take them in. If there is any bitterness in Inge Deutschkron's account, it is mostly directed against the Jewish communal authorities, whom she accuses of having helped the authorities organize the deportations.
Toward the end of the war, the bombings and the influx of German refugees from the East made the situation of mother and daughter not very different from that of the other Germans, and when the Red Army arrived, they, too, were roughed up by Soviet soldiers. Unsentimental, resilient, aware that luck can make all the difference, Inge Deutschkron, who now lives in Israel, has remained a true Berliner. [In a footnote, Deák adds: "Bruce Pauley writes in From Prejudice to Persecution that 5,000 Jewish 'U-boats' or 'submarines' survived in Berlin, but only 700 in Vienna, a city that, before the war, had housed considerably more Jews. Even if we take into consideration the unreliability of all statistical data on annihilation and survival, and the differing conditions in the two cities, we have no reason to doubt that a Jew in hiding was more likely to find assistance among the notoriously cynical Berliners than among the Viennese."]
Myrna Goldenberg (review date Winter 1993–94)
SOURCE: "Choices, Risks, and Conscience," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1993–94, pp. 42-5, 48.
[In the following review, Goldenberg discusses several works written by women, both personal narratives and fiction, that examine Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.]
We are witnessing a flood of books about the Holocaust. Even the trickle of books by and about women during the Third Reich is slowly widening to a stream. Sometimes the stream yields crystalline gems and sometimes murky flotsam. The seven books reviewed here range from jewels to dregs, from rescue to survival, from ethnography to journalism, and from authenticity to sexational fiction.
Lucie Aubrac's and Hiltgunt Zassenhaus's important autobiographical chronicles of their defiance of the Nazis [Outwitting the Gestapo and Walls: Resisting the Third Reich—One Woman's Story] leave the reader breathless. Aubrac outwitted Klaus Barbie, the infamous head of the Vichy Gestapo (aka the Butcher of Lyon) by rescuing her husband, Raymond, who was second to Jean Moulin in command of the French Resistance. The Free French, headquartered in Lyon, has been the subject of extensive scrutiny since the capture of Barbie in 1982. Francine du Plessix Gray's insightful and moving analysis of "the hypocritical amnesia indulged in by the French nation to obliterate the truths of its collaboration with Nazism and of its deep complicity in the Holocaust" in "The Rise and Fall of Klaus Barbie" (Adam & Eve and the City, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987) stands among the most substantial. With Outwitting the Gestapo, Aubrac joins Gray.
A creative and well-regarded history teacher, Aubrac narrates her tale with skill and precision. We follow her visiting Raymond in prison, teaching her eager young students, "interviewing" Barbie, keeping house, bribing Nazi guards, feeding her infant son, and listening to her rescued husband describe the torture sessions that lasted for weeks on end, while Barbie and his girlfriend became more and more sexually stimulated with each brutalizing blow delivered to Raymond. Aubrac was in the eighth month of her pregnancy when she and a few of her male colleagues in the Resistance pulled off the daring rescue. She had used her pregnancy as a ploy to gain entry to the offices of high-ranking Gestapo to get information on her husband's whereabouts. She was in her ninth month when she, Raymond, and their son flew to England—and freedom.
Aubrac not only sheds light on the French Resistance and some of its heroes and traitors, but she also writes from the perspective of a woman who was misunderstood in her time. When her comrades tell her "You fight like a man," she responds, "Why is it that the greatest compliment a man can pay a woman is to tell her: you write, you work, you act like a man." "Perfectly at ease as a woman," she answered her comrade in no uncertain terms, "What I did was a woman's job, and what's more, a pregnant woman's, something that would never happen to you." Through her narrative and her ironic comments, she reminds us that women, even those active in the underground, added their resistance job to their full-time jobs and their routine household duties, which were increasingly more difficult to do in times of shortage and deprivation. Perhaps Outwitting the Gestapo will stimulate the publication of more resistance narratives by women.
Republished after a 20-year hiatus, Zassenhaus's Walls complements Aubrac's book. The timing is perfect. Here we have an account of a young German woman who would not compromise her principles. During the war, her three brothers were summoned to defend the Reich while she sneaked medicines and food to Scandinavian prisoners of war.
Without a shred of self-importance and as if resistance were a normal, everyday response, Zassenhaus tells what "happens to be [her] story," beginning with the first day of Hitler's rise to power, January 30, 1933. The windows of their house had been plastered with "thick, yellow paper, printed over and over with swastikas. Overnight [their] house had been dimmed by unknown Nazi hands." Late for school because she tried futilely to scrape the windows, she began a career of defying the Nazis. She refused to salute Heil Hitler the next morning and made a "desperate movement" with her left arm that broke the glass of an open window and caused a minor riot in the class-room. The 1930s had taught her family to be cautious of the Nazis. They were denied university scholarships because they were not party members, so they ate less—and less well.
Eventually, Zassenhaus's degree in Scandinavian languages led to her appointment as "official interpreter to the Court of Hamburg," which, in turn, led to regular but dangerous visits to prisons to distribute mail that she was supposed to have censored. She actually added encouraging comments to mail that came from Scandinavia to the POWs and pleading messages to the mail leaving Germany for Scandinavia. She managed to smuggle letters from starved Jews in ghettos to their families and friends in Scandinavia to request food and clothing parcels before mass deportations began. Zassenhaus risked severe reprisals, and worse. Amazingly, she enrolled in medical school and continued her studies along with episode after episode of resistance work. Walls unfolds the hideousness of the Third Reich and the ridiculousness of its civilian zealots. Zassenhaus's courage as she dodges Gestapo and informers unifies the book, creating a backdrop against which the homefront tries to endure. Her ironic and restrained wit reveals her energy, intelligence, clear head, and unshakable faith in justice.
Nora Waln's The Approaching Storm is an abrupt change in perspective, sensibility, and insight. First published in 1939, Storm tells of Waln's years as a long-term visitor in Germany while her husband, an Englishman retired from government service in China, fulfilled a passion—the study of music in Germany. During these years, Waln, a successful journalist and a Pennsylvania Quaker, observed Germany and its neighboring countries closely. She tracked the spread of Nazism, noting its impact on all facets of life, from art to education, and pointedly described the vast differences between the Germany she found and the Germany she expected to find. Her keen eye and her compulsive need to research and report the historical perspective on German culture and history lead to painful conclusions. In fact, the book is sad. Reader and author witness the imposition of "instant and blind obedience to the Fuehrer's every command" by a German population too willing to accept the new order.
Waln, however, is almost unbelievably romantic, peppering the book with an optimism based on naive generalizations and wishful thinking. She generalizes that Germans are exceptionally and historically kind to animals; "Fundamentally, Germans are good"; and "The good in [Nazism] will endure. All other elements the German people will discard. They are not an ignorant mass. They are an educated populace." She closes her book on Christmas 1938, with a plea to her readers to pray for the Germans. Although she bemoans the militarization of Germany, she denies its reality and fails to confront the implications of incarcerating dissidents in concentration camps. Distressed that "pacificism is treason in Germany now," she holds on to the possibility that the dissidents will swell in numbers and prevail. Storm is valuable because of its eyewitness authenticity, but it is limited by its romanticism and naiveté.
Two survivor accounts contrast sharply with resistance stories and journalistic analyses. Blanca Rosenberg's To Tell at Last: Survival Under False Identity, 1941–45 is the harrowing story of a young Jewish mother who evades the Nazis from one Polish city to the next until she winds up in Heidelberg, Germany, where she works as a maid until liberation. She had tried—and failed—to keep her infant son alive both in the ghetto and in hiding. She had witnessed the SS, aided by their Ukrainian guards, throw babies at concrete walls. She had witnessed the SS use children for target practice and then machine-gun the men who tried to stop the slaughter. She was helped by gentiles who gave her false identity papers, but she found that she had "forgotten how to be free, to act normally, to tread the sidewalks instead of the gutter, to look people in the eye without baring [her] fears."
She adjusted to a temporary respite from hell—"From Hades to the metropolis [Lvov] was too long a step"—but her compassion led her to recognize and help other Jews in hiding, thus making her vulnerable to capture. Her misery was bearable because she shared her danger and despair with Maria, her closest friend. They lived in Warsaw during the uprising. Using false papers, they worked as saleswomen in department stores, scrubwomen in hospitals, and maids in German households. They nurtured, lied, and took incredible risks for each other. They saved each other's lives and emigrated to the United States, where they both became social workers. Blanca's narrative gives life to Maria, and to their families and friends who did not survive.
There is a Place on Earth: A Woman in Birkenau by Giuliana Tedeschi is breathtaking. If its subject were not Auschwitz/Birkenau, it would be a beautiful book. It is, as most survivor narratives by women are, a vivid, realistic depiction of courage and sisterhood in the face of degradation and brutality. But Tedeschi's writing is extraordinarily sensitive—and feminist. Her metaphors assure us that the author is a woman: "Prison life is like a piece of knitting whose stitches are strong as long as they remain woven together; but if the woolen strand breaks, the invisible stitch that comes undone slips off among the others and is lost." She is acutely connected to her feelings as well as to the beauty of family, community, and nature.
She writes of surrogate families; the prison rebellion on October 7, 1944, that began with women passing powder to the men who used it to blow up one of the gas chambers; Mala, the prisoner who had escaped with her lover but was caught and then tried to cut her veins before being hanged; the "pathological obsession with recipes and imaginary meals"; and of childbirth in the barracks, a horrible irony to be born just to die. Her barrackmate Edith delivered an eight-pound boy who "opened his eyes, wailed, and immediately closed them again forever." The fear of being used by Nazi doctors for their heinous experiments terrorized Tedeschi: "I was overcome by a wild desperation. My deepest, most intimate femininity was anguished and rebelled. I thought of my body brutally mutilated, its vitality hacked away, of being forced to surrender that most female function that nature had imposed to the monstrous violence these Germans in their hatred and scorn had coldly devised for us…. Memories of early motherhood, its infinite, overwhelming sweetness, flooded back like a torture, a physical need."
While incarcerated in the several concentration camps, Tedeschi despaired of the miraculous. But she was wrong—her survival and ability to rebuild her life is itself a miracle. She returned to Turin, Italy, where she taught Latin and Greek in the same high school for 40 years.
The last two books are unique, one interestingly so; the other, disastrously. R. Ruth Linden's Making Stories, Making Selves is actually two books in one, connected loosely by the author's growing consciousness of herself as a Jew, an awareness that was prompted by her awareness of the Holocaust. The first is an autobiographical account that focuses on her family's...
(The entire section is 18775 words.)