Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp is a collection of essays focusing on all parts of the Nazi’s most infamous labor-turned-death camp. This review will focus on four of those essays: “The Auschwitz Prisoner Administration” by Danuta Czech, “Hospitals” by Irena Strezelecka, “Auschwitz – A Psychological Perspective” by Leo Eitinger, and “The Literature of Auschwitz” by Lawrence Langer.
Danuta Czech examines the prisoner hierarchy in “The Auschwitz Prisoner Administration.” German prisoners were always at the top of the hierarchy and Jews, of any nationality, were at the bottom of the prisoner hierarchy. Christian prisoners, prisoners of war, and other types of prisoners fell somewhere in between the top and bottom of this hierarchy.(364) We see this evidenced in Pelicki’s report. Pelicki, a Polish Christian, had relative freedom of movement between jobs as compared to Jewish prisoners. He changed jobs several times, usually by just speaking to a German kapo or block leader.
Czech also details the benefits of having arrived early in Auschwitz (before 1942). Early arrival usually ensured a better job that was physically less brutal than what later arriving Jews had available. Since German was the camp language, an early arrival date would allow time to learn and speak the camp orders that were always issued in German. Czech argues that early arrivals who were able to adjust to the harsh condition in Auschwitz were able to attain important positions in the prisoner hierarchy (364-365). Czech’s essay and details of the prisoner hierarchy closely mimic Pilecki’s report and read in parallel enhance understanding of the prisoner administration at Auschwitz.
In “Hospitals,” Irena Strezelecka features the two purposes of the medical service ran by the SS at Auschwitz. The first task was to provide medical care for the entire camp, but especially for SS personnel. The hospital’s secondary purpose was to carry out methods of extermination, contradicting accepted medical doctrines and principles (379). One of the most horrific instances of active involvement in the annihilation operations at Auschwitz is the role that SS physicians played an integral role in the extermination process. Liquidation of sick prisoners often involved phenol injections. SS physicians would also send emaciated or otherwise sick prisoners to the gas chambers. Strezelecka compares the SS doctors to the prisoner-doctors at Auschwitz. Prisoner-doctors were often Poles and Jews, and many times these people went to great efforts to ameliorate prisoner experiences (391). This is an important comparison and provides another example of resistance in the death camp.
Leo Eitinger surveys the victims of Nazi aggression and how these victims responded to and coped with the abuse to which they were subject. Himself an Auschwitz victim, Eitinger studies the long-term effects of the type of aggression prisoners experienced (469). He lists three phases prisoners experienced: the shock phase, the reaction phase, and the recoil phase.
Eitinger’s shock phase begins with the journey to Auschwitz. Prisoners would be held in cattle cars for days on end, with no food, water, or hygienic facilities. When the prisoners were finally released from the cattle cars they faced armed SS men shouting in a foreign language. The result was a chaotic and panicked situation (470). Shock manifests itself in various ways, including confusion, shakiness, composure, and extreme apathy. The SS used the victim’s shock to exploit and maneuver the prisoners. Eitinger posits that the shock phase lasted until prisoners were transported to their blocks, tattooed, and numbered. Victims were transformed from people into numbers (471).
The reaction phase occurred after Auschwitz prisoners “awakened” from their shock. Now prisoners were faced with the realities of their situations. Families were disrupted. Prisoners experienced feelings of insecurity and were subjected to harsh labor. They were starved and deprived of basic human needs. Eitinger theorizes that surviving in Auschwitz meant learning to cope positively. This is observed in Vitold Pilecki’s account by the way in which he depended on his mission for survival. Without a reason to survive, inmates would quickly deteriorate and die.
Eitinger places a great deal of importance on decision making as a way prisoners coped during and after their ordeal. Some prisoners chose to ration their own bread. This enormous decision gave inmates a semblance of control in an environment meant to obliterate individual control (475). Again, Pilecki decided to ration his bread and he credits this decision as helping him survive Auschwitz.
Eitinger’s final phase is that of recoil, where victims attempts to overcome past horrors. Using newly developed coping strategies, victims see a decrease in symptoms and a gradual resumption of normal functioning (477). Many survivors had no close relatives or friends who survived the Holocaust. Upon liberation they had nowhere to go and no one waiting their return. Survivors faced lives that had to be completely rebuilt. They suffered feelings of guilt for surviving when so many others did not. Eitinger argues that many prisoners were never able to completely repress their memories of Auschwitz. Victims carry the stress of Auschwitz all of their lives.
Lawrence Langer, author of “The Literature of Auschwitz” and also a survivor of the camp, describes the perceptions created by the written sources, accounts, and fictional of Auschwitz. He struggles to understand Vikto Frankl’s ideology of minimizing atrocities experience in Auschwitz, but instead making connections between what occurred in the death camp and living reality. Langer criticizes Frankl’s comparison of Auschwitz prisoners to explorers of the human spiritual condition, such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Thomas Mann. Langer wonders how a fictional character in Tolstoy’s Resurrection could know anything of suffering on the level of a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz. Langer argues that Frankl’s success lies in accomplishing what Auschwitz perpetrators intended: leaving victims anonymous.(603) I think Langer believes that Frankl’s assertion that the power of literature and philosophy to maintain the inner self during the camp nightmare is futile.
Langer does, however, find a comparative belief with Jean Amery. Amery asserts that literary memory was useless once it entered the boundaries of Auschwitz. He argues that what made Auschwitz unique was not death, but the particular type of death unique to an extermination camp. Amery avows that intellect was not present at Auschwitz. (604) This fact becomes clear when one considers the many intellectually minded prisoners who were immediately gassed upon arrival in Auschwitz or were reduced to skeletons through work. Intellect meant nothing; survival meant everything.
For the post-Auschwitz generation, there is often a macabre fascination with the sign above an Auschwitz gate, Arbeit Macht Frei, or “Work sets you free.” This sign has lingered in Auschwitz literary history as an indication of Jewish suffering. However, the overwhelming majority of Jews never witnessed this sign or the “work” associated with Auschwitz because they were gassed immediately upon arrival. In an effort to classify and make sense of Auschwitz, people use the Auschwitz gate or mounds of bodies as a visual attempt to make sense of the disaster that occurred at Auschwitz. Langer identifies this as “the commonplace disguised as the profound.”(608)
Langer additionally examines the confines dividing the historical moment from its imaginative representation by looking at Elie Wiesel’s acclaimed Night. Night was written by Wiesel as an autobiographical memoir, but continues to be acclaimed and classified as a novel. Night and other written accounts of Auschwitz, and the Holocaust more generally, result in a precision of language not observed in any other communicative form. Langer argues that because Night is a written text, it suffers the privileges of art. This privilege lifts Night beyond the realm of autobiography into the land of imagined fiction.
Understanding the literature of Auschwitz is central to any study of the Nazi death mechanization. Interpretations of the struggles in Auschwitz should not minimize the prisoner experiences, but should lead to an in-depth comprehension of the varied ways in which prisoners coped and survived.
As with any collection of essays, there is a redundancy of content matter. At times this detracts from the essays, but I think the consistency of repetition adds an extra layer of truth to Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. With over twenty contributors, facts and circumstances are repeated so that readers have little choice but to put all faith in the accounts. Another advantage of this work is that several contributors survived Auschwitz and the Holocaust. Autobiographical and eyewitness testimony is more difficult to refute even from a secondary source.
Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp presents a “whole” history of Auschwitz. It provides a detailed look at all aspects of the death camp’s history, the perpetrators, the prisoners themselves, the resistance activities within Auschwitz, and a broader look at how the world perceived the camp during the 1940s. This collection of essays is important reading about the Third Reich’s most notorious and deadly concentration camp.
Gutman, Yisrael and Michael Berenbaum, eds. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.