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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.
List of Illustrations
Map - Occupied Poland, 1939-1944
Map - Wierzbnik-Starachowice: The Surrounding Region
Map - Wierzbnik-Starachowice: Ghetto, Factories, and Camps
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
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.
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