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Auschwitz: A New History

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Auschwitz: A New History
By Laurence Rees. Public Affairs Press, New York: 2005. Pg. xxii, 327. Illustrations.) ISBN: 1-58648-303-X.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - April 4, 2005

January 2005 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp located on the outskirts of the Polish city of Oswiecim. In Laurence Rees' new book, Auschwitz: A New History he provides a concise overview of the history of the malignant death camp. Rees' account is interwoven with the personal stories of more than a hundred perpetrators and survivors. Many of these personal histories were garnered from interviews that Rees conducted while filming the six-hour documentary series, Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State which first aired on PBS in January of 2005. The same documentary has also aired on the BBC under the title Auschwitz: The Nazis & The 'Final Solution'. In filming this series, which he wrote and produced, Rees interviewed former Nazi officials and soldiers who worked at Auschwitz, individuals who helped to 'round-up' Jews for deportation to the death camps, Russian POW's who were interned at the camp, and Jewish survivors of the Nazi extermination program at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz: A New History, which was written as a companion volume to the documentary series, is different from most books on Auschwitz, and the Holocaust in general. In writing this book Rees provides a balanced history of the various ethnic / political groups that faced death in Auschwitz, including the Jews, Russian POW's, Gypsies, and other 'undesirables' such as communist and homosexuals. However, the book concentrates primarily on the Jewish experience in Auschwitz, as the Jews formed the bulk of the population in the camp, and the gas chambers at Auschwitz were primarily used to kill Jews.

In addition, the inclusion of insights garnered from the interviews with the perpetrators, both from Nazi party members and from common enlisted soldiers, helps to give the reader an unprecedented glimpse into the mind set of these perpetrators. This is one of the most haunting aspects of this book - namely because, even to this day, most of them don't think that they did anything wrong! Rees also provides details about the day to day running of the camp, the camp brothel (something that is usually ignored in other books), and he examines just how precarious the line was between life and death.

The Auschwitz concentration camp had a relatively benign beginning as a prison for political prisoners. Operations soon turned sinister at the camp when an influx of Russian POW's arrived. These POW's were used as slave laborers, and few survived to the end of the war. Jewish deportees from Poland, Germany, and surrounding areas soon began to flood into Auschwitz. As the prison's slave labor population grew, new camps such as Auschwitz II and Birkenau developed as industrial complexes manned by expendable, slave laborers. In 1942, Auschwitz was turned into a death camp. As train loads of Jewish men, women, and children would arrive at the camp, they would be divided into two groups, those fit to be worked to death as slave laborers and those consigned for immediate death. Various methods were used to kill these Jews, but after numerous trials, the Nazis soon found what they considered to be an economical and convenient method of mass murder. They built huge gas chambers into which they could cram hundreds of victims at one time. The victims were then 'gassed' to death with hydrogen cyanide, a pest control agent known as Zyklon-B. Russian POW's were the initial victims of this new method of 'gassing' however it soon became the primary means by which millions of Jews were killed, at Auschwitz and at other camps such as Sobibor and Treblinka that were also outfitted with gas chambers. By the time that Auschwitz was liberated, more than 1.1 million people were murdered there. Of these, more than 200,000 children were slaughtered in Auschwitz, most within hours of their arrival.

In Auschwitz: A New History, Rees, who is not Jewish, has written a popular history of Auschwitz that speaks to both Jewish and non-Jewish readers. It is written in a dynamic, narrative style that makes the text very accessible for general readers. The text details the development of the camp from its inception through liberation. Rees also provides a brief description of 'what happened after liberation' for some of the camp survivors - and the war criminals that ran the camp. In Auschwitz: A New History, Rees also incorporated a wealth of new information about Auschwitz that only recently came to life.

You may ask yourself, "Why yet another book on the Holocaust? Is it really necessary?" Unfortunately, human memory fades fast. It has been a mere sixty years since the Nazis persuaded, what was then, an unprecedented policy of genocide. The Nazi 'final solution' resulted in the murder of more than Six Million Jewish men, women, and children. Yet in recent poles, Holocaust awarness is at an all time low. According to a report in the The London Free Press, "three in 10 Canadians couldn't identify Jews as the primary victims of the Holocaust." According to a BBC press release, a survey conducted prior to the airing of Auschwitz: The Nazis & The 'Final Solution' found that " Only 55% of the United Kingdoms's population had ever even heard of the notorious Nazi camp." The figure dropped to 40% when the question was asked of those younger than 35. In random survey conducted in the United States, in 2004, by the International Society for Sephardic Progress, 63.3% of the male respondents and 65.9% of the female respondents "did not know what Auschwitz was". According to an editorial on the Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Peace Studies website, a recent German poll found that "70% of German students under the age of 14 don't know what the word "Holocaust" means"! Antisemetic hate crimes are, around the world, at their highest levels since the Nazis came to power. Worse, 'ethnic cleansing' still occur. Mass murders in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Sudan have been carried out without hardly an outcry from outside sources - both in the private and public sectors.

One of the hallmarks of this book is that Rees illustrates just how easy it is to look the other way while others commit atrocities - and just how easy it is for individuals to allow their hatreds to turn them into killers when given the opportunity to kill without fear of retribution.

Auschwitz: A New History serves as a medium through which you can begin to understand the mind set and genocidal policies of the Nazi regime and as a reminder that until we are willing to learn the harsh lessons taught by the Holocaust, events such as this will be repeated!

Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State

A word about the six-hour documentary, Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State which has aired on both PBS and on the BBC. This documentary runs six-hours, and it provides a gripping visual account of the history of Auschwitz. The documentary is able to present facets of information about the camp that are difficult to translate into print. For example, in the documentary Rees presents graphical displays on how the camp was laid out and how it changed over time. He also shows how the architecture of the camp was altered to accommodate the gas chambers and crematoriums and how the Nazis were able to disguise their true purpose to those just arriving off of the transports. The sixteen black and white photos that are included in the book cannot compare to the six-hour 'glimpse' into the nightmarish world that was Auschwitz that is provided by the documentary.

Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, also includes excerpts of the interviews that Rees filmed, with both perpetrators and survivors. Hearing the interviewees speak for themselves is a more intense experience than simply reading what they said. The documentary is informative and moving, and is exemplary as a teaching tool about Auschwitz and the Nazi extermination policy toward the Jews. I also highly recommend that viewers of the series also read Auschwitz: A New History as it was written specifically as a companion book to the series.

It is impossible to discuss the history of Auschwitz without also touching upon Nazi policies and the Nazi extermination efforts that took place in other areas under their control. This book does not, nor was it designed to, provide a comprehensive overview of the history of the Holocaust. For readers interested in a more detailed analysis of the Holocaust, I recommend the following books:
Related Reviews:

The Holocaust, By Martin Gilbert.
In this classic work of Holocaust literature, Martin Gilbert chronicles the near destruction of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazi death machine. Following a chronologically driven format, Gilbert deftly interweaves mind numbing statistics with eyewitness accounts to tell the story of what happened during the Holocaust, and how and why these events occurred.

IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation, By Edwin Black.
A compelling look at IBM's collaboration with Nazi Germany, and the impact which it had upon the course of the war, and more importantly, on the Holocaust.

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