Matthaus, Jurgen, Ed. Approaching an Auschwitz Survivor: Holocaust Testimony and Its Transformations

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Matthaus, Jurgen, ed. Approaching an Auschwitz Survivor: Holocaust Testimony and Its Transformations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 211 pages. Cloth, $74.00.

Given that Holocaust survivors' stories have been commemorated in novels, plays, and motion pictures, the title of this book may seem, at face value, very familiar. But Approaching an Auschwitz Survivor adopts a distinctive tone and approach in providing narratives about the journey to concentration camps, unbearable camp lives, and death marches. The editor, Jurgen Matthaus, together with four other Holocaust scholars-Konrad Kwiet, Nechama Tec, Atina Grossman, and Wendy Lower--devote their analyses to the testimony of one Holocaust survivor, Helen "Zippi' Tichauer (nee Spitzer). Zippi, as she preferred to be called, was born 1918 in Bratislava and was one of the first 2,000 young, unmarried Jewish women transported to Auschwitz in March 1942 from Slovakia. Spending two and a half years in the camp, she was not only one of the few early arrivals to survive the camp and the death marches, but also still able, through her testimony, to remember crucial aspects of daily camp life. Based on her experience, she is uniquely qualified, even obligated, to bear witness to the horrors of Auschwitz.

The book comprises five chapters, each written by one of the five contributing historians, and a conclusion. In the first chapter, "Designing Survival: A Graphic Artist in Birknau," Kwiet examines perhaps the most important aspect of Zippi's testimony. With her proficiency in German and educational training in graphic design, she was entrusted with the registration of new arrivals and the labeling of uniforms of inmates. Nazi officials used the colored triangle (Winkel) on the uniforms of new arrivals as an effective device in all concentration camps to monitor and control the prisoners by creating a hierarchy and divisions among the inmates. Nazi designated color-coding indicates "red for political prisoners, green for 'criminals,' purple for Jehovah's Witnesses, black for prostitutes and other social outcasts, black or brown for Sinti and Roma, blue for 'emigrants'" (p. 17). Although camp life for the rank and file was humiliating, dehumanizing, and even deadly, Zippi was lucky to belong to the camp elite; she never wore an armband and was privileged to receive preferential treatment in terms of better dress, food, and housing.

In "Recapturing the Past: Individuality and Cooperation in Auschwitz" (Chapter 2), Tec explores the wartime history of Zippi, highlighting her childhood, life for Jews in German-occupied Slovakia, and her ability to navigate a delicate balance in Auschwitz-Birknau between submission to SS orders and her offers to help various resistance groups and/or individuals. Although Zippi denies being a resister, her history and testimony indicates a close connection to individuals who belonged to resistance groups.

In "Displacing Memory" (Chapter 3), Matthaus analyzes Zippi's first documented account of her wartime life story, based on a 1946 interview in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Feldafing, Germany, she granted David Boder, a psychology professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Boder's interview was part of a project designed to record the wartime memories of DPs. …