by Oscar Handlin
Between the Polish cities of Lublin and Warsaw in the hamlet of Treblinka on the Bug River, the Germans in 1942 established a model camp dedicated to extermination. Into it passed some eight hundred thousand men, women, and children. They never emerged. The gas chambers were their final destination. Among the victims were some Gypsies and other Aryans. But most were Jews.
TREBLINKA by JEAN-FRANÇOIS STEINER (Simon and Schuster, $5.95) tells the story of tire rise and fall of this community. This vivid book, horrifying in its authenticity, is a necessary reminder of events we would prefer to forget. It also raises terrible questions to which there are no easy answers.
The story begins with the breakdown of the future victims’ capacity for resistance. Steiner’s narrative starts in the city of Vilna as the Nazis move in. Any effort to counter the power of the conquerors proves utterly hopeless. The storm troopers are able to turn all rational calculations, all humane emotions to their own ends.
The scene then shifts to the camp at Treblinka. Steiner’s simple, prosaic sentences describe the progressive development of the extermination institutions. The first German commanders were simple sadists and perverts. Their superiors soon realized that they would not do because they were incapable of maintaining control. Authority then passed to technicians. Kurt Franz, who took charge at that time, viewed the camp with dispassionate objectivity and organized it scientifically. The manufacture of corpses was like any other problem of processing. To get thousands of people moving along the assembly line, it was necessary to schedule deliveries, to handle the subjects expeditiously, and to delegate to specialists the tasks of salvaging byproducts— clothing, gold, baggage, even hair and teeth. The calm laconic style in which the engineering details are described has a macabre appropriateness to the subject. The fussy efforts of the specialist Herbert Floss to dispose of certain waste products seem almost funny until one realizes that he is dealing with human bodies.
The Germans could not spare enough of their own manpower to staff the immense enterprise fully. They had at their disposal a number of Ukrainian guards. But the bulk of the work was done by Jews. Selected from the ranks of the victims, the kapos themselves built and operated the camp with all its necessary services and collaborated in every stage of extermination.
How was this possible? This question haunted Steiner as it did every other writer on the camps. What passed through the minds of the Jews who whipped their fellows into the gas chambers or pulled the gold fillings out of the mouths of corpses?
The book gives a credible answer. With great skill, Steiner demonstrates the way in which the Nazis closed off alternatives, leaving the victim always a choice between greater and lesser evils, so that collaboration, at any given point, seemed the rational course.
Only with the development of some sense of community among the Jewish kapos was the idea of escape or rebellion born. There followed a long, heartbreaking effort to organize an uprising, which finally erupted in August, 1943, just when the camp, having finished its work, was about to be liquidated. The Germans had no trouble suppressing the outbreak, although some prisoners escaped.
Is this account historically true? In the nature of the case, documentation is lacking and the full details will never be known. The Nazis, anxious to keep the whole matter secret, left practically no telltale written evidence, and the pathetic scraps of diary kept by the inmates vanished. All the chief actors died. Of the prisoners who managed to get out, no more than forty survived, none of whom had been in a position to observe the formulation of the critical decisions.
Steiner’s information, drawn from interviews and from an oral tradition, cannot therefore be precise. Tradition grows not out of the accurate recollection of the past, but selectively out of the desire to create a myth that will justify and explain what happened. Treblinka seeks to make a tragic event heroic.
In that sense, the book possesses the virtue of authenticity. It could have happened as Steiner’s imagination said it did. Galewski, Choken, Friedman, and Bloch, trapped by circumstances, struggled to control events which had a remorseless logic of their own and led to the inevitable climax. The problems these men faced were not unreal, only grotesquely exaggerated versions of those modern men often meet.
Goodness, truth, and beauty were the first victims of the camps. Those who felt any sense of compassion, dignity, or love when they entered could not survive. To cling to life it was necessary to play the game of the captor.
But though resistance was hopeless, the victims did not have to collaborate with their murderers. Many made the morally dignified choice of immediate death in preference to the degradation of life with the Germans. Steiner’s most ingenious passages attempt to rehabilitate those who resisted the temptation to suicide or disobedience. The planners of the rebellion argued that the immediate obligation was to stay alive even at the cost of collaboration with the Nazis. Since the Hitlerite goal was extermination, survival was the highest good, for only thus could the memory of the event be preserved and the mission of Israel be fulfilled. The very debasement of the kapo, hastening the victims to their doom, thus acquires a grandeur of purpose.
Yet this explanation opens a moral chasm which Steiner docs not examine. The same combination of personal and national justification no doubt animated the Ukrainian guards. They too had no choice; and someone else would do it if they did not. And the technicians? Or the S.S. men? Could they not argue the same necessity?
There are no easy answers to these questions. That is why Tre-blink a deserves our attention. The book reminds us of the place where twenty-five years ago the optimism of the Enlightenment perished, where Europeans rediscovered what a long difficult way yet lay ahead of them before they fulfilled their humanity.
The effects of crisis
The bestiality of man’s behavior cannot be attributed only to psychotic and ignorant people. In the face of what we have seen this century, we know that the animal in us can be elaborately rationalized until an act of murder is seen as self-defense and dynamited houses become evidence of moral courage. This is one of the somber conclusions of ROBERT COLES’S CHILDREN OF CRISIS (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $7.95).
Dr. Coles is a trained psychiatrist, drawn into the Deep South by the accident of service with the Air Force. Exposure at firsthand to segregation drew him into a study of the race problem. When the first Negro children were admitted into formerly white schools, Dr. Coles began to examine the reaction intensively. At first, his interest was clinical. Like Anna Freud, who observed the children of London under the bombing, he wished to trace the emotional and psychological effects of life under stress. He followed the careers of selected children and adults in New Orleans and Atlanta over extended periods.
The outcome is a vivid portrayal of the problems of desegregation. The central finding in this lucid and compassionate book is the startling normality of children under stress. The little girl who for a year passed daily through the ranks of taunting enemies and was isolated from all her schoolmates nevertheless grew in strength. A resilient boy survived two years of a schedule far more severe than any he had ever expected, and along with it the daily loneliness and fear of his special situation and the nastiness of threats, foul language, and pokes in t lie school corridors and on the street.
Dr. Coles’s investigation also revealed the appalling complexity of the situation. For some whites, like Mrs. Patterson, the colored children’s isolation expressed the sense of her own condition. “She shouted at the Negro girl because she was moved to cry out and protest her own fate. What she called the Negroes she feared herself to be; what she saw in that Negro child was herself, unhappy and isolated. She wanted that part of herself to die, and in one of those moments which allow people like her expression, she said as much with her threats toward Ruby.” Yet there were also whites in the deepest South driven by the crisis to turn their backs upon their heritage and come out for equality. One such woman developed a course of courageous action through a series of accidents. Step by step she became an important part in the critical struggle. The crisis raised her sights and transformed her life.
The records of these cases are deeply moving. The candid account of the white boy George and his Negro classmate Lois reveals the sensitivity of the observer, the understanding of the analyst, and the skill of the writer.
Dr. Coles is less sure of himself when he goes beyond the cases to generalizations. Because his attention is fixed upon individuals he finds it difficult to discuss the Negroes as a group. Even the prolonged suffering of the colored people, he notes, “fails to bind them together sufficiently to cause them to lose their individuality, a fact that may be sad for zealous social scientists but is ultimately hopeful for America.”
The causes of delinquency remain obscure. Since we are no more able to explain what makes some people weak or evil than we are what makes others strong or noble, we are tempted to fix the blame on some specific remediable cause. The nineteenth-century temperance movement expected by eradicating alcoholism to settle a long chain of personal and social disorders. In the 1960s, narcotics have taken the place of the demon rum as the source of delinquency.
GERTRUDE SAMUELS’ THE PEOPLE vs. BABY (Doubleday, $4.95) is the vivid reconstruction of a case history. The central character, a Puerto Rican girl raised in a fatherless Harlem family, drifts into gang life and pursues a harlot’s path to the verge of destruction. Her missteps compound one another. From marijuana she moves to heroin; to meet the cost she resorts to prostitution; and the various correctional institutions to which the law sends her only deepen her knowledge of vice. The story is cast in the form of a novel. But only the happy ending is fiction. Baby is the composite of actual girls, and the hospitals, jails, slums, and treatment centers are real.
PIRI THOMAS’ DOWN THESE MEAN STREETS (Knopf, $5.95) tells the same story in a masculine version. In this autobiography, dope is an incident of life in the Spanish Harlem slums, along with the gang, sex, and violence. For Thomas, a long jail term is the means of expiation and leads ultimately to redemption.
Miss Samuels5 solution is the legalization of narcotics for addicts at centers in which physicians would dispense drugs at low cost while helping to free the victims of the habit with psychiatric and vocational help. The underlying assumption is that persuasion and willpower can effect the cure.
Although both books are set in the slums, the explanation of delinquency they offer is not simply environmental. Hal in The People Vs. Baby is well-to-do, intelligent, and educated, yet resorts to the needle for kicks. The consequences of antisocial behavior are more noticeable among people with low incomes, but delinquency is not confined to the poor.
Indeed, DAVID LOTH in CRIME IN THE SUBURBS (Morrow, $4.95) argues that the incidence of lawbreaking is probably increasing more rapidly in suburbia than in the central city. The transgressions, moreover, are not due to intruders from the slums, but in most cases to local juveniles and their parents. The survey of data from all parts of the country, presented in breezy anecdotal form, adds up to a disquieting refutation of the notion that poverty explains delinquency.
The common element in the unwillingness to accept the rules of society seems to be a sense of purposelessness, whether that emanates from an inadequate family life, from the lack of personal recognition, or from the unwillingness to accept the materialistic goals of the middle classes. The impulse to assert one’s individuality by breaking the rules can appear in any environment.
The difference between the slum and the suburb lies in the chances for recovery. The youth who slips in Marin County or in Westchester can climb back with the aid of a community sensitive to his problems and anxious to assist in his rehabilitation. In Harlem, the initial misstep is a disaster. The police, the social workers, and the judges are aliens, and the fragile local communities lack the institutions that can help those in need. Therein lies a clue to controlling’ the consequences of delinquency, even it not to its cure.
ROBERT BENDINER’S JUST VROUND
THE CORNER (Harper & Row, $0.95) is a charming informal account of the years between the depression of 1929 and the war of 1939. The book is part social history, part personal reminiscence. Bendiner began the decade as office boy at the World Tomorrow, spent a few months on the staff of the New Masses, and ended as managing editor of the Nation. He was thus in a strategic position to observe the twists and turns of politics and intellect in those exciting years. Hoover and Landon, FDR and the New Deal come under his witty scrutiny. But perhaps his shrewdest observations are of the vigorous radicalism which infused American politics and thought.
WILLIAM HERRICK in THE ITINERANT (McGraw Hill, $4.95) offers glimpses of the radical sects of the 1930s through the eyes of an adolescent. This picaresque novel follows the escapades of a boy growing up in the Depression, his involvement with sex and Communists, his wanderings among the sharecroppers and in the international brigade in Spain, and an adjustment of sorts in marriage and the civil rights movement. Flashes of ribald humor enliven what would otherwise be a familiar story.
The most vivid recall of the decade comes from the essays collected in RITA SIMON’S AS WE SAM THE THIRTIES (University of Illinois Press, $6.50). Eight key figures here speak candidly of the pre-war world. Burton K. Wheeler gives a fascinating account of his relations with FDR, from the court-packing plan onward. There are nuggets of unintended humor in Gerald L. K. Smith’s defense of Huey Long: “He was a gourmet of distinction. His scientific understanding of football was uncanny. On one or two occasions he actually called the coach to where he was seated and gave him the scientific instruction necessary to win the game.” Quoting the Kingfish: “When you are in a pinch, the whore houses and the preachers are always on the same side.” Smith adds, “This was not said in a blasphemous mood.”
Max Shachtman’s discussion of radicalism is revealing. Passages in this Trotskyist view of the decade seem funny now when they deal with the fierce infighting, the vicious heresy hunts, and the fervent crusades of the tiny groups which grew like the amoeba, by dividing. But they remind us also that something has been lost since the 1930s — the utter devotion to the intellect. All those controversies were about ideas, and they pushed the participants into furious reading and thinking. Events proved the radicals wrong in many respects, but not in their passionate dedication to reason.