Posted by foxburg on 07/14/2011
I have admired Christopher Browning’s work since I read Ordinary Men : Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, I was luck enough to be given The Origins of the Final Solution : The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939 – March 1942, by Yad Vashem. Thus I was looking forward to reading Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp. I was disturbed to read about how he first heard of Starachowice; when he read about the trial in Hamburg in 1972 of the 75 year old Walther Becker, and despite overwhelming evidence against him, Becker was acquitted by a judge who also dismissed the testimony of Jewish witnesses. It is surprising to find an academic write:
“I must say that in those thirty-five years I have read scores of trial verdicts, and many I found disheartening. But never have I studied a case in detail and encountered a verdict that represented such a miscarriage of justice and disgrace to the German judicial system as that in the trial of Walther Becker.”
Almost exclusively based on survivors’ testimonies, Christopher Browning reconstructs the history of a forced labour camps in Starachowice, central Poland. I found the opening chapters very strong, detailing life before the outbreak of war, Browning shows the richness and diversity of the culture. Equally the final chapters are extremely powerful, as Browning sets the testimony as the focus of the book. It is the use of Testimony that I found most educational. Browning does not accept the testimony, and use it as, he dissects each piece of testimony, sometimes dismisses some as suspect and unreliable. I was impressed by his critique of survivor testimony, explaining why some survivors may adapt their testimony and memory to existing circumstances, without being critical.
What emerges is a highly credible and deeply shocking account of a slave-labor camp where the cruelty and brutality is comparable to the more publicized extermination camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz. Inmates were regarded as expendable material to be kept alive at a level only adequate enough to perform work duties. They were starved, beaten, and subject to daily terrors and humiliations. This is an excellent addition to the field of Holocaust studies. –Jay Freeman“At war’s end Wierzbnik’s Jewish community had been reduced to “perhaps 600 to 700,” which is appallingly low yet, considering the conditions, not unremarkable. Browning attributes their survival to several factors, among them the judicious use of bribery and the strength of family ties. Among the survivors, 292 gave “testimonies, some multiple,” to various courts and investigators. Browning is keenly sensitive to the unreliability of memory, especially memory of distant events, so as he stitches together the story of Starachowice he is especially careful to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence. There can be no doubt, however, of the essential truth of this story, a small one when viewed against everything else that happened in that dreadful time, but an important and revealing one, exceptionally well told in “Remembering Survival.” – Washington Post
What impressed me about Browning’s latest book is the careful balance, not only is he academically critical of the testimony, but he also gives a balanced account of life and work within the slave labour camp, showing the diversity of personalities and survival strategies. Some parts are difficult to read, but not for the usual reasons of the sheer horror of the situation, but in the actions and reactions of the individuals. Browning has given depth to the 292 survivor testimonies, showing the brutal side of survival, the ‘choiceless choices’ being made. Browning does not deal in stereotypes here; not all the guards are shown as evil, and not all the victims are shown as saints.
I think this is a valuable and interesting addition to Holocaust research, adding a new dimension to the study of Ghetto life, and adding to our understanding of the policy and practice of the use of ‘work Jews’. Not only did this book live up to my high expectations, it surpassed them.