‘The Good Old Days’: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders
Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz
In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen
Stella: One Woman’s True Tale of Evil, Betrayal, and Survival in Hitler’s Germany
Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin
In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen
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. Writing about the Holocaust has become an industry in itself, one with a terrible and neverending 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 …