IT IS NOW MORE THAN SIXTY YEARS after the almost unimaginable events this book describes, and despite all efforts to make sure that the twelve incredible years of Hitler’s sway will never be forgotten, the fact remains that few of those who experienced the Nazi concentration camps are alive to bear witness. Inevitably and inexorably, history reduces the personal to the impersonal, subsumes the individual into the collective, renders the immediate remote. Monuments and museums, however eloquent, can never truly or fully convey the experience itself. That is why Dr. Miklos Nyiszli’s book remains so important some six decades after it was written, more than fifty years after it first appeared in Jean-Paul Sartre’s monthly review, Les Temps Modernes. One of the earliest books published on the subject—at a time when many preferred not to know what really went on day to day in the death camps—Auschwitz, for all the moral ambiguity of its author’s stance (which is duly noted by Bruno Bettelheim in his eloquent foreword), remains, as the New York Review of Books noted in a roundup of several books on the subject, “the best brief account of the Auschwitz experience available to a reader.” For this new edition, a few words of background are in order.
In mid-March 1944 the Germans invaded Hungary. All Jews were immediately consigned to house arrest, in conformance with Hitler’s longstanding Schutzhaft, which he introduced in 1933 immediately after coming to power, to cow and control all those who might conceivably pose a threat to his then new regime. Deportations began soon afterward. In April, Dr. Nyiszli and his family, together with all the Jews of his city, Oradea-Nagyvarad, were shipped to Auschwitz, in the all too familiar cattle cars the Nazis used to accomplish the first, debasing step of their Final Solution. Separated from his wife and daughter upon arrival, Dr. Nyiszli was shortly chosen by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele to take charge of all the pathological work carried on in the camp. As such, Nyiszli became a member of the Sonderkommando, the specially qualified and privileged group of prisoners who worked exclusively inside the crematoriums. This Sonderkommando, also known as the “kommando of the living dead,” was made up of 860 male prisoners chosen for their various professional abilities as well as their physical strength and hardy constitution. As long as they lived, their lot within the camp was relatively good, but in general they lived for only four months from the day they first took up their duties inside the crematoriums. At the end of that brief period they were summarily liquidated and replaced by a new group of prisoners. In this way, the Nazi authorities hoped to keep from the world any knowledge of what was going on in these “death factories.”
They very nearly succeeded. To start, all members of the SS who served in the camps—and in Auschwitz they numbered several thousand from April 1940 when the camp opened to its liberation in January 1945—had to swear that they would never reveal what they saw. Further, in 1944 German authorities destroyed the transport lists of all Jews who had been sent to Auschwitz up to that point, and in the succeeding months ordered the destruction of all other incriminating documents. Later, as the Russian armies drew near Auschwitz early in 1945, other evidence was either burned or transferred to camps farther west. In mid-January, the SS hastily executed thousands of prisoners; then, sometime after midnight on January 18, they fled, leaving the camp unmanned. Many of the remaining Auschwitz inmates, as Nyiszli describes, in turn took advantage of the suddenly empty towers and open Auschwitz gates to flee the camp, fearing that if they waited the Germans, who were retreating before the Russian offensive, might pause to murder them as well before proceeding west. When the Russians did arrive, on January 27, 1945, they found the bodies of the SS’s final victims. But they also found seven thousand inmates who had chosen not to leave the camp, mostly because they were too ill or weak to flee. Thus, despite their considerable efforts, the Nazis failed to destroy all evidence of the camps. Both the magnitude of the crime itself and the Germans’ predisposition for bureaucratic efficiency made it inevitable that the truth would ultimately be revealed.
While hundreds of documents and books on the subject of the KZ (the Nazi concentration camps) have appeared over the past forty to fifty years—from the autobiography of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess to personal accounts of survivors, and culminating in Danuta Czech’s monumental Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939–1945—none to my knowledge has ever recounted in detail what went on every day inside the crematoriums, for the simple reason that the gate to the crematoriums was the gate to death.
Almost miraculously, Dr. Nyiszli survived. Through his eyes we can relive those exceptional times, and from his unique viewpoint witness as well the slow disintegration of a mad, grandiose empire built to last a thousand years. For the picture that unfolds beneath the doctor’s untutored pen spans the period from the “selections” made upon arrival at the camp to the methodical exterminations of 1944 and early 1945, ending with the nightmarish exodus that marked the Nazi collapse in the winter of 1945. I say “untutored pen” because, as Dr. Nyiszli himself states: “When I lived through these horrors, which are beyond all imagining, I was not a writer but a doctor. Today in writing about them I write not as a reporter but as a doctor.” But stylistic inadequacies are of little importance here; what matters in a book of this nature is the raw material.
What Miklos Nyiszli lived through and witnessed many will prefer not to believe, even today, for the human mind tends to turn away from suffering and whatever is repugnant. From that to denying that such treatment and torture, such debasement and degradation, such inhumanity to one’s own fellow beings could ever have happened is but a simple step to take. For there are some today who refuse to believe that the extermination of twelve million people, of which five to six million Jews, ever took place, who indeed maintain that it was all a fabrication, or at the very least a gross exaggeration. While they are a tiny minority, there are many others who simply prefer to block it from their minds. And even assuming one knows and does not turn away, one may well ask: What is the point of dwelling on the subject? Why rake over cold ashes, stir up old animosities? Would it not be better to forgive and forget, turn toward the future rather than look back in anger on the fading past? Fair questions indeed. The answer comes from the victims themselves. “These victims of Nazi atrocities,” Meyer Levin once wrote, “hid fragmentary records of their experience, they scratched words on walls, they died hoping the world would some day know, not in statistics but in empathy. We are charged to listen.”
At least in the early years following their release, those who had lived through the camps were often reluctant or unwilling to talk of the experience, let alone write about it. The subject was too painful to recall; it was time to heal and attempt to get on with their lives. Later the veil was lifted, at least in part, as some felt increasingly obliged to tell their story “so that the world would not forget.” Looking back, the question most often asked seemed to be: How could this have happened? How could the world have allowed it to happen? There is no easy answer, especially since it has become increasingly clear that, in the later stages of World War II, many Western leaders did know if not the grim details at least the general outline of what was happening behind Hitler’s barbed wire. But as events have shown in recent years, the world’s ability to prevent outrage, whether it be in Vietnam in the 1960s, the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s, and, most recently, in Darfur, is painfully limited.
In addition to those questions must be added the one raised so poignantly and insistently by Bruno Bettelheim in his foreword to Nyiszli’s book: Why did the Jews allow themselves to be arrested, deported, and killed without resisting? And why, even more to the point, did only one of the fourteen Sonderkommando groups rise up in rebellion at the hour of their death? Knowing the length of their days, knowing they had liquidated their predecessors and that their successors would in like manner eliminate them, why did they not all “die as men, not as living corpses”? I think the answer to all those questions is best if not fully answered by Walter Laqueur’s reminder, in his foreword to Danuta Czech’s magisterial work, that we should bear in mind two very different elements of the Holocaust experience. Many if not most European Jews were integrated into the societies in which they lived. The Germans, after all, were the people of Bach and Beethoven, Kant, Goethe, and Schiller. How “bad” could such a people really be? Hitler, an aberration, would doubtless soon pass. Laqueur and others also remind us that Auschwitz, in addition to its other inmates, at one point housed thirteen thousand Russian prisoners of war, robust young men who, if anyone could, should have risen up and gone to their death fighting. Yet only ninety-two survived, and there was no Russian uprising. Very simply, in the unfair game of life then staged, all the camp’s victims—were they Jews, Gypsies, or POWs—were powerless before the masters’ whims and wishes.
By a conservative estimate, twelve million people perished in the Nazi concentration camps. Most were murdered in cold blood, but countless others died by starvation, illness, and suicide. The numbers are too staggering to comprehend. The value of Dr. Nyiszli’s book is not in its insights. Its importance lies in its ability to show us, firsthand, what that netherworld really was. It tells, as Bruno Bettelheim says, “of events which, though gruesome, need to be told and retold until their meaning for our times is accepted.”