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Strategies of Hell

The Good Old Days’: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders

edited by Ernst Klee, by Willi Dressen, by Volker Riess, translated by Deborah Burnstone, foreword by Hugh Trevor-Roper
Free Press, 314 pp., $22.95

Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz

by Rudolf Höss, edited by Steven Paskuly, translated by Andrew Pollinger
Prometheus Books, 390 pp., $26.95

In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen

by Gordon J. Horwitz
Free Press, 236 pp., $22.95

Stella: One Woman’s True Tale of Evil, Betrayal, and Survival in Hitler’s Germany

by Peter Wyden
Simon and Schuster

Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin

by Inge Deutschkron, translated by Jean Steinberg
Fromm International, 262 pp., $18.95

In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen

by Nechama Tec
Oxford University Press, 279 pp., $21.95


Three years have passed since my review in these pages of fifteen books selected from the enormous Holocaust literature published during the 1980s;1 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,2 a chilling, witty novel about a Jewish boy and his aunt who survive the Nazi years in Poland by acquiring false Aryan papers, and Agnieszka Holland’s more recent film, Europa, Europa, about a Jewish boy who survived by becoming a member of the Hitler youth organization. But while Begley’s novel, however much it may be based on experience, does not claim to be other than fiction, the appeal of Europa, Europa as an exciting adventure story is marred, at least in my opinion, by its claim to be entirely true. I simply do not believe that a circumcised Jewish boy could have avoided, year after year, the rigorous medical inspections and the male-bonding nudity that were regular features of the Hitler Jugend training camps. It is also a bit too much to have a long lost brother turn up in a concentration camp uniform not a second too late before the young Jewish hero, captured by the Red Army as a Nazi soldier, is to be shot dead.

Some of the books under review tell no less unlikely sounding stories, yet they are thoroughly documented and so must be believed. Jews in hiding often had no choice but to share the fate of the ethnic group within which they had found shelter. Jewish women who were passing as non-Jewish Germans were raped by the liberating Soviet soldiers who claimed to be avenging Nazi atrocities. Jews pretending to be Polish Christians were persecuted and in some cases murdered by Germans, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians, and by Soviet soldiers eager to kill Poles. Jewish refugees serving in Soviet partisan units were in danger of being shot by Polish, Ukrainian, or Lithuanian partisans fighting both Nazis and Communists. If they joined other resistance groups, they risked being executed by Soviet partisans as suspected German or Polish agents. As he assumed one role after another, the hero of In the Lion’s Den,3 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, 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. 4

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” 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 suchlike 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.”

  1. 1

    See István Deák, “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.

  2. 2

    Louis Begley, Wartime Lies (Knopf, 1991). Reviewed in these pages on June 13, 1991.

  3. 3

    I will discuss this book in a second article.

  4. 4

    The American historian Bruce F. Pauley reminds us in his new and important book, From Prejudice to Persecution: A History of Austrian Anti-Semitism (University of North Carolina Press, 1992), p. xviii, 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, on the same page, 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.”

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