Friday, February 13, 2015

Research: heroes and spectators

Lately I've been reading more about an unsavory part of history that I'm usually content to skip: the Holocaust.  You might recall my recent review of 'my neighbor's' memoir?  Well, I'm chalking it all up as research for a novel that starts in that time, but that's all I want to say about it for now.

Hitler's First Victims: The Quest for Justice by Timothy W. Ryback tells about Josef Hartinger, a German prosecutor whose jurisdiction included the Dachau concentration camp in the years that the National Socialists (Nazis) came to power. When he received notice that four inmates had been shot while trying to escape, it was his responsibility to investigate. While others simply accepted the flimsy stories from the guards about prisoners killed while attacking or trying to escape, he insisted on autopsies and investigations. And when he had enough evidence of wrong-doing, he attempted to prosecute.

Those sent to the camp were mostly political prisoners. They had been involved in communist activities or had connections to opposition groups. Many, however, were only suspected of complaining about the government, and in a few cases personal grudges were being settled (many, but not all, were Jews). They were told they were merely being "detained" while their case was investigated, and that they were being held in "protective custody." But from the beginning, some prisoners were singled out for regular, brutal, and systematic abuse, and those prisoners invariably ended up dead rather quickly. And although Hartinger tried to prosecute a few crimes he found strong proof for, the cases were dropped or derailed by others.
"Just because one is without power does not mean one needs to be without courage and ultimately without character. Shouldn't one try to find some way to make a difference, even in such hopeless circumstances, without necessarily jeopardizing one's life?" -- Josef Hartinger
We look back on it and have a hard time understanding how something like the Holocaust could happen, and yet it did. This is not an especially heroic story. Hartinger's contribution was that some of the evidence he prepared was found after the war and became instrumental in the Nuremberg trials. Nonetheless, he was one of the few to stand up and voice his objections to the injustices – and he was one of the even fewer to survive after putting his life on the line. This book is a detailing of the early deaths at Dachau – not just the original four mentioned above – and describes (repeatedly) the beatings and torture several of the detainees endured. It explains how many of them were killed, and includes explanations later obtained by the perpetrators themselves. It's not for the faint of heart, and yet it is a small insight into the way the mass murder that later became systematized began, and how it was allowed to continue by those who could have spoken out.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Voices from the Other Side: Inspiring German WWII Memoirs by Jean Goodwin Messinger is a little different.  While we regularly see memoirs written by Jewish survivors of WWII, rarely do we see a collection of the stories of ordinary Germans who also lived through those years (two of the stories here are from Jews). Messinger has collected a couple dozen stories and recollections; mostly from those she has met in Colorado. Most were children or came of age during the war. Some grew up in homes that supported Hitler (usually due to the economic prosperity that came after many years of hardship), but most were either ambivalent or against him. Some are told in the person's own words and some are told by the author. The question of what happened to Jewish neighbors was often not something people felt safe wondering too much about, and several talked of being turned in to authorities over trivial statements.

This was actually quite an interesting book to read – and sometimes the most interesting part of the memoir was what was not talked about. Many talk of the hardship of losing homes or family members, and some suffered a lot while some not so much. And while this book doesn't try to offer an answer to how the Holocaust happened, it's interesting to see the recollections of people who lived through such a fascinating and terrible chapter of history. (I received a free copy of the book from the author.)

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