For reasons that I can not explain, I have, for as long as I can remember, had an interest in the events that led up to and made up World War II. I do not know what it is about that time in human history that captures my thoughts when it comes up in conversation or in my reading. I may be that the horrors that the descriptions and stories of depravity relate just defy possibility and comprehension. And yet, they can not be denied by a sensible person.
I finished reading the kindle version of “Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account” by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli today and was left with several impressions. Amazon’s brief summary provides the following background to the role Dr. Nyiszli’s played at the infamous concentration camp.
A Jew and a medical doctor, the prisoner Dr. Miklos Nyiszli was spared death for a grimmer fate: to perform “scientific research” on his fellow inmates under the supervision of the man who became known as the infamous “Angel of Death”–Dr. Josef Mengele. Nyiszli was named Mengele’s personal research pathologist. In that capacity he also served as physician to the Sonderkommando, the Jewish prisoners who worked exclusively in the crematoriums and were routinely executed after four months.
There were several thoughts and impressions that I was left with after reading Dr. Nyiszli’s account.
1. The propensity of the human mind to deny what is plainly before them.
This was probably the one thought that emerged and that I found the most disturbing. How quickly many of those within the camp, both prisoner and captor alike, accepted the normalcy of the situation. This was the plight in which they found themselves and they were made to “make the best of it” in whatever way they could.
As I read the book, this really disturbed me. How could they make sense of this? In the end, they didn’t try to. The prisoners and the guards just took each day as the only day they needed to worry about. It is so difficult for me as I write this in the safety of my home, on my laptop to understand how life could descend into that kind of sinister routine.
2. The ability of some within the human family to devalue another man’s worth.
As Dr. Nyiszli recounts the various individuals that were perpetrators of the crimes of Auschwitz an interesting picture occurs. The mental constitution of the likes of Dr. Josef Mengele and SS-Oberscharführer Eric Mußfeldt was such that they could disassociate their own humanity from that another’s. The philosophical and racially motivated logic that was used to justify the atrocities enacted against the Jews and other minority races across Europe astonishes the mind.
There are instances in Dr. Nyiszli’s retelling of the events that show that the human mind can not bear the strain of the dehumanization of others for long. But, the power of the will to continue in a course of action that is evil and despicable is almost as amazing as the effects of committing evil on another. The need to move the “traffic” (as the prisoners selected for murder were called) was unrelenting.
3. The wide dichotomy of the human spirit to either see hope or despair in the same circumstances.
The third observation that I was left with was the way that people responded to circumstances in which they found themselves. Some people found a way to survive, to make it through each moment. Other’s succumb to the situation and gave up all hope of survival or rescue. The greatest revelation of this was that way that, not just hundreds, not just thousands, not just hundreds of thousands, but MILLIONS of people allowed themselves to be herded to their deaths. This is how Bruno Bettelheim records this notion in the forward.
Strange as it may sound, the unique feature of the extermination camps is not that the Germans exterminated millions of people–that this is possible has been accepted in our picture of man, though not for centuries has it happened on that scale, and perhaps never with such callousness. What was new, unique, terrifying, was that millions, like lemmings, marched themselves to their own death. This is what is incredible; this we must come to understand. (pg. 4)
How is a man’s mind and will so coerced and trained to obey without questioning? This is the hardest part of the story to process and understand. Over and over again, by the thousands each day men, women and children were gassed and cremated. The senselessness of the whole things is hard to comprehend.
I finished reading the book and was left with a sense of sadness. Sadness because the human spirit may not be as strong as some may paint it to be. Sadness because the depth of evil to which one man can subject another is truly terrible. Sadness because if we are not careful we run the risk of forgetting the tragedies from the past and find ourselves in similar circumstances in the future.
I find Richard Seaver’s words from the introduction a fitting ending to this review.
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. (pg. 5)
I commend the book as a powerful and disturbing retelling of the events that took place at Auschwitz during Dr. Nyiszli’s stay there. It is not light reading, so proceed with caution.