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The best books on Concentration Camps

recommended by Andrea Pitzer

One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps by Andrea Pitzer

One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps
by Andrea Pitzer


Most of us associate concentration camps with Nazi Germany, but they are not, in fact, relics of the past or confined to one particular episode of history. Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, talks us through memoirs and books that illuminate a tool that has been widely used, since the late 19th century, for the mass detention of civilians without trial.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps by Andrea Pitzer

One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps
by Andrea Pitzer

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Before we get to the books, we all know about Auschwitz and the Nazi concentration camps, but it’s actually much, much broader than that. Could you explain, first of all, what a concentration camp is, how you define it?

Yes, because I do think people immediately go to this idea of Auschwitz when they hear the phrase ‘concentration camp.’ It should be the first thing we think of, because that set of death camps from the Nazi era was a singular moment in history. It’s never been repeated and we all hope it never will be. But those extermination camps that were added quite late in World War II were built on the back of a decades-long tradition of things that had been called concentration camps that came before them.

So, for the purposes of my book, One Long Night, I defined the concentration camp as the mass detention of civilians without trial, usually on the basis of some aspect of identity. It might be religion, or ethnicity, or race, or political affiliation, but it has to do more with your association or identity than anything you’ve actually done. I didn’t want to be too arbitrary about it. I looked at when that phrase, concentration camp, emerged for the mass detention of civilians and then how that idea changed over time. The goal of the book was to find out, ‘How did we get to Auschwitz? How did concentration camps make it possible to get to a place like Auschwitz?’ And then what happened afterward.

Your book begins with Cuba at the end of the 19th century and you end with the present, really. Over that whole time period, why do you think people or governments resorted to concentration camps? What was the factor pushing them to do it?

There were a few different factors that came together at this particular moment in time. So you had technological factors: the invention, mass production and distribution of barbed wire, which suddenly made it much, much easier to hold huge numbers of people with a small guard force. You also had the technology of automatic weapons, with the ability to shoot a lot of people very quickly. Again, that meant the guard force could be superefficient. Even the existence of a camp would have been very difficult to do for extended periods without that technology, so I think technology is one really important piece of it.

“I defined the concentration camp as the mass detention of civilians without trial, usually on the basis of some aspect of identity”

A second important piece of it, that doesn’t get talked about very often, is that in this same period you began to have universal conscription. A number of countries adopted it, so that if you were a military-age male you would be sent to fight. The idea then developed of having to corral this population because they were a threat. On the nation-state level, if you didn’t lock some of these people up, the fear was they would be sent on the battlefield to fight you. So even if they weren’t soldiers yet, the idea that these were potential soldiers became important, particularly during World War One. That helps create the modern idea of the concentration camp, this perceived need to pre-emptively lock up a large number of civilians.

Then I think the third thing is that eugenics really hit full stride. The idea became acceptable scientifically that some group of people—whether it was just a group of foreigners, or a particular race—was actually not just less deserving, but on some fundamental level less human than others.

I think those three things together really provided the opportunity and the motivation to create camps.

Generally, concentration camps were used as a political tool, though. It isn’t that any of these other bases really explain the need for them and why they were carried out. Governments used them as a political tool to stay in power and expand power.

Would the general population regard the inmates as enemies? Is that part of what’s going on?

It isn’t an instantaneous thing. It’s what the governments do. When I was working on the book, my brother was like, ‘Isn’t it depressing to you that this is just part of human nature? That it shows up again and again?’ And my thought was, ‘Then I haven’t explained it well, because that’s not how it works.’

Governments have to train and educate and propagandize people over and over and over to accept this. The reason they do it is that if you have a convenient enemy that you corral somewhere, and you can throw all your threats at them, the government can assert it’s doing something about whatever crisis is going on. People don’t direct their anger at the government, they direct it at this vilified group that’s conveniently isolated from society. It’s a process by which parties or governments train the public to treat a group a certain way. It is actually not normally a natural thing that happens spontaneously. It almost always takes years.

You’ve been in the news recently, commenting on the American detention centres on the Mexican border. The fact is, concentration camps continue to exist today.

People imagine that after 1945 the camps suddenly went away. Well, no one wanted to call them concentration camps anymore because that was identified with Auschwitz. I think Auschwitz was a two-edged blade. It actually took quite a long time to understand Auschwitz and the Nazi death camp system in its full complexity and the horrors of what was done. Of course, we can’t ever fully understand—it’s just too horrific—but to acknowledge the scope of that was really important. The downside of acknowledging those horrors completely was that it reset the bar. Anything that wasn’t the mass extermination of a people using factory technology suddenly wasn’t a concentration camp anymore.

“It’s almost impossible to see inside your own culture”

Before, we had this really good term for locking up people without trial and sometimes subjecting them to horrible abuses. That term vanished, but it still happened all around the globe. I think we lost sight of that, but it’s what’s happening in the US, what’s happening in China with the Uyghur Muslim population, what’s still happening in North Korea and never stopped since it began. Also, some of what the EU is doing with migrants and refugees, some of those camps have begun to skirt over into the same definition. They’re set up punitively, they’re run not by refugee organizations but by other groups that function more in a police setting. It’s a pervasive problem that has never disappeared and certainly what is happening on the US border is a piece of that history.

One thing I really liked about your book, One Long Night, is that it reminded me a little of those books that focus in on a single topic, like Salt or Cod by Mark Kurlansky. Concentration camps is a tougher topic, but it takes you all over the world because, as you mention in the introduction to your book, “nearly every nation has used camps at some point.” Looking at these camps is a stark but really interesting way to get a snapshot of a hundred or so years of global history.

It’s important to realize that while people localize it to Nazi camps, or the Soviet Gulag—those are the two people are most aware of—it’s really this thing that has permeated the whole world and still goes on today. But when you’re inside your own culture, whether you’re in a democracy or a police state, you can’t see it. It doesn’t feel like you’re doing the same thing. It’s like, ‘No, the camps we’re doing aren’t like those other camps!’ That was what was said about the Boer camps the British set up in southern Africa during the Second Boer War, more than a hundred years ago. There had been only one other public example of concentration camps at that point, in Cuba a few years before, for those fighting Spanish rule. The British said, ‘No, no, no, these aren’t concentration camps.’ It’s almost impossible to see inside your own culture, but I hope by going around the world and showing how the same process happens again and again and again, people might be able to see how their own countries or their own political systems have also been able to create this terrible thing. It’s not just associated with one ideology.

Let’s talk about the books you’re recommending to better understand concentration camps. What were your criteria when you chose these five in particular?

It was very hard to choose because it’s more than 100 years and six continents. It was impossible, so I want to apologize in advance: I went into it knowing I would fail because it wasn’t possible to make perfect choices.

All but one of the books were memoirs, and that’s also reflected in the book that I wrote. It doesn’t exactly work this way, but the general plan of my book was to go between following a person through this camp system at a particular place and at a particular time, alternating with sections of ‘what is that country, that camp system, doing at large to the whole population?’ Because I think one of the difficulties of understanding the camps is that it’s this incredibly personal experience for the people who suffer these horrors and yet it’s also this huge, bureaucratic, administrative system doing the damage. You have to see both sides.

Memoir is really the only way to get the personal view, but a lot of memoirs don’t give you the bigger picture because the people at the time didn’t necessarily have that information. The memoirs that I’ve picked are ones that are particularly good at showing you what happens to this individual person and their small community in the camp system and what is happening at large; whether they mean it or not, or whether they even realize they’re doing it or not, you are getting a picture of the larger system—either because they went to several different camps and spent time in them or because they actually understood the larger aspect of what was happening. Maybe they got to read news or they had a network that filled them in or maybe just because they spent 20 years in detention. But for some reason they end up with the larger overview of their system as well as their very personal story.

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I tried to pick memoirs by people who were keen observers and pretty honest in their assessments. Everyone is human and people who are sent to camps are human. Some of them were criminals. Some of them weren’t nice people. Some of them did terrible things to stay alive. And there is a desire, always, when you’re telling your own story, to be, if not the hero of your story, than at least not to be the villain. So, I tried to pick memoirs in which people most often directly, but sometimes even inadvertently, let you see their whole self, which I think gives you a much better idea of how difficult it is to exist inside these camps.

That’s the four books that were memoirs. The other book was just so stunning and comprehensive that I had to include it.

I will say, before we get into the books, that my biggest grief was not to include something comprehensive on the Soviet system, because it was so important. In general, I tried to pick books that were representative of very large and influential systems. There were lots of little camp systems that are very interesting, but these books I selected were about the systems that I think had the most impact worldwide.

Let’s go through the books you’re recommended about concentration camps individually. The first one is Time Stood Still, a memoir about being in a concentration camp in England during the First World War.

Time Stood Still was written by a painter named Paul Cohen-Portheim. He was of the generation whose lives were blown apart by World War One. We have so many examples, particularly of European men sent off to war; millions died; societies were shattered and were never the same after. If you think of Virginia Woolf’s writing, there were so many people who weren’t even in the war themselves, but it dominates their work.

What we don’t have is the voice of people who were of an age where they would have been sent off to war, but instead were locked up during the course of the war and experienced this global system of detention of civilians for the first time. Cohen-Portheim is a beautiful writer. It’s an important book not just in concentration camp history, but in world history, because before this moment, there were almost no concentration camps. There had been a decade during which great powers had created and run these camps in colonial possessions or territories when there were conflicts, but this is the moment when they come from the colonies into the heart of Europe and the centres of power.

When the war starts, Britain decides it’s going to lock up enemy aliens—meaning Germans, Austrians and any military-age males who are nationals of the countries they’re at war with.

After the sinking of the Lusitania, the number of detainees goes up exponentially. They decide they won’t just lock up the really suspicious people, they’re going to lock up everybody. Germany does the same and things escalate. And because the British Empire has holdings all around the globe, suddenly you have this bureaucracy of detention that comes to exist all around the world, not quite overnight, but in a very short time span. As other countries enter the war, it just becomes bigger and bigger and bigger.

Cohen-Portheim’s book gives us this moment in time when the concentration camp becomes this completely acceptable, bureaucratized event. People are told to report, they register, they turn themselves in when they’re told to. They get a prisoner number. All the things that we later think of as part of these horrific concentration camp systems get established then. So, from a systems perspective, this book is really important because it shows us the creation of that.

It’s also incredibly important because World War I internment is what rehabilitated the idea of the concentration camp. It was no longer this disgraced colonial tactic that everyone thought was awful. The Red Cross got involved. You could send letters, you could send money, there were lending libraries set up. It had this civilized aspect to it and so people thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t so bad.’  After the war, the camps never stopped. In the 1920s and 1930s, they’re everywhere, all around the world. They were normal.

But from a personal perspective, Cohen-Portheim narrates for us the heartbreak and mental devastation of being locked up for something you didn’t do and that has nothing to do with anything that you’ve done. There’s no way for you to influence it by good behaviour. You are being locked up pre-emptively on the suspicion that you might do something. And you have no idea when you’ll get out.

One of the really telling moments in his memoir is when he’s first arrested and he asks, ‘What do I bring?’—because the guy who comes to arrest him sits and is waiting for him to pack. It’s this really strange moment for us to think of now, but it was quite normal then. And he replies, ‘Oh just pack for a two-week vacation.’ So Cohen-Portheim packs his white linen suit because he’s a gentleman and what would you bring if you were going to stay at a friend’s house? Then, when he gets to the camp, he defiantly takes to wearing this white suit everywhere. It’s a wonderful expression of trying to stay human when you just can’t.

He narrates the emotional challenges for everyone and labels it an evil institution. He acknowledges that he came through it okay, but that almost no one else that he was there with came out a whole person. Even that ‘best’ version of the concentration camp had a horrific toll on everyone involved.

It’s basically a pre-emptive prisoner of war camp, isn’t it?

That’s a really important part of it, because from the beginning of this modern version of the concentration camp, you have the tools and the language of war being inserted into society to deal with civilians. People thought of it exactly the way that you framed it, as this normal, pre-emptive thing.

But people who were actually involved in espionage had been rounded up early on in the war. Of the civilians who had been living in the country before the war started and were put in concentration camps, there were no cases of espionage and there is no historical evidence that this huge use of money, guards, and material—all of which took away from the war effort—actually had any productive use at all. Before they turned to it, early on in the war, the Home Secretary was questioned by parliament about why he wasn’t locking everyone up. And he said that there was no more to fear from a German grocer, who’d been here for 30 years, than from your average Englishman. It wasn’t just about people who had come recently, or people there were suspicions against, it was people who were part of the Anglo-German community and some of them had been there for decades. All that was disregarded: their history, their ties. They were basically treated as if they were prisoners of war, as if they had gone to fight. The basis on which they were held was the legal rules for holding prisoners of war. They could not have been worse off if they actually had gone to fight—unless they had died on the battlefield, of course. If captured they would have been held in the same setting, even though they had never taken up arms against England.

The Germans did this too, of course. I don’t mean to just be beating up on the English.

The conditions at that camp were pretty good, though, weren’t they? The food wasn’t great, but they didn’t generally go hungry, is that right?

Yes, these are often held up as the best version you can have of concentration camps. When they went hungry, it was often because the general population also didn’t have much food because of the war effort and crops not being planted etc. That’s the reason why camps became so widespread, because the idea was that they weren’t so bad.

But Cohen-Portheim is saying to us, ‘Yes, despite all those things, it was horrific to be there.’ His is an important voice when we start saying to ourselves, ‘Well, we let them play ping-pong or we let them have a lending library’ and that somehow makes it alright. His memoir is a good reminder that even in the best settings, it still takes a terrible toll, this indefinite detention, pre-emptively, for no reason.

Let’s talk about your next book, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann. This won the Wolfson History Prize in 2016, so must be a pretty serious work of history.

It’s phenomenal. There’s a reason it’s the only book on my list that’s not a memoir. Even people who know the history, or even teach the history, of the concentrations camps probably don’t actually know how the Nazi camp system came about. What Wachsmann has done with this book is taken the millions and millions of detainees, the millions murdered at  locations which, as the Germans extended their reach, stretched across Europe, and spanning more than a decade—the most horrific evolution of concentration camps in history—and compressed it all into one volume.  It also has quite a lot of small, personal pieces of information so you do get the human side as well, but it’s the information side of it that’s extraordinary. I think before this book no one had really looked, in a coherent way, at how the camps started.

And they started very much like camps around the world at the time started, which is one of the reasons why there was not this sense that this was a new, horrific thing that no one had ever seen before. It was a known thing.

People did worry about them; Dachau had a very bad reputation right from the beginning. There was a sense that this camp might be worse and that they might be roughing people up more. But there had also been atrocity reports from the camps in World War One, most of which turned out not to be true. So, there was some real scepticism among writers and thinkers about some of the early reports that did come from the camps. Mostly people thought it was quite normal.

“Anything that wasn’t the mass extermination of a people using factory technology suddenly wasn’t a concentration camp anymore”

Wachsmann traces these camps from when they start, in the first weeks and months of Nazi rule and the Third Reich, at a time when they would have been indistinguishable from camps in a number of places around the world. He shows the power struggles between different people in the Nazi hierarchy as they evolve and who wins those fights. Are they going to keep up this system of extrajudicial detention? Or are they going to try to bring it back under the court system?

He also traces the architecture of these camps, how they try to maximize these Nazi ideals of order and structure. You begin to see the physical evolution of these camps into something different. They slowly change from being mostly for political opponents, at the beginning, into social engineering tools to use on marginal groups they didn’t think fitted into society—like gay people, vagrants, what they called ‘gypsies’ and we would now call Roma and Sinti peoples. Then, with Kristallnacht, they became a tool to use against German Jews.

The Nazis had, of course, been doing terrible things to German Jews before then, but they were doing them legislatively. They had been stripping them of citizenship and limiting their rights, but one of the things Wachsmann shows is that it’s in 1938 that camps become a tool to use against German Jews en masse in a direct way.

You see that in the evolution of the Nazi concentration camp system, there isn’t this clear line, right from the beginning, of how it’s all going to happen. It takes them several years and lots of trial and error to figure out that they even want to have camps at the heart of a genocide. His book just presents the entire growth of this system through to the death camps, with an understanding that they were both leading it, but they were also experimenting and learning from it. This unbridled experimentation in the middle of a eugenic state was a disaster, but he outlines exactly how it unfolded. He has beautiful data and examples and it is so comprehensive. It’s very well written too.

I found out so many things from the book, including the sheer number of concentration camps that the Nazis created. Also, he gives the percentage of people in concentration camps who were Jewish, which was a lot lower than I’d thought. He puts right a lot of assumptions, I suppose.

Some people think that somehow lessens the violence that was done to the Jewish community. It doesn’t at all. I think it’s almost more horrific that they didn’t start out knowing that they could use this tool this way, that they sort of came into it over time. And yet they managed, by the time they were defeated in 1945, to have created this extermination machine that killed so many millions of Jewish people.

One idea he tries to get across in the book is that the intentions that you start out with, and where you end up, can be quite different. Sometimes that’s because circumstances take over, like war. Sometimes it’s because of negligence, and people not taking the time to site a camp well, so maybe there was no fresh water nearby. They weren’t necessarily setting out with a genocidal impulse, but you can still reach that level through bad planning,

The Nazi example shows that it takes time, but that the longer you have and the more evil your intent, if you’re left a free hand, the worse you can make it. The concentration camp system was such a flexible tool that it allowed them to do worse and worse things; they realized they could do worse and worse things. By the time the camps had been in place for a number of years, it was almost impossible for the citizenry—if they had been motivated to, and let’s be frank, the Germans were not motivated to in that moment, many of them—to resist them, or stop them. It was beyond a matter of what could happen to the Jews, it was a system that could steamroll an entire society. That’s what we’ve seen with the Soviet system and the Chinese system, that the camps become a way of controlling the entire society.

The book is really readable as he takes you through the history, starting in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. I was struck by a passage about an early political opponent of Hitler in Munich who ends up in Dachau, who writes in a letter something like, ‘Oh, it’s not so bad here. We have good meals.’

It really varied. This is the thing a lot of people don’t realize, that more than 90 per cent of the people who were held in the first five years, and even the tens of thousands of German Jews who were locked up in 1938 with Kristallnacht, more than 90 per cent of them were released. Initially, the camps were not supposed to be a death sentence. They were a reform tactic to control society and bend everyone to their will. So some people had—I don’t want to say a benign experience—but something more like Cohen-Portheim’s from World War One, with some forced labour thrown in and maybe a little scarier. You knew there were dangers attached to your situation, but that you were likely to go home.

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If you were a political opponent, particularly a Jewish political opponent of the Nazis, then you might not come out. Jewish political opponents had a good chance of being tortured and there was a real chance of dying, even early on. But before 1938, German Jews were not rounded up in groups and sent to camps and for most of the people who experienced the camps during those years Wachsmann shows that they went home. It took time to evolve into a much worse thing.

Let’s go on to your next book, Under Two Dictators, the memoir of this poor woman, Margarete Buber-Neumann, who survived both Hitler and Stalin’s concentration camps.

I had to choose between her book and The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Some people will disagree, and I can totally get their argument for including that instead of this. But, for me, this was so instructive because it’s about the two most influential and far-reaching camp systems. The Soviet camps, while they didn’t have the death toll of the Nazi camps, really became a model, influencing so many other camp systems around the world: in China, Vietnam, North Korea.

Margarete Buber-Neumann was a German communist who fled Hitler, not long after he came to power, into the arms of what she thought would be a welcoming Soviet Union. But it turned out that she got there right at the time of the worst of Stalin’s purges. Foreign elements were seen as one of the dangerous things that were going to undo the Revolution.

She and her husband had fled together and they were immediately suspect, but they managed to make it for a surprisingly long time—I think it was between two and three years—and then he was arrested. He was then killed, though she didn’t know it at the time. She had a pretty good idea that that’s what had happened to him.

His arrest gave her some time to prepare—she writes in the book that they always came for the husbands first, so the wives always had time to prepare—but she knew it was coming any day. She had gotten rid of a bunch of her belongings so she had a bag ready that she could grab to take with her.

Then they came for her and she ended up spending months in detention. The Soviet system was weird in that you were held while your case was being ‘investigated.’ You didn’t get a real defence and, in reality, whole groups of people were arrested, given the same sentence, and sent to the same place, but they needed to maintain this illusion that they were investigating your case, that they weren’t like the Nazis. So she’s in this detention centre for months. Then she is sent across the Ural Mountains to Karaganda in Kazakhstan and she spends more than a year there.

“The concentration camp system was such a flexible tool that it allowed them to do worse and worse things”

What’s wonderful about her book is that there are so many poignant moments about her experience there. She’s so foolish in some ways, so idealistic. She’s still that young communist idealist. The prisoners take these two ducks under their wing. They have no extra food at all, but they still save a little bread to feed these two ducks. There is just something about life insisting on itself that speaks to them. Then, one day, the commandant comes out and shoots the ducks. She’s so upset about it that she decides that she’s going to file a complaint to the Supreme Court about her detention, that it’s unjust. All of the people that are in her detention area are like, ‘No! don’t do it. It’s a horrible idea’, but she goes ahead. The commandant takes everything down very seriously. Immediately afterward, she is sent to the punishment compound which is just hell, there’s no order or structure and everybody’s fighting daily with each other over their food. It is just this monstrous place.

So, Margarete Buber-Neumann is both in Moscow—she’s held at the infamous Lubyanka at one point—and she’s out in these rural areas, both in administrative jobs and in the punishment compound. So you really get—even though it’s only a little over a year, that portion of her story—a good overview of what the Soviet system is like, as she writes about her whole trip through the system.

Then, in 1939, the Soviets and the Nazis are allied briefly at the beginning of World War II and the Germans ask for her back. She is taken and walked over the bridge at Brest-Litovsk and she spends from then until the end of the war, five years, in Nazi camps: she is sent to the women’s camp at Ravensbrück.

This is the most intellectually interesting part of her memoir, I think, the difference between the two camp systems, because when she gets to Ravensbrück, she is issued a clean uniform and utensils to eat with. The first day she’s given porridge and sausage and butter and fresh fruit to eat and the walkways at the camp are all swept and some of it’s even landscaped.

She comes to what seems like this land of plenty, these horrifying Nazi camps that she had been so afraid of. But she soon finds out that there is this fascist obsession with order and that the tiniest infractions result in tremendous violence and oppression. She’s also ostracized by the communists in the camp because she tries to tell them what it’s really like in the Soviet Union. They decide that she’s a traitor and a class enemy. She can’t seem to get a break anywhere.

But we see these two systems in sharp relief from each other. Both are incredibly cruel, both are warping society as a whole, both are killing more than a million people and locking up millions and millions more, but they’re actually quite different. Both are very destructive and yet the way they function is quite different. People are monsters inside both, but they have different outlets because of the ways the camps are culturally. And, of course, Ravensbrück descends into squalor and the horrors become more like the gulag system as the war continues. The Nazis lose the daily order and control that they had so prided themselves on.

At Ravensbrück they weren’t putting people in gas chambers, or were they?

They segregate the Jewish women and at one point she sees them carried off. She hears the shots of their execution, so she is there when the camp begins to turn toward the Final Solution. Ravensbrück was not an extermination camp but, as with most camps, exterminations began happening. She is not privy to that in a direct way, she doesn’t witness it, but she sees the edges of it and she knows part of what is happening.

Let’s move on to the next book, I Survived Auschwitz by Krystyna Zywulska. She was Polish but suppressed the fact she was also Jewish in order to survive, including in this memoir.

I included this book to go with the Buber-Neumann, because Buber-Neumann doesn’t see what happens in the death camps, but Krystyna Zywulska does. She was born Sonia Landau and she was in the Warsaw Ghetto. She appears to be this incredibly audacious person who was able to walk out from the Warsaw Ghetto one day.

She was incredibly naïve, at the beginning. She had papers in the name of Zofia Wiśniewska. Her landlord knew right away they weren’t real but, luckily, he was in the underground and helped her out. She then went to work for the Polish underground.

Later, she was caught and at that point she invented a third identity, she said she was Krystyna Zywulska and that she was a Christian Pole. That she was able to carry this off is probably the only reason that she survived, because while many Christian Poles were murdered at Auschwitz, it was not the same blanket policy of extermination that Jews faced.

Being an able-bodied person with certain skills she was sent, eventually, to Auschwitz where she managed to get an administrative position.

This book was really important for me to include because if you tell the story of Auschwitz, the biggest story is the extermination of the Jews. But how do you tell that story from the point of view of somebody who was there at Birkenau but was not exterminated? The answer for me, in terms of finding a really comprehensive memoir, was to have somebody who was Jewish, who saw the annihilation of her own people, but because of this mask that she wore was able to save herself. But what agonies to see this happening.

“Initially, the camps were not supposed to be a death sentence. They were a reform tactic to control society and bend everyone to their will”

In the book, she starts off at Auschwitz I, which was the original camp, and then is moved to Birkenau, which isn’t far away, but they are separate. Birkenau was built to house Soviet prisoners of war, but the war didn’t go quite as the Germans planned and they didn’t keep having this huge influx of Soviet prisoners. So, when they decided to create this whole network of death camps, Birkenau became a death camp and that’s where her office was.

I thought it was important to have the voice of someone who was part of that community, even if they weren’t publicly identifying, in that moment, as part of the community. She witnesses what happens during Birkenau’s lifespan as a death camp. And then she flees at the end. As they are force marched away, she hides and is able to get away.

What’s really interesting is that she kept that Christian Pole identity when she was writing her memoir after the war. In the 1960s, she did write a memoir about her Jewish childhood, and emigrated to West Germany a few years after it was published. Later, she was expelled from the writers’ union with a bunch of other Jewish writers, at a time when this was happening in the Soviet Union and its client states. Her fear that Poland after the war was also not a great place for Jews was substantiated, but I think some people had mixed feelings that she didn’t own her Jewish identity more clearly.

It’s an amazing memoir. With both her and with Buber-Neumann there are moments where their political sympathies become clear. In the Krystyna Zywulska memoir, there are sections where she talks about the great Soviet fighters and how they showed up and saved people. It’s part of the rhetoric of the time that hasn’t weathered particularly well, but it’s pretty easy to spot. It’s in sharp contrast to her descriptions of morning roll call and the ways in which people were tortured. There are these really vivid images. She writes about this field by Auschwitz, where people were waiting to be taken in, and there’s a woman in her wedding dress who she still has her bouquet. It just descended on people and it took over their lives. In these memoirs, it’s the minute details that really help you to see the lives of people inside the camps. These are individual people’s lives that just got completely upended and in many cases were lost.

What kind of jobs did she do?

At first she had to do some hard labour, farm work and digging rows. Later she  would get cushier positions. She did not work in ‘Canada’ itself—Canada was the place where all the Jews’ belongings were catalogued and kept; the fancy things would be sent to high-ranking Nazis and the rest would be distributed—but she logged detainees’ possessions on arrival. After she gets out of the field and into administrative tasks, she’s never hungry again. There’s always the threat of being sent back to that place or even being killed, but on a day-to-day basis she’s not starving anymore. It’s poignant and painful to read. She is not suffering physical privation, but she is watching all these people lose their lives. It’s a very dramatic contrast. It’s a powerful book.

There’s a lot to admire about Krystyna Zywulska. What happened after the war is also a tragedy. All that antisemitism wasn’t just something the Nazis imposed, Poland had and has its own issues. One of the lessons of concentration camps is that every country has its fissures and its weak points when it comes to having minority or vulnerable groups that the general public allows to be mistreated or exploited. Her memoir ,and what happened with her after it came out, shows part of how that history unfolded later. It isn’t magically over when the Nazis are defeated.

Finally, we’re moving beyond World War II to Bitter Winds by Harry Wu, which is about his 19 years in the Chinese labour camps.

Harry Wu’s is an amazing story because not only do we have this account of his 19 years in labour camp detention, but it’s also during key moments of Chinese history, including the Cultural Revolution. He is sent all over China to a number of different camps and is in better or worse shape, and better or worse-regarded, in different ones. He was a college student when he went in and he’s basically a middle-aged guy when he comes out. He ends up, eventually, getting to America and educating everyone about this whole system.

The difference in China is that the Nazi and the Soviet systems both fell at some point. The Nazis managed to destroy records, but there were survivors of a lot of camps. Between the records that they could find, some of the trial processes and the living witnesses, we have a pretty good understanding of what happened. With the Soviet system, we were able, in the mid-90s, to get copies of a lot of records. We found out when material was sent to different camps or when people were transferred. The files of prisoners and the charges that were drummed up against them were often lies, but we could see, ‘oh they were charged with this and they were sent here.’ We can reconstruct the framework of that camp system.

But with China, the same government that instituted these systems of pretrial detention is still there. Even though it’s changed quite a bit, it’s never fallen. There’s never been an open moment and we’ve only our ever gotten these little bits and pieces of what the system looks like. It’s the one where we know least well how many people were detained and where they were detained. We have little snapshots, but we don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the system. So having the perspective of somebody like Harry Wu, who went to so many camps across so many years, and then could actually leave to speak freely and campaign against the system, is a real gift.

The book is also valuable for his intense personal perspective. He writes about things much more frankly than even some of the other authors on my list. He writes about one prisoner approaching him for sexual favours. He writes about his own humiliations and realizing that he has become like a dog for the commandant by the role he has taken on in the camp and he’s disgusted with himself. He writes about—Buber-Neumann does as well, but he does it even more tellingly—the cruelties that the prisoners become willing to inflict on each other, either just out of frustration and anger or directly to curry favour with people who are running the camps. Many people die that are near him. He’s not isolated; people are literally dropping dead of starvation to his left and to his right. The magnitude of the forced labour and the suffering comes across.

He also shows how people in these camps become invisible to the larger population. We see this a little in Soviet novels and nonfiction accounts that came out, but for Harry Wu’s family, it’s too dangerous for them to affiliate with him. So even when he is not in full detention, even when he’s not an exile anymore, they don’t want anything to do with him. They blame him for his own problems. All of those supports that you might imagine when you get out, when you come home, that you can re-enter your family, and society—Harry Wu shows us that’s not how it happens. In these kinds of states, when you get out, the detention continues in terms of the isolation that you have from the rest of humanity. It’s not enough just to leave the camp.

“With China, the same government that instituted these systems of pretrial detention is still there”

The goal of these camps, of course, is to take a segment of the population and stick them over here as somehow separate from, and unworthy of, the rest of humanity. What he shows is that that never goes away. We also see that, to some extent, with the jail system in America, so it isn’t a completely isolated phenomenon, but the concentration camp context belies this idea that, ‘oh you have camps and people get liberated and it’s all over.’ That’s not the Chinese story at all and it’s important to hear that.

With Harry Wu, there were some things at the end of his life that got complicated. He was accused of prioritizing his museum instead of using funds to help Chinese people who had suffered as a result of detention. There were a number of things that he was accused of. In my book I don’t go into addressing a lot of that, because I think it’s hard to unravel. But I think that this book is a really important literary contribution to concentration camp history.

I didn’t follow him closely, but he was someone who said, ‘I’m not letting this go.’ He was focusing on the laogai system until he died.

He went back. He sneaked back into China and recorded a bunch of stuff and did a 60 Minutes segment on it. He was not that politicized when he went in, but he got caught up in it as a student, because many students were arrested at that time, and he ended up becoming incredibly politicized and very much an activist and I think contributed a lot. Perhaps it’s not surprising that having suffered so much and seeing his life’s mission as publicizing it, that he got particular obsessions and acted on them in particular ways.

What can you say about China compared to the other countries we’ve talked about, as a concentration camp system?

It was built on the Soviet model. I don’t want to attribute it all to the Soviet Union, but each concentration camp system came out of some kind of international understanding of concentration camps. During the Cold War, there was the Soviet model (e.g. Vietnam) and there was also the colonial model (e.g. Algeria). There were two versions of it that sprang up.

There was this international influence of pre-existing ideas, but then there’s local culture. This is why society is so vulnerable, because you have these local fissures in the culture, in the legal system and in the attitudes towards race or politics. So the Chinese system was inspired by the Soviet model, but also built on Chinese traditions. So you had this idea of correcting thinking, of stopping the incorrect thought before you could even think of heading toward action. With the Soviet model, you’re going to re-educate the citizen through labour, to be a worthy citizen of the new society. The Chinese took it one step further, which is you’re going to reconstruct the whole way of thinking, so you have correct thinking.  They had these sessions where for hours they would have to confess all the incorrect thoughts they had had. And if you didn’t think enough bad things to catch yourself at it, then you could be in trouble as well. Prisoners learned to correct each other, sometimes to physically harm each other. These propaganda sessions and discussions became really integral parts of Chinese camp culture and were psychologically damaging on a whole additional level. A lot of other camps systems had only done a little of that or hadn’t explored it fully.

The thing to remember about the Chinese system is that there were so many more people in China, that this system was just huge. If we knew the real numbers, it would probably dwarf the Soviet gulag system, which didn’t last as long either.

Technically, China has supposedly now got rid of the last of the pre-trial detentions. But there are still all these surreptitious ways of holding people called ‘black jails.’ That’s for the general population. But we now also know about the Uyghur camps, based on these prior ideas of detention that were used for society as a whole, which they’re now narrowing down and targeting at a specific population and using comprehensively against that population.

So I would say the Chinese system is a little different in the use of psychological torture, the fact that it never stopped, and the fact that it has evolved so clearly from its historical roots and is still keeping much of that, to be used in a 21st century way.

In particular, China embraced the rhetoric of anti-terror that became so popular after 9/11. They took all that rhetoric from the West and they said, ‘Yes. We’re going to use it against Uyghur Muslims.’ That anti-terror rhetoric was actually there from the beginning of the camps. That’s how concentration camps started. So, in some ways, we’ve come full circle. I do think there is a new global language about detention that suggests that, ‘if somebody is a terror threat, it’s all right to do it’ that people around the world have accepted. I worry that we are now back where we were in the 1920s and 1930s where this kind of detention, if you can just convince people that there’s a terrorist threat, becomes acceptable against everybody.

For my book, I sneaked into the Rohingya camps in Myanmar and I talked to people in the towns too, who were fine with the Rohingya being detained. They were in favour of it. I was able to ask why. I couldn’t go back and ask that of Germans in the 1930s or Brits in southern Africa during the Boer conflict, but I could ask these people and the rhetoric was the same rhetoric we hear about the Uyghurs. It was the same exact rhetoric that we hear from President Trump about Muslims and about Mexicans. And it’s the same rhetoric that we heard more than a hundred years ago about the first Cuban camps. And so I think the Chinese model shows you what can happen when you have a government that basically isn’t restrained, how the camps can take on local features, import old features and then bring in new rhetoric to justify what is basically political exploitation of a vulnerable group.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

September 10, 2020

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Andrea Pitzer

Andrea Pitzer

Andrea Pitzer is a journalist who loves to unearth lost history. In addition to One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, she is the author of The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov and the forthcoming book Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, about Dutch navigator William Barents, who was stranded in the Arctic during the winter of 1596.

Andrea’s writing has appeared many places in print and online, from the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, The Daily Beast, Vox, Slate, and USA Today to Longreads and Lapham’s Quarterly. She has spoken on her work at the 92nd Street Y and Smithsonian Associates, as well as presenting on panels at the Modern Language Association (MLA), the International Journalism Festival, and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). Andrea has also lectured on history and narrative journalism in the U.S. and abroad.

Events and ideas that were once common knowledge but have fallen from public memory fascinate her, as does humanity’s tendency not to learn from history. After archival research and reporting on four continents, she feels most at home in libraries or on a boat in the far North.

Andrea Pitzer

Andrea Pitzer

Andrea Pitzer is a journalist who loves to unearth lost history. In addition to One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, she is the author of The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov and the forthcoming book Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, about Dutch navigator William Barents, who was stranded in the Arctic during the winter of 1596.

Andrea’s writing has appeared many places in print and online, from the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, The Daily Beast, Vox, Slate, and USA Today to Longreads and Lapham’s Quarterly. She has spoken on her work at the 92nd Street Y and Smithsonian Associates, as well as presenting on panels at the Modern Language Association (MLA), the International Journalism Festival, and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). Andrea has also lectured on history and narrative journalism in the U.S. and abroad.

Events and ideas that were once common knowledge but have fallen from public memory fascinate her, as does humanity’s tendency not to learn from history. After archival research and reporting on four continents, she feels most at home in libraries or on a boat in the far North.