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Books about the Holocaust and the Third Reich continue to fascinate me for two reasons: First, the first-person accounts are all about the power of the wish to go on living. Second, those about Hitler's Reich further explain how the leadership of a country, any country, can corrupt the entire apparatus of a nation.
Witnesses of War, by Nicholas Stargardt (Knopf), is a history of the Third Reich illustrated via a massive collection of tales about children affected by the rise of Nazism and its decline. The children of this book are both Germans and Jews, as well as the children of countries occupied by the Germans or at war with Germany.
The changes in the youth of a defeated Germany are the most striking. The 17 million-strong German military lost nearly five million soldiers, 63 percent of them in the last 18 months of the war, when even desperate groups of armed Hitler Youth were being mowed down. Younger Germans were sometimes nearly as under-nourished as Jewish children had been in the Warsaw Ghetto.
After 1945, both Jewish and German children struggled to find their way in a better world. They had something in common - they had survived. The Jewish children, however, were nearly all without parents or relatives. A professor of history, Stargardt is the son of a Jew who escaped from Hitler's Germany to Australia.
Auschwitz Report by Primo Levi, with Leonardo de Benedetti (Verso, London), first published over half a century ago, is now available in English for the first time. It's an unemotional, even technical description of concentration camp life; an important testimony at the time but by now in the domain of common knowledge. Benedetti, a physician and co-prisoner, provides forensic medical details.
The Nuremberg Interviews, by Leon Goldensohn (Knopf), then a psychiatrist serving with the American army, is a record the author left of his unpublished conversations with most of the defendants during the trial; they have been edited by Prof. Robert Gellately. The most striking thing about the personalities and protestations of the Nazis is their banality. Shorn of their uniforms and power, Goering, Streicher, Keitel, Ribbentrop and others come across as pathetically second rate, even in defiance.
A few, like Schacht, Von Papen and Fritzche, were acquitted, much to the disgust of Speer, who resented getting 20 years. This fascinating book also includes talks with German witnesses who were convicted in other courts, including top commanders like Kesselring, Halder, von Manstein and von Kleist. Manstein, like Donitz and all the others, denied that he knew what the SS was doing to the Jews in his area of command. Funk, the fat little economics czar and the best educated among the convicted (he was also a fine pianist), denied being an anti-Semite or organizing pogroms and blamed Schacht for trying to wriggle out of responsibility.
Colonel Goldensohn was a keen questioner; he never let the Nazis get away with anything.
One Who Came Back, by Josef Katz (Dryad Press, Maryland), is the well-translated diary of a young German Jew deported from Lubeck in 1941. It is an account of more than four years of slave labor, sadistic beatings, starvation and occasional life-saving kindnesses.
Katz survived by successfully pretending to be a skilled craftsman at various trades about which he knew almost nothing, something that moved him from one camp to another or rescued him from hard labor in the most brutal of all camps, Stutthof, where work was designed to eliminate a daily quota of Jews. He survived selections by chance but always tried to cling to the belief that he would make it. He tells of an old German woman who dropped him bags of breadcrumbs and a Nazi camp commander who did everything to keep his Jewish prisoners alive.
Katz's narrative is riveting and spiced with gallows humor; I couldn't put it down. Katz married a girl he met in the Riga Ghetto and died in America in 1990.
Harvest of Despair, by Karel C. Berkhoff (Belknap/Harvard), is a chillingly dispassionate account of life and death in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Welcomed first as liberators from Russia and its punitive collectivization, the Germans, after killing or deporting all the Jews and Roma, soon revealed themselves as administrators of a slave state that did not allow any schooling beyond the fourth grade and deported Ukrainians to slave labor.
Many Ukrainians enlisted in German para-military forces and served as concentration camp guards; only a few joined the partisan groups organized by the Russians. Prof. Berkhoff examines the speculation that Ukrainian disillusionment with both the Communist and Nazi regimes fed a demand for the independent state that ultimately emerged.
The Hand of Compassion, by Kristen Renwick Monroe (Princeton Paperbacks), is a scientific approach to why and how five ordinary people found the extraordinary courage to defy the Nazi regime in order to help its victims. Several were awarded medals by Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles. Prof. Monroe tracked down the five rescuers and tells their stories through sensitive interviews, while providing us with an idea of how altruism can reach the heights of moral choice. This interesting book appeared in hardback over a year ago.
Nazi Chic?, by Irene Guenther (Palgrave/Macmillan), is a massive account of the rise of fashion in Weimar Germany and how it survived during the Third Reich. She describes how the Nazis failed to construct an image of the German woman that would jibe with Nazi policies, and eventually failed to fight fashion with wartime restrictions. In a country where almost everyone wore some sort of a uniform, there were not enough textiles available to dress many women in uniform.
How Nazis rich and poor kept themselves looking good is a feature of Prof. Guenther's unusual book, which deals candidly with the sociology and anti-Semitism of Hitler's Reich. Funnily enough, it demonstrates how young German women were almost all the most effective resisters of Nazi dicta. Among the many photographs is one of Jewish girls marching off to slave labor wearing identical Nazi smocks.
Refuge Denied, by Sarah A. Ogilvie and Scott Miller of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Wisconsin U.), is a technically muddled account of how these two researchers discovered how some of the 937 passengers on the German liner St. Louis met their ends at the hands of the Nazis they thought they had escaped when they sailed from Hamburg to Cuba in 1939.
Cuba refused to land all but 22 of the Jews and the decent, even heroic German captain took his ship to US waters off Miami in the hope that they would be allowed into the United States. Despite a vigorous Jewish outcry, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fearing a flood of penniless refugees, turned his thumb down, sending the horrified passengers back to Hamburg.
Captain Schroeder thought of running his ship ashore in the English Channel but was eventually allowed to disembark his passengers in Antwerp, where they were dispersed in small numbers among Britain, France and the Netherlands. Only those who landed in England escaped the Nazi blitz. Nearly 40 years ago, Hollywood's best ever historical drama, Voyage of the Damned, offered a wonderful recreation of how a freedom cruise turned into a nightmare.