No simple explanation

by | Aug 16, 2013 | Book Reviews

A Small Town Near Auschwitz
Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust
Mary Fulbrook
Oxford University Press, 2012
421 pages, $34.95
ISBN 978-0-19-960330-5

We have chosen to pair this review with the one by Professor Frederick Lubich as they represent a more recent genre of Holocaust literature: German civilians who lived through World War II . In The Shame of Survival Ursula Mahlendorf rose through the ranks of the Nazi Youth organization, and struggles with the shame of survival as she works through her Nazi childhood—in much the same way that death camp prisoners deal with the guilt of their survival.

In A Small Town Near Auschwitz, British scholar Mary Fulbrook discovers information in letters left by her mother that leads her to Bendsburg, the Germanized name for the ‘small town’ of Bedzin (pronounced Benzin), near Krakow in Upper Silesia, about 25 miles north of Auschwitz.

The tactics of the German occupation of Bedzin were typical throughout Poland. The army would occupy the town, and then the Einsatzgruppen, consisting of troops trained, instructed, and prepared to use violence, swept in and immediately rounded up, humiliated, tortured, shot, and burned a significant portion of the town’s Jewish population. In Bedzin, hundreds of Jews were killed at once, some locked in the Great Synagogue, which was then set on fire.

Students of the Holocaust will recall Jan Gross’ chilling account in Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. In Jedwabne, the execution of hundreds of the town’s Jews locked and burned alive in the synagogue, was carried out by their Polish neighbors, incensed by the cooperation of the Jews with Russian troops when the town (in northeastern Poland near Bialystok) fell earlier to the Russians.

In either case, the standard procedure seems to have been: first, kill one-third of the Jews; second, work one-third to death; third, execute the remaining one-third in the death camps. At the end of the 20th century, Serbian forces under Radovan Karadzic seemed to have developed a similar metric: First, kill one-third of the Muslims of Bosnia; second, convert onethird to Eastern Orthodox Christianity; third, force one-third to move out. Thus, Bosnia would be free of Muslims just as Poland became Judenrein.

Author Fulbrook discovers that her mother’s closest friend and her own godmother was married to Udo Klausa, the Landrat or civilian county administrator of a number of small cities including Bedzin. Klausa was able to escape punishment after the war by claiming that he was just a low functionary following orders. In fact, he was cleared of charges and ultimately served in the post-war German Federal Administration. However, from his unpublished memoir and letters of his wife, Alexandra, it was clear that Klausa, a member of the Nazi party since 1933, was a willing implementer of Nazi directives in his county, including enforcement of humiliating laws and filling of quotas for deportation of Jews. “I felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach,” reports Fulbrook when she learned the extent of Klausa’s involvement in the Holocaust. Her hope is that it will add to our understanding of the horrific behavior of so many who held themselves to be ‘decent’ people. Fulbrook gives voice to the victims who were on the receiving end of the Nazi policies; she also addresses the betrayal by the Central Office of the Jewish Councils, members of the ‘gendarmerie’ or local constabulary and the regular and criminal police forces, as well as the Jewish militia, all of whom participated in the progressive degradation, humiliation, exploitation and expropriation, maltreatment and starvation of the Jews.

Again the reader is reminded of Daniel Goldhagen’s controversial Hitler’s Willing Executioners and particularly of Christopher Brown’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. German citizens rejected for the draft were enlisted to massacre and round up Jews for deportation. Given the opportunity to opt out of killing Jews, only 15 out of 500 exercised the option.

Out of these studies comes an underbook standing of what has been termed “cumulative radicalization.” We have witnessed it in not numerous, yet significant numbers of incidents in Vietnam (MyLai), Iraq (Abu Ghraib), and Guantanamo (here the radicalization was on the part of the prisoners rather than the jailers).

In the author’s words, “there are many different ways in which the term ‘Nazi’ can be understood…there is no simple definition of what can be meant by ‘Nazi,’ let alone an ‘ordinary Nazi’…there are also many ways in which the term ‘decent’ can be understood.” In 1943 Himmler claimed that the SS could ‘remain decent’ despite the fact that they were murdering innocent women and children. How can we explain that the Holocaust was made possible by the actions of so many, yet was actually “intended” by so few?

As Mary Fulbrook so succinctly states, “How could some people later claim that they had ‘always been against it’ while their behavior at the time…propelled the dynamism of Nazism on to the murderous conclusion that was Auschwitz and all that this stands for?”

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.