These two books were recommended by our driver and tour guide when visiting Auschwitz last month. They are both very difficult to get through, particularly Dr. Mengele’s Assistant by Miklos Nyiszli. Both authors were Jewish prisoners who were part of the Sonderkommando, those prisoners who carried out excruciatingly horrendous acts as commanded by the SS guards and/or the SS head physician. Such prisoners were deemed more necessary to run the camp(s), and they either did what they were told or they were shot. And in both cases, there were times when each of them could help another prisoner in some small way. Mandelbaum worked in the crematorium, either pulling dead bodies out of gas chambers and burning them in furnaces or cleaning furnaces. Nyiszli had to perform autopsies and/or experiments on prisoners—sometimes these were one in the same, such as authorizing twins to be killed and then performing autopsies to see what differences there were—all for the purpose of refining a superior race/ethnicity. Mandelbaum’s book is written as a conversation, Q and A sessions that took place over many years right until his death. Nyiszli’s book is written as a first person narrative.
I had to take many reading breaks from these, though at the same time, I was glued to their story. Between touring Auschwitz, reading these powerful and chilling books, and thinking about our current political climate, it was stomach-churning. As they said on the tour, it all started with talk about one group of people being better than others. Several years later, millions were dead. How easily thought can turn to talk and then to action. Everyone should be required to read Holocaust books and/or visit the sites. Maybe then, they’d see that we’re all part of one world and that no one is superior.