History 301: The Historian's Craft
8 November 2009
A Dark and Shameful Time: a Walk Through the HolocaustKonnilyn Feig, The Sanity of Madness: Hitler’s Death Camps. Teaneck, NJ: Holmes and Meier, 1979. Pp. 547. ISBN 0-8419-0676-9. Out of print.
“A sanity of madness was Hitler's legacy. [...] The Holocaust explains to us that everything forbidden is possible; and that the obscene, the hellish, the unimaginable, the sickening can become ordinarily routine.” (xxii, 440)
So begins Konnilyn Feig's 500-page tome on the Nazi Holocaust. This book explores the Holocaust and its causes, actors, and conditions, through the lens of the history, conditions of, and testimonies from the different camps. Feig, a historian by training, wrote this as a textbook for her courses on the Holocaust. She sought to understand “man's inhumanity to man”: “I did not become a historian and discover the Holocaust. I stumbled across the Holocaust and became a historian to acquire the tools and insight to help me understand.” (xxiii). Her personal perspective permeates this magnificent book. Not only is her history bright with illuminating details, but it also tackles the tough questions of the Holocaust: the motivations of the people involved and what we can learn about ourselves and human society.
Feig divides her book into three parts. The first is an overview of the Holocaust: the political leaders, the camps, the horrible rising slope of Jewish persecution from the ghettos of the '30s to the mass murder of the '40s. The second part – the largest – examines the camps in detail: their pre- and post-war conditions, their histories, their purposes, and the experiences of their survivors. In the final section Feig discusses the psychological, theological, moral, and practical implications of this unique historical event, and lists what we can learn from studying such a depraved, shameful part of history.
Feig's concise and descriptive writing style shines best in her descriptions of the camps. She begins each chapter with a personal story about her own visit to the camp. Her experience at Auschwitz is darkly humorous:
Auschwitz is too much like a Polish Disneyland with crowds of tourists shepherded about by guides. Many times I overheard groups of visitors who had viewed the exhibits remark that it really did not seem like such a terrible way to live ... it no longer seems like hallowed ground. (336)
This is telling: even the people who go to this space, this space sanctified in the sickest way possible, do not understand the magnitude. Understanding history's sufferers takes a back seat to exploring the camp, which is “diluted, neatly arranged, so clean and orderly” (335).” Though personal observation is unusual for historical writing, Feig's experience adds to the text. Studying the Holocaust is profoundly emotional, so her walking us through her feelings about the camps is important.
Her descriptions of the camps focus on both victims and perpetrators. She describes a problem faced by the Nazis at almost all camps: just what is the most efficient way to destroy and dispose of human life and the bodies containing it? She ponders that “No one had any experience. Nothing like that had ever been done before in history. Who was there to copy?” (27). The difficulties at Treblinka, a camp exclusively for murder, are a good example. The camp started with three vans that gassed victims in the back while driving them to a 'shower.' These were inadequate, and a small gas chamber was built. But these were not enough either. The workforce had to be extra-efficient at its tasks: undressing the victims, taking their possessions, pulling gold teeth (380).. Other camps had dead bodies piled up with no way to dispose of them, such as Bergen-Belsen (380).. Some have said that the concentration camps were run efficiently with lavish technology – yet “commandants in every camp found that open-pit burning was more effective for [cremating] large groups of people than ovens, and reverted to that method in each instance” (28)..” So much for the common idea that Nazis used new, modern methods of mass murder.
But Feig also focuses on the victims. Of course, their experiences can only be as understandable to us as a man muttering twenty feet away. As one survivor lamented: “Everything I'm telling you now is like a grain of sand by the sea – absolutely nothing compared to what happened.” She has read many, many eyewitness accounts and interviewed survivors, and lets both have a voice through quotations. Other victims have no voice. Some are in unusual positions even by camp standards. At Auschwitz there was a group of fifteen Orthodox Jewish women who dried the hair of their fellow victims. They would wash it in and put it in paper bags when it was dry (358).. Other inmate worker groups had to sort bodies and carry them to cremation or burial. Certainly all Jews experienced the powers of dehumanization, separation, and physical pain, but these groups were also in the strange moral situation of helping their slaughterers. What did they think of their lot? What about those who were frozen or given malaria in the name of scientific good? We can never begin to step into the mad world of their marginal existences.
Feig goes beyond simple descriptions of conditions for victims. When studying the Holocaust, the biggest question is often “How did so many people die?” Feig turns that around: how did so many people survive? She writes:
The Nazis intended they rot alive, that they be defiled ... but still they lived. An exhausted, near dead group of humans actually arose in the morning. ...The strugglers struggled so hard to live that the Germans realized they had to kill them to get them to die. For many of the planners of the Final Solution, that factor was the most unexpected factor of the Holocaust.(438)
Feig writes that the survivor makes a decision to stay alive, an irrational decision because such hope had no place in their world. The choice was not only irrational, but ignored conventional wisdom about what we need to live:
For the strugglers, holding on was the phenomenon. It was not to die of hunger in spite of little food, to economize to the last drop of water. [...] It was not to die of cold on the ground in the snow and the rain. [...] It was not to allow despair to enter into the spirit and penetrate the heart. It was to say: I am not hungry, I am not cold, it does not hurt. (440)
This sounds simpler than it is. As before this “existence at the limit” is “beyond the imagination of any human being who has not lived such a life” (439). It requires not only the will to keep one's body going, but also to be alive, to see what crumbs of joy are left in such a sick world. Feig is thankful we have such people who can teach us more about “hope and life” than anyone else. It is at once humanizing and terrifying, for in our amazement at these peoples' determination we wonder whether or not we have that in us. One victim, Dr. Jacob Edelstein, was told to walk faster on his way to the gas chambers. He replied: “I am the master of my last moments.”
The book definitely achieves its purpose of describing the death camps. Moreover, it's immensely important. Though the Holocaust is painful to study, it shatters illusions we choose to live under. The belief that we are becoming more rational, more just, more humane over time becomes an absurd joke after 1945. Much of the western world subscribed to this myth. Many Jews ignored rumors of death camps because it seemed incomprehensible that “civilized” Germans would do such a thing. At the first light of the new millennium, we promote phrases such as “cultural relativism,” “diversity,” and “multiculturalism” ad nauseum. Many people look back at the Germans and write them off as stupid primitives – an easy task for those who are ignorant of history. But what makes us different? The question is disturbing yet necessary.
Though Feig left her rural Calvinist Lutheran upbringing, she has not ignored the theological issue of the Holocaust. Traditional theodicies – that evil is punishment for sins, that we should be like the ox in the field who does not question God, that suffering is a test of faith – appear nakedly false after this pointless, undeserved event. Though many share her view, it is by no means the only view possible. Some Orthodox Jews believe that the Holocaust was actually a punishment for European cultural assimilation before WWII, and in fact German Jews were some of the most assimilated in Europe. Others may see the badness of this world and cling to the comforting idea of divine justice. Though Feig's own theological views, likely shared by many, are interesting, she could have surveyed others' views more thoroughly. However, this is only incidental to main purpose of the book, and as historian she is bountifully thorough, with a great combination of breadth and depth.
These problems are what she leaves us with, along with a substantial amount of soul-searching about the apathy and inaction of the Allieds. This alone makes the book a vital read. There is also the cliched adage that knowing history will prevent us from repeating its shames, one that Feig herself disagrees with. But in her teaching she is adamant that we must study all of history, not just the glorious and honorable parts. She ends this “voyage of the damned” – as much history as a meditation on evil – with a quote from Elie Wiesel:
Try to save one man. Fight evil right away. Don't wait. It won't pass. Never allow the enemy to ask questions or supply the answers. Be intense, every moment. Ask passionate questions.
 Konnilyn Feig, Hitler’s Death Camps: The Sanity of Madness (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1981), xxii, 440.
 Ibid., xxiii.
 Ibid., 336.
 Ibid., 335.
 Ibid., 27.
 Ibid., 300.
 Ibid., 380.
 Ibid., 28.
 Ibid., xxi. Quote from Isaiah Trunk, Jewish Responses to Nazi Persecution (New York: Stein and Day, 1979), 111.
 Feig, Hitler’s Death Camps, 358.
 Ibid., 438.
 Ibid., 440.
 Ibid., 439.
 Ibid., 440. Quote from Belsen (Israel: Igrun Sheerit Hapleita Me’ Haezor Habriti), 51.
 Coincidentally the title of Feig’s other book, an essayed bibliography of the Holocaust.
 Feig, Hitler’s Death Camps, 445. Quote from Elie Wiesel, “Art and Culture After the Holocaust,” In Auschwitz, ed. Eva Fleischner (New York: Ktav, 1977), 403.