Tag Archives: Holocaust

Stensager, Anders Otte: Doktor Mengele – Liv og forbrytelse (Life and crimes of Dr Mengele) (2008)

Book-Cover-Nazi-Laegen-Josef-Mengele-Anders-Otte-StensagerThis summer I have been reading Stensager’s biography on Doctor Mengele – one of the most infamous doctors experimenting on prisoners in concentrations camps during WWII. Not exactly light and pleasant reading and even worse for the prisoners who had to meet him and his compatriots.

One of Stensager’s aims in writing about Dr. Mengele and his fellow doctors at Auschwitz has been to reaffirm the reality of the Holocaust in an attempt to slow down the efforts of the revisionists to deny that the Holocaust ever happened. The reason he wrote in Danish was because he felt it important that the Danish people acknowledge their part in enabling these horrible events.

At first we find out what Mengele’s growing up years were like. He grew up in a conservative Catholic family who were pretty much like the rest of the townspeople. While at university he joined NSDAP and SS and embraced the idea of the Arian race.

The war came, he went off as a unit doctor and was eventually sent to Auschwitz where he became part of the horror that was the objectification of others. All of the camps experimented on their prisoners. Different camps had different areas of “expertise” except for Auschwitz where they did a little of everything.

One of my grandfathers was tortured by the SS during WWII – he was in the underground movement here in Norway. What happened at Auschwitz outdoes what he went through.

Child_survivors_of_Auschwitz
Jewish twins kept alive to be used in Mengele’s medical experiments. These children from Auschwitz were liberated by the Red Army in January 1945.

Mengele was most known for his twin studies, but man – those doctors were seriously disturbed.

Something happens to us when we begin seeing certain people as objects. Objectification allows us to rationalise our actions. I’m not going to repeat what the book tells of Mengele’s experiments. If you read Norwegian, Danish or Dutch you really ought to get a copy. But be prepared for people at their worst.

After WWII Mengele got away. He never took responsibility for what he did. It was always a matter of following orders or other people lying about what went on during the war. But he took notes on his experiments and they pretty much spell it out for us.

What does Stensager’s biography on Mengele’s life and crimes teach me? We must never forget what we are all capable of doing. A lot of doctors both in and out of the camps were involved with the experiments that went on and were OK with them. They were just regular people who had stopped seeing certain people as people. Instead they had become things. It could just as well have been me.

Knowing this makes it possible for me to change both myself and to stand up for those who need it. I can be part of trying to prevent something like the Holocaust from happening again.


Reviews:


Dutch version:

  • Josef Mengele, Nazi-arts: zijn leven, en misdaden (Nazilaegen Josef Mengele)
  • Overige betrokkenen: Geri de Boer
  • ISBN10: 906100635X
  • ISBN13: 9789061006350

Norwegian version:

  • Oversetter: Lars Nygaard
  • Forlag: Pax
  • ISBN10: 8253034903
  • ISBN13: 9788253034904

Danish version:

  • Forlag: Documentas
  • ISBN-10: 8770630445
  • ISBN-13:  9788770630443

Gilbert, Martin: The Boys – Triumph Over Adversity (1996)

ForsideWhen I read “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” I was once again reminded of the story of 732 Jewish boys and girls whose story Martin Gilbert tells in his “The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity“. One book is from the viewpoint of someone standing outside the suffering while the other one is about the kids who went through hell. I’m not a believer in the many after-life versions of hell, but I am certainly a believer in the human ability to create hell for their fellow humans. In fact, we’re really creative in the many ways we cause others pain, and that worries me.

The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity tells such a story. This is the story of children who (along with their siblings and parents) were uprooted from their homes and dragged into the horrors of the Holocaust. These children were originally from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Their lives were the lives of ordinary children with loving parents. As they just below and above ten years old for the most part, these children had no understanding of all of the abrupt changes in their lives. From living in regular homes, they were stuffed into ghettos and then dragged to even worse circumstances.

And then it all ended. No more parents or siblings, all alone in the world after having endured what only few people in the world have had to endure.

After their liberation from the camps, they had to begin rebuilding their lives in Britain. Despite being physically and emotionally drained by their nightmare past, they drew strength from their group. After leaving their hostels, they remained a close-knit and devoted band of siblings. Their families having been destroyed, they created a family among themselves.

So many people ask themselves how something as terrible as the Holocaust could have happened. I doubt there is any one answer to that question. After all, we let history repeat itself all over the world. What I do believe is that we are all capable of becoming something we had never thought was possible. Ervin Staub in his “Roots of Evil” and Max Weber in his “On Bureaucracy” – Iron Cage both try to look at why people are dehumanized and warn us of the consequences.

Staub, Ervin: The Roots of Evil – The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (1992)

The Roots of Evil - Ervin Staub

Some books are life-changing. The Roots of Evil by Ervin Staub is one of them in my life. I was at one of those life-choices that we sometimes make. Studying psychology cleared up a lot of questions in my mind. When we got to Staub’s look at the horrible choices some of us make (either as a group or as an individual) I saw how caught I had been in group-thinking that makes “Us” look so much better than “Them”.

Genocide, mass killing, torture and war. Psychology, socialization and culture. How does one go from being a regular, boring person to being a torturer of citizens of ones own country? How did Hitler get an average population of humans to participate in invasion and genocide? Is there such a thing as “EVIL”?

In this clip Stephen Fry discusses the importance of language in the mass-extermination of eight million people during World War II in Europe. (At the bottom of this post see Staub’s lecture in Stockholm.)

My father’s father was a Prisoner of War during the Occupation here in Norway. During his time at Grini (one of the POW camps) he was tortured for information regarding his cell-mates. Not the kind of cell-mates you have in prison, but the kind you have when you participate in resistance against those you consider your oppressors. He was part of the Communist underground.

Torture is one of the many practices of war that Staub discusses in The Roots of Evil. He shows us how the torturer is habituated to the specialized kind of violence that torture is and he shows us that these torturers are simply people. Some of them probably enjoyed their work more than others, but the rest were trained to see the torturee as an object/non-human/sub-human that held needed information.

After the war, the US was incredibly strict about some of the rules for receiving Marshall aid. One of them was a fight against the Evil of Communism. My war-hero grandfather remained an unsung hero due to his political views. He was harassed by employers and spied on by our Norwegian surveillance department. There again propaganda reared its ugly head and lessened his value as a human being.

Source: History Lists
Roman destruction of Carthage | Source: History Lists

Humanity’s mass exterminations of groups of people follows us through history. The practice of killing all of the men above a certain age while keeping women and younger children alive goes at the very least back to our earliest written records. According to Ben Kiernan, “The First Genocide” happened around 149-146 BC (Jones, 2006). This was the Roman destruction of Carthage. In 2015 the United Nations called the Islamic State out on the IS attempt to wipe out the Yazidi minority in Iraq.

So! Nothing new. According to Staub, we need to learn to interpret early warning signs in order to avoid getting to a point where genocide happens. By that time, it will be too late. According to Staub cultural and social patterns and historical circumstances are vital in understanding whether a country, a people or a belief is in the danger zone. And are there ever plenty of traps that people can fall into (even those who are aware of the dangers):

  • Cultural stereotyping
  • Cultural devaluation
  • Societal self-concept
  • Moral exclusion
  • A need for connection
  • Authority orientation
  • Personal and group goals
  • “Better world” ideologies
  • Justification
  • Moral equilibrium, and so on.

Within this conceptual framework, Staub then considers the behavior of perpetrators and bystanders in four historical situations:

  1. Holocaust (his primary example)
  2. Genocide of Armenians in Turkey
  3. Genocide in Cambodia
  4. Disappearances in Argentina

Is there hope. Perhaps and it depends. It has taken us thousands of years to not learn a single thing from history. People like Ervin Staub have warned us against a repetition of gruesome actions. Perhaps the secret lies in people like Staub being able to write about terrors and publish his writings. Once people like Staub begin disappearing from the public arena, we must really begin to worry. Until then, we can only hope that by learning some of the warning signs and recognizing that we, ourselves, are also potentially people who do terrible things, will keep us from them.

Boyne, John: The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas (2006)

The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas is a book that all children ought to read, preferably in company with an adult so they can understand the topic better. The Holocaust has been described and fictionalized time and time again. However, there are some topics that can never be delved into enough.

This novel is about 9-year-old Bruno, a German boy who has no idea of the times he is living in. He just realises that times are changing, and not in a manner that he prefers. Then his father, the handsome Commandant, is commanded to go to a dreadful place with his family. Bruno is struggling to understand why Out-With has a fenced-in area where there are many people walking around in striped pyjamas. On his side of the fence people are dressed in uniform or regular clothing.

One day, while exploring along the fence, Bruno meets a friend – Shmuel. He is thinner than Bruno but that is the only difference Bruno can see. Bruno understands enough that he keeps the friendship secret, but has no understanding of what is going on.

The ending was perfect and the last words of the author were: “Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age.” Sadly humans have not learned and we and them thinking continues.


Winner of the:

  • Irish Book Award Children’s Book of the Year
  • Irish Book Award People’s Choice Book of the Year
  • Bisto Book of the Year
  • Que Leer Award Best International Novel of the Year (Spain)
  • Orange Prize Readers Group Book of the Year

Nominated for the:

  • British Book Award
  • Border’s New Voices Award
  • Ottaker’s Children’s Book Prize
  • Paolo Ungari Literary Award (Italy)
  • Irish Book Award – Irish Novel of the Year Award
  • Leeds Book Award
  • North-East Book Award
  • Berkshire Book Award
  • Sheffield Book Award
  • Lancashire Book Award
  • Prix Farniente (Belgium)
  • Flemish Young Readers Award
  • Independent Booksellers Book of the Year
  • Deutschen Jugend Literatur Preis (Germany)

2008 filmadaptation by Mark Herman

The movie has won several awards

deRosnay, Tatiana: Sarah’s Key (2007)

Sarah's Key

Sarah’s Key was lent to me by my sister. Serendipity. I found it a page-turner. No question about it. The author manages to switch from present to past without effort. Tatiana deRosnay is a truly gifted author.

Sarah’s Key is about poor little Sarah Starzynski. The Germans come to collect her family. To protect her little brother she locks him in a cupboard and tells him that she will be back in a few hours. Alas. The fates want it otherwise.

There are two time-lines to Sarah’s Key. The first one, of course, follows Sarah. The second time-line follows the story of the journalist, Julia Jarmon, who delves into the story behind a hidden skeleton. Along follows the secrecy behind Jews in France during WWII.

Some truths are painful for a nation to acknowledge. Nevertheless, healing comes through shining a light on both what we want visible and what we want hidden.

The story is wholly fictional, but as Leo Bretholz (Holocaust survivor) says: “The perusal of Sarah’s Key evoked memories of my own experiences during the war in the Vichy zone of France.” It tells a terrible story, one that has happened over and over again in history. It reminds us of how easily we turn our heads from what is happening around us.


French film-adaptation (Elle s’appelait Sarah) in 2010 by Stéphane Marsil (won two awards and had three nominations)


“Holocaust in France was encouraged by French anti-Semitic trends which created a climate where the French offered assistance to the German forces, who without such aid, could not have carried out, to such ends, the Final Solution in France.” (Elizabeth Ciarrocca)