Saturday, July 18, 2015

Dan Stone's "The Liberation of the Camps"

Dan Stone is professor of modern history, Royal Holloway, University of London. He has published fifteen books on the Holocaust, genocide, and twentieth-century European history, including Goodbye to All That? The Story of Europe Since 1945.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath, and reported the following:
The Liberation of the Camps provides a survey of the end of the Holocaust as experienced by victims, liberators, and, to a lesser extent, perpetrators. There is a large specialist literature on “death marches” (the forced evacuation of concentration camps in the face of the advance of the Red Army, with inmates marched or transported westwards), on the camps in their last days and weeks, and on the Displaced Persons (DP) camps in which many of the survivors found themselves after liberation. This book, however, is the first to offer an overview of the phenomenon in general and to follow the Holocaust survivors through the liberation period into the DP camps, and then to show how the DPs became the subject of international refugee political debates in the context of the Cold War in the late 1940s.

In contrast with the “happy ending” we associate with Hollywood films, the book follows survivor testimonies in stressing that liberation from camps – or from death marches or hiding or other forms of survival – did not mean the end of the victims’ troubles. Quite the opposite was in fact the case, as survivors were usually physically and mentally ill – thousands died after liberation because they were so weak – and as they responded to the shock of the enormity of the Nazis’ crimes. They more often than not discovered that they were the sole survivors of their families, that their communities had been wiped out, and that they could not return to their former homes. Many, especially those from Eastern Europe, spent years learning new languages, travelling and working “illegally”, trying to start new families, and often taking years to arrive at a place where they wanted to live. Most of all, survivors were inflicted by a terrible existential loneliness, a feeling of being left alone in the world, which took years to overcome.

In a book that is full of difficult stories, page 99 occurs in a section that offers some of the most difficult. The topic of revenge amongst survivors is rarely researched; those who have looked at it usually conclude that revenge occurred surprisingly rarely. I would not disagree, but there are sources which indicate that revenge attacks did take place, by survivors as well as by Allied soldiers. We first hear the words of Harry Herder, an American soldier, recalling how he and several colleagues did not intervene to prevent a group of survivors from murdering a guard. “I felt I knew why the prisoners at Buchenwald did what they did – so I did not stop them”, he writes. He then admits that the event troubled him and that he told no one about it for forty-six years.

Next we hear from one of the remarkable interviews undertaken by David Boder in 1946. Boder, by origin a Latvian Jew who worked as a psychologist at Illinois Tech, returned to the DP camps of Western Europe in 1946 with a primitive wire recorder; his interviews are among the earliest and most fascinating of such oral sources, since neither he nor his interviewees had a template in their minds of what we now call “the Holocaust”, and his astonishment at what they told him is plain. Benjamin Piskorz, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, openly admits to Boder that he took revenge against the Germans, saying “I did the same thing as they did with us.” Boder asks for further information, and Piskorz claims that he killed German children, “because the hate in me was so great”. It’s not possible to verify Piskorz’s claims but the fact that he made them gives us an insight into the state of mind of some of the survivors. Although such things do not make for pleasant reading, I hope that The Liberation of the Camps gives a more rounded view of the phenomenon of liberation and the post-liberation period than has existed until now.
Learn more about The Liberation of the Camps at the Yale University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Goodbye to All That?.

--Marshal Zeringue