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BOOK REVIEW : Village Life in a Shadow of the Holocaust : IN THE SHADOW OF DEATH Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen by Gordon J. Horwitz ; The Free Press/Macmillan, $22.95, 236 pages

December 05, 1990|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Eleanore Gusenbauer was a farmer whose fields overlooked the notorious concentration camp at Mauthausen. She long endured the sight of beatings and shootings in the rock quarry where inmates were literally worked to death, and she finally did something about it. Frau Gusenbauer filed a complaint with the authorities:

"I am sickly and such a sight makes such a demand on my nerves that in the long run I cannot bear this," she wrote in 1941. "I request that it be arranged that such inhuman deeds be discontinued, or else be done where one does not see it."

Farmer Gusenbauer's plaint is recounted by Gordon J. Horwitz in "In the Shadow of Death" as an example of the intimate and morally ambiguous links between the machinery of the Holocaust and the common folk who lived and worked in its bowels.

Horwitz, a historian at Illinois Wesleyan University, has added something important and distinctive to the literature of the Holocaust: How, he asks, did these ordinary men and women cope with the inescapable reality of torture and murder in their own back yards?

"The enormity and horror of the concentration camp led us to conceive of it as a separate universe," Horwitz writes. "Yet this universe of torment and killing was never completely sealed from the ordinary world beyond its perimeter. . . . Citizens living in the vicinity were daily witness to mounting atrocities, and . . . confronted with terrible choices."

The town of Mauthausen in Upper Austria was chosen by the German government as the site for a concentration camp because of its stone quarries, which offered the SS both an instrument of torture and a source of profit.

Here were the notorious "186 steps" leading out of quarry, where inmates were forced to carry heavy loads of rock at a killing pace. The SS guards delighted in simply shoving the exhausted inmates over the 300-foot verge of the quarry: "Attention! Parachutists," the jolly torturers would call out as their victims fell to their deaths.

His study focuses narrowly on one of the smaller concentration camps in the Holocaust--only 119,000 people died at Mauthausen complex, one-third of them Jews--but the real context of his book is literally the human soul. Horwitz reminds us again and again that the common folk of town and country lived with guilty knowledge of crimes against humanity, and even helped to commit those crimes by their work as nurses, secretaries, bookkeepers, plumbers and truck drivers.

The author is not without compassion for the fearful souls who lacked the courage to fight back or even to speak out. Indeed, he allows us to see heroism in the act of dropping a scrap of bread on a path where an inmate might later find it.

But the townsfolk of Mauthausen hardly come off as heroes. We are shown exactly how they profited from the business of death by burning bodies, for instance, or making use of slave labor, or trafficking in dental gold yanked from the mouths of inmates.

Horwitz is a gifted writer, and he displays a genius for the matter-of-fact observation that resonates with deeper meanings. Horwitz describes, for example, how the residents of outlying districts were forced to cross the concentration camp on their way to town; the passage becomes a metaphor for the behavior of a passive people under a brutal government:

"A person who made the journey learned a valuable lesson in how to behave in the vicinity of the camp," Horwitz writes. "He learned to control his movements, to stop and start on command, to keep his neck stiff, to fix his gaze straight ahead, and pass to the opposite side as quickly as possible. Above all, the resident learned to be thankful he was only momentarily in transit, and not a permanent inhabitant of the camp."

No matter how much I read about the Holocaust, I am always shocked to learn about some new horror that sprang from the boundless imagination of the Nazi mind. "In the Shadow of Death" is full of such gruesome revelations.

But the book also offers a glimpse of moral courage, however faint, and we should cherish these sparks of nobility in the black landscape of the Holocaust.

I shall never forget one small observation that Horwitz makes almost in passing in describing how ashes and bone fragments were trucked from the gas chamber and crematorium near Mauthausen to be dumped in the Danube.

"When such pieces of unground bone fell from trucks," he writes, "residents are said to have collected these remains and built 'little piles' of them along the roadside to signal to the murderers their awareness of the crime."

Next: Richard Eder reviews "The Vision of Elena Silves" by Nicholas Shakespeare (Alfred A. Knopf).

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