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A Review of Filip Mueller's "Eyewitness Auschwitz"
Between the years of 1941 and 1943, approximately seven million people lost their lives within the confines of the Auschwitz extermination camp. Located in occupied Poland, Auschwitz rapidly became a highly industrialized killing apparatus whose efficiency still inspires shock and awe in more modern times. The camp itself, under the control of the Nazis, was responsible for some of the most sophisticated mass killings in the entire history of genocide and was capable of murdering 8,000 to 10,000 people in the course of one day.
Auschwitz was not just an extermination camp, however. It also served as a stage for displays of incredible human drama and stories of desperate survival. These can be observed in the written testimony of Filip Mueller, a 20-year old Slovakian Jew who was deported to the camp in 1942. In his account,Eyewitness Auschwitz, Mueller details his personal observations of the camp itself and its highly efficient methods of extermination. At one point, Mueller was responsible for assisting with several steps of the killing process, including the mass cremating of the gas chambers’ victims. His story has enabled human civilization as a whole a glimpse into the inner workings of a system whose sole purpose was absolute genocide.
Mueller’s account of his three years in the gas chambers does more than provide an intimate perspective into the mechanisms of Auschwitz. His story details the resilience of the human spirit, the choices individuals were presented with while imprisoned, and ultimately the treatment of those who had succumbed. Despite the conditions within the camp, the prisoners attempted to survive and eventually came to rely on a certain degree of societal normalcy for inspiration. Human society persevered even while under direct persecution. In most situations, prisoners came together over their common plight. People shared information with one another as well as contraband goods that had been repossessed from the gas chambers’ many victims. There are certain incidences within Mueller’s testimony that illustrate the prisoners’ desire to aid their fellow inmates. One such situation involves Mueller himself, when he discovers the fates of those individuals from the Family Camp; he decides how to best inform its members of their impending doom. Mueller states, “…having read with my own eyes what was to happen to the inmates of the Family Camp, every minute seemed like an eternity to me. I was keenly aware that something must be done to save these people.”
Much like a functioning society outside of the camp, more advantaged members often felt responsible for the care and treatment of those less fortunate. In addition to this, there was structure within the prisoner populations that could be likened to that of a workplace; supervisors and more specialized individuals such as doctors were present. In some cases, this structure provided the prisoners with a sense of responsibility, and in a sense this responsibility in turn provided the prisoners with feelings of hope and purpose. It appears that this example of society within Auschwitz played an integral role in its overall existence. Every prisoner who was not almost immediately put to death upon arrival had responsibilities; this can be observed in the working teams that were accountable for the building of certain camp elements and the maintaining of the gas chambers. Despite the obvious negative affiliation with these obligations, their necessity provided the camp’s prisoners with a sense of duty and personal contribution to Auschwitz’s inmate society.
On Personal Choices
Mueller’s graphic testimony also presents another theme: the existence of personal choices, and the failure of those who were provided with them to make them morally. Despite popular belief, it is clear that every individual in an advantageous position with the camp had a choice to make. An example of this can be observed in the case of the Kapo Mietek, a prisoner entrusted with the care and discipline of a working party. Mueller reports that Mietek voluntarily behaved sadistically towards his Jewish "underlings," oftentimes beating them mercilessly without reason other than to seek revenge for his own personal hatreds. Such behavior would have earned him favor amongst the Nazi guards and officials, however it did not appear to be mandatory for Mietek to abuse and mistreat his inferiors. Mueller states that “…[Mietek’s] exaggerated nationalism and his hatred of the Jews had turned this crematorium Kapo into a murderer much feared by his fellow prisoners.” To counterbalance this man’s ruthlessness was another Kapo named Fischl, also partially in charge of Mueller’s personal working team. Mueller reports that Fischl “…never once jeopardized our health or well-being, let alone our lives.” It is obvious that these two individuals were presented with a moral decision to make, and only Fischl chose to take the proper route. This dynamic can also be viewed in the Nazi guard population as well. It is now known that for those guards employed within any step within the extermination process, there was a choice.
Those individuals who experienced difficulty with their tasks at hand were more than capable of requesting a transfer to another part of the camp. Auschwitz required numerous guards to maintain its efficiency, and certain positions existed outside of the extermination process that needed to be maintained. Despite this option, never once does Mueller report that a Nazi guard- even one who may not have desired a role in the camp’s mass killings- requesting a different area of employment. One does not know why this occurred, whether it be for self-preservation or for any other reason. However, this example serves to illustrate the concept of choices within the camp, and the personal internal conflicts that prevented people from choosing to take the moral high ground.
Location of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp
The largest death camp of the Holocaust, serving as the final destination for 1,100,000 people. A total of 1,300,00 people were sent there.
Yet another theme that is consistently present within Mueller’s testimony is the dehumanization of the camp’s victims. Despite the drastic measures that the inmates often took to survive, death was imminent for most: approximately seventy-percent of the arrivals at Auschwitz were immediately gassed. The treatment of these victims after their being exterminated was appalling. The hair of the female deceased was shorn off, and gold teeth were wrenched out of the victims’ mouths for the sole purpose of economic gain . Corpses were wedged into the ovens according to certain plans designed to expedite the cremation process. Mueller details one account of which a Nazi officer explains how the victims should be cremated to ensure a faster burning rate: “…all you have to do is see that every other load consist of one man and one woman from the transport, together with an [severely emaciated prisoner] and a child. For every other load use only good material from the transport, two men, one woman and a child." It is obvious that at this stage- and perhaps even beforehand- the victims were not viewed as being human. Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, was quoted to have said that children were immediately gassed because they could not be expected to labor due to their young years.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the prisoner population received similar treatment simply because they served no purpose in the eyes of their Nazi overlords. The dehumanizing of Auschwitz’s victims played an integral role in its overall efficiency. Removing an individual’s human identity lessens the moral and psychological strain of their extermination, which is quite possibly the reason as to why the individuals responsible for these deeds were capable of committing them in the first place. Carl Schmitt, a political theorist, efficiently paraphrases this thought: “…not every being with a human face is human.”
Filip Mueller’s personal testimony lends insight into the harsh realities of what was once Auschwitz. It was an extermination camp, as well as the background of forthright human drama and suffering. Auschwitz itself illustrates the themes of the resilience of human society and moral decision-making, as well as the voluntary dehumanization of its victims. The existence of each one of these concepts, as well as many others, fulfilled an integral role in the functioning of the camp and in the occurrence of the Holocaust. One can only hope that the studying and understanding of such events in the course of human history will prevent its like from ever occurring again.
“Take the most advanced nation in the world at the time and turn all of its people into murderers. That was the Holocaust.” - Charles Stein, Holocaust survivor