Book Review

Stories of survival in the face of death

By Michael Kenney
May 8, 2010

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In February 1972, Walther Becker, a retired German regional police chief, was acquitted in a German court of charges stemming from his role in the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in the Polish town of Wierzbnik in October 1942.

In announcing the verdict, the presiding judge dismissed the testimony of dozens of witnesses, men and women from Wierzbnik who had survived as workers in the nearby slave-labor camp of Starachowice.

Eyewitness testimony, the judge declared, was “the most unreliable form of evidence,’’ and thus absent any “reliable’’ evidence Becker was set free.

The verdict caught the attention of Christopher R. Browning, a leading Holocaust scholar at the University of North Carolina.

“I felt,’’ writes Browning, that if Becker had escaped German justice, “he at least could be given his appropriate place in historians’ hell.’’

So Browning set to work on “Remembering Survival,’’ which draws heavily on the rich eyewitness accounts of Becker’s “dominant and terrifying presence’’ at Wierzbnik. But along the way the project’s focus broadened beyond the indictment of a single suspected war criminal.

Browning notes that as his “initial indignation’’ lessened he became “increasingly fascinated’’ with the challenge of exploring and presenting the “understudied phenomenon’’ of the factory slave-labor camp. Much had been written about the concentration camps but less about those facilities where Jews were forced to produce goods that supported the German war machine. The resulting work is an important contribution to Holocaust studies, a story of survival in the face of death.

The systematic liquidation of the Polish ghettos began in March 1942 and moved inexorably towards Wierzbnik, where there was an estimated Jewish population of 5,400. Eventually some 4,000 would be sent to the death camp at Treblinka.

There were rumors about what had happened to the Jews of other ghettos who had been transported to Treblinka. “We knew it wasn’t good,’’ one survivor told Browning, “but not how much it was not good.’’

And there was denial. “We thought it wouldn’t happen to us,’’ said one man, because of the factories which relied on Jewish workers.

The factories were a key factor in the balance between death and survival. Those in the district in which Starachowice was located were producing one-third of the ammunition for the German army. There was, writes Browning, a constant tension between the ideological “Final Solution’’ and the pragmatic needs of the war effort.

Browning writes that one factory manager “realized that by negotiating with and extorting [from] rather than killing his Jewish workers, he could increase factory production as well as line his own pockets.’’

Browning also explores such subjects as the survival of children in the camp, resulting from a combination of laxity on the part of German guards and the ingenuity of the children’s parents and the children themselves.

The stability of life in the camp had disappeared by the summer of 1944 and led to attempts to escape, rarely successful, and to attacks on camp guards by the prisoners. Reconstructing one such incident, Browning describes it as “a singular act of resistance’’ by one young woman, but also “an act of solidarity’’ by other prisoners who pooled their hidden resources to save the woman by bribing the guards.

Browning suggests that “in order to survive, Starachowice Jews plotted to remain at the camp, produced for the German war effort, and enriched their oppressors. In doing so, some of them thereby thwarted the intention of the Nazi regime that none of them should survive.’’ In fact, 600 to 700 lived to see the defeat of the Germans.

This, he writes, reflects neither a course of passivity or of resistance, but the triumph of “ingenuity, resourcefulness, adaptability, perseverance, and endurance.’’

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.

REMEMBERING SURVIVAL: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp By Christopher R. Browning

Norton, 375 pp., illustrated, $27.95