I’m not gonna lie, this book—Auschwitz: A New History by Laurence Rees—was not one I was excited to read. I knew it would be horrifying and heartbreaking…and I wasn’t mistaken. I read it because it’s a story that needs to be told. Believe it or not, there are Holocaust deniers and Nazi apologists who refuse to believe that millions, 6 million, were murdered during World War II.
Laurence Rees explains the evolution of Auschwitz, which was surprisingly not established to be a death camp. It was established in Oswiecim, Poland, or Auschwitz to Germany, in 1940 and commanded by the infamous SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Rudolf Hoss. At first, it was intended to hold political prisoners, then it became a forced labor camp. And finally it was used for the Final Solution because Hitler deluded himself into believing that the Jews were the cause of a world war. The year of 1944 saw the greatest killing in Auschwitz.
Jews were the largest contingent of prisoners, but not the only ones. There were also Poles, Roma (or gypsies), Soviet prisoners of war, and some others. About 1.3 million people were incarcerated in the camp; more than 1.1 million were killed. Very few were liberated or escaped.
While this book was about the worst site of mass murder in human history, it was written without gratuitous, gruesome details. Its purpose was to inform, not disgust, and for that I’m thankful.
Rees writes a great deal about Hoss and mentions people who were there that he interviewed, both SS working at Auschwitz and former prisoners. He doesn’t make excuses for anybody, just tells the stories and allows the reader to draw her own conclusion. Suffice it to say, the greatest wrong was toward the prisoners, but not all the Nazis were bad and not all the prisoners were good. However, I will say that the excuses made by those at the Nuremberg Trials—following orders, doing their duty, war is war—was a load of hogwash. People have choices, and they made the wrong ones.
The book is sequential, starting with the birth of the camp, and then explaining its evolution to what it became. He even followed up on the lives of some of the liberated prisoners whose stories were actually, in some cases, worse after they left the camp. A few thoughts on this:
- The Red Army that liberated the camp added their own horrors to those already suffered: death marches, rape, beatings, thievery. Those who lived in the Soviet Union didn’t really escape the atrocities that began with the war until after the Soviet Union collapsed.
- Worse than being murdered by their sworn enemies was being betrayed by friends. Many of the liberated Jews who went home to Russia, Slovakia, and Poland had their property stolen and controlled by the communist state. Many came home not to celebrations from old friends and neighbors, but hatred and suspicion. Good Christians stole from their Jewish friends. Restitution was a fantasy that many Jews never received. They lost family members, suffered horrors, and then had their homes and property taken away and loving neighbors turn to hatred. Denmark was largely the exception. Not only did they aid 95 percent of their Jewish population in escaping, but they kept their friends’ property safe and sound until they returned.
- The Jewish Brigade, made up of 5,000 Jews, took revenge on Germans for what they and their brothers suffered. Whether the Germans were guilty or not. On one hand, I understand that a person would never be the same after incarceration in a death camp, but on the other hand, murder is wrong. I am happy that judgement is reserved for God, because I’d be at a loss.
This book was powerful and not because it pulled focused on the horror of the situation. The fact of the matter is, it looked at the big picture by telling the stories of a few, and this understated explanation gives the reader the information to make her own judgements, to really think about it.
Every person should read this book because darkness needs to have a light shined on it; it should be acknowledged and discussed and known. Rees ended the book with an interesting thought:
“Soon the last survivor and the last perpetrator from Auschwitz will have joined those who were murdered at the camp. There will be no one on this earth left alive who has personal experience of the place. When that happens, there is a danger that this history will merge in to the distant past and become just one terrible event among many. There have been horrific atrocities before, from Richard the Lionheart’s massacre of the Muslims of Acre during the Crusades, to Genghis Khan’s genocide in Persia. Maybe future generations will see Auschwitz the same way—as just another bad thing that happened in the past, before living memory. But that should not be allowed to happen.”