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The Incomprehensible Holocaust’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Incomprehensible Holocaust: An Exchange from the December 21, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

I am making a documentary film about the 1200 British prisoners of war who worked in the Auschwitz III/I.G. Farben Buna factory, and whose experiences are virtually unknown. These POWs were taken from the ranks (officers did not have to serve on work-details) and witnessed daily all the horrors of Auschwitz III. as described by Primo Levi, and were fully aware of the extermination process in Birkenau. Those still alive are part of what Istvan Deak believes is “a silent international of those who endured blows while digging ditches, carrying sacks of cement, or lifting cruelly heavy railroad ties on their shoulders” [NYR, December 21, 1989].

The surviving POWs I have located all say that compared to the Jewish workers, they were not ill-treated. They existed on a similar diet to the concentration camp prisoners, but were saved from starvation by the Red Cross parcels they received from Britain. This I believe, makes their testimonies particularly important, as they were unable to do anything about the brutalities and killings they witnessed, and clearly have no reason to exaggerate their experiences. If they had tried to intervene, they would have been shot. Some worked alongside the Jewish prisoners; other details were segregated and closely guarded, and if by chance any of them could help it was always pitifully inadequate.

What is striking about those I have interviewed is that their language is still full of popular anti-Semitic beliefs. It is the same kind of belief in the Jewish stereotypes that Graham Greene believed in, and portrayed in his novels of the 1930s. Yet, theirs is a complex anti-Semitism. For instance, it has not occurred to any of them that I am—or might be—Jewish, and when I asked them to describe the Jewish prisoner, their tone was one of compassion (a word they would be embarrassed by) toward the appalling suffering and almost certain death that awaited the Jews

This complexity can be illustrated by the contents of a letter I received from a British POW and repeated when we met:

We fed to the Jews what we could afford from our tiny rations. When the Red Cross parcels got through we gave more, plus cigarettes; these they saved and when no parcels came through they would sell them back to us for our bread ration “always the business man” [his quotes].

Sometimes the smoke from the ovens used to sweep over the camp and we used to wonder if this were some one we knew at the plant where we worked.

Faced with this complexity, I find it disturbing that Dr. Michael Nelson can write with such confidence that it was 2,000 years of anti-Jewish Christian teaching that led to the Holocaust. I do not know if he actually believes that all Christians are therefore equally culpable, or whether he has just been carried away by his own rhetoric. And if he does believe it, is he not aware that he is propagating a pernicious myth of an avengeful Christian stereotype, that is as abhorrent as any other religious or racial stereotype? Has he learned nothing?

The film will not be about the suffering of the British prisoners of war, but will use their testimonies to describe the reality of the Auschwitz Buna factory, and will also show how I. G. Farben, a great industrial combine, built it as a capital investment, and then ran it on slave labour. This, unfortunately, is only too explicable.

If there are any readers—either former concentration camp prisoners or POWs—who worked in the Buna factory, I would be grateful if they would contact me.

Maurice Hatton
Mithras Films Ltd.
3 Cambridge Gate
London, England NW1 4JN

Istvan Deak replies:

Here is one of several references in Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz to that camp’s most incongruous inmates, the 1,200 odd British prisoners of war: > The latrine is an oasis of peace. It is a provisional latrine which the Germans have not yet provided with the customary partitions to separate the various divisions: “Nur für Engländer,” “Nur für Polen,” Nur für Ukrainische Frauen,” and so on, with, a little apart “Nur für Häftlinge [prisoners].” Inside, shoulder by shoulder, sit four hollow-faced Häftlinge: a bearded old Russian worker with the blue stripe OST on his left arm; a Polish boy, with a large white P on his back and chest; an English P.o.W., with his face splendidly shaven and rosy and his khaki uniform neat, ironed and clean, except for a large KG (Kriegsgefangener) on his back.

How awkwardly indeed the British fit into Auschwitz III, the pride of the German chemical industry, where thousands upon thousands died! Unlike these impeccable involuntary visitors from the West, Jews, Poles, Russians, and other East European scum were allowed no Red Cross parcels; nor did they have homelands capable of sending clothing and food. As Levi notes elsewhere in his book, the British prisoners’ Red Cross parcels became a major source of wealth for the camp’s black marketers: “in exchange for a single English cigarette you can make enough in Lager not to starve for a day.”

Maurice Hatton is to be praised for preparing a documentary film on the British prisoners in Auschwitz; it will help us understand the incredibly complex social, ethnic, and political hierarchy of the concentration camps where, for instance, Western prisoners of war were treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention (note that officers did not have to work!) while Soviet and other East European prisoners of war were treated worse than animals. This example illustrates, better perhaps than any other, the dual nature of World War II: generally fair in the West but uniquely brutal in the East. It was as if two different wars were being fought simultaneously. In Western Europe, only Jews and resistance fighters were made to feel the full weight of Nazi fury; in Eastern Europe, no one was really safe.

I am not convinced, despite what Maurice Hatton has been told, that a British prisoner of war would have been shot for attempting to intervene on behalf of his less fortunate fellow inmates. If a British, American, or, for that matter, German soldier survived the early stages of capture on the Western front, his chances of surviving the entire war were excellent. These soldiers were rarely, if ever, executed for attempting to escape, engaging in black market activity, or trying to help others. German fairness toward Allied prisoners of war was even extended to Jews in British or American uniform: they alone of all the Jews in Nazi captivity had little to worry about. One reason for this leniency was the Germans’ fear of retribution against the more numerous German prisoners in Allied hands. But this could not have been the whole story, for the Soviets, too, held hundreds of thousands of German prisoners, yet Soviet POWs were killed en masse. There was also the feeling that American and British soldiers represented a “better breed,” and more importantly, there was the Germans’ perception of the war in the West as an unwanted imposition: the sooner it ended in a peace of reconciliation, the better for all concerned. For the Nazis, the real war was in the East, a struggle for “living space” and the eradication of “subhuman” races who, by some devilish trick of fate, also assumed, in the Nazi imagination, the characteristics of supernatural beings, superior in cunning, perseverance, and ability to conquer. Against such enemies, any and all methods of extermination were considered necessary and legitimate.

Maurice Hatton relates that the British prisoners felt genuine compassion for their suffering fellow prisoners; yet they did not and could not fathom the extent of the Jewish and East European tragedies. Have we progressed very far from World War II days? Today, when Western observers compete with one another in celebrating the East European revolutions but also in denigrating the ability of East Europeans to organize their lives and to establish working democracies, we may want to remind ourselves of the nearly unbelievable extent of East European turmoil in the past several decades. The fact that, with one inevitable exception, East Europeans have succeeded in liberating themselves peacefully suggests that they have learned from their own tragedy. Nor do these nations evince the slightest inclination to go to war against one another again.

At the same time, we should remember that the history of Eastern Europe does not begin in this century: every single East European nation, the Russian included, can boast of some tradition of parliamentary politics and strong traditions of religious, political, and ethnic tolerance. Polish, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Transylvanian, Croatian, Walachian, Moldavian, and Russian noble diets arose more or less in the same period as their counterparts in the West. Premodern Jewry, expelled from Western Europe, found a convenient home in the East. Religious diversity was legally recognized in the sixteenth century Poland and Transylvania, while in the West heretics and Catholics were being burned at the stake. Finally, to give but one more example, independent judiciaries flourished in nearly every nineteenth-century East European state.

World War II and its terrible aftermath have now finally come to an end: let us trust the ability of East Europeans to build better societies on the ruins left behind.

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