Human Experience Beyond Extremity: Holocaust Narratives

I am looking forward to beginning my undergraduate/graduate History/Social Science seminar at the UM Flint titled “Human Behavior Beyond Extremity: Holocaust Narratives” on January 3, 2012. We meet T, Th, 4-5:15 in 110 French Hall. I hope that students will read (before the first seminar) Nikolaus Wachsmann, “Looking into the Abyss: Historians and the Nazi Concentration Camps,” European History Quarterly 36:2 (2006), 247-278, which can be found online at http://ehq.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/36/2/247

Because of the availability of new sources — testimonies provided by former prisoners and survivors of the Nazi camps and their liberators, and documents derived from the operations of the camps and recently opened — we can now enter into these man-made social worlds which, until recently, were black boxes and where historians and others feared to look into the abyss. We can ask questions about human experience, work, residence, transport, punishment, survival, human relations, and more.

I have spent part of this winter break at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum armed with a question. What happened to other boys of similar age to Elie Wiesel, who were in Auschwitz-Buna with Wiesel, traveled on the same transport from Buna to Buchenwald, arriving January 26, 1945, and were placed there initially in barracks in the little camp. We (my sophomore undergrad assistant who accompanied me and I) have discovered that there were 305 boys on Wiesel’s transport that were the same age, 16 and under. Wiesel doesn’t write about other boys. Who were these boys and what happened to them? What is the story that surrounds or takes place at the same time as Elie Wiesel’s in Night?

Of the 305 boys, a preliminary count shows, 142 were placed with Wiesel in block 66, a children’s barrack which was the site of an underground rescue operation to protect youths and children. Most, but not all, of these 142 boys survived in this protected block until liberation April 11, 1945, and did not work. But 156 others from the same age group were not placed in block 66, and about one third were not kept in the main camp Buchenwald at all but sent out on additional transports to camps where there was devastating slave work and that we are now researching.

These camps included BII, or Langenstein-Zwieberge, near Halberstadt in the Harz Mountains, where prisoners were forced to dig tunnels for the Junkers Aircraft Company, which was preparing to make engines and missiles; Hecht, or Holzen near Eschershausen, where prisoners were forced to dig tunnels for the Firma Stein, also known as Volkswagen near Wolfsburg, and SIII, or Ohrdruf, neara Gotha, where prisoners were forced to dig tunnels for yet another underground complex, which included the S/III Nazi headquarters where the Nazis planned to make a final stand after retreat from Berlin (this didn’t happen). Other theories say this or a nearby site were intended for production of the intercontinental “Amerika” rocket, or even the testing and production of a Nazi atomic bomb.

About Ken Waltzer

Ken Waltzer grew up in New York City and attended Harpur College of the State University of New York and Harvard University as a Graduate Prize Fellow. He has helped build James Madison College, Michigan State University's highly reputed residential college in public affairs and currently serves as director of Jewish Studies at MSU. In 2011-2012, he is the Winegarden Visiting Professor at UM-Flint.
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