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Laurence Rees is Creative Director of History Programmes for BBC Television and a former editor of the Emmy-winning Timewatch, BBC TV's history documentary series. He has written five previous books, including The Nazis: a Warning from History, War of the Century about the Hitler/Stalin war and Horror in the East, an examination of the war against Japan. The Nazis, War of the Century and Horror in the East were also successful television documentary series - all written and produced by Laurence Rees. This body of work has won him a host of awards, including an International Documentary Association Award and a British Academy Award.From The Washington Post:
Most of us would rather not think about Auschwitz, but that is how the next Auschwitz will happen. Laurence Rees's compact, devastating new history of the infamous death factory distills a crucial lesson -- perhaps the crucial lesson -- of the 20th century: that the human capacity for mass murder is grotesquely widespread and must be faced squarely if we hope to resist it.
The systematized, industrialized, conveyor-belt murder of six million Jews and other despised minorities is hard to fathom. I recently visited a community center in Florida where two enormous jars, each as tall as a basketball player and as fat as a sumo wrestler, were being filled with pennies in hopes of collecting six million.
But as Rees unfolds the singular atrocity of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where one million died, the recurring theme is just how easily it happened. From the monstrous planners to the demoralized bystanders, Europe was full of people willing to countenance the genocide. The ideals of Western civilization were like tissue paper across the tracks of human hatred.
Auschwitz devolved smoothly from a slave-labor camp to a death camp as Hitler's war in the East bogged down. In village after village, city after city, people watched wordlessly, even jeered triumphantly, as their neighbors were herded toward the transports -- not just the Germans of Berlin and Munich and Leipzig, but Poles in Warsaw, Frenchmen in Paris, Hungarians in Budapest, Slovakians in Bratislava, even, in a few cases, British authorities in the Channel Islands.
Some of the perpetrators were monsters, like the camp's commandant, Rudolph Höss, and the master of the human roundups, Adolf Eichmann. Some were ordinary people who could have saved a life or two but just . . . didn't. Most fell in between: They did not plan the genocide, but it did not seem to bother them much. Take the stupidly cruel French police who, without much prodding from the Nazis, organized a large shipment of Jewish women and children: Far from being moved by the suffering they supervised, they heedlessly compounded it, herding the mothers onto transports many days before the children were to be shipped. As Rees recounts in spare, heartbreaking prose, the French authorities made no provision for the orphaned children, leaving them to wander -- terrified and barely fed -- around the French holding camp until trains finally came for them.
But the killers were not without tender feelings. Rees notes that it upset them very much when the people they were preparing for slaughter began screaming or struggling or fainting. It wore them out when they tried shooting their victims one by one beside mass graves. That is why they built efficient gas chambers, with soundproof walls and nearby crematoria. And it is why they took elaborate steps to mask what they were doing.
So we find workers at Auschwitz, on Oct. 7, 1944, coaxing the shivering, hungry children from Barrack 8 in the Birkenau annex with a promise of warm winter clothes. Alice Lok Cahana, 15, hoped to scrounge a few garments for her sickly sister, Edith. The children were led to a brick building in a corner of the compound and told to strip off their rags.
Alice did not panic, and the reason is quite horrible. She noticed "flowers in a window" of the building she was about to enter -- which was, of course, a gas chamber. Flowers made her think of her mother, who loved violets, and so she felt calm.
Her murder was interrupted by a revolt of the crematoria workers, quickly quelled. Cahana survived to add this arresting and revolting detail to Rees's picture of the camp.
Rees, a distinguished journalist and historian at the BBC, layers these details with little fanfare but great craftsmanship. His book, and a companion TV documentary, mark the 60th anniversary this month of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops.
Ultimately he does at the gut level what Hannah Arendt achieved some 40 years ago at the level of philosophy: He forces the reader to shift the Holocaust out of the realm of nightmare or Gothic horror and acknowledge it as something all too human. He reminds us that building Auschwitz required the services not just of sadists but of architects and engineers, that staffing it required the efforts of physicians and bookkeepers.
We see again that an impetus for the first gassings came not from Berlin but from Slovakia, whose pro-Nazi government was happy to round up able-bodied Jews to be pressed into slavery in the IG Farben synthetic-rubber works at Auschwitz. Then the Slovaks realized they would be stuck with a Jewish remnant unable to provide for itself, so they paid the Nazis to take the elderly, the frail, the children to Auschwitz as well. Killing them seemed the expedient thing to do.
Reading this book is an ordeal -- not through any failure of the author's but because of his success. Rees's research is impeccable and intrepid; among other feats, he has tracked down and interviewed former SS members who actually worked at Auschwitz, most of whom express no remorse. Rees also makes good use of the records that became available only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites.
These details add up to a precise picture of the death camp -- not only the sadistic kapos, the merciless selections, the industrial-scale killing, but also the perverse love stories, doomed uprisings, weird strokes of luck. Rees tells the bizarre story of the Auschwitz brothel, and details the one successful escape from the camp. He explains why the only hope of survival was a job indoors, and reports that the best jobs were in the warehouses where Jews were compelled to sort and catalogue the stolen possessions of their murdered brethren.
Scrupulous and honest, this book is utterly without illusions. The nearest thing it has to an uplifting story is the successful effort by Danes to save their country's Jews. Even this ends on a sad note in Rees's hands. Why, he wonders, could similar feats not have been accomplished all across Europe?
The answer emerges in the final pages, as Rees recounts stories of Auschwitz survivors returning to their homes months and years and even decades later, only to be greeted with fresh bigotry and new violence. More lives were not saved because human beings found it more convenient to hate. The potted bigotry and ludicrous rantings of tyrants spoke more deeply to them than the exhortations of saints.
It is folly to believe that hatred could be so widespread and so easily activated in 1945 yet be toothless today. Neighbors hacked neighbors to death in Rwanda; mountains of skulls rose in Cambodia; entire classes of people were worked and starved to death in China; even Hitler's brand of bigotry is common currency in much of the world.
Indeed, hate seems to be thriving. As long as it does, Auschwitz is with us.
Reviewed by David Von Drehle
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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