Last Christmas of the War

In more ways than one, Monowitz, a part of Auschwitz, was not a typical camp. The barrier that separated us from the world—symbolized by the double barbedwire fence—was not hermetic, as elsewhere. Our work brought us into daily contact with people who were “free,” or at least less slaves than we were: technicians, German engineers and foremen, Russian and Polish workers, English, American, French, and Italian prisoners of war. Officially they were forbidden to talk to us, the pariahs of KZ (Konzentrations-Zentrum), but the prohibition was constantly ignored, and what’s more, news from the free world reached us through a thousand channels. In the factory trash bins we found copies of the daily papers (sometimes two or three days old and rain-soaked) and in them we read with trepidation the German bulletins: mutilated, censored, euphemistic, yet eloquent. The Allied POWs listened secretly to Radio London, and even more secretly brought us the news, and it was exhilarating. In December 1944 the Russians had entered Hungary and Poland, the English were in the Romagna, the Americans were heavily engaged in the Ardennes but were winning in the Pacific against Japan.

At any rate, there was no real need of news from far away to find out how the war was going. At night, when all the noises of the Camp had died down, we heard the thunder of the artillery coming closer and closer. The front was no more than a hundred kilometers away; a rumor spread that the Red Army was already in the West Carpathians. The enormous factory in which we worked had been bombed from the air several times with vicious and scientific precision: one bomb, only one, on the central power plant, putting it out of commission for two weeks; as soon as the damage was repaired and the stack began belching smoke again, another bomb and so on. It was clear that the Russians, or the Allies in concert with the Russians, intended to stop production but not destroy the plants. These they wanted to capture intact at the end of the war, as indeed they did; today that is Poland’s largest synthetic rubber factory. Active anti-aircraft defense was nonexistent, no pursuing planes were to be seen; there were guns on the roofs but they didn’t fire. Perhaps they no longer had ammunition.

In short, Germany was moribund, but the Germans didn’t notice. After the attempt on Hitler in July, the country lived in a state of terror: a denunciation, an absence from work, an incautious word were sufficient to land you in the hands of the Gestapo as a defeatist. Therefore both soldiers and civilians fulfilled their tasks as usual, driven at once by fear and an innate sense of discipline. A fanatical and suicidal Germany terrorized a Germany that was by now discouraged and profoundly defeated.

A short time before, toward the end of October, we’d had the opportunity to observe a close-up of a singular school of fanaticism, a typical example of…

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