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 Otras creencias // Nazismo  

   Dissecting Auschwitz

Claves: Judío, judaísmo, nazi, nazismo, Hitler, racismo, exterminio, Holocausto, Shoa, matanza, cámara, gas, Zyklon, Auschwitz, Polaca, Polonia, tren, pueblo, raza, nación, odio, blanza, predominio, poder

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By Boaz Neumann

Robert-Jan Van Pelt, an historian of architecture, notes in his article on Auschwitz's architecture that the Germans created an architectural firm to supervise the Birkenau camp's construction. The firm was headed by Karl Bischoff, who, in October 1941, drew up the first master plan for a facility designed to hold 97,000 inmates.

"Auschwitz: Anatomia shel makhaneh mavet" (originally published as "Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp"). Edited by Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum. Editor of Hebrew version: Bella Gutterman. Translated by Aya Breuer. Published in Jerusalem by Yad Vashem. 695 pages. NIS105.

This is a collection of articles on the history of the Auschwitz forced labor/concentration/death camp. The book was first published in 1994 in English and has been skillfully translated by Aya Breuer. In the course of reading the book, I was struck by one particular point. Robert-Jan Van Pelt, an historian of architecture, notes in his article on Auschwitz's architecture that the Germans created an architectural firm to supervise the Birkenau camp's construction. The firm was headed by Karl Bischoff, who, in October 1941, drew up the first master plan for a facility designed to hold 97,000 inmates. The signature of his assistant, Fritz Ertl, who was 33 at the time, appears on Auschwitz-Birkenau's first operative plan. Ertl was a graduate of the Bauhaus.

The Bauhaus, the school of architecture that operated during the period of the Weimar Republic (1919-33), is considered, even today, one of the foremost icons of modernism, modernity and the 20th century as a whole. Many of the Bauhaus' directors, teachers and graduates, some of whom were Jews, Social Democrats and Communists, were hounded by the Nazi regime and forced to flee Germany. In 1933, Nazi pressure led to the Bauhaus closing. Thus, according to the accepted division of German society under the Nazis, the Bauhaus was anti-Nazi. Yet here we have a recent graduate of the school planning Auschwitz's first sketches. Is it at all possible that the architecture of Auschwitz incorporates Bauhaus insights, or at least intuitions such as functionalism, efficiency and the merging of technology and industrialization?

I am using this example to illustrate the point that history is evasive and misleading and that it defies all attempts at systemization. Only historical research is capable of identifying these surprising, unexpected moments.

I cannot prove the next point. However, I can say with a high degree of certainty that, with regard to the issues of Nazism, the Holocaust in general and Auschwitz in particular, the past two decades have seen an ever-increasing number of studies on representation and on the memory of the events, perhaps at the expense of historical studies on the events themselves. I can attest to the fact that students interested in writing on these subjects generally tend to choose the first option, namely, a study of the Holocaust's representation (in literature, art, the cinema, etc.) or, alternatively, the formation of the memory of the Holocaust among various groups (second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors, Afro-Americans, etc.).

A similar process can be discerned in the status of Auschwitz, which is steadily losing its historical dimension and becoming a quasi-myth. Apparently, Auschwitz has ceased being (if it ever was) an historical event and is increasingly being seen as an "expression," a "symbol," a "metaphor": as an expression of a crisis in human civilization, as a symbol of evil, as a metaphor of what Jews are doing to Palestinians or, alternatively, what Palestinians are doing to Jews.

"Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp" is an attempt to restore to Auschwitz its historical dimension. The common denominator of the vast majority of the articles is the assumption that Auschwitz is not an expression, a symbol or a metaphor of anything except Auschwitz and that it is, first and foremost, a place that is defined by time (the first transport, consisting of 728 Polish prisoners from the city of Tarnow in Galicia, arrived at the camp on June 14, 1940; the first gas-chamber execution of sick inmates and Soviet prisoners of war through the use of Zyklon-B was carried out between September 3 and 5, 1941; the camp's evacuation began on January 18, 1945 as the Eastern front was fast approaching); a place defined by space (Auschwitz was a huge complex that, in addition to the death camp, comprised 27 satellite camps situated adjacent to steel and metal plants, coal mines and chemical works and which supplied inmate/slave labor to private and state-owned companies); a place defined by the kind of activities occurring there (forced labor, experiments on human subjects, extermination, resistance); a place defined by a cross-section of its residents, by the events that transpired there, etc. Day-to-day life transpired within the confines of Auschwitz. Viktor Frankl and others have even attested that they experienced moments of joy in Auschwitz.

The collection of nearly 30 historical articles breaks down "Auschwitz" into its components. The articles deal with the system of inmate exploitation; the number of victims; the mechanism of extermination in the crematoria; the looting of victims and their dead bodies; the biographies, sociology and psychology of the murderers and their victims; the inmate administration; the family camp; resistance; what the world knew about Auschwitz; why the camp was not bombed from the air and more. The word "anatomy" in the title is particularly apt, because this is an anatomical study of a place. The article by Franciszek Piper, director of the historical research department of the Auschwitz state museum, presents the following data: Between 1940 and 1945, 1.3 million human beings (of whom 1.1 million were Jews) were sent to Auschwitz; the number murdered was 1.1 million. However, as an historian, Piper does not limit himself to his own findings and also offers a survey of the methodologies other researchers have used, and their conclusions. In 1983, Georges Wellers, a former inmate and the scientific head of the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine (Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center) or CDJC in Paris, published figures according to which 1,613,455 persons (of whom 1,433,405 were Jews) were sent to Auschwitz and 1,471,595 persons (of whom 1,352,980 were Jews) were murdered there. Apparently, the statistics deviate from historical truth; nonetheless, they attest to the firm belief that there is such a thing as historical truth and that it can be arrived at, or at least can be approached, even touched.

History forces its researchers to tackle details that myths make us forget or deny, or about which the myths know nothing. For instance, Auschwitz was not originally created as a death camp for Jews but was an "ordinary" concentration camp, most of whose inmates were Poles. It was only after a lengthy process that Auschwitz became a death camp in the context of the Final Solution. According to historian Raul Hilberg, between 1941 and 1943 Auschwitz was a site in search of a mission. Van Pelt uses this concept as the title of his article, in which he surveys the sketches of the camp's planners, who were forced to change and adapt the plans as the camp's functions changed. A fascinating and provocative section in this chapter concerns Auschwitz's lavatories.

Here are some additional historical facts that further complicate the issue. On a number of occasions, orders and commands were issued that forbade camp staff to steal the property of the Jewish victims. On May 22, 1944, in the midst of the mass extermination of Hungarian Jewry, members of the camp staff were ordered to sign a document of commitment that included the following sentence: "I know, and I have been given instructions to this effect, that I may be sentenced to death for attempting to steal any article whatsoever of Jewish property." In 1943, Reichsfuehrer-SS (supreme SS commander) Heinrich Himmler even ordered the creation of a special committee headed by SS judges to investigate any acts of corruption committed in the camps, including Auschwitz. The committee found more than 700 SS personnel guilty of such offenses. Some of them were released from active duty, others were arrested, put on trial and sent to the front. At Auschwitz, the committee discovered that SS personnel were guilty of corrupt acts involving property theft and the murder of inmates. The committee also uncovered corruption even among the camp's senior SS officers.

Thus, history is not only closer to the truth, it also places those examining the truth in a more active position. It forces them to be more attentive, more aware, more critical, to be prepared at any moment to react to what previously seemed self-evident.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the editors of this book, Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, and the other participants in this collection have managed to successfully grapple with the two major challenges facing all those seeking to deal with the Holocaust in general and Auschwitz in particular. First of all, they have succeeded in writing about this subject in a normal manner, that is, without the "sense of awe" that is frequently a feature of texts about Auschwitz. In most of the articles there is not the slightest trace of apologetics or an attempt to take anything for granted. The historians let the facts lead them, instead of vice versa. There are those who claim that, because of the immensity or uniqueness of the event, it is impossible, perhaps even unworthy, to write about this subject in the same way you would write about 16th-century France, for example. Quite the contrary, the historical discussion of the Auschwitz-Birkenau family camp - a bizarre phenomenon considering Auschwitz's function as a death camp - that is proposed by Nili Keren, chair of the Pedagogical Council of Massua - International Institute for Holocaust Education at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak, is far more puzzling and disturbing than the argument that Auschwitz was "another planet" or that Auschwitz is simply beyond human understanding.

More than anything else, this book proves that the argument that we can never understand the Holocaust or Auschwitz is baseless. Auschwitz was created by human beings and therefore can and should be understood by human beings, although one can of course always argue about the particular interpretation given. Reading this book, which proposes the most anti-mythic historical examination I know of regarding Auschwitz, is one of the best ways of beginning to understand.

Therefore, Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority's publishing house is to be congratulated on this translation project. The only thing that is regrettable here is the fact that the Hebrew version is generally the last stop, if ever, along a book's publishing route. In this case, what we have here is a book that is a milestone in Holocaust research and whose appearance in Hebrew translation we were forced to await for nine years. (Hilberg's "The Destruction of the European Jews," unquestionably one of the three major research studies - if not the most important - ever written about the Holocaust, has been awaiting translation since 1961. Hebrew readers can get a taste of Hilberg's writing from the brief article included in this collection, while a Hebrew translation of a chapter from his book can be found in the latest issue of the journal Teoria Uvikoret.

Dr. Boaz Neumann's "The Nazi Weltanschauung: Space, Body, Language" has been published in Hebrew by University of Haifa Press and Sifriat Ma'ariv.

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