I found myself writing a book review for class today and figured it was high time we had another one of these, so this one is serving double duty.
If you’re only going to read one book about the Holocaust, make it The Diary of Anne Frank (I prefer the Definitive Edition). If you’re going to read two books, though, you should read The Kingdom Of Auschwitz, by Otto Friedrich. It’s concise, complex, and powerful. I read the entire thing while listening to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea; I recommend you do so as well.
The review, most of it below the fold:
“The truth about Auschwitz?” Józef Cyrankiewicz once reflected. “There is no person who could tell the whole truth about Auschwitz.” (Friedrich 102)
The Kingdom of Auschwitz, by Otto Friedrich, is not a new book — it was first published in 1982. During the last twenty-six year, however, is has only grown more relevant. In this moment of constant demonization of the other by zealots in both Middle America and the Middle East, Friedrich’s is one of the few messages with the power to stop people in their tracks before we go any farther along the road that leads to atrocities. Friedrich’s complex portrait of evil does not fall into the convenient and dangerous trap of disregarding Nazism as aberrant or insane. He does the brave thing, exploring the humanizing idiosyncrasies of Auschwitz. Friedrich’s point is that there isn’t a clear point to be inferred, that we must make room ambiguity and live with the unknowable — valuable insights for those who would attempt to understand the word by reducing it to separate spheres of good and evil.
Friedrich explores the many perplexing events surrounding Auschwitz. One particularly impenetrable happening occurred in May of 1944, when Adolf Eichmann made a deranged offer to the Allies. Hungarian Jews were about to be transported to Auschwitz; Eichmann announced that all of them could emigrate freely in exchange for ten thousand military trucks from the allies (68). Joel Brand, working on behalf of the Joint Distribution Committee — an American nonprofit helping to move European Jews — desperately tried to convince the Allies to comply, but they would not (68). Brand’s attempts were very much in vain: “Even while Brand’s hopeless negotiations continued, there was no interruption in the trains to Auschwitz” (68).
This anecdote is a microcosm of the larger story of the death camp as Friedrich tells it. Eichmann’s offer was crueler for its suggestion of mercy, for the Allies could never accept it. Brand’s efforts were obviously futile, yet he could not abandon them with some 400,000 lives (66) hanging in the balance. The Allies response was brutal — how could the lives of forty innocent people be worth less than one truck? Yet they had no real choice.
All of this adds up to nothing decipherable, save the fact that hundreds of thousands of innocent people were sent to die. Such is the story of Auschwitz: we are left with an enormous death-toll that becomes more inexplicable, not less, the more one knows about it. It is one thing that the Nazis killed hundreds of thousands of Hungarians; it is stranger and more disturbing that they offered to spare them for military supplies that they knew the Allies would not give. As Elie Wiesel has said:
We shall never understand. Even if we manage somehow to learn every aspect of that insane project, we will never understand it. . . . I think I must have read all the books — memoirs, documents, scholarly essays and testimonies written on the subject. I understand it less and less. (qtd. in
The Kingdom of Auschwitz also contains descriptions of the internal mechanics of the death camp. The facts are surprising and strange, for the camp “was a society of extraordinary complexity” (28). Auschwitz had a symphony orchestra, a library, a soccer stadium, and even a brothel, called “the puff” (28).
Friedrich explains that the daily events there were both unimaginably brutal and inexplicably ordinary. A wedding was held at Auschwitz, that of an Austrian prisoner named Rudolf Friemel. Margarita Ferrer Ray, the mother of Friemel’s child, “somehow penetrated the machinery of the Nazi state” (48) with her demand that Friemel marry her. Friemel was given a suit, the orchestra performed “appropriate tunes” (49), and the couple spent a night together at the brothel. The next day, Ray went home, and Friemel was forced back to his work gang.
In detailing all of this, Friedrich reveals the full character of Auschwitz. It would be easy to imagine the camp as a place of unadulterated suffering and cruelty, but life is not so simple. By acknowledging the complexity of Auschwitz — its orchestra, its brothel, its strange moments of benevolence — Friedrich acknowledges the truth: these crimes, like all others, were carried out by human beings.
Friedrich turns from historical retelling to philosophical musing only in the closing pages of the book, so that vast majority of the information is left for each reader to struggle with herself. When Friedrich does speak in his own voice, he offers no answers:
It can be argued that Auschwitz proves there is no God . . . But such declarations have been made at every moment of extreme crisis by those who see God only in success and happiness. Since all efforts to prove or explain God’s purposes demonstrate only the futile diligence of worker ants attempting to prove the existence of Mozart, Auschwitz can just as well prove a merciful God, an indifferent God, or, perhaps best, an unknowable God. (101)
In this way, Friedrich forces the reader to either continue to flounder or to accept the existence of the truly incomprehensible. The latter is the only antidote to the kind of extremism that is rising today, the kind seen in World War II. Acknowledging the complexity of reality — the good in the evil and the evil in the good — is prophylaxis against fascism.
The desire to simplify the world, to neatly delineate all right from all wrong, is one shared by all fundamentalists. This is the easier way to live: in a world of artificial clarity, in which ambiguities need not be wrestled with, since they don’t exist. It is convenient, but it is also extremely dangerous. In a fundamentalist worldview, the enemy can be written off as totally bad; if the enemy is totally bad, they can be destroyed by any means necessary. And when the enemy is completely evil, one’s own side is completely good — no need for criticism or examination.
Friedrich does us all a great favor by refusing to shy away from the worst actions of the Nazis. But he does us an even greater favor by not ignoring the moments of humanity at Auschwitz, either. Only the whole picture is complex enough to force us out of zealotry and into reality. Only in reality are we capable of truly doing what the story of Auschwitz calls us to do: prevent it from ever happening again.
Friedrich, Otto. The Kingdom of Auschwitz. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.