The Painted Bird
They Fought Back: The Story of the Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe
Resistance Against Tyranny
The Murderers Among Us: The Wiesenthal Memoirs
It was Jeanne Moreau, drawing down the corners of her mouth, who spoke of the holiday crowds at Saint-Tropez; each winter-pale body turning gold in the sun and each pair of hands grasping the covers of Treblinka. At first in France, and now in Britain, Germany, and the United States, the signs of a best seller have appeared. Tens of thousands of people who will never read Hilberg or Reitlinger or the West German trial reporting, who have never visited a concentration camp, never seen a documentary film about one, nor met a survivor, will now form their impression of the Final Solution from this. Jean-François Steiner’s documentary novel will from now on become the general reference for “the camps,” as The Diary of Anne Frank and its dramatizations became ten years ago the general reference for the tragedy of the innocent individual under the Thousand-Year Reich. Therefore the first question to be asked about Treblinka is not “is it a good book?” nor even “is it a genuine novel?” though I think it is neither, but: Is it accurate?
Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec were the three camps set up in Poland under Aktion Reinhard to serve, not as labor or holding camps, but as extermination factories pure and simple. They were not in operation very long, but in about eighteen months Treblinka’s gas chambers put to death some seven hundred thousand men, women, and children, including the population of the Warsaw Ghetto. They were staffed by a small SS leadership commanding a motley guard unit, mostly Ukrainian. In Treblinka, a group of Jews temporarily diverted from the gas chambers did maintenance and construction work, and sorted the mass of baggage, valuables, human hair, and clothing from the incoming transports. The conditions under which this “Camp I” worked, although appalling, were considered enviable in comparison to those in “Camp II,” where a much smaller group of Jews shifted and cremated the corpses from the gas chambers, which were capable of “processing” between five and six thousand human beings daily. In the summer of 1943, when Treblinka had completed its allotted task, preparations began for the “liquidation” of the camp. Thousands of corpses which had been buried in pits were exhumed and incinerated as part of a methodical routine of obliterating all traces, and it was clear to the surviving prisoners that they would be obliterated too as soon as their labor was no longer required. Against incredible odds, a camp rising was planned and carried out. Several hundred Jews managed to escape into the forests, where most of them fell victim in the following months to German patrols, Polish anti-Semites, and other armed marauders. Some sixty are believed to have survived the war. After the rising, the dismantling of the camp was completed with thoroughness: nothing today remains.
Through M. Steiner, who interviewed many survivors, the world at large will now hear this story of utmost horror and supreme courage. But it must be said that in many details his account of what took place at Treblinka—and in the violently disputed episode of the resistance movement in the Wilno ghetto—does not correspond to the evidence given by survivors at the Düsseldorf trial of Kurt Franz, the satanic deputy-commandant known as “Lalka” (Dolly), and of nine other members of the camp staff. This is perhaps a small objection: written contemporary evidence is practically non-existent and memories alter with the years. More serious, it seems to me, is the Frenchified ideology which has been foisted upon the operators of Aktion Reinhard in the effort to give the narrative philosophical depth and symmetry.
M. Steiner refers throughout to “the Technicians,” meaning the SS. Lalka is presented as an enlightened industrialist of mass extermination, planning precisely and with all the refinements of psychology the running of the camp, the de-humanizing and subjugation of the prisoners, and the mental paralysis of the victims arriving in the packed boxcars to be gassed. Take this passage, found at random:
[The] desire for rationalization combined with a concern for detail clearly illuminates the grandeur of the machine…carried to this level, technique becomes an art which engenders its own aesthetic, its own morality and even its own metaphysic.
He then quotes Franz as saying that the staff must “create a perfect system, then we watch it work. As masters, our role is not to do but to be.” (Where is the evidence he ever said this?) All this has been taken up with high enthusiasm by Simone de Beauvoir, who in a Preface adduces Treblinka as evidence for the Sartrean theory of “serialization,” the reduction of a group to a series of isolated individuals who become enemies to each other and therefore to themselves. In a magazine interview, she takes this even further: she reproves Steiner mildly for saying that the Jews went to their slaughter like sheep because, through serialization, “they did not let themselves be killed as six millions but one by one.”
THE IMAGE of the SS as intellectual and cool-headed characters from Dürrenmatt will not do. Nor will the easy equation of their disgusting ingenuities with the “de-humanizing efficiency” of modern factory practice. There is a slight parallel, but to say that because Lalka had a mock station erected to reassure the arriving victims, made them do physical jerks so that they would inhale gas more deeply, and played the prisoners off against one another—to adduce all that and more as proof that he was a dark, prefiguring genius of the modern age is just wild. Franz was an ambitious and sadistic young man with a fund of bright ideas which—through the inertia of the commandant, Stangl—he was allowed to try out in practice. Treblinka itself, though it achieved its main criminal aim, resembled all the other camps in the chaos which prevailed there. Far from being aseptic machines, the camps boiled with disease, disorder, corruption, and crime, which constantly threatened to bring down the whole organization. No commandant ever achieved proper control, as the heroic rising at Treblinka demonstrates, and tidy-minded visitors from the Reichssicherheitshauptamt in Berlin were always appalled by what they saw. One invariably convincing moment in the pleas of Nazi criminals comes when they shake their heads in genuine horror and recall: “Es war ein Saustal!” (It was a pigsty). As for Madame de Beauvoir, one would ask in what way a Jewish family on the last walk to the gas chamber, even realizing what awaited them, was in a state of atomized mutual enmity.
To demonize the “SS State” in this way is a facile substitute for both historical truth and for serious study of the psychology of the persecutor. M. Steiner is on harder ground when he describes the state of mind of the Jews within the camp, and traces their recovery from utter enslavement toward the will to resist and save themselves. He argues that love of life is the central mystery which accounts for Jewish survival: “perhaps it is in this individual denial of death, the congenital inability to imagine it, that one can find the underlying cause of this miracle….” The Jews of Warsaw fought in order to die in dignity; the Jews of Treblinka in order to escape and live, and it is the second motive which M. Steiner defines as more Judaic.
His “novel” form allows him to put the mental struggles of the prisoners into dialogue, illustrated with many small incidents which cannot have been recorded. Whether such conversations really took place at Treblinka, we cannot know, but the fictional trick is an uneasy one. If it is objected that this or that did not happen, M. Steiner can plead that he has written a documentary novel. If it is objected—and it can be—that his fictional talents are very limited, he can retort that he is writing history. This would be no more than the usual grumble about any popular historical novel, if there were not a utilitarian argument at stake. Treblinka has only just happened. We still do not understand either what took place there or why. We have to know this if we are to survive. Books which combine the persuasiveness of both fact and fiction can only persuade the public that these questions have been answered. They have not.
THE DOUBTS raised by Treblinka are the same doubts which were raised by Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, first published last year and now reprinted in paperback. The Kosinski book is in fact an even more uncomfortable example, for his literary ability is incomparably greater than Steiner’s, and the fictional element is so much more powerful that The Painted Bird lies only just within the “documentary” category. This is a fable about the presence of Hell in Heaven and Heaven in Hell, about the proximity of filth and savagery to innocence and delight, an idea which—as the detail on the cover from The Last Judgment confirms—Kosinski shares with Hieronymus Bosch. A dark-haired waif, perhaps a gypsy or perhaps a Jew, wanders from one Slav village to another, sometimes hounded and tortured, sometimes protected, sometimes even taught. It is a world of abysmal, despairing sadism and excess. Incidents of unbearable horror are piled toppling upon one another’s back: a peasant woman lynched by impalement on broken bottles, a girl copulating with a goat, a rabbit flayed alive, a child ducked in a pit of maggots, an old man eaten by rats…Across this landscape drag the sealed trains carrying Jews to their doom. And to this horror Kosinski has added a quality of beauty: the country itself, the legends of the people, the tin-can braziers called “comets” because they were whirled into a glow at the end of a string.
It is only now that the Western world can appreciate how large is the element of historical truth here. A series of books written by survivors of Polish Jewry describe the persecution and often massacre of those who escaped from the ghettoes to the forests, at the hands not only of Germans but of local peasantry and even some resistance groups. Kosinski’s book is a fiction in the sense that he has concentrated for effect every imaginable atrocity into the life of one abandoned “alien” child, but it is written in the first person and at times reads very much like recalled experience (Mr. Kosinski’s or someone else’s). How, then, will the general reader take this narrative? Reviewers who do not know that something of the kind did take place in Eastern Europe and is now matter for the most bitter guilt and controversy have taken The Painted Bird as a rich slice of Gothic fantasy. The Poles, by contrast, have taken the book on its documentary pretensions alone and protest that it is a slanderous exaggeration. As the Poles have not been allowed to read the book, it has so far escaped them that the peasantry Mr. Kosinski talks about is not Polish but Ruthenian or Ukrainian. The bad conscience which this touchiness reveals does Poland some credit, but the net result of Mr. Kosinski’s ski’s “documentary novel,” as of M. Steiner’s, is a suspect document and a dubious novel. If Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was the model for the new genre, that book did stay within the bounds of imaginative journalism. If is not a discipline to despise. But M. Steiner is too grand and Mr. Kosinski too ambitious an artist to respect its rules.
IT IS NOT ALTOGETHER M. Steiner’s fault that Treblinka led to a fresh outbreak, this time in France, of the intolerable feud over the “passivity” of the Eastern Jews. He was certainly haunted by the resignation with which the victims—his parents among them—went to their deaths, and it seems a fair guess that he wrote the book in the hope of laying his own ghosts. Far from passing lofty “sabra” judgments on the ghetto mentality, however, and equally far from condescending generalizations about Ostjuden, Steiner took refuge in the “serialization” theory as a sociological explanation. Nonetheless, he gave offense, and it is welcome that Yuri Suhl has now published, in They Fought Back, an anthology of organized Jewish resistance against the oppressor. This book will at least do much to comfort those survivors who must still live with raw grief and half-healed doubts about their own reactions.
Many of these short narratives have been published before, but few were within reasonable reach: even The Jewish Quarterly falls short of the publicity these episodes deserve. Here are accounts of the resistance in the ghettoes of Wilno and Czestochowa and Bialystok, resistance unique in the whole history of the war or perhaps of Judaism in that the men and women in arms were at the very outset confronted with the price to be paid in innocent lives. While the ghettoes, through their very nature, became an organized clinging to the sacred and slender hope of life, the existence of an armed group at once brought general extermination closer. By what right did a handful of young heroes incur this risk for all the others? By what right, though, did the ghetto authorities order Itzhak Vittenberg, the partisan leader at Wilno, to give himself up to the torturers so that the community would not be wiped out by German tanks? Even the Jugoslav partisans, deciding in the forests to pay the price of reprisal massacres against their villages, did not face choices as tragic as these.
Professor Ber Mark describes the rising in the Warsaw Ghetto, relying much on the diaries kept by Emanuel Ringelblum, which were buried in tin boxes and milk cans and recovered—in part—after the war. There are chapters on the revolts in Treblinka and Sobibor, and three contributions by Misha Gildenmann on the part played by Jewish units in the Soviet partisan movement. Other Jewish resistance groups fought in Italy and Belgium, and Abraham Lissner records in extracts from his journal the extraordinary campaign of a Jewish group operating in Paris which bombed dozens of hotels, derailed trains, burned military buses, and attacked gatherings of German officers with grenades. Many other chapters honor individuals, like the couriers of Auschwitz and Warsaw, or the amazing Oswald Rufeisen who posed as an interpreter for an SS unit in White Russia while passing his information to friends in the ghettoes. Here, too, is the story of the “Baum Group,” the little band of German Jews who managed in the short time allowed to them to conduct resistance in Berlin itself.
Resistance Against Tyranny is another anthology, edited by Eugene Heimler, in which individuals reflect on their own motives for choosing that life of loneliness and fear which true evil reserves only for its most dangerous enemies. Some of them ask, too, what the life of resistance did to them as well as to the tyrant. These are very uneven essays, some surprisingly dull, but two lucid and impassioned contributions by Gisèle Halimi and Waclam Zagorski redeem everything. Zagorski writes about the Polish resistance, about his own progress from scribbling freedom manifestoes to the ambiguous savageries of partisan war, to killing German families, strangling traitors, machine-gunning passenger trains. Maître Halimi, a young Tunisian lawyer, defended Algerian rebels and published details of the tortures they suffered at French hands until les paras seized her in Algiers in 1958.
THE WIESENTHAL MEMOIRS should have been published before, and they must be published again in a new edition when Wiesenthal has yet more to tell. This man, who twice stood on the lip of his own grave and was spared by mere chance, emerged from the camp gates in 1945. Then, after brief hesitation, he turned around and went back into that unspeakable world to find something, justice, which had been lost there. Wiesenthal lives in Vienna, much threatened by phone, and runs the Jewish Documentation Center. His life is the hunt for old Nazis. It was he who found Eichmann and now Franz Stangl, Commandant of Treblinka; it was he who after years of searching stumbled on the clue to the man who arrested Anne Frank. Here is the evidence that Bormann, Mengele, “Gestapo” Müller are still alive. Here is the account of “Odessa,” the Nazi underground for smuggling the Parteiprominenz out of Germany after the war, and the story of that mysterious gathering of businessmen at the Maison Rouge Hotel in Strasbourg in 1944 which seems to have arranged—so early—for the transfer of Party and private funds to Swiss and South American banks.
Wiesenthal’s best friend is luck—so unpopular in the fictional thriller and so fascinating in his own casebooks. A name noticed in the obituary column of a provincial paper, a warrant issued and served with only minutes to spare; ludicrous coincidences which open the way to yet another gentleman who had lashed women to death and now runs an Evangelical Youth Club. The enemy is indifference. It may be the indifference of the Austrians, who are far worse than the West Germans in their determination to hear no evil until the electric megaphone is actually bellowing against their ear. I remember myself the discovery, in the peaks over the Töplitzsee where the Nazis dumped money and other more important things, of a man whose esophagus had been cut open from throat to abdomen in the effort to recover a paper he had swallowed: the Austrian police explanation for this injury was “Mice.” And the other sort of indifference is that of an American officer who said patiently one day to Wiesenthal: “At home we have Democrats and Republicans. Here you have Nazis and anti-Nazis. That’s what makes the world go round. Try not to worry too much about it.”