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Reviewed by:
  • A Small Town near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust by Mary Fulbrook
  • Avraham Barkai (bio)
Mary Fulbrook. A Small Town near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. 464pp. ISBN 978-0199603305, $34.95.

This excellently written book is a somewhat unusual combination of meticulously researched historical narrative and biographic mini-history. It tells the [End Page 414] story of the extinction of a middle sized Jewish community, intertwined with the biography of one of the perpetrators who was a close friend of the author’s family.

The small town near Auschwitz is Będzin, a town bordering on Upper Silesia in the southwest of Poland. When the war started in 1939 it was the home of about 24,500 Jews, almost half of its total population. It was conquered by the German army on the 4th of September 1939. During the first days of the occupation, a tumultuous hunt after Jews in the streets and the demolition of their homes reached its horrendous peak on 8 September: about 200 Jews were burnt in the synagogue or shot when they tried to escape the flames (49ff.).

Fulbrook’s description is based on eyewitness reports and memoirs, but she also interviewed Jewish and Polish survivors in Będzin, who still remembered their traumatic reaction as late as 2008/2009.

Irene Gdesz was at the time a girl of about 14, living just across the river from the synagogue. . . . [I]n the summer of 2008, she recalled with evidently continuing horror the sound of screaming and the sight of the synagogue and the houses in flames—as well as the sight of people jumping into the river, crying and screaming, and the sight of blood all around. As she put it: ‘there, in that river, they shot them . . . The river was filled with the corpses of human beings . . . It was a massacre, it was a massacre.’


Based on archival German documents, Fulbright concludes that “Direct orders had come from above to instigate acts of terror against the civilian Jewish population—in much the same way as took place following the invasion of the Soviet Union some two years later, although to date this has received less attention from historians” (53).1

The narration of the synagogue arson demonstrates the author’s meticulous research. Her description of the sufferings of Będzin’s Jewish inhabitants, their individual and organized struggle to live and survive, and their deportation to Auschwitz is a heartrending, sensitively humane account interspersed with lengthy eyewitness reports. Space constraints of this review and the character of this journal impede longer quotations of Fulbright’s factual story of the Holocaust in Będzin, so I will therefore turn to the second component of her book: the biography of Ude Klausa.

Biographies have at all times been an important part of historical writing, but their recent flood shows a remarkable change in subjects: in most of them common people take the place of the great public figures in the political, cultural, or military fields predominant in earlier works of the genre. After half a century of investigation and a myriad of publications, international [End Page 415] Holocaust research has reached a stage where the factual occurrences of the mass murder of around six million Jews, young and old, men and women, children and infants, have become “common knowledge” among most sincere historians. Still, the motives for the active participation of “ordinary Germans” or “ordinary soldiers” in these murderous actions continue to be a matter of interdisciplinary research and dispute. Biographical “mini-history” is a useful instrument for finding an answer to the disturbing question: how could many thousands of civilized Germans and other Europeans take an active part in the mass murder? Fulbrook attempts to add the category of “normal Nazis” (337ff.) to this list as “a contribution to understanding how the Holocaust was possible” (4). Her efforts to juxtapose Klausa’s postwar accounts, “both in his memoirs and in defence statements to legal investigations,” with “archival evidence and subjective testimonies” (3) are an important contribution to our understanding the role of the administrative facilitators of the Holocaust.

Udo Klausa was certainly not a “Great...