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I Am Alive :The horrifying eye witness account of Auschwitz & Birkenau

jan peczkis|Sunday, August 28, 2011

An Eyewitness Auschwitz Account by a Jewish Survivor; Enjoyment and Gallows Humor in the Face of the Horrors, June 22, 2011 This review is from: I Am Alive :The horrifying eye witness account of Auschwitz & Birkenau (Hardcover) My review is based on the original (1961) edition. Kitty Hart was a Polish Jew who had lived in Bielsko (Bielitz) in then SW Poland. During the 1939 German-Soviet conquest of Poland, she observed German fifth column activity. Germans shot at Poles from rooftops, rioted in the streets, etc. (p. 14). In common with countless eyewitnesses, Hart reported Luftwaffe planes strafing columns of defenseless refugees. (p. 15).

      At one time, she, as a Jew, fled from the Nazis into a local forest and successfully hid in the straw of the loft of a forester's cottage (with his permission). Unlike Jan T. Gross and his fans, Hart, who actually went through the Holocaust, appreciated the chilling effects of the German-imposed death penalty for the slightest aid to Jews: "Apparently the Germans had been, and the forester was told that the dogs had followed tracks of several people to the house. They made a search and finally departed unconvinced. They warned the forester that if any Jews were found hiding he would receive the first bullet." (pp. 26-27).

In time, Hart felt safer to be deported to Germany as a Polish forced laborer. She noted how the Poles were forced to wear the "P", and were forbidden to have any casual interactions with Germans. (p. 33).

She feared that her Jewishness would be discovered, and that is what happened. The German authorities took her to Gestapo headquarters, and then got her to admit that she was using a false name by tricking her into believing that her mother had already confessed to them using a false name. She was sent to Auschwitz but, instead of being dispatched to the gas chambers, was admitted as an inmate.

Hart gives gruesome details about the arrivals, the selections, the mass gassings, the infants thrown by the Germans directly into the fire, the clouds of black smoke from the crematory ovens and the overflow open-air pyres, and the stench of burning flesh, etc. She also notes how the Germans periodically sent inmates, of all nationalities, who were too sick to work, to the gas chambers. (pp. 70-71; 110-111).

The economic benefits of the Holocaust to the Germans have often been overlooked. For a certain stretch of time at Auschwitz alone, the haul was staggering. Hart comments: "At the bottom, on the left-hand side, by the last huts, was a huge heap--it really looked like a mountain--as high at least as a three-story building. Piled on the heap were goods of every description all jumbled up, suitcases, loose bundles of clothing, shoes, prams, food and even toys. These were the belongings of those already dead." (p. 85). When the stepped-up gassings and cremations of Hungarian Jews began, Hart suggested that: "Once again wealth will flow to the now ruined `Fatherland'". (p. 102).

Holocaust materials often mention Poles enjoying themselves on a carousel within sight of the burning Warsaw Ghetto. This is taken out of wartime context, and the reader is led to believe that this implied Polish hostility, or at least callousness, to the Jews and their suffering. In actuality, it was an attempt at normalcy in the face of the unending tragedies. In fact, the inmates of Auschwitz also tried to escape the horrors by enjoying themselves, as Hart relates: "We would dance and sing and even formed a little band. We began to laugh and joke again...This was surely the craziest set-up in the whole world. All around us were screams, death, smoking chimneys making the air black and heavy with soot and the smell of burning bodies. I think our main fight was for sanity so we laughed and sang with the burning hell all around us. It was incredible, we lay sunbathing and not two yards away, divided only by a thin fence, columns of people of all nationalities were passing by on their way to the sauna and to the gas chambers." (p. 92). Certainly, Hart, who was Jewish herself, was not disrespecting the dying Jews by her conduct.

The "Jews are getting burned like bugs" remarks by some Poles during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, rather than a mockery of the Jews and their plight, may actually have been a form of nihilistic gallows humor in the face of the overwhelming, monstrous events. Hart, for example, observed such gallows humor in reaction to the horrors of Auschwitz: "Someone inside our block made up a dance and named it `UNDER THE SMOKING CHIMNEYS'." (P. 104). Obviously, no one was making fun of those who had been murdered and were now being cremated.

The Germans transferred some Auschwitz inmates to Gross Rosen. Hart was among them. With the camp evacuated, in early 1945, ahead of the advancing Red Army, Hart observed columns of Silesian Germans fleeing westward (p. 130, 133). In time, the American Army liberated her.
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