A Forgotten Voice Speaks of the Horrors of Auschwitz

Holocaust denial is gaining traction among young Americans. 

A December 2023 poll by Economist/YouGov found 20% of respondents aged 18-29 years believing that the Nazi massacre of six million Jews is a myth. 

The antidote could be reading Jozsef Debreczeni’s Cold Crematorium.  This haunting memoir of a year as an Auschwitz inmate, first published in Hungarian in 1950, was only last year translated to English and 12 other languages, thus reaching the wider world.

Like Primo Levi, a more famous Auschwitz memoirist, Debreczeni was captured in 1944, as the Nazis, in retreat, inched toward defeat.  Otherwise, he may not have survived.  As with Levi, Debreczeni’s training – Levi was a chemist, Debreczeni a reporter, editor, and poet – enabled him to write with detachment about the Nazi atrocities, the horrific conditions in the camps, his suffering and that of others, and the dehumanization of guards and inmates alike. 

Thus, the dark ironies stand out starker.  A kapo, chosen from the prisoners and accorded privileges in exchange for disciplining and brutalizing the rest, is shocked to realize he has been denounced to the commandant by other kapos.  He is calling out in a booming voice the ID numbers of prisoners selected to stand separately.  Everyone is afraid, not knowing their fate.  The hapless fellow comes upon his own number, but must continue reading the list to the end.

The book’s title is the nickname prisoners gave to Dornhau, a camp hospital in the Auschwitz complex.  The Nazis, fleeing after destroying as much evidence of the gas chambers and incinerators as they could, left sick prisoners to die there.  No gas, no burning, but certain death – hence “cold crematorium.”

Earlier, as Europe fell to the Nazis, antisemitic decrees robbed Jews of their jobs, trades, businesses, and property.  They were sent into ghettos or transported to labor and death in the concentration camps. 

The author, editor of Yugoslavia’s leading Hungarian newspaper, was fired.  People like him, who grew up “in the well-made bed of bourgeoise lifestyle,” had only vaguely heard of the camps and never expected to be hauled away to experience unimaginable horrors.

But one day, he finds himself in Topola, a camp for Jews in Hungary. He is then packed into a boxcar with many others for a two-and-a-half-day train journey to Auschwitz and its subcamps, to slave in conditions of abject depravity, filth, deprivation, and brutality.  First, he is taken to Mulhausen, a subcamp near Gross-Rosen. 

Eight in his group kill themselves before the journey begins.  The rest, starving, thirsty, dirty, make the journey in “primal terror.”  Four die, their bodies piled in a corner.  Two go mad.  A boy in another boxcar dies trying to escape by jumping through a pried-open grate.  The kapo in charge of that boxcar is beaten senseless and dumped into the author’s wagon.      

The train halts by “an embankment awash with flowers,” and the guards tell the prisoners they can come out to relieve themselves but will be shot upon any suspicious movement.  None of the prisoners, man or woman, young or old – all well-bred city folks – has done it in the open before.  But they run out and squat.  “Not a line stirs on the faces of these guards.  They aren’t human.  Nor, any longer, are those who are squatting…. At that moment they put us on all four legs for the first time.”

Such dehumanization, conveyed in spare language with precise details, brings power to this work.  The harsh routines of the camp – roll calls with numbered cards around the neck, stripping naked, rough shaving, punishments – all designed to dehumanize, are carried out with military efficiency, often in the freezing cold.  Debreczeni presents them with chilling matter-of-factness. Sometimes, guards have cruel fun.  Prisoners are whipped to death while an officer plays a violin.  All this within smelling distance of Birkenau, where night and day the chimneys spew the smoke of burning humans.

Another thing that stands out is how the Nazis implement the philosophy that “the best slave-driver is a slave accorded a privileged position.”  With minimal staff, they dominated the prisoners through a hierarchy of Funktionshaftlinge (prisoner functionaries), who would be punished if they weren’t up to mark in maintaining discipline, extracting work, or meting out brutality.  Kapos could be chosen randomly; but often, they came from the dregs of society – murderers, gangsters, criminals, ne'er-do-wells for whom power is intoxicating and the fear of being punished engenders pronounced cruelty.  The kapo who ended up calling out his own number was a former Parisian brothel owner.

During transports, Wagenalteste (wagon elders) would be appointed under threat of being shot if anyone escaped.   In the camps, kapos would do guard duty and join civilian foremen and an SS guard in supervising work details.  Stubenalteste (room elders) would oversee rooms, Blockalteste (block elders) would oversee barracks and report to the Lageralteste (camp elder), and Lagerschreiber (camp clerks) would handle administration. 

They all received privileges – separate quarters, extra rations, and so on.  Since they distributed rations, they could pilfer from allocations.  One kapo is described having cartons of cheese in his room.  In any case, prisoners were meant to be kept on a 600-calorie diet that would maintain life, not prolong it – weak soup, margarine, bread, the rare thin slice of horse salami.  No matter the backbreaking work required of them.

Debreczeni is assigned to a team building train tracks.  The luckiest, he says, are kitchen workers, who could eat well.  Doctors and healthcare workers, too, enjoy privileges, but always in fear of the Nazis’ whims.

What comes across most powerfully, though, is the squalor and filth and how it changes prisoners’ outlook: the human body becomes repulsive, and death, as a prisoner imagines, “a sumptuous, refreshing steam bath.”  In Mulhausen, there are 30 persons to a room, two to a bed with wood-chip mattresses.  As the camp grows to 3,000 inmates, rations are decreased.  Their feet are bare, their rags infested with lice, their sleep interrupted by bouts of scratching.  Many have diarrhea, sometimes 20 times per day.  Prisoners die daily and are tossed into open pits after gold is extracted from their teeth.

The worst is at Dorhnau.  Debreczeni arrives there after two more transports.  First, a barefoot march to Furstenstein, where his fellow prisoners – 40-50 in a space meant for 24 – are convicted burglars and murderers.  Dysentery and hunger edema are rampant, the prisoners’ bodies are bloated, and death rates skyrocket.  Corpses lie around for days.  He is then brought to Dornhau, though he thought he was being brought to Birkenau to be gassed and burned.

Here, the sick inmates are shrieking and raving, soiling the beds and the floors, unable to get up to relieve themselves.  Clothes are taken away: “the bedridden don’t need any clothing; every last garment is needed by those able to walk.” Everything is permeated with lice and the stench of excrement, the blankets swarming with “silvery-glistening colonies of larvae.”  When someone dies, others prop him up in bed, hoping to get his rations.    

As the Soviets near the camp, the typhus-stricken author is moved to a quarantine block.  Like many others, he thinks he is going to die, the thought of imminent death becoming “outright desirable.”  But one day, cannons and grenades are heard going off nearby, the Nazis and kapos flee, and freedom arrives with the Soviet soldiers.  Berlin has fallen, Hitler has committed suicide.  Some prisoners, free at last, get drunk on Nazi liquor.  The author is moved to the Eden of a clean bed, pajamas, medicine, edible food, and books and newspapers.

The Holocaust, Booker prize winner Howard Jacobson wrote in his introduction to Levi’s If This is a Man, “has become subject to sneering skepticism – now outright denial, now the slower drip of devaluation and diminishment.”  Debreczeni’s exhumed masterpiece will counter that – with the unforgettability of nightmares.

Image: Pixabay / Pixabay License

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