Book Review

Auschwitz: True Tales From A Grotesque Land

by Sara Nomberg-Przytyk. Translated by Roslyn Hirsch. Edited by Eli Pfefferkorn and David H. Hirsch. Chapel Hill, NC and London: The University of North Carolina Press 1985, xii + 185 pp., ISBN 0-8078-4160-9.

Reviewed by Theodore J. O'Keefe

Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land is a collection of stories garnered by Sara Nomberg-Przytyk, allegedly during the year she spent at the Auschwitz concentration camp between January 1944 and January 1945. For the most part the tales she recounts are from the stock repertory of the Auschwitz "survivor": incredible brutality and callousness on the part of the Germans, noble endurance or brutish self-interest among the inmates, poignant romances, miraculous escapes, mass exterminations.

Some of these things Mrs. Nomberg-Przytyk claims to have witnessed; others she has at second or third hand. Dr. Mengele bulks larger than life, as usual, demonic and indefatigable, dispensing lethal injections, tormenting dwarves, and consigning the unfortunate to the gas chambers with his customary gusto. Ilse Koch appears, in a cameo role, as "commander of the camp," presiding over a ceremonial execution which is forestalled by a grisly suicide. Several well-known Auschwitz legends are recounted, including the end of the Gypsy camp; the death of a German NCO, shot by a Jewess with his own pistol; and the escape, recapture, and sad end of two star-crossed lovers.

A number of features of life at Auschwitz as told by the author have an incontestable basis in historical fact. She presents rather well the role of the prisoner hierarchy, which exercised considerable authority over every aspect of the inmates' existence, an authority which by all accounts the prisoner Kapos (foremen) and Blockälteste (barracks chiefs) often misused. The powerful Communist infrastructure in the camp is touched on (Mrs. Nomberg-Przytyk is anything but unsympathetic to the Communists). Her focus on the Germans' strenuous efforts to safeguard their charges' health in infirmaries, hospitals, and quarantine stations, as well as through preventive measures (baths and gas chambers for delousing inmates and their clothing) is in incongruous contrast to the supposed function of Auschwitz as an extermination center.

Nevertheless, the critical reader, particularly one with some knowledge of Auschwitz, will have more than a few doubts as to the accuracy of Mrs. Nomberg-Przytyk's stories, even if he is a convinced Exterminationist. Does the author really imagine that Ilse Koch was at Auschwitz? (She was never anywhere near the place.) How could a Greek girl temporarily evade her fate by leaping from a second-story window after being led into the gas chamber, when all the buildings alleged to have housed gas chambers were either of one story or had underground gas chambers? Is it conceivable that Dr. Mengele had his cruel sport with a whole family of full-grown, 50 centimeter-tall midgets (that's less than 20 inches)?

Sara Nomberg-Przytyk's funny way with facts is clearly perturbing to the editors, David H. Hirsch, a professor of English at Brown, and Eli Pfefferkorn, director of research for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. In an "Editorial Afterword" the two make a labored analysis. They tell us: "It is one of the still unresolved problems of that body of writings called Holocaust literature that the events seem to overwhelm all attempts to impose formal order, either of literary history or literary criticism. The problem of ordering, categorizing, and interpreting is further exacerbated by the perverse efforts of so-called revisionist historians who deny everything, deny that the Nazis exterminated millions of Jews and others, thereby placing an additional burden on those who wish to study the ways in which imagination modifies memory and fiction vitalizes history."

Sorry, but this won't wash. Either Professor Hirsch has so restricted his scholarship to browsing amid the dry stubble of literary realism that he is incapable of analyzing imaginative literature, or he and his collaborator don't know what literary criticism and literary history are, in which case they might be advised to seek out a qualified scholar of, say, the Homeric question, an expert in Biblical exegesis, or a specialist in the composition and transmission of folk literature.

A third possibility, of course, is that Hirsch and Pfefferkorn are attempting to blur the boundaries between fiction and history relegating the less credible elements of Sara Nomberg-Przytyk's "stales" to the realm of literary fancy, or "dramatization," as they refer to it. It is difficult, after all, to distinguish between the allegedly literary efforts of Mrs. Nomberg-Przytyk and the accounts of such Auschwitz inmates as Fillip Miller, whose Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in tile Gas Chambers, despite its supposed "simple, straightforward language," its lack of "embellishment" and "deviation" (according to Professor Yehuda Bauer's foreword), employs many of the same threadbare literary artifices as Tales from a Grotesque Land.

It is instructive that the editors take refuge in a characteristic pronouncement of Holocaust Kabbalist and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, in reference to his own Holocaust writings: "Things are not that simple, Rebbe. Some events do take place but are not true; other are, although they never occurred" (Legends of Our Time, New York Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968, p. viii).

Holocaust Revisionists will not likely be deterred from examining with a cold eye the literature of the concentration camps by such formulas as this. They will continue to wonder at such details as Filip Müller's crematory ovens, supposedly capable of completely disposing of nine corpses per hour, or at the miraculous escape of Sara Nomberg-Przytyk's Fela, who escapes death by hiding in the chimney of the hearse bringing her to the crematorium, and draw their own conclusions about a literature which increasingly seems devoid of either Dichtung or Wahrheit.

Students of the "Holocaust" will be thankful to the author and her editors for several passages that have the ring of truth, however, particularly that which concludes her boot Sara, who escaped from the Germans in the chaos of the last days of the war (she had been removed from Auschwitz to first one, then another camp in central Germany), makes her way back to the Polish city of Lublin in a freight train crammed with Poles. Keeping her own counsel in the car in which she sits surrounded by the Poles, she muses, "They could strangle me in this terrible car if they found out that I am a Red." Soon they arrive in Lublin, and Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land closes with these two paragraphs:

At twelve noon the door suddenly slid open. We were m Lublin. I was the first one to leave. As I reached the street, I was greeted by a colorful Easter procession. There was a colorful crowd of women dressed in their native costumes, children, and elegant men. There was no room on the street. All of the balconies and windows were decorated with rugs, flowers and pictures of the Holy Family.
     So this is Poland. I understood the words of the Polish soldiers whom I met on the border "Don't tell the people you meet that you are a Communist." The fight had not ended. A fight takes time. (p.161)

These ringing words will doubtless discomfit those Poles and Polish-Americans who imagine that there is room on the Holocaust bandwagon for them, too, as will the involvement of Mr. Pfefferkorn from the taxpayer-supported Holocaust Memorial Council. The fact that the team of Pfefferkorn, Hirsch, and Hirsch's wife Roslyn, who translated the book from the original Polish, were supported at every step in the way by tax-exempt "philanthropy" The Sigmund Strochlitz Foundation, The Brown Faculty Development Fund, the American Philosophical Society) will likely be of little solace either. Those from less favored ethnic and religious groups may console themselves with the observation that, even though the Holocaust bandwagon is full, there is plenty of room in the traces for willing drayhorses.


From The Journal of Historical Review, Fall 1986 (Vol. 7, No. 3), pages 369-372.