Langbein, Hermann. People In Auschwitz. Chapel Hill: The University of North
Carolina Press, 2004.
People In Auschwitz, written by Hermann Langbein is a memoir that provides an account of life as a prisoner in the Third Reich’s death camp of Auschwitz. The half Jewish Austrian Communist was arrested while fighting with the International Brigades for the Spanish Republicans who were fighting against Nationalists under Francisco Franco. Langbein first found himself interned in France but was moved in 1940 to a German concentration camp after the fall of France. Fortunately, he was able to convince the Germans that he was not Jewish and during his imprisonment at Dachau he got classified as a German before being transferred to Auschwitz. This elevated him to the higher Aryan status allowing him to work as a clerk for the head garrison physician. This is how Langbein was able to compile the enormous quantity of information and statistics. He became a leader of the International Resistance groups in the different camps.
Hermann Langbein, upon his release, became the General Secretary of the International Auschwitz Committee and later would hold the position of secretary in the Comite’ Internationale des Camps. He was also awarded the Righteous Among the Nations status by Yad Vashem and because of the vast knowledge compiled from his time as a prisoner he was able to write several books about his experiences. A few titles include The Auschwitz Trial in Frankfurt, Not Like Sheep to Slaughter, and Against All Hope: Resistance in the Nazi Concentration Camps, 1938-1945. Readers may not know that the author was a native of Vienna with his first career as an actor before he joined political endeavors to try and halt the spread of Austrian fascism. He lived to be 83 and died in his home of Vienna.
Hermann Langbein does not try to answer the question of why such cruelty exists in the world, or why the people of Auschwitz were chosen to be treated that way. Langbein instead, focuses his attention on the people. He writes of everyday life in the camps of Auschwitz. He was in a position to gather information on the inner workings and uses testimonies of other prisoners to tell a most accurate interpretation. Langbein divides his book into two parts, The Prisoners, and The Jailers. He feels the importance here is that both groups were forced into extreme conditions and his study concerns how “…both the prisoners and the guards reacted to them, for the people who lived in Auschwitz on the other side of the barbed wire had also been placed in an extreme situation…” (p. 3) Most survivors of Auschwitz who write of their experiences have a common intended goal running through their words. They want to make sure others fully understand the barbarity that resides in some humans, and in extreme conditions, how power can be warped to an unrecognizable degree.
Having been mistakenly identified as a German prisoner, and then later as the clerk of an ss physician, Langbein writes that he did not have to deal with the day-to-day struggle that most prisoners were forced to. He writes that he had a roof over his head, never went hungry, and was even able to wash and have clean clothes. (p. 4) His job, as previously mentioned, gave him a rare look at the framework and administrative issues of the camp. Though he had this knowledge inside him after the liberation, he did not choose to write this particular book until he observed the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt. An ss medic, Josef Klehr, whom Langbein remembered as an “omnipotent terror of the prison infirmary” was now just “an aged, extremely crude criminal who defended himself ineptly.” (p. 5-6) After witnessing Klehr’s transformation, Langbein decided to do a study focusing on people.
The validity of Langbein’s method of research is without fault. He explains that each survivor that wrote about their experiences is personally biased. For example, a person’s memoir who was continuously hungry differs drastically from the memories of someone who had a job, even when they are describing the same person or event. Each memoir the author studied was written subjectively, but Langbein writes that this was exactly the reason they are so important. The prisoners all lived lives outside of Auschwitz before being transported. They had life experiences that colored how they viewed events in their camps and of course, each had many and varied incidents once inside the barbed wire. As an example of such “memory shifts” or “memory transfers,” Langbein offers various ways in which the camp physician Josef Mengele was described. He was styled as handsome with a “belted uniform, tall, with shiny black boots that bespeak cleanliness, prosperity, and human dignity” and also as wearing “white gloves, a monocle, and the rest.” (p. 295-296) Langbein writes that he saw Mengele almost every day in the physician’s office in the ss infirmary and says that “he struck me as neither particularly attractive nor elegant,” and he never saw him wear a monocle. (p. 296) Such memory displacements, Langbein explains, are affected by numerous factors including the circumstance that there was a “glaring contrast between the filthy prisoners in their patched garb and the neat ss uniforms,” as well as how the ss carried themselves. (p. 295)
The author further divides the two-part book into interesting chapters. Some of the chapter names for the Prisoners section are “Music and Games,” “The Sonderkommando,” “Those Born in Auschwitz,” and of course “Resistance,” but the Jailers had equal time and coverage here. Chapters for them included “The Guards,” “SS Leaders,” “Physicians in the SS,” and “People, Not Devils,” which in this particular chapter Langbein delves further into what he briefly mentions in his introduction. He quotes Martin Walser who wrote about the Auschwitz trial that “Because we cannot empathize with the situation of the prisoners, because the suffering exceeded any previous measure and we, therefore, cannot form a human impression of the immediate perpetrators, we call Auschwitz a hell and the evildoers devils.” (p. 3)
What is splendid about People In Auschwitz is how the author delivers on the “People.” This book is about all the humanity of the camp. A particularly moving chapter proves that everything at Auschwitz was not black or white. Dr. Wirths would surely fall somewhere in the shadows of grey. Langbein had known the doctor from Dachau prior to his transfer and became his clerk once the physician was stationed at Auschwitz.
The author realized from the first day that this ss doctor was not like the others. Wirths made daily patient rounds and even spoke to some. He did not tolerate well, men who did not follow the instructions he left each day. Langbein worked diligently to form a relationship with Wirths that would enable him to have some positive influence. Langbein writes that the doctor’s attitude toward the crimes committed in the concentration camps did not sit well with him. In an effort to paint a clearer picture, Langbein includes several passages from Rudolf Höß in his book Kommandant in Auschwitz: Autobiographische Aufzeichnungen. Höß writes that “Wirths was a capable physician with a pronounced sense of duty, extremely conscientious and cautious.” (p. 367) It is not startling that Langbein considered Wirths “…the most interesting personality in the ranks of the Auschwitz ss…” (p. 370) Inmate Wladyslaw Fejkiel spoke of the doctor in his memoirs. During Fejkiel’s testimony at Frankfurt, he described Wirths as “an intelligent physician and not a bad person.” (p. 371) Langbein studied both published and unpublished papers, books, and letters to make sure his readers were given a well-rounded depiction of events and people. He uses Wirth’s unpublished words here to great advantage. The most telling of these documents as to Wirths’ frame of mind is found in his apologia, written after the war. He described that he applied in October 1934 for admission to an ss medical unit. He served in this unit until he took leave to further his education to prepare for the Staatsexamen. “As a consequence, I always remained a candidate for the ss.” (p. 376)
Upon the Russian approach, Wirths is documented as having prevented the guards from carrying out orders to kill all the sick inmates who couldn’t march. Eventually, Wirths was arrested by the British. Colonel Draper, who interrogated Wirths, described the initial meeting to Langbein years later. Draper asked Wirths to reflect that night on how he feels about being responsible for the deaths of four million human beings. Irrespective of Wirths’ overall character as a decent man, he was, in fact, the physician in charge during the most brutal killing years at Auschwitz. That night, Wirths hanged himself. Twenty years after his death, Langbein spoke with Wirths’ widow who said that it was probably best her husband had taken his own life. Langbein, regardless of the firsthand knowledge of the doctor’s character, agreed. (p. 385)
The author admits to remaining a partisan in this study and yet he hopes the reader will not overlook his attempts at objectivity. (p. 518) If his goal was to enlighten all areas of humanity that populated Auschwitz, then he achieved that. The reader will come away with a clarity of the black, white, grey, the ugly and the hope, and of course, the devils. Langbein ends this powerful memorial by asking himself if he believes that mankind was able to draw lessons from what he and so many others have given voice to. “Will it learn these lessons?” (p. 522)
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