The Last Survivor: In Search of Martin Zaidenstadt

Timothy W. Ryback

Published by Pantheon, 1999
ISBN 10: 0679439714 / ISBN 13: 9780679439714
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Synopsis: Depicting contemporary Dachau, home of the first Nazi concentration camp, the first gas chamber, and the first crematory oven, proves an illusive task.  Timothy Ryback travels to Dachau, looking for the community that inhabits the town today, to find out how the older people live with the memories and how the younger generation deals with the legacy; there he finds Martin Zaidenstadt.  

While Dachau's residents express vastly divergent ways of and reasons for living in a city coinhabited by ghosts, Ryback finds one daily constant: Martin Zaidenstadt's vigil in front of the camp's brick crematorium.  Should you visit the crematorium, Martin will tell you, "My name is Martin Zaidenstadt. I survive this camp. I come here every day for fifty-three years." Martin claims to be a Holocaust survivor; he is both gadfly and guide, a man who embodies the paradox that is Dachau -- a place that was so successful at producing death, that it has become impossible for anyone who resides there to live a normal life.  

Ryback's inquiry into a place uncovers a person whose keen intelligence, subtle wit, and boundless goodwill help us to understand Dachau as a city unable to forget, yet unwilling to be defined by its abominable past. This is a stunning and passionate portrait.

Review: This disturbing group portrait of Dachau's modern-day residents is a Holocaust book unlike any other. American journalist Timothy Ryback, whose Austrian heritage includes a distant relative in the SS and a Nazi-sympathizing grandfather, depicts the wide range of perspectives held by those who live in the German town best known for being the site of a concentration camp. He finds that denial, distasteful self-pity, and genuine reflection are some of the typical emotions. Looming over all the other Dachauers, however, is 87-year-old Martin Zaidenstadt, a troubled and possibly delusional man who claims to have been a Dachau inmate and makes it his business to stand outside the camp every day, contradicting the glib accounts of the tour guides. Ryback never finds documentary evidence that Zaidenstadt was in Dachau, and many of the old man's diatribes contain factual errors. Yet he is a towering figure, possessed by near-biblical rage and a past whose nightmares include a wife and daughter burned alive in Poland--a trauma that, Ryback subtly suggests, fuels Zaidenstadt's vigil. By presenting his subjects without overt editorial comment, the author forces readers to confront discomfiting issues without the solace of easy condemnation or quick disassociation from decades-old ethical questions that are still painfully relevant. --Wendy Smith

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Title: The Last Survivor: In Search of Martin ...
Publisher: Pantheon
Publication Date: 1999
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Used: Good

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