Arnon Grunberg



On the details – Toby Lichtig in TLS:

‘But the Holocaust was not, by and large, a time of heroes. A newly republished memoir – available for the first time in English – reminds us of this. Originally published in Hungarian in 1950, József Debreczeni’s Cold Crematorium is a raw and unceasingly grim account of ratcheting horror and total degradation. It reports, with a cold eye, on life, on death, in what the author calls “The Land of Auschwitz”: not just the main camp and its sister death factory, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, but its orbiting subcamps and workcamps and barracks, the mines and fields and industrial facilities that processed human material into a delicately balanced output of toil and death. This balance, Debreczeni demonstrates, is crucial. Kill too many too quickly and productivity dips; kill too few too slowly and the camps risk being overwhelmed by new arrivals. Starvation is one useful tool for maintaining equilibrium: “Calorie calculations at death camps are the work of diligent and untalented German scientists”.’


‘Debreczeni was a journalist and he has a journalist’s eye for detail. He is interested in the camp mechanics, its politics and diplomacy, habits and gestures, the individual and collective, in what happens to the human animal when it is isolated and desperate. His book is an unflinching testimony to Primo Levi’s dictum that “the worst of us survived”. Or, in Debreczeni’s own words: “Those who’d made nothing of themselves – schnorrers, nebbishes, shlemiels, freeloaders, rogues, swindlers, idlers, slackers – flourished in this swamp”.’


‘As Debreczeni and his fellow deportees enter the cattle trucks “an extraordinary metamorphosis” takes place: “At that moment they put us on four legs for the first time”. Later, their bunks will be their “lairs” and their mouths their “snouts”. The first brutal instance of divide-and-rule comes in the form of the Wagenältesteassigned to each cart. He is in charge of preventing escapees; if he fails he is shot. At this stage nothing is known of Auschwitz. It doesn’t take long to learn the ropes. On arrival the prisoners are separated into lines. If anyone doesn’t fancy the forced march they can choose to go “by truck”. A prisoner urgently advises our narrator to avoid this euphemistic option.’


‘At one point an SS supervisor asks a kapo to present him with his “best worker”. When the young Stakhanovite is duly summoned, the SS man shoots him in the head. “A little demonstration”, says the Nazi, “… of how even the best Jew must croak.” The Lagerälteste, a “short, cocky French Jew”, is “a malicious, merciless, mercurial lord” and the majority of the prisoners are Greek. Debreczeni develops an unvarnished hatred of these “living refutations of Jewish world solidarity … of all the Nazi nonsense about the international uniformity of the Jewish soul”. The hierarchies are partly built on longevity, with the newcomers the lowest of the low, and the Greeks have been in the system for the longest. Debreczeni is not above his own bigotry: “These Greeks are idlers by nature … Their artistry in thievery is unrivalled”.’


‘We must be grateful to Debreczeni’s nephew, Alexander Bruner, for helping to usher this notable addition to the Holocaust canon into English translation. Cold Crematorium has already been receiving comparisons with the likes of Levi, and understandably so. It should be valued as both a piece of literature and a historical document. It is, then, a shame that the publisher – which should otherwise be commended – has chosen to eschew notes. Although there is a useful glossary of terms and places, along with maps and family photographs provided by Bruner, there are times when an editor might have stepped in to warn us of Debreczeni’s justifiably imperfect memory or of other pieces of misinformation that might be taken literally. “Three million human bodies have so far gone up in smoke”, a prisoner tells the narrator with respect to Birkenau; and, while the true figure of about 1.1 million is barely less grotesque, it is worth reminding the contemporary reader of the facts. An editor might have pointed out that the tea-picking “slaves” of Ceylon were actually indentured labourers, and I’d have liked to hear more about the accusation that the Nazis deliberately diverted patients infected with typhus to Dörnhau in order to spread the epidemic.’

Read the article here.

At the end of his life Levi did write that only the worst survived. In the context of his oeuvre one can appreciate and maybe even understand such a statement. Taken out of context it’s a different story.

Luck, just read this review, was probably more important than morality.
Of course, age played an important role.
Children and the elderly were doomed.

Even in Auschwitz, even among the Jewish prisoners, their homelands remained often important, if only because of language.

But for example, Charlotte Delbo’s report is much more ‘universal’ – and highly recommended.

To survive you needed some help, help was based on solidarity, not with all prisoners but with a few prisoners with whom you had to live and die.

Also, according to Höss after the war three million perished in Auschwitz and its satellite camps. Not only Jews, Russian POWs, Poles, Roma and Sinti, political prisoners.

The typhus is interesting, because there are other reports that the Nazis did try to contain typhus. But there were some contradictions in the killing machinery of the Nazis. Or more precisely, during the course of the war the killing machinery changed slightly. The methods, the victims et cetera. And where people are there is always improvisation. A mass murderer is not a robot.

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