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A Season in Hell
on 5 December 2012
This is an account of his time in Auschwitz by a man who in his former life had been a GP and also a specialist in forensic pathology. However, because of this expertise, Miklos Nyiszli, upon arrival at the death camp was chosen to help the infamous Dr Josef Mengele in his misbegotten biological `research'.
Nyiszli's medical background no doubt explains the concise and exact account of his time in the death camp, and his measured and controlled description of extermination. As he says in his opening declaration, "when I lived through these horrors...I was not a writer but a doctor. Today, in telling about them, I write not as a reporter but as doctor." From the selection process, where Mengele indicated whether those arriving at the camp were to be killed immediately or were to be used as slave labour for a few miserable months first, to the dispersal of the ashes, Nyiszli records every stage of the process meticulously and precisely. The book is all the more powerful for this approach, its careful enumeration of horror using the Nazis own predilection for methodical and systematic organisation to reflect their loathsome ideology unmercifully back on to them.
Only on rare occasions is there a breach in this neutral tone, where Nyiszli's contempt and loathing and repugnance are revealed, and the only words he can find are ones like 'evil' and 'diabolic' to describe human monsters like Molle, Mussfeld and most of all Mengele. Mengele he characterises as the `devil doctor' whose barbarity is best illustrated by Nyiszli disdainfully recording the fact that "the one place, the one environment my soft-brained superior really felt at home [was] the blazing glow of the pyres and the spiralling smoke of the crematorium stacks; the air heavy with the odor of burning bodies; the walls resounding with the screams of the damned and the metallic rattle of machine guns fired pointblank; it was to this that the demented doctor came for rest and relaxation after each selection, after each display of `fireworks'. This was where he spent all his free time; here in this man-made hell."
This edition also includes the Foreword by Bruno Bettelheim which accompanied the earlier publication of the book in 1960. This has now been relegated to an Afterword and a newer introduction is provided by historian Richard J Evans. As Evans explains, the original Foreword is now of historical interest in its own right, reflecting as it does Bettelheim's now discredited views, namely that only an inherent racial death wish could account for the compliance by European Jewry in its own destruction and his condemnation of the supposedly indefensible actions of the Sonderkommando, the Jewish prisoners who in exchange for being allowed to live a few months longer, in Bettelheim's view aided and abetted their own murderers. Bettelheim goes on to accuse Nyiszli of being "a participant, an accessory to the crimes of the SS" because he "worked as the assistant of a vicious criminal." Evans calmly rebuts this (wilfully?) bizarre misreading and misrepresentation of the circumstances.
Like John Hersey's Hiroshima, an equally slim volume that also says what it needs to say and no more, and which again contains enough horror to fill a library, Auschwitz; A Doctor's Eyewitness Account is an essential book.