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Book review: 'Remembering Survival' by Christopher Browning

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, January 24, 2010; B08

REMEMBERING SURVIVAL

Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp

By Christopher R. Browning

Norton. 375 pp. $27.95

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The literature of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany is so vast as to defy comprehension, yet there remain aspects of the subject that are insufficiently covered or not covered at all. Christopher Browning's fine, harrowing "Remembering Survival" points us in yet another little-charted direction. It is the history of a Nazi slave-labor camp at Starachowice, in central Poland, where between 1942 and 1944 thousands of Jews were forced to work -- without compensation in any form and often under brutal conditions -- to produce munitions for the Nazi war machine.

Browning, a prominent Holocaust historian who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, first heard of Starachowice when he read about the trial in Hamburg in 1972 of Walther Becker, 75 years old, "for his role in the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Wierzbnik on October 27, 1942 -- an action in which close to 4,000 Jews were sent to their deaths in the gas chambers of Treblinka, some sixty to eighty Jews were murdered on the spot, and about 1,600 Jews were sent to three slave-labor camps in nearby Starachowice." Despite overwhelming evidence against him, Becker was acquitted by a judge who dismissed the testimony of Jewish witnesses on entirely specious grounds. Browning writes:

"I have worked in the German court records of trials of accused Nazi criminals for more than thirty-five years. They are an invaluable source to the historian, and the numerous survivor testimonies collected by conscientious investigators for the Starachowice trials are no exception. I must say that in those thirty-five years I have read scores of trial verdicts, and many I found disheartening. But never have I studied a case in detail and encountered a verdict that represented such a miscarriage of justice and disgrace to the German judicial system as that in the trial of Walther Becker."

Wierzbnik had a Jewish population of about 5,400 and "was remembered quite simply as 'a nice Jewish life' " by most of those who survived the war. It was a close-knit community, "more provincial and conservative than larger, more cosmopolitan Jewish urban communities," though Polish anti-Semitism was widespread and at times virulent: "As one survivor stated emphatically and bitterly: 'We had a beautiful life . . . except for having Poles around, which was very unpleasant.' " By 1941 the Jews of Wierzbnik had been subjected to "ghettoization," though "the ghetto there was 'open,' demarcated by signs but not physically sealed off by a wall or fence."

Few had any illusions about what this meant, though, as violence by Nazis and their Ukrainian hired guards was frequent, brutal and often random. One survivor reported seeing "a young girl walking to the well where German soldiers were washing themselves. One took a gun from his holster, aimed carefully and deliberately, and shot her dead." People were rounded up, crammed into trains and taken to the gas chambers. It became obvious that the only way to survive was to work for the Nazis, for whom the munitions produced at Starachowice were essential, all the more so as events began to turn against Germany: "Most Wierzbnikers made the same calculation as those who were flocking to the Starachowice factories from elsewhere -- namely, that the best chance for survival lay in obtaining employment crucial to the German war industry." Browning writes:

"As one Starachowice survivor noted, the Jews there did not die from how little the Germans fed them but they could not live from it either. A Jewish strategy of survival through labor, therefore, was burdened with terrible ironies. It depended not only on Jews buying their own enslavement through the purchase of work permits and providing labor indispensable to the war effort, thereby prolonging German rule, but also to no small extent on supplementing the inadequate German food supply through their own ingenuity and efforts."

As the survivors remembered it, life at Starachowice depended on "the most visible and notorious German [officers]. . . . The prisoners referred to them as 'commandants,' though that was not their official German title," which could be "commander of factory security" or "head of the Jewish camp police or Lagerpolizei." Walther Becker was not involved with the slave-labor camps but was "the highest-ranked SS officer" in Wierzbnik, so though his role in the brutal liquidation of the city's ghetto in October 1942 was beyond dispute -- "the Germans sent approximately 1,600 Jews . . . to work camps and deported nearly 4,000 Jews to the gas chambers of Treblinka" -- other men played the dominant roles at Starachowice.

By far the worst of these was a monster named Ralf Alois "Willi" Althoff, who "was indelibly imprinted on the memories of survivors who subsequently experienced Auschwitz-Birkenau, many notorious camps in Germany, and the death marches." Althoff was near-universally described as "the worst of all." He may well have been insane. "In his early thirties, Althoff was a good-looking young man, obviously concerned about his appearance. Shunning anything as commonplace as a regular uniform, he wore a three-quarter-length leather jacket lined and trimmed in white fur, tall leather boots, and white leather gloves. When he came to camp for major killing actions, however, he wore rubber coat, boots, and gloves to keep his fine clothing from being spattered with the blood of his victims." And:

"Althoff's murderous predilections were evident very soon. Just a few days after the prisoners arrived in the camps, Althoff reportedly lined up three or four Jews against a wall and shot them for no discernible reason other than that he disliked them. He also began to prowl the camp kitchens on a fairly regular basis, looking for unauthorized people to shoot and even killing some who had been assigned to work there. And . . . after several prisoners escaped, he staged a theatrical 'deterrent' killing. Althoff descended upon the camp in the middle of the night and selected ten prisoners, who were blindfolded and placed against a wall illuminated by truck headlights. Althoff then carried out target practice until they were all dead."

In March 1943 Althoff "disappeared," and German policy toward the camp softened somewhat. For a while there was a period of stability, but that was a relative term. Nothing at Starachowice was ever easy or, for that matter, stable. The prisoners were always at the mercy of their captors, who may have been only occasionally (and unpredictably) violent but were consistently venal, demanding bribes for better treatment or, in more than a few cases, for sparing lives. Prisoners who had somehow held on to wherewithal in one form or another had obvious advantages over prisoners who did not, contributing to "pervasive inequality within the prisoner community." Though by and large the Jews of Starachowice hung together and helped each other as much as circumstances permitted, there were tensions and rivalries among them that only intensified the nightmare.

At war's end Wierzbnik's Jewish community had been reduced to "perhaps 600 to 700," which is appallingly low yet, considering the conditions, not unremarkable. Browning attributes their survival to several factors, among them the judicious use of bribery and the strength of family ties. Among the survivors, 292 gave "testimonies, some multiple," to various courts and investigators. Browning is keenly sensitive to the unreliability of memory, especially memory of distant events, so as he stitches together the story of Starachowice he is especially careful to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence. There can be no doubt, however, of the essential truth of this story, a small one when viewed against everything else that happened in that dreadful time, but an important and revealing one, exceptionally well told in "Remembering Survival."

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