Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp

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"In 1972 the Hamburg State Court acquitted Walther Becker of war crimes committed against Jews. Thirty years before, Becker, the German chief of police in the Polish city of Starachowice, had been responsible for liquidating the nearby Jewish ghetto, sending nearly 4,000 Jews to their deaths at Treblinka and 1,600 to slave labor in the local munitions factories. The shocking acquittal, delivered despite the incriminating eyewitness testimony of almost sixty survivors, drives Christopher R. Browning's inquiry." "Employing the rich testimony of almost three hundred survivors of these slave-labor camps, Browning's history draws together the experiences of the Jewish prisoners, the Nazi authorities, and the neighboring Poles. For the Jews the camps, brutal and deadly as conditions were, represented their best chance for survival. There they lived under corrupt camp regimes and produced for the German war effort even as they sacrificed to protect children, spouses, parents, or neighbors." For the Germans the camps, critical to munitions production, were anomalies in the systematic killing of Jews. Himmler's "harvest-festival" massacre of November 1943, when 42,000 Jewish workers in Poland's eastern camps were killed in two days, largely spared the western camps. But in a selection days later, some 160 Starachowice prisoners were taken to the forest, shot, and buried in a mass grave. Arbitrary killing was an ever-present threat even under the most pragmatic camp regime. For the Poles the factories provided a meager employment. Some actively aided Jewish neighbors in the camps. Others made this region a stronghold for anti-Semitic and extremist partisan forces, with the highest incidenceof postwar killing of Jews in Poland.

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Editorial Reviews

“[A] highly credible and deeply shocking account.... This is an excellent addition to the field of Holocaust studies.”
The Washington Post
There can be no doubt...of the essential truth of this story, a small one when viewed against everything else that happened in that dreadful time, but an important and revealing one, exceptionally well told in Remembering Survival.— Jonathan Yardley
Jonathan Yardley - The Washington Post
“There can be no doubt...of the essential truth of this story, a small one when viewed against everything else that happened in that dreadful time, but an important and revealing one, exceptionally well told in Remembering Survival.”
Jonathan Yardley
The literature of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany is so vast as to defy comprehension, yet there remain aspects of the subject that are insufficiently covered or not covered at all. Christopher Browning's fine, harrowing Remembering Survival points us in yet another little-charted direction. It is the history of a Nazi slave-labor camp at Starachowice, in central Poland, where between 1942 and 1944 thousands of Jews were forced to work…to produce munitions for the Nazi war machine…Browning is keenly sensitive to the unreliability of memory, especially memory of distant events, so as he stitches together the story of Starachowice he is especially careful to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence. There can be no doubt, however, of the essential truth of this story, a small one when viewed against everything else that happened in that dreadful time, but an important and revealing one, exceptionally well told in Remembering Survival.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In 1942 the liquidation of the Jewish-Polish ghetto of Wierzbnik sent 4,000 Jews to their deaths in Treblinka and enslaved another 1,600 at factory camps in the nearby town of Starachowice. Wierzbnik at its peak had 5,400 Jews, of whom 600 to 700 survived the war, and half of these left testimonies in memoirs or others forms. National Jewish Book Award–winning historian Browning (The Origins of the Final Solution) bases his study primarily on survivor testimonies from the slave-labor camps at the Starachowice factory. Willi Althoff, the first commander of factory security whose killings of Jews were theatrically staged and who killed all Jews infected with typhus, was succeeded by pragmatist Kurt Baumgarten, who preferred keeping workers alive to increase factory production and line his pockets by extorting. Nuanced survivor accounts from live interviews, memoirs and archived accounts depicts some Ukrainian guards as sadistic anti-Semites while others were lenient, well-behaved, or corruptible. As the Soviets approached, the Germans deported the slaves to Auschwitz-Birkenau before retreating. Although too specialized for the casual reader, Browning's authoritative, lucid, and subtly analyzed microhistory of a relatively obscure area of Holocaust history will be of considerable value to scholars. 10 photos, maps. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
A scholarly, nuanced micro history of a Nazi slave-labor camp. Browning (History/Univ. of North Carolina; The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942) systematically relates how the Jews of Wierzbnik became the property of the SS, slaves who were rented out as laborers in the neighboring camp of Starachowice. Despite the humiliations, physical abuse, bondage and murder, the war-supply camp was, for a while, a haven for those with work papers. Then there was the local killing Aktion one day in October 1942, and, though the destruction of Nazi human property might have been against state interest, there were many wanton shootings just for sport. A few comparatively decent overseers notwithstanding, the Jews faced the brutal police chief Walter Becker (who was acquitted of war crimes in 1972), the dangerous Ukrainian guards and the Polish partisans. Ultimately, thousands of Jews were transported by rail from Starachowice to Auschwitz-Birkenau for extermination. Browning methodically narrates the tale on a survivor-by-survivor basis. His trenchant, relentless exposition shows how the camp was truly exceptional in its evil efficiency. The text is all the more powerful because the author avoids dramatization or overwrought polemics. A coda describes the rigged postwar trial of Becker and the egregious miscarriage of justice that outraged the author and provoked his study. An important addition to Holocaust studies, evoking the small band of survivors who remembered.
“A master historian of intimate tragedy.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393070194
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/18/2010
  • Pages: 375
  • Sales rank: 828,564
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher R. Browning is the Frank Porter Graham Professor of History at the University of North Carolina and the author of Ordinary Men, Remembering Survival and other works of Holocaust history. He lives in Chapel Hill.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Map - Occupied Poland, 1939-1944

Map - Wierzbnik-Starachowice: The Surrounding Region

Map - Wierzbnik-Starachowice: Ghetto, Factories, and Camps

Introduction 1

Pt. I The Jews of Wierzbnik

1 The Prewar Jewish Community of Wierzbnik-Starachowice 15

2 The Outbreak of War 24

3 The Early Months of German Occupation 30

4 The Judenrat 34

5 The German Occupiers in Wierzbnik-Starachowice 40

6 Coping with Adversity in Wierzbnik, 1940-1942 51

Pt. II The Destruction of the Wierzbnik Ghetto

7 Wierzbnik on the Eve of Destruction 65

8 The Aktion, October 27, 1942 83

9 Into the Camps 101

Pt. III Terror and Typhus: Fall 1942-Spring 1943

10 Personalities and Structures 113

11 The Typhus Epidemic 121

12 The Althoff Massacres 125

13 Tartak 135

Pt. IV Stabilization

14 The Kolditz Era: Summer-Fall 1943 141

15 Jewish Work 153

16 Food, Property, and the Underground Economy 159

17 The Ukrainian Guards 168

18 Poles and Jews 172

19 Children in the Camps 176

20 Childbirth, Abortion, Sex, and Rape 185

21 The Schroth Era: Winter-Spring 1944 192

Pt. V Consolidation, Escape, Evacuation

22 Closing Majowka and Tartak 207

23 The Final Days 218

24 From Starachowice to Birkenau 226

25 The Starachowice Women and Children in Birkenau 239

26 Escapees 246

Pt. VI Aftermath

27 Return to and Flight from Wierzbnik 259

28 Postwar Investigations and Trials in Germany 270

29 Conclusion 291

Notes 301

Index 363

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2010

    I Also Recommend:


    This non-fiction work explores the background and wartime experiences of a large group of Jews enslaved by the Nazis in factories in their hometown (Starachowice/Wierzbnick) located in central Poland. The factories were essential to the German war effort. The Jews were housed in slave-labor camps built to purpose, also in/near their town.

    The Jews of the town, with backgrounds running from the secular to the orthodox, at the outset of the occupation were concentrated into a "ghetto" by the Nazis, but allowed to work. In an "aktion" in Autumn 1942, those ostensibly able to work were marched off to newly-created "work camps", while the balance of theie families were shipped directly to Treblinka for extermination.

    This book focuses on the sensitive interrelationship between Polish anti-Semitism, the Nazi-imposed regime in the camps (guarded by Ukrainians under Nazi authority and direction), Jewish self-leadership within the camps (and as altered by subsequent shipments of workers from other towns/camps), work in the factories, and the overarching Nazi plan for a Final Solution.

    It is extremely well-researched and accurately footnoted, with sources ranging from Nazi records of that era, to subsequent war crimes trials, to survivor interviews. The author makes manifest attempts to remain objective, but occasionally lapses into normative assumptions or judgments which are perhaps outside of a historian's proper role. Additionally, I would have liked to see more detailed descriptions of the work the Jews did, so as to enhance my appreciation of their daily lives.

    Nevertheless, while most Holocaust literature examines concentration/extermination camps, this book is quite unique in that it explores life -- and the attempt to maintain life -- in a working (slave labor) environment subject to only intermittent harassment (depending on the Nazi camp direction).

    The ultimate (happy) irony is that, due to the inmates' pre-selection as healthy workers, when the work camps were liquidated and the inmates shipped off to Auschwitz/Birkenau they were exempted from inspection and "selection" on the Birkenau platform/ramp, thus sparing them at least temporarily from the ovens. As a result, an unusually large proportion of them, especially among the women, survived the War. One of these women was my mother.

    The book moves chronologically and consistently, and remembers to follow up on many "individual" stories, as it should... for this is after all the unique history of the survival of a group of individuals from family life through ghetto life through slave-labor camps and extermination camps and death marches. It is really quite good reading for historians, students of history, as well as those interested in the Holocaust experience.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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