The ultimate 20th century outcasts were the victims of the Shoah, which the world is contemplating this week in observance of the United Nations call to remember the Holocaust in late January. This week we are considering the lives of outcasts: Jay Bakker, the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who is preaching a gospel of radical inclusion these days, and the late poet Joseph Brodsky, who is profiled in a moving new book by Lev Loseff. We are making no comparisons here between these three historical examples—except in one regard: We are reminding readers that often we learn the most valuable truths from revisiting lives that the world seems to have rejected.
by Christopher R. Browning
By ReadTheSpirit Editor
I was born in 1955 in the security of the American Midwest, only 10 years after the end of World War II. When I thought of that war at all, I envisioned a colossal conflict between saints and monsters—a comic-book adventure fueled by countless Hollywood war movies featuring big-name stars. I finished high school before courses in the Holocaust became an almost required element in public school education. I first encountered the Shoah at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s and was inspired by the historians and other researchers digging through the archives, beginning to interview survivors.
Then, I discovered Gunter Grass, his novel The Tin Drum and the painful debate within Germany over this past. As I dug deeper, it finally dawned on me that the true horror of the Shoah—the real reason we must never forget—is that this wasn’t a graphic novel cast with angels and demons. This was a march toward genocide in which all manner of media and sophisticated cultural manipulations were used to support the destruction of an entire group of people. Why should we remember? Because, as Christopher R. Browning pointed out in his earlier Holocaust history, the industrial-scale machinery of the Holocaust was run by “ordinary men.”
Of course, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland wasn’t published until the early 1990s—but I remember tearing through that book, cover to cover. There was so much more to come from historians, of course. Later, the world discovered the photo albums from Auschwitz, full of snapshots showing male and female guards enjoying a cheery life at the camp. We must remember because—as so many tragic examples now illustrate around the world—genocide may be carried out by people much like us.
Now, we’re recommending Browning’s latest book, Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp, which in some ways is a mirror to “Ordinary Men.” In 300 pages, Browning now takes us deep inside a slave labor camp you’ve probably never heard of before this book: Starachowice, which is roughly halfway between Warsaw and Krakow in Poland. Through decades of research, Browning has brought the camp’s lives—and deaths—to light.
Browning began researching this particular camp after an infamous war criminal whose crimes involved Strarachowice was acquitted by a German court, despite overwhelming evidence and testimony by scores of witnesses. Browning was intrigued, began digging. What fascinates me about this 2010 book is that the war criminal’s shocking acquittal came in 1972 and Browning began his long historical inquiry just as I was arriving at the University of Michigan, first hearing about the quests of dedicated researchers like this.
Now, so much is known about the Holocaust, you can decide for yourself if you care to read “Remembering Survival.” ReadTheSpirit celebrates with Browning and W.W. Norton the news this week that “Remembering Survival” has just won a prestigious National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust category. That honor stacks up along with glowing reviews in the Washington Post, Moment magazine and other national journals. If you find this kind of book compelling—then you’ll find this one difficult to put down, once you’ve started.
Given my own journey from the center of the Baby Boom generation through decades of growing awareness about the Shoah, what I appreciate most about “Remembering Survival” is that it makes readers think long and hard about the choices made by ordinary men and women. Yes, the people caught in the deadly camp system were ordinary people, too.
Browning writes: “One of the saddest ‘lessons’ of the Holocaust is confirmation that terrible persecution does not ennoble victims. A few magnificent exceptions notwithstanding, persecution, enslavement, starvation, and mass murder do not turn ordinary people into saints and martyrs. The suffering of the victims—both those who survived and those who did not—is the overwhelming reality. We must be grateful for the testimonies of those who survived and are willing to speak, but we have no right to expect from them tales of edification and redemption.”
In other words: Why should we remember? Because ordinary people found themselves on all sides of this catastrophic genocide—and ordinary people can find themselves in such a tragedy, again.
You can order Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp from Amazon now.
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com)