Bits and Pieces of a Life Cut Short

Götz Aly is one of the most enterprising of Holocaust historians, having produced one of the discipline's most important recent books, Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War and the Nazi Welfare State, which was published in the United States last year by Metropolitan Books. Aly's thesis is hinted at in the subtitle, but is far more wide-ranging than the phrase suggests. The author argues that the manner in which Hitler got ordinary Germans to follow him so unquestioningly was by stealing from the various peoples he conquered — the Jews especially — and parceling out the loot to those back home. These benefits could be actual merchandise — beds, dining-room sets, lamps and silverware — while the hard currency that was stolen was used to finance the welfare state Aly mentions, which was, for a time, the pride of the fascist regime.

The picture of life on the homefront that the book paints is highly persuasive, but the persuasiveness comes with a mounting sense of horror — at the depth and breadth of the Nazi plunder (in this sense, the work reminded me of Tom Bower's Nazi Gold), along with an understanding that ordinary people could revel in new furnishings for their homes without questioning that these pieces of wood and fabric once belonged to individuals murdered by their leaders and their intrepid military. How did people sleep at nights on such haunted bedding?

Aly himself notes that he could "no longer take pleasure in several pieces of beautiful antique furniture in my home. My wife and I had inherited them from my in-laws in Bremen, whose house had been bombed during the war. As I now know, Germans bombed out by Allied air raids on Bremen were resupplied with furniture taken from Dutch Jews who had been deported and murdered."

(Within these last paragraphs is a larger notion that no one has examined in enough depth: How were people able to absorb and adjust to the fact that a good number of their fellow citizens were no longer among them, that some had been dragged from their homes by the SS, and that all that was left of them was their belongings, which now had new owners? Did that fact not have a psychological effect upon them? Or were they simply able to ignore the truth behind their new horsehair sofa? In the dark night of the soul, were there ever any moments of real panic about their own mortality — or simple guilt over the "better life" they now had because their fellow citizens were no longer present? And years later, as they faced death, did they confess to priests or ministers or family members about their complicity? Perhaps such psychological states are too difficult to quantify and so most historians, who basically traffic in hard facts and data, steer clear of them. Aly, except for the above, very personal quote, has so far been content to hew closely to his devastatingly accurate sociological portrait of a murderous welfare state, which is nothing to sneeze at.)

Yet there were some critics who faulted him — while still admiring the boldness of his thesis and the amount of research he'd done.

Take Dagmar Herzog, who reviewed the book for The New York Times Book Review. The first problem, she argued, was one of interpretation.

"First, there is Aly's monochromatic notion of human nature — the assumption that Germans under Nazism were moved primarily by material self-interest (rather than, say, feeling thoroughly enthusiastic about Nazi militarism as long as it was successful, and unconcerned that Jews were demoted to second-class citizens — and then disappeared).

"The second difficulty has to do with assumptions about causation. It is Aly's great accomplishment to demonstrate that World War II could not have gone on as long as it did, nor the German populace kept content for as long as it was, without the expropriation of the property and monies of slaughtered Jews. But correlation is not causation, and illustrating connections does not prove motivation."

Again, matters such as why people in the past did what they did may be impossible to determine, especially when one is considering mass behaviors, but I don't think this criticism undermines the brilliance and deadly accuracy of the book's depiction of German society during the period. As Aly has written — and this is perhaps the overriding point — "the Holocaust will never properly be understood until it is seen as the most singlemindedly pursued campaign of murderous larceny in modern history."

It is clear now, with the publication of another of his books, that, as a historian, Aly is not willing to rely on conventional methodology and assumptions. Metropolitan Books has again been his American publisher, recently bringing out Into the Tunnel: The Brief Life of Marion Samuel, 1931-1943 (in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.)

In 2003, Aly was given the German Remembrance Foundation prize in recognition of his pioneering work. The award had been established to commemorate the Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust and was named after a victim about whom little was known: Marion Samuel was just 11 when she was sent to Auschwitz in 1943. Aly was so moved by the fact of her near anonymity that he decided to research her brief existence and see what he could find.

The resulting book is as much about methodology — the dogged, step-by-step process of tracking down documents and pictures and piecing together a life, no matter how truncated — as it is about the child herself. At the start, all Aly knew about her was where and when she was born — Arnswalde, 1931 — and that she was deported from Berlin to Auschwitz on March 3, 1943.

Oddly enough, when he received notice that he was being awarded the Samuel prize, her name rang a bell. "I thought, Who was this Marion Samuel? I had heard the name somewhere before, and at first I vaguely supposed she might have been some Jewish intellectual of great promise who was murdered while still young. Eventually, I found an article on the Internet that I myself — strange as it may sound — had written in 1999, when Raul Hilberg received the inaugural Marion Samuel Prize. In the article I speculated that, most probably, on account of her age Marion Samuel was 'poisoned with Zyklon B' in Auschwitz 'immediately after her arrival.' Furthermore, I said, it was likely that 'her father had performed forced labor in a Berlin factory as a so-called armaments Jew. These Jews were replaced by young Poles who were brought to Berlin.' As I know today, both of these speculations were correct."

Having run across his own article, he longed to find out more about the world this unfortunate child had inhabited. He'd been notified about his choice for the award in November 2002; the ceremony was set for May 2003. He resolved that his acceptance speech would be as complete a biographical sketch of Samuel's life as he could manage, given the circumstances.

But the obstacles were immediate, numerous and considerable, according to Aly. The Samuel family had all eventually been murdered in Auschwitz, and since they were ordinary, everyday people — in the author's estimation — they left few traces behind.

What is most compelling about the book is watching the historian struggle to unearth government documents and family and school photographs, which are reproduced throughout the 110 pages of the book. These provide us with a window into the backbreaking effort that goes into research. And then, with mere bits and pieces of data assembled, Aly does manage to paint a picture of the life of one small child crushed by a bloodthirsty and apparently insatiable political machine.

But because this is, at heart, a detective story of the most elemental kind, it would be heartless to reveal more about what Aly discovered. He is an intrepid, unconventional historian, who is not afraid to crawl into untouched spaces, even when it's the dark "tunnel" of a child's nearly overwhelming fear.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here