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Holocaust and Genocide Studies 20.2 (2006) 311-314

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People in Auschwitz, Hermann Langbein, translated by Harry Zohn, foreword by Henry Friedlander (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2004), xvi + 568 pp., $39.95.
Born in Austria in 1912, Hermann Langbein was a veteran of the International Brigade that fought for the Spanish Republic. He was interned in France after the victory of Franco's Nationalists. The defeated French turned him over to the Nazis in 1940, who promptly sent him to Dachau as a political prisoner, on to Auschwitz in August 1942, and then to Neuengamme almost exactly two years later. Though his father was a Jew by Nazi definitions his captors never found this out, and he functioned during most of his incarceration as a clerk to SS medical doctors, in other words a "privileged" prisoner. In 1972 this book, a richly anecdotal analysis of inmate and guard behavior at Auschwitz, based partly on a report Langbein wrote in 1946 and 1947, partly on his later recollections, and partly on wide knowledge of other first-hand accounts [End Page 311] and trial records, appeared in German. It has had such a powerful influence on subsequent writing on Nazi concentration and death camps that people conversant with that literature today may not be aware of how original this book was when first published. Nonetheless, the text remains deeply discomfiting, which may be one reason for the long delay of a version in English. For Langbein's emphasis is on the "system" created at the camp and the degrading, amoral, self-preservationist, and occasionally generous adaptations it elicited from both prisoners and jailers. Good and evil are hardly absent from the work, but they do not emerge in black and white, on only one or the other side of the divide between captives and masters. He does not endorse the remark of another privileged prisoner that "in a KZ [concentration camp] no one has the right to observe otherwise valid moral rules" (p. 140), but he understands it—and wants his readers to do so too.

Notice the title, which is faithful to the original German one. Although Langbein seeks to show how Auschwitz functioned, he does so by mapping the behavior of the camp's inhabitants, and he makes a point of identifying as many of them as possible by name in order to underline their humanness and to preserve them from oblivion. The resulting work is like a painting by Hieronymus Bosch: a large, crazed canvas composed of countless contorted miniature portraits that compete for attention and defy easy summary. Among his characters are the inmates worn away to Muselmänner ("last-leggers"); the ones who scrambled and "organized" to avoid falling into that category; those who achieved VIP status in the "Canada" details (because of their members' "high" standard of living) or as capos and block seniors, and who "lived only in the present, without a past or a future, and had become nothing but products of the camp" (p. 176); the trusties like himself who could occasionally use their positions to benefit others; and the various categories of SS personnel who combined brutality with confounding fits of generosity, "hardness" with outbreaks of human weakness or sympathy.

Throughout, Langbein's determination to record inconsistency and incongruity creates a landscape, pace Bosch, of phantasmagorical horror. One can never think of Auschwitz quite the same way again after exposure to such bizarre scenes as the women prisoners of the Canada detail sunbathing outside their barracks (p. 140), or Commandant Höß's wife sending a pink baby jacket to an inmate who had just borne an almost certainly doomed child (p. 463). Not for nothing did a survivor call Auschwitz "a mixture of hell and insane asylum" (p. 477).

With regard to the camp's operations, Langbein is at his most unflinching when delineating the inmates' demoralization (in both senses of the word) that made coordinated resistance difficult. Nationality and language differences proved extremely hard to overcome; a widespread contempt for older prisoners on...


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