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Historic Shift

Like most Holocaust historians, Christopher Browning was wary of survivor testimony. Then, one case made him realize he could ignore it no longer.

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The author’s parents shortly after the war. Her mother, Anna Perl Freilich, provided one of the 292 accounts that formed the basis of Christopher Browning’s Remembering Survival. (Courtesy of Toby Perl Freilich)

Though it has long played a central role in the popular history of the Holocaust, survivor testimony has for decades been seen as marginal by Holocaust historians. The issue has preoccupied scholars since Raul Hilberg’s landmark 1961 book, The Destruction of the European Jews, in which he largely discounted the “usefulness” of survivor accounts.

Hilberg’s pioneering work established a methodological orthodoxy with regard to survivor testimony that was long adhered to by historians looking to establish a credible and unassailable historical record of Nazi crimes.

Christopher Browning was still operating within the boundaries Hilberg had set when he chose to focus on the slow brutalization of a single battalion of German soldiers in his pathbreaking 1992 book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.

But, more recently, while studying a 1972 German court case that acquitted a Nazi police chief on all charges related to his role in the liquidation of a small Jewish ghetto in central Poland, Browning was outraged.

He was struck by the presiding judge’s chilling dismissal of some 100 eyewitness testimonies by the ghetto’s survivors who attested to the defendant’s memorable savagery. The judge dryly noted, “As a matter of principle … eyewitness testimony was ‘the most unreliable form of evidence’ with which the judicial process had to deal.” Compounding the insult was the fact that virtually no other documentary or evidentiary material existed in this case.

In his latest book, Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave Labor Camp, Browning offers a corrective—one that represents a shift away from the field’s long-held eschewal of survivor testimony. “The history of the Holocaust,” Browning has concluded, “cannot be written solely as either perpetrator history or history from above.”

Remember Survival offers an account woven out of 292 testimonies by survivors of the Starachowice slave labor camp, whose principal security officer, not coincidentally, was the same Nazi police chief exonerated in that 1972 decision by the German court.

In reflecting upon the 292, Browning remarks: “Among the survivors of the Starachowice camps, there is no Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel.” For the most part, these are ordinary survivors, some with limited verbal skills or disjointed narratives. But Browning is scrupulous in preserving the dignity and integrity, if not always endorsing the accuracy, of their accounts.

Complicating survivor testimony, Browning believes, are five discrete categories of memory, whose boundaries sometimes shift. The largest obstacle to their usefulness as judicial testimony is the tendency by some survivors to incorporate postwar Holocaust tropes into their personal narratives.

Thus, for example, although the historical record indicates that they were not subject to the usual selection process upon arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau in July 1944, many of the Starachowice survivors vividly “recalled” a selection by Dr. Mengele, whose ubiquity and notoriety were largely nurtured in postwar Holocaust literature and film.

But Browning allows for “authenticity” as well as “factual accuracy” in the survivor testimony. He wisely notes that all evidence is problematic but rather than discarding evidentiary testimony wholesale the problems can be managed by a competent historian. In this case, he speculates that the survivors likely fused the memory of subsequent selections by SS officials, including Mengele, with their traumatic arrival at Auschwitz.

When I picked up Remembering Survival, my interest was not strictly academic. My late mother, Anna Perl Freilich, is among the 292 Starachowice testimonies, and I read the book closely, hunting for more pieces to the overwhelming and confusing jigsaw puzzle that had always constituted her wartime experiences. What I gleaned were not only more shards from a fractured story, but a vital context that endowed those fragments with new meaning.

Ironically, it is Hilberg whom Browning quotes in claiming that what he has attempted to do in this micro-history of the Starachowice factory slave labor camp is to “cast a bright light on a small stage,” and he has largely succeeded. Thrown into stark relief, in particular, are the internal dynamics of the camp and the moral matrix within which the survivors operated.

There were other camps that exploited Jewish labor vital to the German war effort, but the Starachowice labor camp was unusual in at least one respect, one that contributed to the relatively high survival rate of its inmates. Following the 1939 nationalization of the munitions factory on its site, the daily operation of Starachowice was conducted not by the SS, but by “bribable” civilian factory managers.

The Jewish slave laborers were the legal property of the SS, and the new German factory owners paid a per capita fee to the SS for their use. This afforded the SS a more limited day-to-day role in Starachowice than it had in other slave labor camps that used Jewish workers, notwithstanding the brutality of individual Nazis, who oversaw the camp’s security.

Starachowice’s atypical survival rate was rooted in another, more complex, circumstance. In its cynical attempt to “divide and control,” the Nazi administration that ran the security apparatus of the camp appointed a Jewish lagerrat, a parallel to the concentration camps’ infamous kapo system, placing “privileged” Jewish prisoners in charge of Starachowice’s internal affairs.  The lagerrat was supplemented by a Jewish-administered lagerpolizei.

Starachowice’s corrupt and often cruel lagerrat and lagerpolizei were as morally controversial as the ghetto-based Judenräte, or Jewish councils, but they were also paradoxically instrumental in the relatively high survival rate of the Jewish slave labor force.

Though collectively reviled in the survivors’ testimonies for abetting German policies, some credited their own survival to crucial and inexplicable acts of mercy by individual members of the lagerpolizei.

My mother, for example, fell victim to the typhus epidemic that raged in Starachowice during the winter of 1942-43. Too weak to leave her bed to attend the mandatory prisoner roll call, she had resigned herself to the consequences.

But in a story that I heard over and over during my childhood, and that is recounted in Remembering Survival, it was one of the lagerpolizei, a landsman from her hometown of Szydlowiec, Szmul Szczesliwy, who burst into her barracks, rallied her to her feet, yanked on her clothes, helped her to the roll call, and insisted that other landsleit carry her to work. Those who remained behind were massacred in their beds.

As Browning notes, a member of the lagerrat, Rachmil Wolfowicz, was “detested” by many. But he is recalled by my uncle, the Yiddish journalist Joseph Friedenson—another Starachowice survivor interviewed by Browning—simply as a cousin by marriage whose mother’s privileged job in the camp kitchen enabled Friedenson, his wife Gitele and my mother (Gitele’s cousin) to receive occasional life-saving supplements to their near-starvation diets.

This web of idiosyncratic stories helps to reconstruct the tortured ethical universe that reigned in Starachowice, where the Jewish prisoners were continually presented with what Lawrence Langer referred to as a series of “choiceless choices” in their struggle to stay alive and where they established a makeshift moral code in the face of a heartless and single-minded enemy.

The interdependence of this battered community of slave laborers, many of whom were fortunate to be imprisoned with relatives or townsmen, is vividly portrayed. Tragically, as one survivor notes, “if you helped one person, it was usually at the expense of another.”

But Browning cautions against moralizing; what he emphasizes is that it was almost impossible to stay alive solely through one’s own agency. He credits, among other factors, the Starachowice slave laborers’ desperate commitment to the lives of those closest to them by blood or geography for their unusually high survival rate. It also provided a way for them to unwittingly thwart the Nazi plan for total Jewish annihilation.

In one of the book’s most gripping chapters, Browning describes the 1944 cattle-car ride from Starachowice to Auschwitz-Birkenau. When the doors were opened on arrival, a preponderance of the labor camp’s surviving lagerrat and lagerpolizei—all of whom were concentrated in the first car—were found dead in a heap.

Had they perished from the hardships and privations of the cattle-car ride, or were they the victims of revenge killings by their fellow prisoners? Though it’s impossible to be sure, Browning is convinced that it’s the latter.

If fellow prisoners had killed them, it was likely a group of Lublin survivors who had arrived at Starachowice rather late in the game. Geographic outliers at the bottom of the camp hierarchy, they had systematically been denied the advantages of the veteran Starachowice slave laborers, and they may have decided to settle a score. To his credit, Browning neither flinches in exploring this scenario nor offers facile moral judgments about this tragic possibility.

Now, some 40 years after the scandalous verdict of a German court, not only has Browning proved that survivor testimony is “useful” to Holocaust historiography but that it is vital. It also grants survivors a degree of justice that they have long been denied.

In a measure of the emotional resonance his book has had among Starachowice survivors, my uncle, Joseph Friedenson, remarks of Browning, “For someone who didn’t see the Nazis in action, he manages to capture the tragedy as if he were there; as if he were a witness, just like me.”

In his sensitive and careful use of In his sensitive and careful use of their testimonies, Browning has not simply made a sentimental concession to these ordinary survivors, he has enriched the historical record. Even as he reinforces the evidence of Nazi crimes, Browning provides a critical window into the daily life and mores of the Jewish prisoners. Like any good historian, he sifts through and weighs conflicting testimonies and carefully contextualizes them. Above all, he listens.

Toby Perl Freilich is a freelance filmmaker in New York and Jerusalem currently completing a documentary about Israel’s kibbutz movement.

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janet wolkoff says:

Thank you, Toby. A very poignant, interesting review.

Arlene says:

Excellent review!! The reviewer’s personal connection to the accounts contained in Browning’s new book adds to the review’s as well as the books’ poignancy. The book as well as the review itself testifies to the importance of standing up as witnesses, even now, as the next generation.

I recall a Kapo was discovered by a concentration camp survivor in the 1970s on Rechov Dizendorf in Tel-Aviv. I recall because I was living in Israel at the time. The Kapo, a Jew, was sentenced to life imprisonment. I recall his children had all been in the IDF. Yet this man and thousands like him survived on the backs of innnocent Jewish victims. The survival of the fittest.

We Jews have a fatal flaw. We have no unity. Just look at all the synagogues Jews belong to in one town. There will always be anti-Jew, not anti-Semitic or anti-Semitism, as long as Jews act as victims instead of standing up to their haters and threatening them with the same violence they would do unto us.

If Jews in Germany had stopped Hitler in the 1920s, not the 30s then there would not have been a Holocaust. He presented a clear and present danger yet Jews famously say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right”, “We can’t be like them.”, “In the 1920’s he didn’t really harm us yet so it wouldn’t be right to harm him first.” Ask a survivor those questions and that’s the answers they will give you. We don’t protect our families first. Morality is a crutch and there are seven, not six, million Jews who died horribly when we could have prevented it. Instead we write books showing how bad the Nazis were and then proving that oral testimony is permissible. Chaval!!

Bill Levy

jzsnake says:

It is so easy with hindsight to make the right decision isn’t it Levy.

Marca C says:

Oh, come on! ‘Preemptive strike’ can only make sense after the passage of history. Until we know the heart of a perceived enemy, we cannot know if an attack is murder or a justified protection of the innocents. I’d have killed Hitler in a NY minute; but ponder Iraq. The killing of innocent people is so very hard a thing to live with. I have often thought of the change of history if certain people had been killed, often wondered why G-d did not cast a few well-placed lightning bolts, as I surely would have done had I the power. Looking back through my 76 years, it is just as well I never had that power or some truly important people/ideas would have been lost to us, those whom I, in my ignorance, deemed unworthy of life.

Gary Williams says:

Actually here are steps that can be taken to prevent such a horror ever occurring again. And it doesn’t involve proactive violence at those who remind you of Hitler or anyone else.

You see…after WW2 there was a lot of interest from social scientists in trying to discover why it was that so many seemingly “normal” Germans would have fallen for Goebbel’s “Big Lie” technique of preparing a population for war, and who was it that did whatever was asked simply because “that was my orders” (a refrain heard over and over at Nuremberg). And what they discovered was a tendency for those we would now characterize as being “socially conservative”, and who were entirely mainstream otherwise, are also the sort of who have a strong tendency to accept orders from a perceived authority figure (remember Milgram?). And since they are also the type to be swayed by any patriotic, flag-waving overture, they also provided the bulk of the card-carrying Nazi SS types. It was also true in Stalin’s authoritarian dictatorship and it has been true ever since.

Without followers, madmen are just crazy old men. Unfortunately there’s another group they all depend on for power who exist in every nation and culture in roughly equal amounts. It’s those ones who see themselves as “super-patriots”, are drawn to the military, and who like being a prison guard or policemen. More often than not they will also have orthodox, dogmatic religious views. But despite their perception of themselves as righteous and honorable people, the research by Adorno, Altemeyer and dozens more highly respected social psychologists is clear….. these are the ones who follow the most insane leaders and will do the most cruel things simply by telling them it’s what’s needed for “us” to win.

“It appears that conservatism has pathological dimensions manifested in violence and distorted psycho-sexual development” Boshier, R. (1969). Journal of Social Psychology, 77, 139-140.

Gene says:

Two different views represent two different experiences, or rather one experience and one lack of it. However, the purpose of the history is to teach those who are lacking such experience by the experience of others, who were less fortunate. It would be a mistake to miss this great opportunity due to our ignorance and dangerous sense of self-righteousness. Right now the history tells us that in 1920-nies Jews failed to evaluate correctly the situation in Germany and made a mistake by not launching “preemptive strike” against Nazis. This mistake later led to the big catastrophe. It is too yearly right now to say either the decision to launch a “preventive strike” against Iraq was right or wrong for we need another dozen years to make the correct judgment. But my point is this: to deny the possibility of launching “preemptive strikes” under any circumstances, just because some innocent people could be hurt, is an immoral and stupid act for which future generations may not forgive us.
The difference between smart person and a fool is that although everybody can make mistakes only the smart one doesn’t repeat them. The history will tell us if the common view of Jews as of smart people is a correct view.

Chana Rivka says:

growing up my family never discussed being jewish. i became the first person to hang a mezzuzah on my doorpost since my grandmother. to attend synagogue in 2 generations. now we have people saying the holocaust did not happen. the mel gibsons of this world….and yes the dick cheney’s. while cheney did not say it did not happen, he used lines to justify war just like the nazi did. one that sticks out most in my mind is saying, we are keeping your children safe. it was used to justify the loss of personal freedom in europe and repeated in the usa. nazi’s used did bush/cheney. who is the worse?

Thank you for the Browning study, the fine article by Freilich, and all these intelligent reponses.

kenwaltzer says:

Christopher Browning is a fantastic historian. This is his second book on Starachowice. Actually, there is a subtle move between the first (Collected Memories) and second (Remembering Survival) books — in the first he is more affirmative about the uses of Holocaust testimony and in the second, this one, he is a bit more standoffish, a bit more critical. He is still, though, our leading historian affirming the value of using testimony not merely to garnish an account but to write Holocaust history itself. This is one of the new directions in study of the Holocaust.

kenwaltzer says:

A response to Bill Levy. Prisoner functionaries in the camps, like kapos, could be worse than the SS and they could be crucial helpers. It all depended… And the existence of kapos says nothing at all about “Jewish unity.” Under conditions of extremity in the camps, Jews — like others — reacted in all sorts of ways…. Jews are humans too.

Roy Weston says:

The trouble with survival testimony is the need to find someone to blame while at the same time declaring ourselves to be blameless. It takes two to cause a situation to happen, one to deny that the situation is happening and the other to exploit that denial. What history hasn’t done is explore how much Jewish denial made it possible for a bad situation to get worse.
Hitler made no secret of his hatred for Jews and that there was going to be no place for them in the new order. That should have been enough to raise the alarm of European Jewry. But the prevailing mood seemed to be to treat the Nazi threat as just another pogrom and if we hunker down and don’t put up a resistance, they won’t have an excuse to kill us. But that’s precisely the mood that the Nazis wanted the Jews to have since they intended to kill Jews, with or without resistance, and lack of resistance made it that much easier.
However it’s always easy in hindsight to say what should or should not have been done and a preemptive strike can never be judged as necessary since it can never be ascertained if it was ever really needed if the action it was meant to prevent never happened because of it. It’s only left for the rest of us know when a threat has a possibility of becoming a reality and take the necessary action to prevent it from happening and hope we got it right.

I would like to commend Toby for once again offering us a thoughtful, cogent, balanced, beautifully written piece that both summarizes the larger issues and focuses on their very personal implications. You are very talented and I would so much like to read more. Susan Reimer-Torn
PS: Before reading the caption or the article, I looked long at the photo, particularly of the man and asked myself how I felt so sure that I knew him….”hameveena taveen”

We need to continue to tell the very specific accounts of the era of the WW2 Holocaust. Bravo Browning and Freilich

VHJM van Neerven says:

I am confused. Dear readers, please help me out.

If indeed cattle cars were used for the transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau, how could the people in the first car be reached by others? Cattle cars are not interconnected from the inside, so any killing would have to be done by first moving outside of the cars to the front car, either when the train was standing still or on the move. Usually, guards were attached to the trains, some even riding on the roofs. The guards would barely allow such movement, now would they?
I wonder if the “cattle-car” is not a Shoah-trope, as mentioned in the article.

I know from photographic evidence that the “Nederlandse Spoorwegen” (NS, Dutch Railroads), collaborating with the occupiers, have used passenger cars and trains for ‘Judentransporte.’ I do not now if they were only used in-country (to Vught, Amersfoort, Westerbork, to name the majors), or if they also went beyond the Dutch borders.

Box cars would have been more likely, as they were much more numerous on the European railway lines – and much more deadly for they do not have the fresh air and waste accommodations of a cattle car.

I would really like serious answers to my question(s). I am not picking nits here. Like the author and his subject, I want to get to the truth. The war made me an avid historical psychologist and I understand Raul Hilberg’s motives in the early sixties. But personally I attach as much importance to survivors’ tales as to monuments and documents.

Yet, to get to the truth we have to weed out the tropes and inserted memories from later on. I need the harsh light of “wie es wirklich gewesen” to understand the past, primarily my parents, their generation and me and my generation — in order to understand our present and future.

Thanks for any and all responses.

Toby Appleton says:

Dear VHJM van Neerven: Simple, the killers were located in the first car, along with their victims. Not everyone in the first car was killed — just many of those who had been members of the lagerpolizei or the lagerrat. Survivors from the 1st car largely remained silent about what they may or may not have witnessed.

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Historic Shift

Like most Holocaust historians, Christopher Browning was wary of survivor testimony. Then, one case made him realize he could ignore it no longer.

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