The goal of James Deem’s book Auschwitz: Voices from the Death Camp is to draw the reader’s attention to the problem of the Holocaust and realities of living in Auschwitz, the largest Nazi concentration camp and the greatest killing center ever created. Instead of providing the detailed description of the camp or a full biography of a person or two, the author focuses on presenting an overview of the life in the camp from the perspective of specific people who not only lived but also worked or died there. Deem’s use of personal accounts to present ten unique stories of the Holocaust’s witnesses gives the reader a pretty clear understanding of their problems and sufferings. Thus, Deem’s Auschwitz: Voices from the Death Camp provides the reader with opportunities to understand better and appreciate the first-hand experiences and emotions of several people who were at Auschwitz during that terrible time. Additionally, in this book review, I provide my ideas on how Deem could expand on his work so that readers would further benefit from his research. I also prove my vision regarding the major points of the book and regarding the question of why it is necessary to always remember the inmates and those involved in the heinous crimes committed at Auschwitz.
Overview of the Book
In his book Auschwitz: Voices from the Death Camp, Deem has described first-hand experiences of people who were prisoners or commandants and guards at Auschwitz, the largest Nazi concentration camp located near Oswiecim, Poland. It is possible to state that the purpose of the book is to pull the reader’s attention to the heinous crimes typical of the Holocaust period while sharing the opinions and experiences of persons who were witnesses of the Nazi’s policies and actions against the Jews and Gypsies. Therefore, Auschwitz: Voices from the Death Camp is targeted to those readers who are interested in the history and activities of the worst concentration camp during the Holocaust period. The book is geared to people who want to receive an overview directly from those persons who experienced the life at Auschwitz.
In the book, Deem focuses on covering both the sufferings of prisoners and the reasons of the Nazi officials to support violent acts in the camp. Therefore, the author discusses the individuals’ experiences and events from several perspectives which, in their turn, are used to paint a clear picture of how complex and painful people’s lives were at Auschwitz. The book starts with the detailed overview that describes the construction of Auschwitz as the network of concentration and labor camps in Oswiecim. Auschwitz I is introduced to the reader as an administrative center, Auschwitz II is described as the death camp with gas chambers, and Auschwitz III is described as the slave labor camp. These pages of the book provide the reader with the discussion of killings against the Black Wall near Blocks 10 and 11, as well as with the overview of crematoria and gas chambers, including ‘The Little Red House’.
Deem states that Nazi found gas chambers to be more appropriate for mass killings in comparison to shootings against the wall. The author also covers the end of Auschwitz and reports that “at least 1,305,000 people were taken to the camp” (Deem 15). This number includes “1,095,000 European Jews, 127,000 Poles, 23,000 Gypsies (Roma and Sinti), 15,000 Soviet POW’s, 25,000 other prisoners” (Deem 15). Furthermore, at least 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz (Deem 16). In addition to the detailed introductory notes on the work of Auschwitz, the book includes ten chapters, and each of these chapters shares a personal story of an individual who was an eyewitness of the life at Auschwitz. These chapters are the core of the book because they describe what was observed in Auschwitz during the Holocaust period. In order to provide readers with more details, Deem also ends the book with the timeline that highlights the period during which the people described in the book lived and worked in Auschwitz camps.
Significant Points Covered by the Book
It is important to note that Auschwitz: Voices from the Death Camp is presented in the form of personal narratives, first-hand stories, as well as published records, excerpts from memoirs, and other primary sources. Therefore, the problems that Deem covers in his book include fears and sufferings of prisoners, their daily routines, attitudes of the Nazi officials to inmates, attempts to escape from the camp, and challenges related to the life after leaving Auschwitz. In order to understand what significant points are made by the author in the book, it is necessary to refer to each personal story of the character depicted in the book.
The first story presented by Deem is the story of Kazimierz Albin who was a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz. This man arrived at the concentration camp in 1940, and he was able to escape from the camp in 1943. Focusing on Albin’s story, the reader learns what was witnessed upon arrival, as well as details about the demand for slave labor in the camp. In this section, much attention is paid to discussing the ‘kapos’: the prisoners who worked for the SS to oversee inmates at Auschwitz. When Albin saw those men for the first time, they “looked like sailors” (Deem 18). However, in reality, the kapos were known as extremely cruel guards who controlled and punished prisoners in order to make them work more. Deem accentuates the fact that the SS chose the kapos to oppose prisoners, as it was noted by the head of the SS: “we play one nation against another” (Deem 21). In addition, Deem describes what actions were taken against prisoners for the escape of prisoner 220 and explains Albin’s decision and steps taken to escape from the camp. Albin’s story illustrates what sufferings were experienced by prisoners in the camp and what motivation they had to escape from Auschwitz.
Rudolf Hoss, the Auschwitz commandant, was one of the longest serving leaders in the camp, and he killed over 1,100,000 prisoners. His mass killings and experiments were horrific. Deem provides the background for Hoss and his early life in terms of describing how the man chose to follow Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, as well as discussing his arrest for killing the teacher for betrayal. In spite of the fact that Hoss “struggled with the responsibility of killing so many people,” he continued his career at Auschwitz (Deem 34). The author notes that Hoss was one of those camp leaders who actively participated in realizing the ‘Final Solution’: the genocide against European Jews (Deem 33). The chapter concludes describing how Hoss was captured and executed by hanging for war crimes.
The next story is about Perry Broad who served as a guard and a translator in Auschwitz Birkenau. He spent much time keeping a journal on the aspects of the daily life in the camp with the focus on his and Nazi officials’ activities, as well as realities of the prisoners’ life. In his accounts, Broad describes penal code 1 and 2 and how the Nazi killed prisoners near Block 11 according to penal code 2 (Deem 39). The man also shares his memories of gas chambers and the use of Zyklon B that was selected as a way to conduct mass murders more efficiently (Deem 43). During his life at Auschwitz, Broad also witnessed the process of building Birkenau and what happened after the war. When the war ended, Broad was arrested and charged with war crimes at Auschwitz. He spent four years in prison for his crimes (Deem 47). While describing this story, Deem refers to the experiences of not only prisoners or guards but also those people who served for the Nazi and witnessed sufferings and killings at Auschwitz.
One more character of the book is Andrey Pogozhev who was a Russian Prisoner of War (POW). The man shares his memories of how he was introduced to the camp, how prisoners were treated like herds of cattle, and how difficult it was for him to accept what was occurring. Deem starts the chapter about Pogozhev while describing how the man became a witness of the first death observed in the camp. The father who was trying to retain the photograph of his daughter was cruelly killed by the guardsman (Deem 49). The author discusses in detail Pogozhev’s work at Birkenau, how he was shot in the hand, his escape plan, and his actual attempt to escape. In 1965, after many years of living in the Soviet Union, Pogozhev helped identify Hans Stark, the man guilty of killing the man with the photograph.
Walter Winter was a Gypsy prisoner who described the life in Auschwitz and how people were persecuted and lived in constant fear. The man also talks about moments of his and his brother Erich’s personal bravery while testing boundaries for his and other Gypsies’ survival. Deem presents the description of Winter’s family with the focus on the fact that these Gypsies were discussed as “non-Aryan” and “genetically inferior non-German” (Deem 58). To provide the background, Deem defines Roma and Sinti for the reader (58). There are also descriptions of the Hungarian Jews’ experiences in the Gypsy camp, as well as memories of killings those remaining in the camp. Ironically, people said that Walter joined the SS after leaving the camp.
One more chapter describes the experiences of Dr. Miklos Nyiszli who was a Jewish doctor and a prisoner. The man was forced to work with Dr. Josef Mengele at the camp because of his medical experience. He was spared and required to do autopsies and scientific research at the camp. Therefore, the chapter provides descriptions of the medical work done by Dr. Nyiszli. The man closely witnessed the lack of regard for human life, especially Jews, who were deemed inferior. Dr. Nyiszli worked with Dr. Mengele to provide evidence that Jews “were genetically inferior” (Deem 72). It was a real challenge for Dr. Nyiszli to live a normal life after his release, and his life became meaningful again only when he reunited with his family. This chapter also describes what the Sonderkommando did with dead people and how they collected hair and gold from their teeth (Deem 70).
Shlomo Dragon was a prisoner who was forced to dispose the bodies for the Sonderkommando. He shares his story and mindset in addition to focusing on his attempts to escape from the camp. The chapter describes how Shlomo and his brother Abraham were arrested and arrived in Auschwitz in December of 1942. The theme of fear is dominant in the story of Shlomo and his brother who worked for the Sonderkommando. This chapter is important to provide the introduction for the Sonderkommando’s uprising and discuss the life after it. The problem is in the fact that only “about 110 of the original 2,200 Sonderkommando workers survived the war” (Deem 85).
The next story is about Anna Heilman and her sister Estusia who were prisoners and supported the 1944 Sonderkommando uprising. Deem provides memories of the sisters’ early childhood and discusses how they were separated from their parents with the focus on their initial experiences at Auschwitz and their story of becoming slave laborers at the munitions factory (Deems 90). The most touching detail in this story is the sharing of Anna’s memories regarding the sister’s execution.
One more story is about Primo Levi, a prisoner, who was a Jewish chemist and a writer from Italy. His story is one that describes his trip and introduction to Auschwitz. The chapter describes how Levi could survive and how his intelligence was valuable to him at Auschwitz, as well as how he secured important items through trading. Levi suffered from scarlet fever, and Deem focuses on describing his experience in the KaBe. The end of Levi’s life is also tragic, as there are many questions regarding his death as a result of an accident or suicide.
Eva Heyman is the prisoner who left behind a diary, and her story highlights the deportation of Hungarian Jews to the camp and their trip by train. Heyman was a thirteen years old girl when she began to understand how the life of Jews was restricted, and she witnesses the arrest and the death of her best friend. The important detail provided by Deem is his note regarding the four-inch yellow star that was placed on prisoner’s clothes to help distinguish the Hungarian Jews (Deem 105). The journal also provides the information regarding the girl’s emotions regarding the growth and development of the Nagyvarad Ghetto. Her diary entry covers her move to Auschwitz. The story ends by acknowledging that Eva’s parents were not executed, and the story leaves an impression that Eva did not know that her parents could survive. When Eva’s mother, Agi, was given Eva’s edited diary, she was heartbroken, and later, she committed suicide.
While reviewing this important collection of personal stories related to the Holocaust, it is important to note that the book also provides photographs that contain the information about the structure of the camp, territories, and maps. The book also includes drawings and other journal entries that add to the writings. Thus, being a retired college professor, Deem has conducted much research to write Auschwitz: Voices from the Death Camp that is based on primary sources and other authors’ works. As a result, the stories in the book provide a collective overview of the greatest killing center ever created in the world.
I should state that, to further distinguish this particular book from others, I would expand its length, but focus on the short story format in order to explore Auschwitz from additional perspectives. It is important that this expanded book would remain focused on research and supported by facts to be appropriate for a wide group of readers. In addition, this book can be discussed as a suitable piece for a home coffee table. One more important point is that the book should include more stories of prisoners who survived in the camp. The task in this case is to explore these persons’ emotions, as well as feelings of friends or family members regarding individuals who were murdered at Auschwitz. It is also possible to include more stories about Nazi soldiers who worked at the camp in order to focus on moral conflicts related to their duties. Furthermore, there are also stories of Nazi’s soldiers who worked at Auschwitz and were punished for being sympathetic to prisoners. These stories should also be included in the book along with more photographs of people and journals with narratives that explain these pictures.
From this point, more pages should be written on how family members worked together to survive, as well as their strategies, and what emotions they had when one was killed or died. This book should provide examples of decisions made to keep one another alive along with personal narratives of Nazi officials, doctors, and guards who worked at Auschwitz. All these stories should be supported by photographs depicting people who endured the life in the camp. It is also possible to include comments from people who know persons surviving in the camp in order to understand what they feel while looking at the photograph.
After reviewing the book, it is important to note that, unlike works written by other authors, Deem’s Auschwitz: Voices from the Death Camp can be regarded as a non-judgmental and objective book related to the Holocaust. It allows the readers to make their own conclusions regarding the materials. From this point, Auschwitz: Voices from the Death Camp is important to help students learn about the details of the life and particular events in the concentration and labor camps in order to expand their knowledge regarding the Holocaust. So, the question is: why is this book important and necessary? It is important to note that Deem’s book is written for the least informed readers, and it can be used to educate students regarding the problem of the Holocaust while referring to the first-hand experiences of people that were there.
This book is rather unique because Deem includes peoples’ actual memories and discussions of their experiences, emotions, feelings, and life afterwards in the work. This type of information is most understandable from the perspective of the wide audience, and the emotional impact of the book is significant. Therefore, Deem’s book is effective to present primary sources that are adapted for the wide public in a format of a short story. The reason is that many readers avoid referring to primary sources because of their complexity, but this book demonstrates how such sources can be organized efficiently. Finally, these writings support the idea that Jews and other nations were not proven to belong to an inferior race, and such separation of humans by their origin should be regarded as flawed thinking. From this point, in his book, Deem demonstrates to what outcomes can lead such rationales for mass killings and tortures.
Deem, James. Auschwitz: Voices from the Death Camp. New York: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2012. Print.