In what words speak? - Norbert Guterman

Seven books on Nazi atrocities. Reviewed in Commentary magazine, July 1946.

Submitted by Noa Rodman on January 17, 2017

No traveler returns.
By Henry Shoskes and Curt Riess.
New York, Doubleday Doran, 1945. 267 pp.

The promise Hitler kept.
by Stefan Szende.
New York, Roy Publishers, 1945. 281 pp.

Experiment E.
by Leon Szalet.
New York, Didier Publishers, 1945. 284

Call us to witness.
by Hania And Gaither Warfield.
New York, Ziff-Davis, 1945. 434 pp.

Stepchildren of France.
by Charles Odic.
New York, Roy Publishers, 1945. 181 pp.

No time for silence.
by Sylvia Lombroso.
New York, Roy Publishers, 1945. 166 pp.

The dungeon democracy.
by Christopher Burney.
New York, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1946. 164 pp.

Eyewitness accounts of Nazi atrocities are proffered by authors and publishers as “must reading.” Official or semi-official compilations such as The Black Book of Polish Jewry are admittedly intended for the serious reader or student; it is assumed that the public at large needs a more popular presentation of these experiences, it is our duty to relive such occurrences, and it is certainly true that, even if only for the sake of preserving our own humanity for ourselves according to the capacity of our minds.

The problem of presentation involves a paradox. To write so as to make the reader feel a pleasing chill in the spine at the evocation of horrors is obviously out of place. Therefore, the solution generally adopted is that of vivid “human interest” journalism—inhuman experiences are reported as external facts having nothing in common with the mind and soul of the reader. The effectiveness of this journalistic method depends on the shock of the unexpected, the unprecedented, the sensational. It was devised to handle the irruption of the exceptional in the world of the humdrum; incidents such as “man bites dog” or Martian invasion are its ideal stuff. But it is highly questionable whether the public is willing to be as upset by the horrors of a concentration camp as by the terror of a Martian invasion. In the first case, man’s psyche and the structure of his society are much more implicated than in the latter; the public apathy toward the atrocity disclosures has deeper causes than the callousness of newspaper publishers who failed to give them sufficient publicity. In addition to the psychological resistance, there is a real incongruity between the journalism of sensational facts and the nature of this particular material. “Man bites dog” really has far greater news value than man’s inhumanity to man, which lacking the impact of the unusual is not news.


It is characteristic of the tenacity of the journalistic illusion that the escaped victims themselves often seek the help of professional journalists. Henry Shoskes, author of No traveler returns, resorted to the expert services of Curt Riess, who quickly realized that in the extermination of the Warsaw Jews and the Battle of the Ghetto he had “a great story, moving, full of life,” and did his best to stimulate the imagination of the unimaginative by introducing dialogues, dramatizations, etc., etc. Yet if all this streamlining is disregarded, one still has a substantially exact account of the Polish events, including even some details unpublished elsewhere—although Mr. Shoskes, a Polish patriot whose concern for the good name of the Poles has survived even his experiences, tends to gloss over the role of Polish anti-Semitism in the tragedy. According to him, “only a few, a very few Poles continued to be rabid anti-Semites” by the time of the Battle of the Ghetto. The present re-migration of Jews from liberated Poland to the former concentration camps tells a different story.

The promise Hitler kept is based on the account of Adolf Folkmann, who claims to be the last Jew out of Hitler’s Poland. He witnessed the destruction of the Jewish community in Lvov and, disguised as an “Aryan,” worked in the German Todt organization. The Hungarian journalist who writes Folkmann’s story also indulges in stylistic embroiderings, but the book does cast interesting light on the corruption in the Nazi system—something that no doubt accounts for the survival of some of its victims.

Experiment E is a harrowing day-by-day account, written as well as could be expected from most non-professionals, of the author’s life in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he was interned as a Polish enemy alien in September 1939. In theory, enemy aliens enjoyed certain international rights, but Sachsenhausen was not essentially different from other death factories: the prisoners, supervised by criminals and sdists, were subjected to a regime of physical and moral degradation and made to work to the point of exhaustion and death. For a long time the victims hoped that the Swedish Legation in Berlin would intervene in their behalf; for the Swedish government had undertaken the protection of Polish interests in Germany, and Leon Szalet tells us that the facts had been submitted to it. He was released in May 1940, not thanks to the Swedes who apparently took no action, but to the untiring efforts of his daughters and extraordinary luck.

In Call us to witness, an American clergyman and his wife, using the diary form, give us a shocked but somewhat prosy account of everyday life in Poland under German occupation. As members of the American colony in Warsaw, they were often able to help the persecuted population; more often they were helpless spectators of crime and horror. Alternately they relate trivial personal experiences (such as the theft of a set of dishes), incidents such as the throwing of a child into a manhole by two German soldiers, and courageous efforts to help that do honor to the authors. In 1942, when they returned to America, their “faith in the natural progress of mankind had died behind the ghetto walls. . . . Only faith in God remained.” They became aghast at the spirit of aloof indifference prevailing in this country, and they end their book with the worried question: “In what words can we speak to the people that they will understand us?”


As accounts of the bare facts, none of the books reviewed above is superior to the official compilations. They all suffer from the same diffuseness and from the same lack of a frame of reference. Faute de mieux even a moral scheme provides such a reference.

This is true of Charles Odic’s Stepchildren of France, which deals with the author’s reactions to the atrocities against Jews as much as with the atrocities themselves. He gives free vent to his indignation; his disorderly language is the natural rhetoric of passion, and for that very reason he not only succeeds in establishing contact with the reader, but also notes facts that escape observers who concentrate upon effect. Instead of trying to reassure us that only a very few Frenchmen fell victim to the anti-Semitic disease, he admits that while “since the day of the (Franco-German) armistice, all measures taken or prompted by the Germans were unpopular,” the internment of all Polish Jews living in France on May 14, 194 I, “pleased a number of people. Welcomed with delight by professional anti-Semites in the pay of the enemy, with indifference by the bourgeois, with levity by the working classes, it moved only certain sections of the public that always rally to any noble cause.” Such candor is possible only from a man who has really understood what happened, and only from the representative of a nation that was one of the first to correct its mistakes by action.

No time for silence, Sylvia Lombroso’s diary (she is the daughter-in-law of the famous Italian Jewish criminologist) from October 1938 to March 1945, is interesting as a document on the grimmest period of Italian history. Judging by the author’s testimony, the Fascist government’s deliberate policy of dehumanization caused less ravages in Italy than in Germany, and least of all affected the “simple and humble” people. Throughout her book she voices the thoughts and emotions of an intellectual aristocrat who preserves her faith in Italy’s future despite the scenes of degradation that she witnessed.

Christopher Burney, who spent fifteen months in Buchenwald, has written The dungeon of democracy in an attempt to discover the “true perspective” behind “the horrible surface of events.” Like the traditional Englishman, he admits to “fearing passion in books” and distrusting emotion; his professed aim is not to write another horror story, but to warn us against “the pestilence of inhumanity” that threatens to do away with European civilization. What struck him most in his experiences was that the majority of the camp inmates, instead of offering a united front against their torturers, imitated their behavior. “Cowards aping their coward masters . . . they used all their ingenuity to dominate and oppress each other.” This was also true, the author tells us, of prisoners who were members of revolutionary parties; and he concludes that “ideology cannot replace morality;” and that continental Europe holds little prospect of evolving a democratic way of life. While these theoretical views are .highly disputable and seem in part influenced by the author’s belief in the moral superiority of the British, his book is extremely valuable as a picture of the psychological degradation of the camp inmate, which corroborates and supplements the well-known analyses of Dr. Bruno Bettelheim. It also contains an excellent account of the mechanism by which this effect was achieved. The SS troops ruled the camp by proxy, that is, they charged certain groups of prisoners with the responsibility of keeping order; these privileged groups in turn granted responsibilities and privileges to others, and as a result a caste system arose in which those who were most ruthless had the greatest chances for survival. Christopher Burney believes that many lives could have been saved if the prisoners had displayed greater moral strength and solidarity. Of all the prisoners, only the Jews were not given even this opportunity—pariahs among pariahs, they were doomed to die no matter what they did.