The Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb: Fifty Years Later

Start Free Trial

The Holocaust Remembered

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 18775 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

as suspected German or Polish agents. As he assumed one role after another, the hero ofIn 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 Jewish identification and her own emergence as a feminist. By 1982, she stopped using Robin, her first name, and began calling herself Ruth, signifying to herself "and others [her] desire to explore what it means to be a Jew and to live Jewishly." This process was enhanced by her gradual involvement with an oral history project to interview survivors. The second part of the book deals with the interviewing experience, its effect on her emotionally and intellectually.

Making Stories, Making Selves is a very personal book. We observe Linden learning about the Holocaust and then learning about her process of trying to understand survival and the victory of living freely. An unusual approach, this work is a primer on ethnographic research methodology. Although it is less about the Holocaust than it is about feminist ethnography, it is valuable analysis of "survival [of] the Holocaust [as] a social process; it could not be done alone." We witness Linden's intellectual development as she experiences intellectual and spiritual growth as a social process. This tight process—this interdependence of substance and process—is "polyvocal—collectively woven braids in which individual lives and memories are intertwined." They are, indeed.

Finally, The Kommandant's Mistress, by Sherri Szeman, is a moral embarrassment. Reminiscent of Sophie's Choice and The White Hotel, the book sensationalizes the Holocaust, weaving a lurid tale of a death-camp (presumably Auschwitz) kommandant who snatches a Jewish deportee from the selection ramp, rapes her in a guard tower, and then keeps her in his office, which is located in his house, for the remainder of the war. Of course, the complications include his wife and children, the mistress's hidden poems, the pressure from her campmates to participate in sabotage, the postwar accounts of the kommandant and his former mistress, and references to the crematoria, the Sonderkommando revolt, the Wannsee Conference, Ilse Koch's lampshades made from the skin of Jewish victims, and other items related to the Holocaust. Szeman is undoubtedly a gifted craftswoman who controls point of view skillfully, even brilliantly, but her work is offensive. Her improbable, sex-drenched plot betrays the memory of the dead and assaults their survivors.

Clearly, it is challenging to write about the Holocaust. The subject is depressing and threatening, and it is not easy to find words to describe and evaluate the unspeakable.

When the writer begins with honesty, the result is a historical document that requires respectful critical analysis. When the artist couples respect with her gift of insight and skill, the result is enduring truth.

Helen Brent (review date Winter 1993–94)

SOURCE: A review of Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust, in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1993–94, p. 46.

[Below, Brent remarks favorably on the book under review.]

When Carol Rittner read John Roth and Michael Berenbaum's Holocaust: Religious and Philosophical Implications, she asked the age-old inevitable question, "Where are the women?" They weren't in that book, nor are their experiences reflected in most of the books about the Holocaust. Indeed, although women survivors have never been silent and their narratives are no longer rare, their stories and experiences did not receive much attention, nor were they anthologized. But Jewish women were doubly vulnerable: they were victims of both Nazi atrocities and misogyny. They experienced "different horrors" but the "same Hell," a description that underpins and unifies Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust (edited by Carol Rittner and John K. Roth).

Rittner and Roth compiled the answer to her question in Different Voices, a book that will become a touchstone in feminist and Holocaust studies. It is good literature, good history, and good philosophy. Its three sections are flanked by an insightful prologue and epilogue, a chronology, and demographic tables.

With the exception of Etty Hillesum, who was transported from Westerbork to Auschwitz (where she was gassed on November 30, 1943), all the voices, Jews and non-Jews, in part one, "Voices of Experience," are witness survivors. First-person accounts of survival and active resistance are stated simply, even quietly, but with stunning effect. We hear recent voices, like Ida Fink's and Sara Nomberg-Przytyk's, but Different Voices also rediscovers voices long out of print, like Pelagia Lewinska describing clothes so lice-infested that these bugs formed patterns of stripes and plaids on the fabric, mud-filled ditches into which the SS kicked women and nearly drowned them, piles of excrement that "inspired" Terence Des Pres's term Excremental Assault, and an "average" pain-filled work day at Auschwitz.

"Voices of Interpretation" is primarily composed of brilliant, scholarly essays by contemporary women historians whose point of vision reflects gender. Their studies of the intersection of gender and racism have much to teach us about vulnerability, pseudo-science, false patriotism, and spirituality. Magda Trocme epitomizes courage and goodness. Vera Laska calls herself "a gatherer of memories," but she is also a hero and a scholar. Sybil Milton, Marion Kaplan, Claudia Koonz, and Gisela Bock explore the historical records to answer Rittner's question as well as other pivotal questions on the significance of gender during the Holocaust.

Finally, "Voices of Reflection" offers artistic and thoughtful responses to the Nazi horror. Irena Klepfisz's poetry comments profoundly on the unspeakable; Charlotte Delbo tells us of the indelibility of Auschwitz on her senses and soul; and Joan Ringelheim seeks some reason behind the statistics and poses difficult questions for the scholar.

Yes, women's voices are missing, but this book, the first anthology of its kind (at least, in English), portends the beginning of more rediscoveries, more narratives of women's courage and caring, and more research into the catastrophe that haunts our memory and shapes our paths to the future.

Laurence Kutler (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Holocaust Diaries and Memoirs," in Holocaust Literature: A Handbook of Critical, Historical, and Literary Writings, edited by Saul S. Friedman, Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 521-32.

[An American educator and critic, Kutler specializes in Hebrew studies. In the essay below, he discusses autobiographical writing on the Holocaust as a genre, nothing characteristics and themes.]

The assessing of autobiographical writing in the form of memoirs, records of oral interviews, and diaries for the period of the Holocaust is a little like sailing a boat in the fog. Without an eye on the lighthouse, one can easily be distracted and make errors in judgment causing disaster. A sailor's best rule of thumb is to have adequate maps to guide his or her approach toward a safe harbor.

The same situation confronts the historian of the Holocaust. Not enough time has elapsed for a corpus to have formed that can serve the function of history. J. Huizinga, a Dutch historian, has tried to propose a definition of history that can serve our purpose: "History is the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of the past" ["A Definition of the Concept of History," in Philosophy and History: Essays Presented to Ernst Cassavier, 1936]. The nature of the "intellectual form" and the accountability factor are the notions that are of the greatest concern. What did Huizinga mean by "intellectual form," and what standard could be meant? To whom are the writers of memoirs, diaries, and interviews accountable? These are some of the questions that need to be addressed before criteria can be established to identify which writings among those who survived and those who did not can be judged to have made a significant contribution to the historiography of the Holocaust.

Thus, like the sailor with maps to guide him or her to safe harbor, the historian needs a set of criteria that will serve as a guide for a proper methodology. Without it, the practitioner of history will steer off course. The following statements are useful in identifying memoirs or diaries that render an account of themselves to the past and serve us as sufficiently historical:

1. Diary and memoir writing is a specific form of tradition.

2. Diaries and memoirs are not concerned primarily with the accurate reporting of events; they also involve apology and self-justification.

3. Diary writing and memoirs concern themselves with causes of events and circumstances. This could be a reflection upon events or a moralizing tendency.

4. Diary and memoir writing will incorporate or reflect upon national consciousness or fate.

Returning briefly to Huizinga's definition, I am confronted with the notion of what constitutes an "intellectual form." Diaries, memoirs, or records of oral interviews qualify as intellectual forms since they are clear forms of individual expression set to paper with the purpose of communicating ideas. The standard of such writings must be tested by the value of the information gained and the place it has in the genre.

To what degree do the writings render account to the past? In order for this question to be answered, the collections have to be assessed in terms of presentation and of judgments of events and individual behavior. But more, the manuscripts should be accountable to the facts. Diary and memoir writing as a specific form of tradition is well accounted for, especially in Jewish tradition. In the worst of times this vulnerable people has responded to oppression by recording events as they unfold in an appeal not to its contemporaries but to the judgment of history. The book of Ecclesiastes is an example from late biblical times. The Wars of the Jews is a written account by Josephus of the wars against Rome presented apologetically to the Roman world. The medieval period saw a continuation of this tradition. Thus we have Moses Maimonides in his Epistle to the Yemenites encouraging these people to remain stolid in the face of persecution, Solomon Bar Samson telling of the Kiddush ha-Shem who were massacred in Mainz in May 1096, and Nathan Hanover recounting the horrors of the Chmielnicki pogroms in his Vale of Tears. On the eve of World War II Polish Jewry's greatest scholar, Simon Dubnow, advised his contemporaries to record everything for posterity. Whether or not they had ever read Dubnow, countless Jews heeded his advice.

Personal observations may be flawed by bias, hearsay, rumor, or outright error. While severe trauma may sharpen the senses momentarily, extended periods of starvation, disease, threats, and shifts from location to location can also result in confusion. As a result, some of those who experienced Elie Wiesel's "other planet" misplaced rivers and camps. Some survivors remember what they think they should remember. In retrospect, some of the jottings seem mundane—concern over food, housing, family—but none of them were unimportant. The diaries humanize the numbers. Six million people become individuals with passions and agonies that we can understand. In Holland a town clerk left a last inscription in the community notebook on December 31, 1942: "For we are left but few of many. We are counted as sheep for the slaughter, to be killed and to perish in misery and shame. May deliverance come to Jews speedily in our days."

About the time Abraham Toncman was pondering the fate of his people in Holland, a little girl who wanted to be a movie star was setting down her most personal thoughts in a journal. From 1942 to August 1944, Anne Frank complained about the crowding and discipline in the annex above her father's store in Amsterdam. But she also expressed hope when the Allies landed at Normandy. A teenager, she was falling in love, and she longed for a world without hate, where she might live as a Jew and Zionist. For many educators, The Diary of Anne Frank is the starting point for making the Holocaust relevant for young people.

Virtually the same aspirations are found in Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary (1972). The eleven-year journal (1933–44) of a young Jewish woman from Budapest contains some of the most moving writing on the Holocaust ever recorded. Older and more mature than Anne Frank, she expressed concern about anti-Semitism in the prewar period. Hannah Senesh steeled herself to racism by becoming an ardent Zionist and emigrating to Palestine. When her homeland was occupied by the Nazis, she volunteered to return to Hungary as a commando. There in November 1944 she was executed by a firing squad. Her poem "Blessed Is the Match" has inspired a book by the same name written by Marie Syrkin and has been incorporated into Reform Judaism's Hanukkah service. But a much more compelling statement is found in her 1941 poem "To Die" written at Nahalal, where Senesh speaks of the contrast between warm, sunny skies and the terrible consequences of war. She concludes, however, that she is willing to sacrifice herself for her home, her land, and her people.

Two other journals merit special mention. Few documents are as poignant as Janusz Korczak's Ghetto Diary (1978). The notes of the gentle pediatrician from Warsaw were published posthumously, Korczak having accompanied 190 orphan children to death at Treblinka in the summer of 1942. Korczak (whose real name was Henryk Goldszmit) wrote of sick and abandoned children who needed to be tended, of reading stories over and over to them, of people lying on the streets dying of starvation, of his own personal torment whether to use euthanasia on his orphans, and of his hope for a world where no child would be barred from playing with any other. As if anticipating those who would deny the facts of Nazi genocide, Korczak concluded thoughtfully, "What matters is that all this did happen."

Korczak, Senesh, and Anne Frank were not professional historians. But Emmanuel Ringelblum was, and his writings, recovered between 1946 and 1950 from milk jars buried during the war, constitute a conscious effort on the part of a trained historian to document what occurred in the Warsaw ghetto. A Labor Zionist who worked for the Jewish Historical Institute before the war, Ringelblum served as the model for the fictional character Noach Levinson in John Hersey's inspirational novel The Wall. Like Levinson, Ringelblum organized intellectual meetings in the ghetto where Peretz and Sholom Aleichem were discussed. Ringelblum's journal, however, transcends Hersey's novel because it is fact. From its masked opening in January 1940, addressed to Ringelblum's father, to the final entries posted in December 1942, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto (1958) tracks the progressive dehumanization of the largest concentration of Jews in Europe. The reader learns of expedience that compromised leaders of the Judenrat who though that they were sacrificing a few of their people to save the whole, and of the same expedience that forced overburdened families to turn a deaf ear to the whimpering of children freezing on stoops below. The reader learns how Jewish businessmen like Kohn and Heller and policemen like Jacob Leikin collaborated with the Nazis hoping to emerge richer and unscathed at war's end while volunteers at the Joint Distribution Committee, CENTOS children's aid, and TOZ medical aid worked valiantly in the most primitive conditions to help their fellow Jews. We learn what they were reading in that doomed quarter (the memoirs of Lloyd George, Napoleon, Tolstoy), how they regretted being herded into the ghetto, and how they wondered if the free world truly appreciated their plight.

Neither Ringelblum's notes nor The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan (1965) nor The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow (1979) cover the desperate uprising of May 1943. For that the reader should consult Philip Friedman's Martyrs and Fighters (1954), which includes lengthy extracts from Marek Edelman's The Ghetto Fights (1946), Melekh Neustadt's Hurbn un oyfshtand fun di Yidn in Varshe (1948), Tuvya Borzykowski's Tsvishn falndike vent (1949), and SS General Jürgen Stroop's report titled Es gibt keinen judischen Wohnbezirk in Warschau mehr (1943). Ringelblum's notes do not possess the sweep of history; no grand conclusions are offered. They are the words of a man afraid, a family man, who hoped that they would have value for posterity. Just as Anne Frank's diary has achieved epic status in literature, so too Ringelblum's notes merit a special place in historiography.

The postwar reminiscences of Holocaust survivors form an incredibly large corpus. Ever expanding, these works may be broken into individual accounts and collections edited by professional scholars. Among the more notable memoirs that tell the tale of Jews in Poland are Alexander Donat's The Holocaust Kingdom (1963), Leon Wells's The Janowska Road (1963), Bernard Goldstein's The Stars Bear Witness (1949), Oscar Pinkus's House of Ashes (1964), Vladka Meed's On Both Sides of the Wall (1979), Joseph Ziemian's The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square (1975), Sara Zyskind's Stolen Years (1981), Matylda Engleman's End of the Journey (1980), Halina Birenbaum's Hope Is the Last to Die (1971), Jack Eisner's The Survivor (1980), Izaak Goldberg's The Miracle Versus Tyranny (1978), George Topas's The Iron Furnace (1990), and Tadeusz Pankiewicz's The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy (1987). The story of Jews in Hungary is told in Rudolf Vrba and Alan Bestic's I Cannot Forgive (1968), Georgia Gabor's My Destiny (1982), Livia Jackson's Elli (1980), and Gizelle Hersh and Peggy Mann's Gizelle, Save the Children (1980). For the Ukraine, see Paul Trepman's Among Men and Beasts (1978) and Mel Mermelstein's By Bread Alone (1979). For Latvia, see Gertrude Schneider's Journey into Terror (1980) and Frida Michelson's I Survived Rumboli (1982). The story of Czechoslovakia is told by Hana Demetz in The House on Prague Street (1980) and Saul Friedlander in When Memory Comes (1979). On the Jews of Holland, see Marga Minco's Bitter Herbs (1960), Etty Hillesum's An Interrupted Life (1984), and Jona Oberski's Childhood (1983). On France, see Joseph Joffo's A Bag of Marbles (1974) and Sim Kessel's Hanged at Auschwitz (1972). Among the more gripping concentration-camp memoirs are Filip Muller's Eyewitness Auschwitz (1979), Kitty Hart's Return to Auschwitz (1981), Eugene Heimler's Concentration Camp (1961), Germaine Tillion's Ravensbrück (1975), Fania Fenelon's Playing for Time (1977), Luba Gurdus's The Death Train (1978), Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz (1973), and Isabella Leitner's Fragments of Isabella: A Memoir of Auschwitz (1978). Other recommended works that have a single person's perspective include Elie Cohen's The Abyss (1973), William Perl's The Four-Front War (1979), Peter Schweifert's The Bird Has No Wings (1976), Ilse Koehn's Mischling, Second Degree (1978), Judith Strick Dribben's A Girl Called Judith Strick (1970), and Charlotte Delbo's None of Us Will Return (1968).

A second approach to memoirs is for historians, psychologists, or community leaders to interview a number of survivors for the purpose of making some sense of the Holocaust. A number of these texts stress the heroic response of Jews to the Nazis. They range from the very good (including Yuri Suhl's They Fought Back: The Story of the Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe [1967], Anny Latour's The Jewish Resistance in France (1940–1944) [1981], Marie Syrkin's Blessed Is the Match [1947], and Eric Boehm's We Survived [1949]) to the more pedestrian (Ina Friedman's Escape or Die [1982], Reba Karp's Holocaust Stories: Inspiration for Survival [1986], and Milton Meltzer's Never to Forget [1976]). Some of the works have a clinical orientation, including the excellent Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators: Essays on the Nazi Holocaust (1980) edited by Joel Dimsdale, Sarah Moskovitz's Love Despite Hate: Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Their Adult Lives (1983), Claudine Vegh's I Didn't Say Goodbye: Interviews with Children of the Holocaust (1984), and Shelly Lore's Jewish Holocaust Survivors' Attitudes Toward Contemporary Beliefs About Themselves (1984).

The late 1970s witnessed the appearance of a spate of Holocaust memoirs. For more than a quarter-century, many Holocaust survivors were disinclined to speak about their wartime experiences. They concentrated on rebuilding their lives, and raising children. Once these children were grown and out of the home, the survivors were faced with their own mortality. Now they were eager to talk, and the result was the publication of books like Dorothy Robinowitz's New Lives: Survivors of the Holocaust Living in America (1976), Lucy Steinitz and David Szonyi's Living After the Holocaust: Reflections by the Post-War Generation in America (1976), Isaiah Trunk's Jewish Responses to Nazi Persecution (1978), and Helen Epstein's Children of the Holocaust (1979).

Following along these lines in his book The Holocaust, Martin Gilbert attempts to gather testimony from survivors in order to constitute a record of the Holocaust. The book gives a brief historical overview of Hitler's rise to power and continues to the 1945 death marches. The book employs diary accounts to substantiate conditions throughout. Interspersed with events are also memoirs, for example, Zindel Grynzspan recalling October 27, 1938, when he and his family were expelled from Germany, or Eric Luca's account of storm troops defiling a synagogue.

Gilbert also utilizes some of the chronicles from the ghettos. For example, the Lodz chronicle is cited in his chapter "Write and Record," which were Simon Dubnow's last words before being shot in the back in December 1941. Gilbert ends his book with the following rationale: "The survivors tell their story to their children, set it down in memoirs and testimonies, relive it in nightmares…. Each survivor faces the past, and confronts the future with a burden which those who do not go through the torment, cannot measure. 'I may bear indelible scars in body and soul' Cordelia Edvardson has written [in Gilbert's The Holocaust]; 'but I do not intend to reveal them to the world—least of all the Germans. That is the pride of the survivor. Hitler is dead but I am alive.'"

In Voices from the Holocaust Sylvia Rothchild employs a tripartite system of "Life Before the Holocaust," "Life During the Holocaust," and "Life in America." As editor, Rothchild allows survivors to relate their testimonies. She edits 650 hours of conversation in a gripping fashion that conveys to the reader a feeling that he or she, too, is "a kind of survivor." Stories are told by survivors from France, Greece, Hungary, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Holland, Yugoslavia, Germany, Austria, Italy, Russia, and the United States. Some have lived in Israel or South America. The preface gives the self-justification of the survivors "to our sons … may they never know the heartaches and agonies their parents suffered during those years except by reading this transcript or listening to the tapes," or "I tell you the only thing that kept me going is the burning desire to tell, to bear witness."

In excerpts from "Life Before the Holocaust," Rothchild offers a precise description of the survivors' place in society. A sense of loss and nostalgia is expressed. These tapes, transcribed in written form, offer impressions of European life in much the same way as other European Jews have related them. They are accounts full of social insights. Life is simplified with statements such as "We loved each other and helped each other. And then the Germans came" or "At my job everything was normal."

The moralizing tendencies of the survivors in this volume take on important messages. "Do not hate! Do not harm! Share with others less fortunate." "Remember the past and learn from it." Rothchild states that they share their painful memories of the dark places in recent history in the hope that things may never be so dark again. Sometimes the survivors reflect upon their experiences and feel strongly toward Israel. Their work in support of Israel may in fact bring about a personal redemption. For Stephen Ross from Dodz, Poland, freedom in America necessitates a state in Israel.

In Amcha: An Oral Testament of the Holocaust, Saul Friedman attempts to fill a lacuna in Holocaust studies. Friedman communicates the story of the mass of Jews who survived the Holocaust, the common folk "who lived on the periphery of colossal events." The book is limited, for the most part, to survivors who were acquaintances of Friedman in Youngstown.

Three themes are evinced in Amcha by the survivors: (1) widespread anti-Semitism, (2) an ingenuous attitude on the part of Jews themselves, and (3) resistance manifested in a variety of ways. The survivors' accounts include accuracies and inaccuracies as to events and places, but these are not the important criteria for this chapter. A search for apology and self-justification, integral themes for our genre, do turn up. Siep Jongeling from Holland expressed the view that "the Germans are not all bad people. I have no objections to Germans as long as they don't want to impose their will on me." Leon Lieberman theorized on survival: "In Buchenwald, you gotta survive. When I came in they [the Germans] noticed my number. They gave me credit for this and gave me a better job."

The book is also filled with reflections on life after the Holocaust. Morris Weinerman, the friendly carpenter from Youngstown, expresses his feelings: "I still have dreams. It has been a long time, and all the time I have been free. But in the dreams right away I am surrounded. All the time I am caught again…. We do not forget." Optimism is expressed by Esther Bittman Shudmak: "I don't think that anything like that would happen again. People now have access to ammunition and guns. People protect themselves more than in those days. I think now people care more about others in general."

Isaac Kowalski's Anthology on Armed Jewish Resistance, 1939–1945 is a repository of accounts on Jewish resistance by partisans and underground activists. The book contains memoirs, letters, testimonies, biographies, and autobiographies of the resistance movement. This work depicts the Jew as a fighter with a three-fold battle: fighting the Nazi invaders, facing the indigenous population who hated him, and struggling to exist within the partisan movement.

The anthology serves the aim of an apology, that is, to explain the situation of the partisans and their raison d'être to the Western community. To this end, Kowalski attempts to portray the Jewish partisan as a fighting soldier. He seeks to bury the lie that the Jew was not a fighting man. The romantic notion of Ph.D.'s as glamorous fighting warriors, "the new chivalry," is ferreted out in the book time and again.

The volume allows the partisans to speak for themselves, to enable the reader to sense the tension and to recapture the moment. Jewish heroism is paraded in Sobibor, the trenches, the ghettos, and at the front. The tendency to moralize, albeit in a grim fashion, is evinced in the book of Anthon Schmidt: "Every man must die once. One can die as a hangman or as a man helping others. I'd die for helping other men."

Revenge is also a value justification. Norman Salsitz took a machine gun and fired salvo after salvo into the Germans: "Their party was over. At this moment with the gun still hot in my hands I no longer felt like a victim. I had settled my score with the Scharffuhrer and my pact with G-d who had let me down so many times."

In Helen Fein's book Accounting for Genocide, the reader is asked to confront the Holocaust as an event challenging earlier notions of history. "To understand the implications of the Holocaust, the reader must grapple with its success." The book's main interest to us is the part that explores the responses of Jews, drawn from first-person records in Warsaw, the Netherlands, and Hungary. She records Ringelblum's diary on the Warsaw ghetto as well as the diary of Chaim Kaplan.

The section on the Warsaw ghetto employs memoirs and diaries interspersed as a literary device within a running narrative by the author. Fein even goes so far as to use excerpts from novels. Fein's book does not lend itself to the type of literary criterion that we have posed. It is essentially a work for sociologists that uses personal accounts of the victims to reconstruct the social psychology of the camp inmates.

A literary work of merit can be found in Yaffa Eliach's Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. She utilizes a long tradition of oral story telling circulating among the Hasidic communities and puts these tales and interviews down in print. The original interviews were conducted in nine languages and numerous dialects. The tales fall into four major parts reflecting four stages: ancestors and faith, friendship, the spirit alone, and the Gates of Freedom.

In the first part, "Ancestors and Faith" shows the reaction of the Jew, the innocent victim, when he encounters his executioners. Our first criterion of diary writing being a form of tradition is nowhere so exemplified as in this volume. The Hasidic tale with its themes of love, optimism, and faith in God ultimately triumphs in the world of the Holocaust.

The writing of autobiography, memoirs, and diaries is an enterprise that is essentially reflective. Not only do these authors engage in the task of writing about experience but also offer us their own thoughts of that experience. Thus different attitudes are adopted by these authors, conditioned by the momentous and monstrous experience that they all shared. They are rendering accounts about occurrences (history) while having participated in these events and in turn being shaped by these events. Thus the type of writing described here is not history but the reflective subjective passion of the participant.

The authors share a burning and important question that is rarely evinced: What is this account for? For whom is it intended? The attempts to address these issues are the raison d'être of these authors and are in fact the thread that ties this type of historiography together.

The autobiographers seek an explanation; they seek self-knowledge. In their quest for this gnosis they render an account of human action so that human understanding can profit. The accounts of history in any of the forms studied here are for posterity. They are for the present readers. They make an attempt to reach out across time to an audience so that the audience can be made aware of particular and subjective events. But they are also an exercise in self-awareness. The tension between these two objectives gives genesis to the passion in the literature. The reader then has the task of explaining the connection between the narrative of the individuals and their reason for its rendition.

Historical research can also benefit from the memoirs and diaries cited here. These are in fact statements of eyewitnesses and, as such, contemporary with the events that they attest. Praise is due for these sources because they are not derivative. If they lack the sound judgment and interpretation of historians, they do so because there is a distinction between the two methods. Our authors do not use the tools of the modern historiographer by collecting evidence and evaluating it. Instead, they turn to personal accounts and reflect back on them. The researcher will need to avail himself or herself of the patrimony of memoirs, diaries, and other accounts in order to evaluate the history of this period. This evaluation will allow a "lost" civilization to speak to new generations, render account of itself, and thereby fulfill J. Huizinga's definition of history. The researcher will then have contributed to the understanding of the period known as the Holocaust.

Walter Reich (review date 29 January 1995)

SOURCE: "In the Maw of the Death Machine," in The New York Times Book Review, January 29, 1995, pp. 1, 25-6.

[Reich is a Polish-born American psychiatrist and nonfiction writer. In the following review of Lawrence L. Langer's Admitting the Holocaust and Art from the Ashes, he praises Langer for focusing on the physical reality of the Holocaust.]

During the last five decades, many writers have tried to make sense of the Holocaust through philosophical, religious, psychological, symbolic and literary formulations. Often, they have tried to find some good in that epoch of profound evil, some way of distilling hope, or at least consolation, from that vast sea of despair. They have struggled with the meaning of memory, the limits of spiritual strength, the rupture of history, the ontology of survival.

But in the process, they have too frequently lost sight of what actually happened, of how the suffering was actually felt, of how death actually came, of who actually caused it and of how it was actually carried out. There was, in fact, nothing metaphorical about the Germans' systematic murder of six million Jews, nothing metaphysical or literary. The Jews were terrorized, humiliated, herded, enslaved, tortured, shot, gassed and burned; then their bones were ground up, mingled with their ashes and dumped into ponds or pits. There was nothing uplifting about any of this, no saving spiritual grace, no redeeming human nobility. Yes, some Jews, in the face of certain death, and with almost no support from anyone, resisted the ferocious German onslaught; but they rarely had a chance to accomplish much more than a gesture, and their efforts were overwhelmed by the murderous force of the Germans.

The problem with literary and philosophical abstractions of the Holocaust is that they tend to obscure the event's reality, immensity and singularity. Other events since then, also terrible but not comparable in scope, focus or planning, have been called holocausts as well; the misbegotten efforts at universalization and interpretation have too often yielded not understanding but rather a diminished appreciation of the intensity of history's most fiercely inhuman episode and of the extent of modern civilization's extraordinary potential for evil.

So it is important that Lawrence L. Langer has given us two books—a collection of essays [Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays] and an anthology of readings [Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology]—to bring us back from the vacancy of words to the density of physical reality. These books provide a sense of how Europe's Jews experienced, on a daily basis, the pressure of the Holocaust's ever-tightening vise, and of how they were extruded, finally, into the German death machine that processed them, with an ineluctable and brilliant efficiency, into ashes and ground-up bones.

In the introduction to his collection of essays, Admitting the Holocaust, Mr. Langer, a professor emeritus of English at Simmons College in Boston and the author of Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory, reminds us of our tendency, understandable but misleading, to adopt in dealing with the Holocaust "a persisting myth about the triumph of the spirit that colors the disaster with a rosy tinge and helps us to manage the unimaginable without having to look at its naked and ugly face."

Mr. Langer writes about our need to speak about survivors rather than victims, or of martyrdom rather than murder; to "evoke the redemptive rather than the grievous power of memory"; and to "build verbal fences between the atrocities of the camps and ghettos and what we are mentally willing—or able—to face." He stresses that one of the most difficult realities for us to grasp is that during the Holocaust Jews never had real choices—that they were all marked for murder, and that if they chose the line moving to the right, say, rather than the left, or chose to submit to the Germans in some way, they might put off their deaths for a while but not for very long.

In these essays, Mr. Langer illuminates the literature of the Holocaust—the chroniclers of the ghettos and the camps, the writers of Holocaust fiction and poetry, and the representations of the Holocaust in film. He deplores the television drama Holocaust, shown 17 years ago, which portrayed "well-groomed and sanitized men and women filing into the gas chamber," but applauds Steven Spielberg's recent film Schindler's List for its focus "on the steady fear that drains all feeling when one's daily diet is the ruthless and impulsive cruelty of the murderers."

No less valuable is Mr. Langer's other gift to us—Art From the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology. In one remarkable volume, perfectly suited for anyone studying the Holocaust, he collects personal accounts, many of them by Holocaust survivors, like Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, but some by people who were devoured in the cataclysm and whose writings were found where they had hidden them. Mr. Langer also collects Holocaust-related fiction, poetry and art, some by figures who have become well known, like Paul Celan, as well as work by others whose efforts are more obscure but no less compelling. Some of the accounts in Mr. Langer's anthology have been translated into English only in the last few years. Three of them are, in the unadorned record they leave, utterly gripping.

One of these is the diary of Abraham Lewin, found after the war. It describes the daily terror of the great deportation, which began on July 22, 1942, and lasted 54 days, of 300,000 of Warsaw's Jews to the gas chambers in Treblinka. On Aug. 12, Lewin pauses briefly to focus on his wife: "Eclipse of the sun, universal blackness. My Luba was taken away during a blockade…. It looks like she was taken directly into the train…. I have no words to describe my desolation. I ought to go after her, to die. But I have no strength to take such a step." Yet, in the same entry, Lewin quickly returns to the tragedy of his people: "The 'action' goes on in the town at full throttle. All the streets are being emptied of their occupants. Total chaos. Each German factory will be closed off in its block and the people will be locked in their building. Terror and blackness. And over all this disaster hangs my own private anguish." Lewin's last entry is dated Jan. 16, 1943, after which he and his teen-age daughter were probably caught in a roundup and sent to Treblinka.

Another diarist, Jozef Zelkowicz, provides a description of the deportation in 1942, from the ghetto in Lodz, Poland, of 20,000 Jews. Before that deportation, the ghetto's leader, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, believing he could save the majority of the ghetto's inhabitants by convincing the Germans that their labor would be useful to them, pleaded with the Jews of Lodz to give up their children under age 10 and their old people so that the rest, who could work, would be saved. Zelkowicz quotes Rumkowski's speech to the assembled residents, who realized that deportation meant death: "'The ghetto has been afflicted with a great sorrow. We are being asked to give up the best that we possess—children and old people…. I must stretch forth my arms and beg: Brothers and sisters, yield them to me! Fathers and mothers, yield me your children.' (Enormous and fearful weeping among the crowd.)… 'I have to cut off limbs in order to save the body! I have to take children, because otherwise—God forbid—others will be taken.' (Terrible wails.)"

The next day, Zelkowicz records, the "action" in the Lodz ghetto began: "Over on Rybna Street the police have to take them out of apartments. There they are encountering resistance. There they have to cut living, palpitating limbs from bodies. There they wrench infants from their mothers' breasts…. People scream. And the screams are terrible and fearful and senseless…. The whole ghetto is one enormous spasm. The whole ghetto jumps out of its own skin and plunges back within its own barbed wires. Ah, if only a fire would come and consume everything! If only a bolt from heaven would strike and destroy us altogether!… Everyone is ready to die."

In the end, giving up the children and the old people didn't stop the deportations to the gassing centers; the German intention, from the beginning, was to kill everyone, productive worker or not. The terrible choice Rumkowski thought he was making for the ghetto turned out to be no choice at all.

A third diarist, Avraham Tory, describes the roundup, in October 1941, of 10,000 Jews in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas (Kovno, in Yiddish), who were taken to a killing site known as the Ninth Fort, where Lithuanians, working for the Germans, executed them: "In the fort, the wretched people were immediately set upon by the Lithuanian killers…. They forced them to strip naked, pushed them into pits which had been prepared in advance and fired into each pit with machine guns…. The murderers did not have time to shoot everybody in one batch before the next batch of Jews arrived…. They were pushed into the pit on top of the dead, the dying and those still alive from the previous group. So it continued, batch after batch, until the 10,000 men, women and children had been butchered."

Compared with these firsthand accounts, fiction could be, one would think, only a pallid version of reality. Yet the fiction Mr. Langer collects in his anthology, much of it by survivors themselves, like Aharon Appelfeld, highlights the reality of the Holocaust with stunning intensity. In a story by an Auschwitz survivor, Arnost Lustig, a character listens to the sounds of people being shot outside his barracks and knows that the snow coming down is mingling with the ashes from a crematorium's nearby chimney: "I felt the snow, the ashes and the silence around me. I felt the urge to go outside, for which the guard would immediately shoot me before I got to the barbed wire. I wanted to touch with my lips a sliver of ash or snowflake."

And the poetry Mr. Langer collects evokes it all. Dan Pagis, a Romanian Jew who survived three years in German concentration camps, wrote in Hebrew. Here, in its entirety, is the breath-stopping poem called "Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car";

       here in this carload
       i am eve
       with abel my son
       if you see my other son
       cain son of man
       tell him that i

The most profound tragedy of the Holocaust is that it happened. But it is not yet finished. Its victims' mouths remain open. And so long as they speak, and even when they don't, we are driven, and privileged, to listen.

Michael Burleigh (review date 5 May 1995)

SOURCE: "The Unbelieved," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4805, May 5, 1995, p. 8.

[An English educator and historian, Burleigh has written extensively on Nazi Germany. In the following review, he discusses E. Thomas Wood and Stanislaw M. Jankowski's Karski, the biography of a Polish underground agent, and The Buchenwald Report, a study of the SS concentration camp system combined with testimony of Buchenwald inmates, edited and translated by David A. Hackett.]

Karski is the remarkable story of a modest man who has become a "professional hero", which the journalist authors tell with sympathy and verve, even if their hyperbolic subtitle ["How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust"] is rather discordant. Jan Kozielewski (also known as Witold Karski) was born in 1914 in the industrial city of Lodz in Poland. Educated by the Jesuits and at the University of Lwow, where he witnessed (and later regretted doing nothing about) attacks on Jews by right-wing students, Kozielewski joined the fast stream in the Polish foreign service in 1938 and, top of his class, seemed set to become an ambassador at an early age.

The war intervened. With his horse-artillery battery decimated by the Luftwaffe, Kozielewski fled eastwards, and found himself in an NKVD prison camp in central Ukraine. Concealing his rank from Stalin's class-warriors, Kozielewski bluffed his way back to Poland. (Many of his fellow officer inmates were subsequently murdered at Kalinin, Kharkov and Katyn.) Immediately reimprisoned by Stalin's Nazi allies, Kozielewski escaped from a moving train, returning to Warsaw where his elder brother—the city police chief—gradually inducted him into the underground. Adventures already tantamount to the Polish equivalent of a good war were shortly eclipsed by other acts of extraordinary heroism.

Jan Kozielewski became Witold Kucharski (the name of a student contemporary who was conveniently marooned abroad), a name which, by the loss of a syllable, produced his nom de guerre. Karski's intelligence, languages, mnemonic skills and ability "to wither into the background" equipped him to act as a courier for the faction-ridden Polish underground. During briefing sessions, he would listen straight-faced as the socialists relayed their fears of a post-war fascist coup, while their nationalist allies spoke darkly of a Blum-style popular front behind which lurked Jews and freemasons, intelligence he would store in his head as he trekked over the Tatras mountains and then half-way across Europe.

Inevitably, operations involving guides and safe houses ran the risk of betrayal. In June 1940, a Slovakian peasant turned Karski over to the Gestapo. The latter battered him with rubber truncheons, kicked out several of his teeth and broke a few ribs. During a period of respite from one such session, Karski extracted a razor-blade he had concealed in his boot, and sawed through his wrists in a desperate attempt at suicide. This resulted in a crucial period in hospital, from which his underground contacts were able to liberate him. Thirty-two people were subsequently tortured and shot for alleged or actual involvement in his escape. Underground security procedures meant that he was effectively quarantined for seven months on a country estate, where he had to take such precautions as keeping his sleeves rolled down even on the hottest of days lest anyone spot the giveaway scars on his arms.

Resuming his work as a courier, in August 1942, Karski met leaders of Warsaw's Jewish underground whose physical appearance enabled them to operate outside the ghetto. So agitated that their pacing shadows danced on the dimly lit walls, the Zionist and Bundist leaders were adamant that "not a single leader of the United Nations should be able to say that they did not know that we were being murdered in Poland and could not be helped except from the outside", and that therefore Karski would have to be smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto. After crawling through a tunnel forty yards long, Karski and a companion shuffled through the densely packed streets, past people in whom life consisted of a faint rustle beneath layers of rags, only their clothing separating them from the corpses that littered the streets. Members of the Hitler Youth amused themselves by taking potshots at faces incautious enough to venture near a window. In addition to returning twice to this nightmare, Karski followed the odour of evil to its operative centre: journeying to Lublin, he disguised himself as a Ukrainian militiaman and, accompanied by a guard who had been bribed, entered a holding camp at Izbica used to regulate the flow of Jews to the Belzec extermination camp. Hundreds of people were being loaded into boxcars whose floors had been covered with quicklime. They would either go directly to Belzec or slowly expire in some railway siding en route to it. What he saw led to an immediate mental breakdown, so apparent it put both his and his escort's lives in jeopardy. Afterwards he washed the experience from his body with water, and from his mind with vodka.

Disguised as a French volunteer worker, Karski made his way via Berlin to Paris. A dentist had injected his mouth with a substance that induced tumescence, which, together with the missing teeth, would plausibly offset the need to speak halting French during a long train journey. After he had crossed into Spain, British and American secret service agents escorted him to Gibraltar and thence to an RAF base outside London. Members of the Polish government in exile arranged meetings between Karski and ever more illustrious interlocutors. It became obvious that the latter were planning to disburden the Poles of eastern territories in order to oblige their Soviet ally. Although Karski's celebrity as a hero was used to attract the interest of senior British government figures, this strategy proved counter-productive, in the sense that it allowed senior British politicians deftly to switch the conversation from issues of substance regarding Poland's future borders or the fate of the Jews to the courier's personal exploits, with Eden on one occasion telling him to step nearer the window because "I want to see what an authentic hero of this war looks like".

The same pattern was repeated in Washington. Top policy-makers were invited to dine with Karski at the Polish ambassador's residence in order to whet the appetite of a President who was fascinated with the minutiae of cloak-and-dagger existence. On one such occasion, there was a curious exchange between ambassador Ciechanowski and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter over Karski's graphic description of the fate of the Jews: "Mr Ambassador. I did not say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him. There is a difference." Karski finally met Roosevelt. Demonstrating his unique capacity to transcend local Polish perceptions and prejudices, Karski explained the difference between Nazi policy towards Poles and Jews: "the Germans want to ruin the Polish state as a state; they want to rule over a Polish people deprived of its elites…. With regard to the Jews, they want to devastate the biological substance of the Jewish nation." Although Karski succeeded in holding the President's attention for an hour and a quarter, Roosevelt was predictably fascinated by the possibilities of equipping air-craft with skis to land in Poland; non-committal about both Poland's future borders or the plight of the Jews; and evasive on the subject of "wily" Uncle Joe's agents' efforts to subvert the Polish underground from within. Karski left overawed but also disappointed.

Since his numerous speaking engagements in America had blown his cover in Occupied Europe, Karski reconciled himself to a career as a propagandist and publicist. There are a few tantalizing references to wartime Manhattan, including drinking sessions with the young Leonard Bernstein. He wrote an account of his exploits, entitled Story of a Secret State (1944), although his literary agent persuaded him to drop a chapter on nefarious Communist activities, while his publisher none too subtly indicated that he should include something on his romantic life, muttering "Pity" on being told that these matters had a low priority in the cells of the Gestapo. Only thirty-four and somewhat adrift at the end of the war, Karski eventually resumed his studies and in 1953 joined the faculty at Georgetown University. Nicknamed "McCarthyski" by some of his students, he divided his time between teaching, buying and renovating old houses, and lecture tours in the Third World on behalf of the US Information Service. He had various on-going links with the Pentagon and CIA. In 1978, Karski contributed his spell-binding forty-minute interview to Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, where the trauma of what he had seen in the Warsaw Ghetto is palpable. Since the early 1980s, Karski has been fêted by various Jewish communities, and in Israel where a tree bears his name in the Avenue of the Righteous.

Economically written and well researched, the book does not explore in any detail why Karski risked his life on so many occasions, or what obliged him to insert the fate of Poland's Jews into the agenda of his various reports from the underground, even when this took up time his Polish political masters, who were never very far from his shoulders, would have wanted devoted to other issues.

Karski's powerful story ends in the routinized world of academic Holocaust conferences and the bestowing of belated thanks by grateful nations. The Buchenwald Report takes us back fifty years to when the actuality of these horrors was just being revealed. Shortly after the liberation of the camp on April 11, 1945, a report was compiled at the instigation of an intelligence unit from the Psychological Warfare Department of the US Army. It was designed to provide "in-depth analysis of the inner workings of Buchenwald and, by extension, of the entire Nazi concentration camp system". A team under the Austrian, conservative, Catholic inmate Eugen Kogon drew up the analytical and descriptive Main Report, which, following the suggestion of Richard Crossman, Kogon reworked and published as Der SS-Staat (1946, translated into English as The Theory and Practice of Hell). This drew upon the oral testimony of 104 prisoners interviewed while they were still in the camp. The documents containing the testimony went missing, and came to light again in 1983; they are published and translated for the first time, together with the Main Report, in David Hackett's well-organized edition that will be an invaluable source for future historians of the SS concentration-camp empire. Buchenwald was built by prisoner labour on a heavily wooded mountain above Weimar, housing at one point during the war nearly 90,000 people. It gradually spawned a number of eccentric facilities, such as an angora-rabbit station; a zoo; a personal falconry for Hermann Goering; and a vast riding hall where Ilse Koch, the commandant's wife, could prance around in front of mirrors to the tune of an SS band for half an hour twice a week. The SS guards disposed of a sculpture studio, which did a nice line in marble items for Himmler's desk—Viking long ships and painted porcelain—and well-stocked cellars and larders. The 150 guard dogs had considerably better food than the inmates, who, on liberation day, treated themselves to a load of dog biscuits.

Corruption in the camp was endemic; sadistic abuse by SS men, including more than their share of rheumy-eyed drunks and syphilitic sexual perverts, was a fact of everyday life. Virtually every piece of testimony by a prisoner bears witness to the "hands-on" nature of their approach, much of it of an extraordinary, psychopathic savagery, or else done merely to offset boredom, as when guards tossed prisoners' caps near the fencing and then ordered them to retrieve them in order to watch people being shot. The detail in the prisoner accounts is of a matter-of-fact, and frequently sickening, immediacy that leaves the mind reeling at human ingenuity in cruelty. Comparing these two very different accounts from the Second World War, we should all be thankful the values embodied in Jan Karski prevailed, and that, at least in western and much of eastern Europe, the bullies and murderers have been relegated to the margins.

Michael André Bernstein (review date 5 May 1995)

SOURCE: "Against Comfort," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4805, May 5, 1995, pp. 9-10.

[Bernstein is an Austrian-born Canadian educator and critic. In the following review of Simha "Kazik" Rotem's Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter and Lawrence Langer's Admitting the Holocaust and Art from the Ashes, Bernstein focuses on Langer's criteria for valid responses to the Holocaust.]

In the epilogue to Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter: The past within me, [Rotem's] gripping account of his time as the nineteen-year-old head courier of the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) which planned and led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Simha Rotem gives a bitter description of his arrival in Israel in the months just before statehood: "I was interrogated about everyone who had been killed, but I was never asked, even remotely, about those who had survived…. This was why, even after learning Hebrew, I didn't talk very much. I preferred not to tell about myself and where I had spent the war years." Rotem's shock at such a reception is hardly surprising, but the nearly universal lack of curiosity about a survivor of the single most famous armed Jewish insurrection against the Nazis surely is. In recent years, after all, we have often been told that out of a deep embarrassment at how a doomed European Jewry went meekly "like lambs to the slaughter", Jews in the post-war world, and especially in Israel, have over-emphasized the limited and largely symbolic acts of defiance by those few who chose to fight back against their murderers.

This, at any rate, is clearly Lawrence Langer's view, and the essays collected in Admitting the Holocaust emphatically, and it must be said, somewhat repetitively, insist on what he calls "the current disproportionate emphasis on resistance during the Holocaust", as well as on the utter untenability of the categories of individual choice or meaningful action by Jews caught up in the German machinery for their wholesale extermination. Langer, who writes that our task is "not to acknowledge heroic lives, but to mount melancholy deaths", thereby implicitly aligns himself with those who, already in 1947, were not concerned to ask Rotem about the few ghetto fighters who had survived, but solely about the myriad victims of the genocide.

Each of the chapters in Admitting the Holocaust was originally published as a separate article between 1983 and 1994, and the book usefully reprints such still pertinent essays as "Kafka as Holocaust Prophet: A Dissenting View". But the oldest of Langer's texts, like "The Americanization of the Holocaust on Stage and Screen", with its sustained critique of such commercially aimed ventures as Judgment at Nuremberg, the theatre and film versions of The Diary of Anne Frank, and the appalling television series Holocaust, could have been omitted without significant loss, since condemnation of their facile sentimentalizations is by now a commonplace in any serious writing on the Shoah. But even the more recent essays suffer from Langer's tendency to insist that he stands virtually alone in recognizing the evasiveness and irrelevance of conventional tropes of consolation, martyrdom and dignity-in-suffering when confronting the Holocaust.

Paradoxically, while stressing the emptiness of any notion of "heroism" in a context of industrialized mass extermination, Langer's own rhetoric stakes out a dubious claim to a singular intellectual-moral fortitude in being able to confront the bleak truth from which he thinks the rest of us turn our eyes. Langer so persistently indicts "us" for our "elaborate fantasies about the dignity of dying under or living through such miserable circumstances", for "the nostalgia that invades so many of our memories of the Holocaust", and for "the rhetorical shield of heroism that protects us", that by the end his book reads like an extended polemic against an "us" whose naive and wilful blindness seem little more than the projective fantasies of a polemic in search of easy targets.

It is hard to know what prompts Langer's certainty that "we go on using a discourse of consolation" based on "ideas like natural innocence, innate dignity, the innovative spirit, and the triumph of art over reality", in order to construct a "normalized or sanitized" interpretation of the Nazi genocide, since he provides little evidence for what he takes as the near-universality of such a strategy. Doubtless such voices exist, although it is hard to imagine how one might go about "sanitizing" the Holocaust, but they are neither as numerous nor as influential as Langer seems to believe, and when he frames his realization about the infernal universe of the Holocaust with phrases like "though I realize this statement may sound radical, unorthodox, or threatening to many readers", his insistence seems particularly misplaced. In this case, the "radical statement" that Langer thinks may "threaten" us is his rejection of interpretations that "read the Holocaust through the values implied in the stories of Jesus and Job"—as though these really were the archetypes habitually invoked in texts about the Shoah. Nowadays, I am afraid, everyone, at least in the American academy, longs to sound "radical, unorthodox, and threatening", and if it is sad to see a figure of Langer's distinction adopt the same vocabulary, it is still more distressing to see an interpretation of the Holocaust advertise itself in such tones. Langer is absolutely right to refuse to find any "lesson about the value of suffering for the growth of the human spirit" in the Holocaust, but he is attacking a stance whose moral obtuseness has been broadly recognized. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find any traces of so callous an attitude in the many scrupulously researched and carefully thought-through works that are currently shaping our understanding of the Shoah.

Langer's dismissive invocation of the Job and Jesus stories as exemplary narratives of redemptive suffering, although a curiously contrived target for so extended a critique, is characteristic of the basic premisses and arguments of Admitting the Holocaust, and these premisses and arguments are both seriously flawed on their own terms and potentially harmful in the ways they seek to circumscribe the range of appropriate discourses about the Shoah. Together, the theoretical positions staked out in this book, and the specific instantiations of those positions gathered in Art from the Ashes, Langer's deeply moving anthology of memoirs, diaries, fiction, drama, poetry and painting, both from and about the Shoah, seek to establish something close to a "canon" of appropriate responses. And, like all powerful attempts at canonization, Langer's, too, is as proscriptive as it is responsive, as confident of its criteria for excluding as of its grounds for granting admission.

To his great credit, Langer openly argues his case both for the perspectives he thinks face up to "the rupture in human values" enacted by the Holocaust, and against those he rejects for their unwillingness or inability to give up the search for some "mental comfort" in their accounts of the ghettos and death camps. And because he reiterates his fundamental principles so forcefully, Langer makes it possible to question them in an equally direct way. Put in the starkest terms, such a questioning would make three distinct but related counter-claims, claims that move outward in widening circles from the field of Holocaust studies to more general positions about the function of culture today. (1) Even if what Langer calls "a culture of consolation" ever was a regnant orthodoxy in texts about the Holocaust, which is questionable, such a discourse manifestly no longer occupies that role. (2) Jews did react in very different ways to the Nazi assault, and it is as crucial to learn about, record and understand those individual differences as it is to stress the common death which the Nazis tried to inflict on the entire Jewish people. (3) "The idea of rupture [and] the discourse of ruin", far from meeting with widespread resistance, actually occupy a central place in our culture's self-representation. The urge towards unbridled violence, the lust for domination, and the impotence of culture to act as a brake on our most savage instincts, have long constituted an enormous, if not actually the major, portion of our intellectual conversation about history as well as about the human psyche. To indict culture because of its helplessness either to prepare one for, or somehow actually to restrain, an event as lethal and cataclysmic as the Holocaust profoundly misunderstands the relationship between culture and lived experience; very little about either cultural or individual human values can be learned from how they bear up in a situation in extremis, and the Shoah is not an appropriate, let alone a privileged, gauge for the authenticity or legitimacy of those values.

Although Langer likes to initiate his arguments through rhetorical questions such as "does Holocaust 'remembrance' have redemptive power?", the problem is less the coercive nature of his question than the tendentiousness of its crucial terms. The existence of a "redemptive" view of art and culture is not in dispute, and it has been the subject of several probing critiques like Leo Bersani's study The Culture of Redemption (1990). But even at its most self-assured, the view that art can endow inherently painful or simply insignificant and transitory experiences with a compensatory dignity has always been thought of as applying only to an individual's private existence, never to the agony of a whole people. Holocaust "remembrance", like Holocaust scholarship and art, is not redemptive in the sense of repairing an injury, but rather in the sense of rescuing an irreparable catastrophe from the universal oblivion its perpetrators intended for it. But more generally, we need to be clear that narrated desolation, just like narrated hope, is an arranged mode of representation, and that, consciously or unconsciously, each relies on formal devices of structuring, lexical and tonal decisions, and specific emphases. At issue, in other words, is not what Langer seems to regard as an artificial and self-deluding rhetoric versus an unmediately "natural" one, but rather the truly difficult question of decorum in its full ethical sense: the ongoing attempt to work out which modes and techniques of representation are appropriately responsive to the exigencies of so monstrous a series of events.

This is why it is particularly disturbing to watch Langer essentially "write out" of Holocaust testimony those witnesses whose responses do not match his particular criteria. A characteristic example is his treatment of Etty Hillesum (1914–43), a young Dutch Jewess who kept a set of diaries (translated as An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum) during her internment in the Dutch transit camp at Westerbork, from which she was finally deported to be murdered in Auschwitz. Hillesum maintained simultaneous love affairs with two significantly older men in Westerbork, read works by Dostoevsky and St Augustine, and was determined to maintain as much of her erotic, intellectual and emotional vitality as possible. But precisely her efforts to sustain the values by which she had lived before Westerbork prompt Langer to discredit her testimony. For him, "our hindsight … makes her buoyancy seem pathetic and exasperating rather than praiseworthy". Langer believes that any attempt to maintain one's psychological continuity in the face of irrevocable annihilation can only be a form of evasion, and any report that does not register the total demolition of one's being is profoundly dishonest and must be rejected accordingly.

Although it is entirely legitimate to criticize post-war historians, scholars and writers on the Holocaust for error of fact or inappropriateness of tone, Langer's dismissal of the "breathtaking naïveté" of this testimony from a woman who died in the Shoah, and his judgment that "her verbalized courage approaches rhetoric" is deeply troublesome. So intent is Langer on his own rhetoric of condemnation that he completely loses touch with any sense of decorum, and after criticizing Hillesum's "arrogance of tone and style", he goes so far as to suggest that her "bland conclusions … may remind some" of the callousness of a post-war German prosecutor unable to understand the enormity of what the Nazis had done.

For Langer, a recorded experience of the Holocaust seems to be significant only in so far as it bears witness to 6 million similar fates, and although he criticizes Terrence Des Pres for "creating a collective identity called 'the survivor", Langer in effect de-individualizes both victim and survivor precisely by denying anyone the right to experience the Holocaust except through the categories and terms he himself has judged appropriate. And perhaps the most important of these categories, central to both Admitting the Holocaust and Art from the Ashes, is encapsulated in Jean Améry's famous phrase, "No bridge led from death in Auschwitz to Death in Venice". But Améry's dictum, for all its dark brilliance, needs to be carefully questioned, not merely recited; and finally, perhaps, it may open, rather than shut off, a whole series of questions on the relationship between pre-Nazi culture and the Holocaust.

Améry seems to indict Mann's novella, and metonymically culture as a whole, for the absence of such a bridge. But would not a culture that provided this "bridge" be much more alarming? What if, in other words, there were not a chasm, but rather, as has been argued by many, a continuity between the Nazi atrocities and the highest forms of German creativity? But in this context, I am less concerned to explore that question than to ask in more general terms why we ought to require of any work of art that it serve as a preparation for, or a link to, the experience of torture and genocide. And yet—though neither Langer's prefatory account of Primo Levi's life and work, nor the excerpt by Levi included in Art from the Ashes would let one suspect it—culture, in the specific form of Dante's lines about Ulysses in Inferno XXVI, did help Levi, if only briefly, even in Auschwitz. Levi's recollection of Dante's great canto did not provide a bridge to Auschwitz; instead it gave him a momentary bridge back to a different way of thinking about himself, a way that enabled him still to answer in the affirmative the question, "Is this a man?" I am far from sentimentalizing Levi's experience by invoking this episode, but I also think it cannot be elided without distorting our understanding of his testimony.

Clearly, neither Hillesum's diaries nor Simha Rotem's memoirs would find a place in Langer's anthology, but neither could the "Canto d'Ulisse" chapter from Survival in Auschwitz, and this is exactly what marks the limits of the anthology's authoritativeness. But the writing and art that stay within Langer's grounds for inclusion are generously and thoughtfully represented. In its scope and breadth, Art from the Ashes is the single most significant anthology of Holocaust writing yet published in English, and reading it is an almost unendurably painful, yet necessary, glimpse into what Langer rightly says is not an "anti-world, but the world as Nazi Germany decided it should be". That any voices at all have come back to us from that world is itself amazing, and although Langer's impulse to legislate what constitutes a legitimate response, even by the victims, must be rejected, his gathering of these voices represents an act of both vital remembrance and historical continuity.

Previous

Representative Works Discussed Below

Next

Anne Frank Revisited