BOOK REVIEW: The Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio

The Photographer of MauthausenThe Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Due out: September 30, 2020

This “graphic novel” tells the story of a Spanish photographer, Francisco Boix, who was sent to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp as a Communist during the Second World War. [Note: I only put graphic novel in quotes because it’s not a fictitious story, which “novel” implies, but graphic novel seems to be the accepted term for any graphically depicted story – fact or fiction.] Mauthausen was a camp in Austria. While it wasn’t technically one of the extermination camps, it was legendary for the death toll associated with the granite mine where many of the inmates labored. Its “staircase of death” was the location of untold fatalities, including: murders by the Nazis, suicides, and even tripping accidents that will happen when an emaciated prisoner has to carry 50 kg stones up almost 200 uneven steps with no railing day after day.

Boix, who had been a journalistic photographer previously, was assigned to work for a Nazi officer who took pictures in the camp – particularly pictures of fatalities. Boix carried equipment, set up lighting, developed negatives, and made prints. His boss, Ricken, is depicted as bizarre character. On the one hand, Ricken seems not so bad by Nazi SS standards, but, on the other hand, he has a sociopathic inclination to see death as art. Boix takes advantage of his position to make copies of the negatives with the idea that they will be evidence when the war comes to the end. At first, there is support for this plot among the Spanish Communists, who help hide the negatives away in places like the carpentry shop. However, this support dwindles when it becomes clear that the Germans will lose the war, and – thus –surviving to the end becomes everyone’s primary focus. Soon Boix is on his own to figure out how to get the photos out. He develops a plan involving one of the boys at the camp (children being less intensely scrutinized) and an Austrian woman, who is a sympathizer.

The book climaxes with the operation to get the negatives out of the camp, but resolves with the immediate post-War period when Boix attempts to generate interest in the photographs as well providing testimony at the Nuremberg Trials. Boix is portrayed as fiery and impassioned. When the others at Mauthausen just want to survive to the end, he maintains that any risk is worth it. While he is shown to have some conflict about putting a boy’s life at risk with (arguably) the riskiest step in the process, he doesn’t seem waiver. At the trials he’s outraged about the panel’s insistence on “just the facts.” He wants to freely and fully tell the story of Mauthausen, and they – like courts in democracies everywhere – wish to maintain an appearance of the dispassionate acquisition of facts.

I found this book to be engaging and well worth the read. The artwork is well-done and easy to follow. The story is gripping. While there are a vast number of accounts of events at places like Auschwitz, there aren’t so many popular retellings of events at Mauthausen. I highly recommend this book for those interested in events surrounding World War II and the Holocaust.

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BOOK REVIEW: I Participated in Wallenberg’s Rescue Operation by Paul Marer

I Participated in Wallenberg's Rescue OperationsI Participated in Wallenberg’s Rescue Operations by Paul Marer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Inquiries about purchasing the book can be made here.

 

In 1944, the Nazis were working to eradicate the European Jews. Among the last major Jewish populations accessible to Hitler that had yet to be shipped to the death camps were those from Budapest. Among the most effective forces arrayed against the Nazis and the Arrow Cross Militia (the Hungarian fascists) in the days before the Red Army arrived were neutral nation diplomats who issued protective documentation, offering at least a thin shield of legal protection that saved thousands of lives.

Perhaps the most intriguing story of such diplomats is that of the Swedish envoy, Raoul Wallenberg – not because his operation was bigger or riskier than those of the others, but because his story didn’t end with the war. Wallenberg was captured by the Soviets at the end of the Siege of Budapest for reasons that remain speculative, and he died in a Soviet prison. This book draws on the experience of Marianne Bach, a young member of Wallenberg’s team. Given the loss of Wallenberg, and the fact that the other members of his operation are now deceased, Bach’s story is an important last chance to learn more detail about what happened in Budapest during those dark days.

The book is chronologically arranged. The first two and the last three chapters discuss Marianne Bach’s life before and after, respectively, her days working as part of Wallenberg’s team. A reader might dismiss such chapters as humdrum, if necessary, background information, and starkly contrast them with the more high-octane, life-and-death, fascist-fighting core of the book. However, Marer fixes his sights on an intriguing focal point throughout these chapters, identity (and crises, thereof.) Both before and after the war, Bach was challenged by questions of identity – religious, cultural, and national identity. Living abroad, she was a foreigner, but at “home” in Hungary there’d been a great effort to eliminate her people. It was smart to focus on events and questions at the crux of identity. It makes these chapters engaging to a degree that a broad biographical sketch would be hard-pressed to achieve.

The core of the book (ch. 3 – 8) doesn’t just tell Bach’s story – in fact, it doesn’t just tell the Wallenberg story, it delves into the broader question of the fate of the Budapest Jews and all those who intervened to save whomever they could. This isn’t to say that the closeup story is absent. Readers get a detailed view of the operations that Bach was involved in and an overview of the Wallenberg story – including discussion of his fate as a secret Soviet prisoner. It’s just that those closeup stories are embedded within a broader context that includes activities like Carl Lutz’s Glass House operation, Hitler’s order to take over of Hungary before it could defect from the Axis, and the Danube executions by Arrow Cross Militiamen that followed that takeover.

This book provides a gripping examination of a disturbing time, and I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Carl Lutz (1895-1975) by György Vámos



Carl Lutz by György Vámos
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page (only the French edition is currently showing)

 

Carl Lutz was a Swiss diplomat assigned to Budapest in 1944, at the time the Nazis and their Arrow Cross comrades were trying to deport the Budapest Jewry to death camps. Lutz may not be as well know as his Swedish counterpart, Raoul Wallenberg, but that’s not for lack of saving lives. Like Wallenberg, he saved thousands of Jews by issuing protective documentation, and by fudging numbers and background documents where necessary to keep more people safe.

Lutz also oversaw a facility where the people issued these documents were allowed to stay to keep them out of the city ghetto from which they might get caught up in deportations. The Swiss-flagged facility was called the “Glass House” because it was on the grounds of a factory where specialty glass had been made, and the building’s façade was covered in multiple styles of glass as a way for perspective customers to see what products were available. Unfortunately, the property wasn’t designed for residential use, let alone for providing facilities for large numbers of people. Quarters were cramped and hygienic facilities were inadequate. However, the facility did keep people alive, even though it was raided by the Arrow Cross. [For those visiting Budapest, a small museum / memorial room can still be found at this same location, and this book’s author can offer more insight.]

The book is written in a scholarly style, i.e. employing a historian’s tone. It largely follows a chronological format. The book doesn’t discuss Lutz’s life much outside the war years, but it does give the reader background about Hungary’s anti-Semitic laws and actions as well as an overview of strategic-level events. [Hungary was allied with Germany in the Second World War, but in 1944 tried to separate itself and stop deportations. This resulted in Germany taking control and handing power to the Arrow Cross Militia, which was the Hungarian fascist party — akin to the German Nazis.]

The book is concise, weighing in at only 125 pages — about 17 of which are in an appendix of documents and photos regarding Swiss efforts to undermine the Nazi’s Holocaust.

As I said, the book is written in a scholarly / historical format, rather than the more visceral narrative approach of a journalistic or popular work. Still, it does become more intense reading in the latter half — when the author is describing events concerning the Glass House, Lutz’s issuance of protective documentation, and the siege of Budapest by the Russians at the end of the war. It will certainly give readers insight into a little-known rescue effort during the Holocaust.

If you’re interested in international efforts to thwart the Nazi’s plan to exterminate the Jews, this book will clue you in on events that aren’t well-known – particularly by English readers. I highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

One might think that a book narrated by Death and set in Nazi Germany during the Second World War would be bleak from cover to cover. But one would be wrong. “The Book Thief” heaps hope and humor upon the reader, saving tragedy for the final course – besides a few sprinkles throughout. It’s not that the story lacks a tension born of many close calls and morally compromised situations, but it’s a very human story – with the appropriate mix of blemishes and beauty.

The protagonist is a girl named Liesel who is sent to live with foster parents during the first year of World War II. Traveling to meet her new family, her brother dies, leaving her alone with new parents in a new city on the doorstep of the most lethal war in human history. In the cemetery, after her brother’s impromptu funeral, Liesel finds a fallen book and keeps it. It’s the first of several books she will “steal,” acts that will define her but which are comic sins in the shadow of the mass murder in progress. Fortunately, Liesel’s foster parents are salt of the earth folk. They aren’t wealthy or erudite, but they offer Liesel a loving home. It’s a little harder to see this affection in her foster-mother, who has a stern and gruff exterior — in contrast to her papa who is endearingly sympathetic.

The story is about this family, and others in the neighborhood, trying to get through life under a regime they recognize as tragically absurd, but which is terrifying none-the-less. Besides surviving, characters like Liesel’s papa try to do the right thing whenever they can, in whatever way won’t get them killed. Life gets harder as the war wears on. Liesel’s papa is a house painter, an occupation that is not a year-round occupation in Germany. Liesel’s mother does laundry, a luxury that most can’t afford as the war rages. On the other hand, this doesn’t make them worse off than most of the others on Himmel Street, which is – figuratively speaking – on the wrong side of the tracks.

While this is an engaging story, Death as narrator is the feature that really makes this book exceptional to me. Much of the lightness and humor comes from the fact that the narrator is not grim, but rather has humor and a stilted form of humanity about him. From a narrative perspective, Death offers a unique point of view, but it’s the circumvention of expectations that comes from the fact that Death can recognize the tragedy of what is unfolding before him. He’s not emotional about it in the way a human would be, but neither does he ignore the brutality and absurdity of it. The other factor that catapults this book beyond the realm of run-of-mill war story, is how the desire for literature and learning — which would usually be lost in a war story’s struggle for survival – is given a prominent role.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s an intensely human story, neither saturated in sorrow nor ignoring the horrors of war and genocide. I highly recommend it for fiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Tattooist of AuschwitzThe Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

At its core, this is a love story set in the most unlikely of places, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp – which was in reality an extermination camp where Jews and others were executed as part of the Nazi Final Solution. Lale, the lead character, owing to his skill with languages and his survival instincts, was a prisoner chosen to be the assistant tattooist and in short order the tattooist’s replacement. As tattooist, Lale was responsible for writing numbers indelibly on the arms of the adult prisoners coming to the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. This position offered him an unusual freedom of movement that allowed him to carry on a secretive relationship with one of the young women that he’d tattoo’d and become instantly smitten with. It also allowed him to carry out a small-scale relief mission in which he purchased food and medicine from a couple of sympathetic Poles. Still, this covert charitable work didn’t erase his guilt of believing he was participating in the atrocity by way of the tattoo-branding of his fellow prisoners. In a place where everyday was a test of survival, it goes without saying that both his love affair and his covert purchases created a heightened risk of being killed. The tension is perpetually high as one never knows whether Lale or those dear to him will survive from one scene to the next.

It’s testament to how tight and engaging the narrative arc is that I was under the impression that it was completely fictitious until I got to the back matter – which included an epilogue, an afterword, and a photo section that clarified that the book was based on interviews with the real-life tattooist, Lale Sokolov. The book is presented as a novel, and that’s how it reads throughout, but it’s in some measure a memoir. It’s hard to know how much is fictitious, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the author took some liberties – otherwise it would presumably have been presented as a history / biography.

I found this to be one of the most intense and gripping books I’ve read this year, and I’d highly recommend it for all readers.

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DAILY PHOTO: Kohima War Cemetery

Taken in May of 2017 in Kohima, Nagaland

If you are wondering why it looks likes there’s an outline of a tennis court in the middle of this cemetery and war memorial, it’s because that’s what was there when the Japanese were assaulting British – Indian forces back during the Second World War.

BOOK REVIEW: Raoul Wallenberg by Ingrid Carlberg

Raoul Wallenberg: The BiographyRaoul Wallenberg: The Biography by Ingrid Carlberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is the most recent of the many biographies of Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat during the Second World War who is credited with saving thousands of lives. He was posted to Budapest with an assignment of issuing protective passports to Hungarian Jews. Hungary was a last bastion of Judaism among Nazi controlled / allied countries, but in the summer of 1944 they began mass deportation to the death camps in Poland. Protective passports from the neutral country of Sweden staved off deportation for many.

As dangerous as Wallenberg’s life was during his assignment to Budapest when he was constantly at odds with the Arrow Cross Militia (the Hungarian fascist party) and the Nazis who put them in power, the most intriguing part of Wallenberg’s life story may be his disappearance. In January of 1945, as he was seeking contact with the commander of the Red Army in Hungary to facilitate a post-War reconstruction of Budapest, he was arrested by the Soviets and surreptitiously moved to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. The Soviets denied having Wallenberg, but facing overwhelming evidence from released prisoners who came into contact with Wallenberg in Lubyanka and Lefortovo prisons eventually made the Soviets recant. In the 1950’s they admitted they’d had him while making the suspect claim that he’d died of natural causes in 1947. There remains a great deal of mystery surrounding the case. Why they arrested Wallenberg in the first place? Why didn’t they release or exchange him like other foreign diplomats they had in custody. If they executed him – why’d they do it and why’d they do it when they did it. [There were claims by prisoners stating that they’d met Wallenberg in Gulag camps in the 1960’s and even into the 70’s (though the latter claims are more suspect.)]

In a bold move, this book is written in the old school style, which is to say chronologically. This may not seem odd for those who’ve been reading biographies and autobiographies for a long time. It’s how historians always used to write their books, and it certainly seems like a logical arrangement for the telling of historical events. However, the mode today is to start in media res, or in the middle of the exciting bits, and to sprinkle in only what is absolutely necessary of backstory as one goes along. Because of a combination of intense competition for one’s reading time and what seems like the diminished attention span of today’s average reader, it’s really quite brave for Carlberg to start with 150+ pages discussing: Wallenberg’s parents and grandparents, his days in America as an architecture student studying a form of building design that would be considered virtually useless when he returned to Sweden, and his attempts to get started in business in the years between his return to Sweden and his entry into the diplomatic corps. That said, this first of the three parts that make up the book is well done and more interesting than one might expect. It doesn’t suffer from the painful dryness that is so common when one discusses ancestors and the subject’s childhood. It’s not just that Carlberg keeps an eye on what data might be useful for the reader later in the book. In fact, I’d say that what makes the first part interesting isn’t that it shows us how Wallenberg’s youth forged him into an inevitable hero. Rather, it’s that we come away with a picture of a somewhat shiftless kid from the least wealthy limb of a family tree of a rich family. It’s not that he was born to be a hero that makes his background fascinating; it’s that he was in many ways an ordinary fellow whose decisions at critical moments made him a hero.

As mentioned, the book’s 23 chapters are divided into three parts. The first part, as described, is Wallenberg’s background. The second part explores his actions while posted to Budapest. This is when he had to deal with the likes of Adolf Eichmann and – at the very end – rogue elements of the Arrow Cross Militia who were engaged in killing sprees. The third part covers the period of Wallenberg’s arrest and disappearance at the hands of the Soviet Union. Many of the popular biographies of Wallenberg were written in the 1980’s, during a period of reawakened interest in his fate but when the Soviets were just beginning to loosen up, and so this version does contain a little bit of new information that came out during the Glasnost years and subsequently.

The book has a substantial group of black and white pictures of relevant people and documents. There are also modern-day descriptions of the author’s visits to various key places in Wallenberg’s story including various offices and residences, as well as Lefortovo prison. These are short (a few pages at most) and are interspersed with the chapters around which that locale was relevant. Some of them involved talking with people who had insight into Wallenberg’s life and other places are occupied by individuals with little to no knowledge of Wallenberg. There is a detailed accounting of sources, including both a bibliography and lists of interviewed individuals and unpublished sources.

I found this book fascinating. I will admit that I didn’t get hooked right away. While there was enough in part one to keep me interested, the book doesn’t become truly gripping until the second and third parts. In part three, it becomes genuinely hard to put down.

That said, if one is hoping for a work that resolves all questions, that work doesn’t yet exist, and it’s less and less likely that it ever will given the way the Soviets purged Wallenberg from documentation (very few references were found during the Glasnost era investigation) and apparently cremated his body. Few people remain alive who were involved and their memories are adversely effected by time. Still, Carlberg offers excellent insight into what went wrong on the Swedish side that may have contributed to Wallenberg’s demise. The Swedish diplomat jumped to conclusions that probably hurt Wallenberg’s survival odds. There are a few brief scenes in the book that are visceral, and one of these involves the degree to which that one diplomat was haunted by his missteps in the case. (Another involves a cudgel-wielding former KGB-interrogator who threatened Wallenberg’s step-brother when the relative tried to visit to find out more. If the sparse documentation is to be believed, the retired KGB man may have been the last person to speak with Wallenberg. But the man clearly wanted to put that behind him.)

There were just a couple of questions that I wish had been addressed by the book that weren’t. Carlberg is keen to point out that it appeared that the Soviets were hinting that a teen-aged Baltic refugee, Lydia Makarova, could be a possible exchange for Wallenberg. (The Swedish diplomats were too dense to get this at first because one had concluded Wallenberg died in Hungary and another – higher up — didn’t believe in quid pro quo life trades.) I can see how this Lydia Makarova wasn’t really relevant to Wallenberg’s story. She was just an extremely high value subject, but I couldn’t help but wonder why they would want a teen-aged girl so badly that they’d have been willing to take the public relations nightmare of admitting they abducted a diplomat regarded as an international hero. With the book weighing in at over 600 pages, I can see why there was reticent to investigate this further just to scratch an itch of curiosity, but still the itch remains.

I’d highly recommend this book. I’ve read other books on Wallenberg, and believe that this book offered substantial value added – particularly regarding the investigation of Wallenberg’s disappearance.

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DAILY PHOTO: Imphal War Cemetery

Taken on May 5, 2017 in Imphal

 

Japan reached the end of line in its advance to the west in Northeastern India. Both Kohima in Nagaland and Imphal in Manipur have substantial war cemeteries. This is the one in Imphal. The graves are largely English names with crosses or Indian names with Hindi writing, but there are a few others of note. There are several unknown soldier graves, and a fair number of Muslim graves.  There are also laborers who got only one name put on their grave, and–in the case below–the grave of a Chinese soldier.

 

It was a confusing time because many Indians were serving with the British to fight the Japanese, but other Indians were fighting Britain and trying to ally with Japan.

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This review will be short because, JUST READ IT.

 

“But, historical fiction isn’t my bag,” he said.

 

This isn’t that kind of historical fiction—i.e. the kind that binds one in a web of cultural minutiae and reads like a history book writ purple. This book will make you enrapt.

 

“But, I don’t like war stories. Too violent,” she said.

 

I bet you’ll like this one. Yes, it’s set during World War II, and war’s ugly face peeks around the corner from time to time, but one also sees how ordinary people do extraordinary things when exposed to the crucible of war. War doesn’t just bring out the worst; it also forces people to be better than they’ve ever had cause to be. The book is largely about a girl living under occupation and isn’t so much about life on the front lines.

 

How can I so boldly assert that one should read this particular book? (I normally lay out the facts first and only at the end make a recommendation.) Because this is one of the best crafted novels I’ve read. It’s extremely readable and engaging. The characters are superbly developed and one feels one knows them. Even the closest thing to a villain (if you don’t count war as the villain) is a complex and nuanced character who one wants to understand better.

 

I will tell you something substantive about the novel. It interweaves the stories of two teenage characters whose lives are fated to become entwined through the fortunes (and misfortunes) of war. The first is a blind girl who lives with her father in Paris. Father and daughter flee when the Nazis occupy France and end up living on the coast at Saint Malo with her great-uncle who is a shut-in owing to his experience in the last Great War. Of course, the move to the coast only delays the occupation and the point at which the war comes to them.

 

The other lead character is a German orphan boy with a gift for science who gets prematurely drawn into the war because of his great intellect and skill with radios. Not only are these characters both people who readers are drawn to, they both experience great growth over the course of the story. Imagine being blind in a war zone–or even just being a young nerd drafted into the war–and you can taste some of the emotional tension that resonates throughout this book. I won’t say that it’s all happy endings. It never is in war.

 

I’d highly recommend this book for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Auschwitz by Miklos Nyiszli

Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness AccountAuschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Miklós Nyiszli

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Auschwitz is the account of a Jewish medical doctor who performed autopsies at the crematoria of Auschwitz at the behest of the infamous Dr. Mengele. It’s gut-wrenching reading. One is constantly reminded of the words of another famous Holocaust chronicler, Viktor Frankl, who said, “We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return.” That’s a sad fact with which Dr. Nyiszli had to live. Nyiszli lent his expertise to many despicable acts in the process of surviving, and it’s to his credit that he had the courage to write this work. He was the only one who could have told much of this story, and it’s a story that he felt the world must know–even if it meant rehashing the nightmare scenario of his life during the holocaust years, even if he was not always to be seen at his most virtuous.

While Nyiszli was a man of science who tried to stick to the objective task of conducting autopsies, his results were routinely perverted to support Nazi pseudo-science—the pseudo-science used by Nazis to justify elimination of the Jews and other despised classes of humanity. Nyiszli stayed alive first-and-foremost because Dr. Mengele valued Nyiszli’s expertise, and perhaps the credibility that expertise offered to the Nazi’s insane attempts to emulate science.

Sometimes by just answering basic scientific questions, Nyiszli was contributing to the advancement of dire atrocities. There’s no better example than when Mengele asked Nyiszli how one could obtain a skeleton from a corpse. These skeletons displayed deformities, and were thus to be sent to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics to support the absurd assertion that Jews were genetically degrading. Of course, as Nyiszli points out the disease these two people were afflicted with was no less common among blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryans than it was among the Jewish people. At any rate this resulted in two corpses (made corpses by force, not nature) being boiled to remove the skeletons so they could be sent to an institute as pseudo-evidence.

Nyiszli’s forthcomingness is astounding. Nyiszli performed many objectionable actions at the behest of Mengele, but it’s clear he couldn’t have survived disobeying the Nazi doctor. However, there were also times when Nyiszli acted on his own in a way that was, arguably, detestable. After Auschwitz was abandoned, Nyiszli used his former position–and Mengele name-dropping)-to cut in line to get into an encampment (essentially a refugee camp) so he could get a shower and food for the night when others were left out in the cold.

I don’t mean to make Nyiszli look evil. He did many virtuous things in the process of surviving as well. This included sneaking medical supplies from the crematoria infirmary (where there was abundance) to barracks infirmaries (where there was a dire shortage.) He did his best to save those he could. It’s to Nyiszli’s credit that he shows us a complete picture. One expects such a book to be distorted when it comes to the author, but Nyiszli’s book seems honest.

This is an important book as it lets us peer into one of the darkest hours of humanity, and gaze upon a terribleness that would have been lost to posterity. The book gives a chilling account of what it must have been like to be in the gas chambers, told by someone who saw the aftermath in person. Nyiszli saw the piles of bodies reaching to the ceiling—dog piles in which the weakest were trapped on the bottom as the strongest tried to climb over women and children to get a gulp of good air. (Another proof of Frankl’s thesis.) Nyiszli also describes how one little girl, in a freak occurrence, managed to survive the chambers owing to an air pocket, only to have the SS finish the execution by cruder means.

I think everybody should read this book, but I’ll offer a warning that it’s not for the faint of heart. One has to keep righteous rage in check to just get through the book. However, to ignore this wicked moment in history is to fail to see the traps humanity is capable of falling into through simple refusal to do the right thing or a willingness to try to feel better about oneself by casting aspersions on those with slightly different physical features.

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