Last week, I posted a somewhat philosophical (rambling?) response to Marta Ascoli’s Auschwitz Belongs to Us All. While I stand by the things I said in the previous review, I honestly think I wrote more about ideas the book led me to than about the book itself—and I wanted to do justice to the book, as it’s a remarkable piece of writing.
Ascoli was a young, half-Jewish woman who was deported first to Birkenau (a women’s camp inside Auschwitz), then moved to Bergen-Belsen near the end of WWII. In her author’s note, she explains her purpose in bearing witness: “[T]oday, before the last survivors pass away and a veil of forgetfulness descends over the Nazi death camps and the genocide of the Jewish people. I… feel a sense of duty to contribute my testimony.” At the same time she notes that she “deliberately left out many facts so [the] story will not become oppressively bleak for readers.” This reticence, which might at first seem a failing, is one of the great strengths of this book. Ascoli’s spare prose makes her story much more moving than a more “dramatic” account might. She lets the events speak for themselves, and they do speak—loudly and disturbingly.
The camps themselves were designed to maximize the suffering of those interned there. For example, “There were no roads, just tracks, and one had to walk everywhere through mud”; slave labor and starvation rations weren’t enough, these we augmented by energy-draining slogs across the camp to the locations where the labor was performed. Prisoners were repeatedly “sorted” via a process with no apparent logic—at any moment, they might be counted off and every third or every fourth prisoner would be sent to the crematoria. To make the process even more inhumane, the women were often stripped at the beginning of this process.
In some Holocaust narratives, a few individual prisoners manage to retain their humanity, but this was not Ascoli’s experience: “In the camp I met all kinds of people, from intellectuals to farmers and factory workers. Without exception, they all had become dehumanized through their suffering and grown selfish in their struggle for survival. Despite the huge number of people in our camp, each of us carried our cross alone…. the only thing that would matter anymore was your own existence, which—despite the tragedy of it all—was all you had left and might soon come to an end.” I don’t point this out to suggest that Ascoli is in any way a lesser person than the writers of those other narratives, but rather to argue that her honesty about her own loss of humanity requires significant courage. She doesn’t turn herself into a heroine, doesn’t claim she had some resilience others lacked.
Reading Ascoli’s narrative is a difficult experience that calls into question any beliefs one might have about the essentially good nature of human beings. The guards inside the camps, the citizens living outside the camps or along the rail lines that take prisoners to the camps at best observe the suffering with equanimity—and many of them take great pleasure in it. This willing participation in (or at least indifference to) genocide is a reminder of how carefully each of us needs to protect whatever spark of decency and love lies within us. Ascoli’s narratve suggests that participation in brutality is all too easy to become accustomed to.
So why read this book?
Because it offers us a truth. Because it forces us to live with the memory of the worst our species had done. Because it keeps us from thinking “I would never….” We mourn as we read this book, but it can also strengthen us in our own resolve to be the best people we can be, to have the courage to say “no” to abuses of authority. I can’t overemphasize the value of this book—you will come away shaken, but also strengthened by bearing withness to Ascoli’s experiences.