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.” ) 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. 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 …

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Letters

Memories of Hell’: An Exchange September 25, 1997