Remembering Survival: Inside A Nazi Slave-Labor Camp, by Christopher R. Browning

Blending the testimonies of 292 survivors of the Nazi slave labor camps located in the Polish towns of Starachowice and Wierzbnik during World War II, the author describes the experiences of Jewish prisoners, Nazi leaders, and the Polish population.

For the Jews, slave labor camps, brutal and deadly as conditions were, became their best chance of survival during the Holocaust. Their stories are about life and death in the slave labor camps from the perspective of survivors. They lived under brutal and corrupt camp regimes and were required to produce for the German war effort even as they sacrificed to protect children, spouses, parents, and friends or neighbors. The author’s narrative provides readers a balanced account of what actually happened in the slave labor camps: the everyday struggles and problems, the differences among the Jews, attempts to escape, passive resistance, and details on less known subjects; abortion, childbirth, bribery, and rape. When the Soviet Army was approaching, the camp workers were sent to Auschwitz. Because there was no selection for the gas chambers when they arrived, an unusual proportion of the workers survived.

For the Nazis, the slave labor camps were critical to the production of German munitions and armaments. Jewish workers were needed, regardless of the “killing camps” of Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, arbitrary killing was always a threat even under the most pragmatic camp commanders. Wartime economic exigencies could not be totally ignored. Heinrich Himler, Chief of the SS (Schutzstaffel) stipulated strict conditions for the employment of “work Jews” (Arbeitjuden). The Jews of the slave labor camps were the property of the SS, “rented to and exploited by factory owners,” who would pay the SS, not the Jewish workers, for labor performed. Himler was suspicious of claims that Jewish labor was indispensable and made it clear that all Jews “shall disappear some day in accordance with the wish of the Furher.”

Some of the Poles who worked in the same factories actively aided the Jews and others were strongly anti-Semitic. Tragically, many Polish Jews who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust against all odds were killed by Poles when they returned home after the war. An estimated 500-1,500 Jews were killed in Poland after the German army retreated from Poland. Unfortunately, the Jews became victims in a civil war between the Communists and Nationalist political groups vying for power after the German occupation ended.

Because very little has been published, or known, about the Nazi slave labor camps, the author’s excellent narrative of the survivors helps fill what has been a neglected part of World War II and the Holocaust.

(W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010; 375 pp., ; $27.95 — ISBN 940531853845)