On the Polish border with Germany, there is a town of Oswiecim. The history of Oswiecim is somewhat unusual, unlike the surrounding towns, there were no laws forbidding Jews to live in the town; and while Jews in neighboring towns faced the bloody effects of pogroms; the Jews of Oswiecim were largely left alone.
Centuries later, the town of Oswiecim would be known world wide, as Auschwitz.
Auschwitz was not history’s only mass murder site, or the only Nazi extermination camp. But, as the largest mass murder site in history; it has become symbolic of not only the Nazi policy of total annihilation of the Jews, but the utter depths of depravity human beings can sink into. Beyond the ‘Final Solution’, almost every aspect of the Nazi juggernaut of conquest, terror, mass murder and genocide, particularly against the Poles and Roma is captured within the specific space and time of Auschwitz.
Unique amongst almost every Nazi camps, Auschwitz was simultaneously a slave labor/concentration camp (where of course, people were killed as well) and an extermination camp. Although 960,000 of the at least 1.1 million victims at Auschwitz were Jewish; when Auschwitz first opened in 1940, the majority of the victims were Poles and Soviet POWs. It was not until 1942, that Auschwitz became the epicenter of the Nazi’s total genocide and in particular, the policy of annihilation of every single Jewish child.
Two books, “Auschwitz: A History” by Sybille Steinbacher and “Auschwitz: A New History” by Laurence Rees traces the devolution of Auschwitz and the place where as Laurence Rees succinctly puts it “mankind committed the ultimate infamy.”
Both Steinbacher and Rees have penned well researched and written authoritative histories of Auschwitz. The books compliment each other: Steinbacher’s book is a concise overview of Auschwitz, and Rees a comprehensive history of details and aspects of the death camp against the larger historical background.
Steingbacher and Rees add a convincing argument to the historical debate of the origins and process of the ‘Final Solution’; belonging to the ‘cumulative radicalization’ school, explaining the Final Solution as not a single order, by an accumulation of increasingly extreme policies towards the Jews. Rees in particular pays attention to ‘local initiatives’ of the Holocaust, as well as the overall policy and intentions of Hitler and the Nazi elite. He points out, in just one example, that one of that the shipping of 4,000 Jewish-French children to Auschwitz was at the initiative of the local authorities.
Steinbacher’s book is an overview of Auschwitz; from the history of the town, to the construction of the camp, to the prisoners, to mass extermination, rebellions, “medical research”, knowledge of Auschwitz by the allies; post war trials, and a final overview.
The prose is tightly structured and condensed; and the author includes an amazing amount of details in 155 pages of text. The narrative is very direct and the author’s style is to let the horror of Auschwitz speak for itself. We are told, for example, that the bunkers at Birkenau were designed for 180 people, but the SS squeezed in 700. The Roma “family camp” at Birkenau, where conditions were so horrendous, within a short space of time, 7,000 people died of typhus and gangrenous stomatitis, which was not present in other aspects of the camp. Perversely, the Roma camp also included a Kindergarten with fairy tale drawings on the wall. Himmler, one of the worst mass murders in history, was quite enlightened when it came to the environment, he created recycling programs at Auschwitz.
Steinbacher’s book gives a bird eyes view of Auschwitz, it is especially helpful in giving an overview and structure of Auschwitz on both a “micro” scale: details such as the different groups of prisoners/victims, the gassing process-is described in particularly stark and un-emotional terms, which makes it even that much more excruciating; as well as the “macro scale”: how Auschwitz became the epicenter of the liquidation and global genocide against Europe’s Jews, and the development of Auschwitz within the larger Nazi system.
The concise and well researched overview however, is achieved at the expense of personal narratives, experiences and details. For that, Laurence Rees’ “Auschwitz: A New History” makes excellent use of documentation, analysis, and above all, personal stories and interviews with perpetrators, victims and bystanders. Rees is aided not only by his own solid historian background, and his 15 years of diligent archival work, but also by the fact that the people directly involved in the Holocaust are in the last years of the lives; and many who have kept their silence for decades-are now speaking.
This allows us unprecedented access with the perpetrators, in particular the low ranking SS guards, some who were only in their late teens when they first begin working at Auschwitz. Very few of these guards display any remorse for what took place at Auschwitz. We learn that SS found that the biggest problem at Auschwitz was the corruption and that some of the young officers were making themselves wealthy by stealing the victims’ belongings. Rees also focuses on the stories of the survivors and how perseverance and the kindness of a stranger, and sheer luck led to survival.
There is a Polish political prisoner who is released from Auschwitz after outside intervention; after he is released, the SS guards ask him to fill out a surreal survey about his ‘stay’ at Auschwitz “did he have any complaints?” There is most remarkably, the extremely exceptional affair between a guard and a young Jewish woman-which ends up saving her life. There are two young children, Michel and Annette, who by a stroke of luck are saved from being transferred to Auschwitz. There is a young German girl, who is temporarily sent to Auschwitz, after it is revealed that she was adopted and is 25% Roma; she is adopted by a friendly Kapo before being released on the eve of the liquidation of the Gypsy Family Camp.
Unlike Steinbacher’s book, Rees’ book does not give a background history of the town; but instead starts with the construction of the camp. While in linear time, the book focus is on the Nazi era; the book at times diverges from the Auschwitz death camp, to different aspects of the Nazi Holocaust; from the first women & children from Slovakia killed in gassing; committed because it was “inhumane” to leave women and children to fend for themselves after the mass murder of Jewish males, the arrest of Jews at the English Channel, the rescue of the Danish Jews; to the horrific and morally complex situation in Lodz ghetto; to in one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in the entire book- the forced separation of young children from their mothers in France when their mothers were shipped to Auschwitz. After a few weeks of fending for themselves, the children are themselves murdered at Auschwitz. Within, Auschwitz, Rees focuses on the relationships between the victims, the daily humiliations, the brothels set up for the guards and some “elite” prisoners, the forced labor, the death march and the survivors return to the homes after the war. There are almost no happy endings. One Jewish prisoner of Auschwitz kills a German prisoner of Auschwitz. Polish families who hid Jewish families are made to feel shame and pogroms are directed at the victims when they come home.
Although the personal stories stand out, they are all woven into a larger tapestry of research and documenting Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
As Rees notes, there is one group of people who he cannot interview, but whose stories must be told, the 1.1 million people murdered at Auschwitz, in particular the 200,000 children. There is one particularly chilling anecdote told by a survivor which has stayed with the author since he first heard it: at the side of the railroad tracks were the personal belongings and baby carriages of the victims; there were so many carriages that it took one hour to pass them by.