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Memories of Hell

Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps

by Tzvetan Todorov, translated by Arthur Denner, translated by Abigail Pollak
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 307 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Am I a Murderer? Testament of a Jewish Ghetto Policeman

by Calel Perechodnik, edited and translated by Frank Fox
Westview Press, 255 pp., $25.00

Auschwitz and After

by Charlotte Delbo, translated by Rosette C. Lamont, with an introduction by Lawrence L. Langer
Yale University Press, 354 pp., $16.00 (paper)

Death Comes in Yellow: Skarzysko-Kamienna Slave Labor Camp

by Felicja Karay, translated by Sara Kitai
Harwood Academic Publishers, 273 pp., $48.00

The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp

by Wolfgang Sofsky, translated by William Templer
Princeton University Press, 356 pp., $29.95

The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lódz Ghetto

edited by Alan Adelson, translated by Kamil Turowski
Oxford University Press, 271 pp., $27.50

Did the Children Cry? Hitler’s War Against Jewish and Polish Children, 1939-1945

by Richard C. Lukas
Hippocrene Books, 263 pp., $24.95

Trap with a Green Fence: Survival in Treblinka

by Richard Glazar, translated by Roslyn Theobald, foreword by Wolfgang Benz
Northwestern University Press, 196 pp., $16.95


It is hard to add much to the work of such eyewitnesses of the Holocaust as Primo Levi, Jean Améry, and Bruno Bettelheim or of the Holocaust historians Raul Hilberg, Omer Bartov, Michael Marrus, and Christopher Browning. Still, thousands of books have been published on the subject since the 1970s, many of them written by survivors of the camps, dozens of them appearing every few months. Although critics seldom acknowledge it, these books are often repetitive or lacking in distinction or insight.

Sometimes one need only glance at a survivor’s memoir to know how it will unfold: the story generally starts with the description of a more than comfortable pre-Holocaust family life, usually in Poland, with relatively prosperous, adoring parents and lovable brothers and sisters. The hero is intellectually curious and recalls his considerable academic achievements. (All of this takes place in pre-World War II Poland, whose government, schools, and people the same writers are likely to describe as fiercely anti-Semitic. “The Nazis,” one account runs, “were to remember this when they occupied Poland, and later used the hate which was burning so deep in the Polish soul as a tool to destroy us.”1 ) Although many of his family members perish, the author’s inner dignity and readiness to help others keep him alive. After the war, he goes abroad, usually to the United States, where he founds a new family and once again becomes fairly prosperous. He is haunted, however, by recurring nightmares from which some relief is provided by his addressing young audiences on the Holocaust and by his generous contributions to worthy Jewish causes.

I do not say that such stories are false, simply that many details appear to have been embellished by selective memory. It was almost always someone else, hardly ever the author himself, who lost his dignity and self-respect at Auschwitz, who stole a spoon, a needle, or a slice of bread from a neighbor, who lorded it over the other prisoners, or who escaped the gas chambers at the cost of a fellow inmate’s life.2 And who can believe that so many writers have perfect recall, enabling them to reproduce verbatim conversations they had, or overheard, half acentury earlier? The truth is that not all survivors were heroes; nor do they all know how to write a book. An accurate record of the Holocaust has been endangered, in my opinion, by the uncritical endorsement, often by well-known Jewish writers or public figures, of virtually any survivor’s account or related writings.

Establishing a critical consensus about that memory has proven difficult in other ways as well. In the vast literature of the Holocaust, scholars have disagreed on nearly every major issue. They have been unable to establish with any precision, for example, the respective guilt and responsibility for the Holocaust of the Führer, his immediate underlings, the SS, the Wehrmacht, the Gestapo, the Nazi Party, the German social elites, and the rest of the Germans. Nor do they know for certain when, and by whom precisely, the satanic plan called the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was conceived.

In his recent sensational book on the Germans and the Holocaust,3 Daniel Goldhagen, for example, writes that hundreds of thousands of Germans were directly involved in the extermination process and that, thanks to a long tradition of personal hatred for the Jews, nearly every German was willing to become involved. “The ubiquitous and profound hatred of the ghettoized Jews,” he writes, “…was integral to German culture as Germany emerged from the middle ages and early modern times,” and anti-Semitism “continued to be an axiom of German culture throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”4 Goldhagen also argues that the atrocities committed against Jews by non-Germans, whether Ukrainians, Romanians, Croats, or Latvians, among many others, were essentially a byproduct of the German Holocaust and that, although the Germans tortured and killed many non-Jews, the other victims were privileged in comparison with Jews.

The success of Goldhagen’s simplistic account suggests to me that historians have failed to make the public understand the immensely complex workings of Nazi terror and of the European civil war that raged between 1939 and 1945. Nor will the books discussed here—a small selection from the hundreds recently published—settle any of the outstanding questions, although they take up again such convoluted debates as the nature of Jewish-Polish relations during World War II, the responsibility of non-German Europeans in the death of Jews, the guilt or innocence of the Jewish Councils, other members of the ghetto, and concentration camp elites, and the difference between Nazi and Soviet concentration camps.

Of the books under review, Tzvetan Todorov’s Facing the Extreme is perhaps the most ambitious, for he attempts to analyze how people behaved in both the German and Soviet concentration camps and to examine much of the literature of the Holocaust and of the Soviet Gulag. He has written an intellectually honest, unpretentious, and deeply optimistic book, which is almost religious in its conviction that goodness existed in the midst of the worst atrocities and, in fact, arose in response to those atrocities.

The ultimate test of human dignity, for Todorov, is the emblem of the totalitarian regime, the concentration camp. Can there be moral life in such a place? Some famous survivors like Jean Améry, Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski, and Eugenia Ginzburg (who spent twenty years at the Kolyma camp in the Soviet Union) argue that in the camps a moral position was impossible. “It was a Hobbesian life,” Levi writes, “a continuous war of everyone against everyone.” In his book Trap with a Green Fence, Richard Glazar, who was among the few Jews arriving in the Treblinka camp to be enlisted as workers in the death factory, horrifyingly corroborates this argument. At Treblinka, near Warsaw, Glazar was assigned to sortand pack the goods confiscated from the gas chamber’s victims. It was backbreaking labor but it brought extraordinary benefits. Valuable goods could be stolen and later exchanged with the Ukrainian and SS guards, and the food and clothing the murdered Jews left behind allowed Glazar and his companions to be among the best-fed and best-dressed of the Jewish victims of Nazism.

Moreover, as Glazar explains, the welfare of the working prisoners depended directly on the number of death trains arriving at Treblinka. When the trains became less frequent, the inmate-workers starved; thus when the number of trains suddenly increased, they shouted “Hurrah, hurrah!” The same trains often disgorged the prisoners’ own relatives and friends en route to the gas chambers. In other camps, mothers sometimes pretended not to know their children in order to save their own lives.

Todorov, however, finds many exceptions to the law of the jungle in concentration camp literature and points out that Primo Levi and other pessimists themselves performed quiet acts of compassion and heroism. Not everybody became demoralized, and survival was often a question of mutual assistance and sympathy. Levi’s survival, for example, would have been impossible without the help of such good friends as the Italian worker Lorenzo, who brought him soup every day. Todorov also writes about Margarete Buber-Neumann, the non-Jewish German Communist who fled to the Soviet Union. Once there, both she and her husband, the German Communist leader Heinz Neumann, were arrested. Heinz disappeared forever in the Gulag; Margarete spent two years in a camp in Kazakhstan, after which, in 1940, the Soviet police handed her over to the Gestapo. She spent the next five years in Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she risked her life to save other women from being selected for the gas chamber. Or consider the non-Jewish French poet and resistance fighter Charlotte Delbo, who, although she suffered unspeakable agonies at Auschwitz, wrote that in her group of French women, “Everyone who returned knows that, without the others, she would not have come back.”

Todorov carefully distinguishes between spontaneous acts of humanity and group solidarity. The latter was often the best guarantor of survival, but was almost always possible only at a cost to outsiders. French Jews acted in solidarity against other Jews, Orthodox Jews against secular Jews; French political prisoners shared none of their Red Cross packages with Russian prisoners; Communists turned on non-Communists and were particularly vicious toward fellow Communists whom the Party had branded as Trotskyites. Where was the dividing line between group solidarity and murderous group egoism? In his fictionalized reminiscences, the Hungarian writer Imre Kertész, who was deported to Auschwitz as a young boy in 1944, describes his utter isolation as an assimilated, irreligious, and patriotic Hungarian Jew among Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking Polish Jews. Not only had he been robbed, beaten, and deported to Auschwitz by the Hungarians, but once there, he was rejected by fellow prisoners as a “Gentile” and a Hungarian.5 Todorov cites admiringly the example of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who at Auschwitz took the place of a political prisoner about to be executed who had a wife and children. But Kolbe, who has recently been canonized, sacrificed his life for a fellow Pole, not for a Jew or a Russian. In fact, he was a notorious anti-Semite.

In the concentration camp, Todorov argues, moral values inevitably conflict with the need to ensure one’s own survival, and suffering can make some people better while it degrades others. Facing the Extreme also warns against uncritically admiring intellectual or creative activity simply because it took place under the camp’s harrowing circumstances. Some intellectually energetic persons tended to make use of those around them—as did the Jewish conductor at Auschwitz, who cared more for musical perfection in her orchestra than for her musicians. After all, the SS, too, loved music, and when she died, SS officers covered her coffin with white flowers: “With bowed heads, [they] wept over the remains of their Jewish prisoner.”

There is a fundamental difference between the ways in which Daniel Goldhagen and Tzvetan Todorov perceive “ordinary Germans.” Goldhagen’s ordinary German policemen, soldiers, workers, and housewives had absorbed, through generations of anti-Semitic culture, a tendency to hate all Jews, while Todorov’s ordinary German concentration camp guards were, more than anything else, obeying the orders of a totalitarian state. Totalitarian regimes, he argues, tried to inculcate the ideas that the enemy is an internal one, that the enemy must be killed, that all men do not have the same rights, and that the state is the custodian of society’s ultimate aims. “The enemy is not a human being” was a belief that animated not only millions of Germans but, according to Todorov, members of the Soviet police as well.

Some readers might resent Todorov’s decision to address the Nazi and the Soviet systems in the same breath. He quotes, for instance, the following lines by the Polish writer Gustaw Herling, a former inmate of the Soviet Gulag:

I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug [River], on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope.

  1. 1

    Joseph Freeman, Job: The Story of a Holocaust Survivor (Paragon House, 1995), p. 11.

  2. 2

    In some recent memoirs, it must be said, the writers do not embellish their own role during the Holocaust. Leon Arditti, a French-Bulgarian Jew who survived Auschwitz, found himself in an unbearably crowded open railroad car in Germany at the end of the war. Those still able to move tossed not only the dead but sometimes even the dying over the side. “A rattle—oh, very faint, barely localizable, yet clearly audible to the one lying in wait for it…. I slide myself in his direction, straining my muscles to do the maximum. I’m beside him, I crawl onto him, kneel over his face. Oh, I am not doing it out of charitable compassion, to help him out of his misery, no. I am simply doing what all the others have already done before me, hastening the process. There, it’s over, the rattling has stopped…. He is quite dead. Okay, let’s go.” Arditti, his brother Oscar, and two other men heave the man over the side. “What bounty, this free space!” See Arditti’s The Will to Live: Two Brothers in Auschwitz, translated from the French by Nanette Guinta (Shengold, 1996), pp. 78-79.

  3. 3

    Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Knopf, 1996). Reviewed in The New York Review by Gordon Craig, April 18, 1996.

  4. 4

    Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, pp. 55 and 32.

  5. 5

    Imre Kertész, Fateless, translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson (Northwestern University Press, 1992).

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