Category Archives: Nonfiction – History

Review – The Auschwitz Photographer (Luca Crippa; Maurizio Onnis)

Wilhelm Brasse spent an astonishing five years in the Auschwitz concentration camp as a photographer in the identification office. His history of recollections are the basis of this book, although they are not direct survivor interviews, but a BBC interview and also a book he himself wrote. The sourcing of this is rather thin, and I have automatically removed a star for that reason.

That said, Brasse was arrested after refusing to fight for the German army after the invasion and capture of Polish. Although born in Poland to a Polish mother, his ancestry on his father’s side was German. For his refusal, he was arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately sent to Auschwitz. At first selected for hard labor, he was pulled from that work to head the new identification office, so the Nazis could keep track of the many Jews and others sent there to be exterminated.

The timeline in this narrative details how Brasse kept his head down and rarely looked out a window while at work- the better to survive what a part of him knew might very well be his eventual death in the camp.

After many chapters given over to the photographs of people arriving via train, the Nazis decided that cataloguing Jews and undesirables was a waste, since so many were killed straightaway. Brasse’s job then shifts more into portraiture: SS soldiers and officers getting their portraits made to send to their parents, for instance, and when the Birkenau barracks were constructed, the women bound for those instead of the crematoria that run nonstop.

There is a brief suggestion of an almost romance between Brasse and a Polish interpreter for the German kapo in charge of bringing female subjects for Brasse to photograph, but this eventually goes nowhere – how could it be otherwise, the way prisoners were kept to a rigid schedule.

Brasse and his office lived in better quarters and had steady, indoor work during brutal winters. They even managed to barter their services with the kitchens to keep themselves well fed.

When a large group of Russian POWs are brought the the camp, they are dutifully photographed for identification purposes, and like all the others, Brasse pushes their fate out of his mind as well as he can until someone tells him the Nazis are doing nothing to them: not selecting them for work or not, not feeding them, not anything. They are simply starved to death. Brasse happens to pass the area where they are being held and describes them as ghosts, thin, with their bones protruding as though they will break the skin, and with blank, dead eyes. He claims to have strayed near the fence where a Russian was standing, and reached through the wire to touch the Russian’s hand. The Russian soldier tells him that he is not a communist, then falls over, dead. This seems to be an iffy portion, as it is backed up by nothing other than Brasse saying it happened. We do know that Brasse was given an amount of freedom most other prisoners were not – his skills as a photographer saving his life, after all – but would he have been allowed to be anywhere near the Russians, as he was simply walking between one place and another through the camp?

Eventually, his boss calls him to what is a small viewing room, to show him a film. In it, the Russian prisoners are taken to a building that has been boarded up, and marched inside. The Nazis then throw canister of what are presumed to be Zyklon B into the building and close and seal the door. His boss has set up a camera inside the building, and has filmed the chaos of the people within trying to find an exit, only to find none. Throughout the book, Brasse claims that his boss speaks to him about declaring that he is German, and that it could be arranged for him to visit his family in Poland before he is sent to his assignment. He claims his boss attempts yet again to sway him, after viewing this film.

Later, Brasse becomes the photographer of choice for the doctors performing medical experiments, like forced sterilization of young women, and the various experiments performed by Josef Mengele himself, who wanted images of twins and dwarfs, along with another doctor who was fascinated by the prisoners with eyes that were different colors from one another.

There is a section describing the images and plates struck of counterfeit currencies, although this is very late and not very useful to the Nazis in the end.

As we know, the war was moving inevitably toward Germany. Toward the end, Brasse’s boss drives away to escape the advancing Russian army, and orders Brasse to destroy all of the negatives, photos, and especially the film of the Russian soldiers who were murdered there. As Brasse and his colleagues attempt to do so, these items will not burn. They concoct a story about how they tried, and even throw the tiny office into disarray, as if they had feverishly tried to follow the order, but Brasse stops them, and settles himself in to inform his boss of same, knowing it could mean a bullet in the head. However, his boss does not return, nor do any of the other SS men who escaped west toward Germany and away from the Russians.

After a few days, the camp is emptied and all the prisoners are forced to march out of Auschwitz. Brasse winds up in Mauthausen, and is eventually liberated. At 27 years old, he is finally a free man again.

After some time with his family, he sets out for another town in Poland to try to find the woman he’d met in Auschwitz, and of whom he had taken a portrait- the only thing he took with him when the prisoners were marched out. He does find her,but is disappointed when he finds her somewhat distant. He presents her with the photo, which she tears apart and allows to fall on the floor. She told him she didn’t like herself when she was there, and who could blame her? He leaves, dejected, and recalls his uncle saying something basically that meant women couldn’t be pleased, which I thought was a really shitty thing to include, regardless of whether or not it was true.

An afterword tell us that Brasse eventually married, had children and grandchildren of his own, and died peacefully, surrounded by family. Interestingly, he could not bear to become a photographer again for a living, after having taken and developed between 40 and 50 thousand photos in Auschwitz-Birkenau, so went into a different line of work. I can’t say I could blame him for that.

There is also an afterword by the authors, indicating their sources, as I noted in the opening. The third item on their source list is Night, by Elie Wiesel, which I thought an odd inclusion.

At the end, there are also photos, although there are notes that indicate not all of these photos may have been taken by Brasse.

Overall, it is a challenging read because of the nature of the work Brasse and his colleagues did and the often arbitrary treatment of the prisoners in the camp. Squeamish readers may wish to skip the parts describing the work of the crematoria crews and the experiments carried out by Mengele and others.

Is it a good oral history from a survivor? It is well written, in a straight timeline, and the horrors witnessed by Brasse and other survivors is all too shamefully real, as we well know. The very small sourcing pool, though, should be held for more scrutiny. I would recommend it with these caveats

Three out of five stars.

Thanks to SourceBooks and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Into the Forest (Rebecca Frankl)

Into the Forest is a nonfiction book about the Rabinowitz family living in Zhetel, in what is now Belarus. It’s an astonishing tale of hardship, survival, and, in the end, love.

A chance meeting at a weeding puts a young man on a path to find the woman who saved him from being shipped off to a camp and killed.

There is a brief introduction in the first few chapters about the family – how they landed in Zhetel, what their businesses were, what their houses looked like, and so on. Normally, this would be well less than interesting, an infodump that the author did not weave into the narrative, but it works here, as the immersion into that time and that place are both necessary and fascinating.

The woods of the title refers to the large forested area in the vicinity. As WWII begins, and Nazi troops begin pouring through the country, first depriving Jews of their rights and then of their lives, the Rabinowitz family escapes the ghetto and hides in the forest for an amazing two years. They dig dugout shelters and disguise them to hide from Nazi (and their collaborators) due to raids. There is never enough food during the years, and never enough heat in the harsh winters. Disease runs rampant, and the family is forced to relocate their shelter when the smallish community of those hiding in the woods is found by the Nazis.

Throughout it all, the family stays together, occasionally making contact with friendly farmers in the area – people the Rabinowitz family knew to be sympathetic to their plight even before the Jews were rounded up in the area.

Eventually, WWI ends, and the family, along with other survivors, heads over another dangerous pass, this time to sneak into Italy as a step of making their way to what is now Israel. They ultimately give up on that idea and head to America instead.

It’s a fantastic story, well told, and I loved it. Highly recommended.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Dirty Gold (Jay Weaver, Nicholas Nehamas, Jim Wyss, Kyra Gurney)

Dirty Gold explores illegal (wildcat) mining (mainly) in Peru, and the dubious ways gold brokers – such as those detailed in this book – manage to sell or obtain that gold to be recycled and sold to other entities or made into consumer goods.

I’ll say this right off the bat: writers of narrative nonfiction could use this as a textbook. It is intelligently laid out, the cast of characters not only denoted before the book begins, but named and described in the text in a way that does not require constant flipping to the beginning to see who is who, the history of illegal mining given (but not in an overwhelming way) along with the sociological, economic, corruption, and political ties to it, and how the various schemes worked to get the gold out of South America. It’s masterful.

At its base, this book is about three men in Miami – Juan Pablo Granda, Samer Barrage, and Renato Rodriguez, dubbed the three amigos – working on behalf of a larger company, manage to bring an astonishing $3,6 billion worth of mainly Peruvian gold to their company. In doing so, both they, and their primary local buyer in Peru, go to a great number of steps to obscure the actual origin of the gold. Those steps include the creation of fake/shell companies, smuggling Peruvian gold to other countries in order to export it to the US, and failed or too-loose vetting of the supposed exporting companies in Peru that declared the gold obtained in a legal manner.

If you’re interested in anything related to gold, money laundering, smuggling, political and law enforcement corruption, sociological, ecological, and health impacts of illegal mining, and the utter chasm between those riding high on the backs of those in abject poverty, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Absolutely a five out of five star read. I’d also recommend “A Most Wicked Conspiracy”, about the Alaskan gold rush, another five star read.

Thanks to Public Affairs and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

REVIEW: The Ravine (Wendy Lower)

In 2009, Wendy Lower (author of Hitler’s Furies , another worthy book to add to your TBR list) comes across a photo from Miropol, Ukraine: a woman, toddler in her arms, baby at her feet, being shot by a Ukrainian collaborator during operations in that country during WWII. The title refers to the ravine into which people fell after being executed for no reason other than they were not part of the so-called “master race”.

What follows is an excellent, although horrifying read, of Lower’s investigation into this photo. This entails records retrieved in various countries – the US, Ukraine, Germany, and Israel – talking with people and/or potential witnesses, and eventually spans ten years to finally identify the doomed family as well as the Slovakian photographer who was not supposed to be taking pictures of these operations.

If you’re at all interested in the Holocaust or the European Theater of Operations during WWII, you’ll likely be as engrossed in this book as I was, even given – or especially because of the book’s subject, something no one should ever forget.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Nine (Gwen Strauss)

Full title:

The Nine: The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany

How do people withstand the most horrific abuses performed by a nation led by a madman?

There are many books about soldiers surviving what were basically death camps when they were taken prisoner, about well planned and executed escapes, about spies hanging on, in hiding, while an entire militarized police force look for them.

The Nine has all of that, and more. It’s the story of nine women, resistance fighters in WWII, captured and interrogated by French police before being sent off to Germany for interrogation by the Gestapo and ultimately imprisoned at a work camp.

The primary focus is on the author’s great aunt Hélène Podliasky, who ultimately became the de facto leader of the group as they met one another in their journey from freedom to prison and back to freedom again.

Where this book shines comes after all of that – after the beatings, the torture, the forced work, and all manner of atrocities. As Germany was facing defeat, some of the camps, including the one housing The Nine, were sent on forced marches, to move prisoners from outlying areas about to be overrun, to prisons closer to what was left in German hands. During their march, they took a chance and fled the march, running into the forest, heading for France.

This journey, free of guards and the wire of prisons, wasn’t any easier than that. Along the way, they found both people willing to help them, and people who had no interest in doing so, preferring to turn them in. They also found those who wanted to use them for their own ends – soldiers, for instance, who thought the Allies would look more favorably on them if they were found assisting a group of former prisoners.

The author is a poet, and it shows. It’s a fantastic piece of narrative nonfiction, although I would say that if you’re just dipping your toes into the water of the cruelest parts of WWII, or if you’re just learning about it, you might want to start with a broader history first, to understand the whole of the war, then narrow to the final days of the European theater before reading this. Doing so will better inform the reader about that particular point in the war, and how the engineered system developed by the German leadership was breaking down.

Much like Night (Elie Wiesel, another must-read), The Nine captures the sense of how it was to live with daily atrocities, and how people came through them.

Highly recommended – a five star read.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the review copy

Pub date: May 4, 2021

Review: Heroes of the RNLI (Martyn R Beardsley)

Almost 200 years ago, Sir William Hillary was key in forming the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – an organized rescue service made up of people fearless (or scared but willing to do it anyway) enough to head out into gales and storms and anything else the sea could throw at boats and ships to rescue anyone who could be rescued. In his time, of course, those rescue attempts were often just people oaring their way out into the sea. These days, the rescues are more high tech, but no less hair-raising at times.

This book is not so much just a history of the service, but a book of many of the more exciting/dramatic/history-making rescues, with the history of the service woven in here and there as the summaries of those rescues move forward in time. Some of them (Grace Darling) are more well known outside the UK than others – most others, I would say. They all, however, encapsulate quite well the deeds of people willing to risk their own lives to save others.

If you like real life rescue stories, and derring-do on the sea, you’ll likely enjoy this collection of stories and the history sailing underneath them.

Four out of five stars.

Thanks to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization (Roland Ennos)

I’m a sucker for a single-item “history of” books. The best books of this nature, I’ve found, are those that are telling a *story* of the history versus those that are simply a history. Books like Salt (Mark Kulansky) or Longitude (Dava Sobel) are terrific examples of the narrative nonfiction that will pull the reader in to the world of the subject, riding along like a time traveler following a single strand of history.

There were instances where I felt that same tug from The Age of Wood, but unfortunately, I found them to be rare. The book is still quite interesting, chasing down the use of wood over the centuries and to the current day, assuming you’re interested in a rather dry overall tone.

Those with an acute interest in wood, or people just looking to learn something on the subject will likely be more willing to get through an almost textbook-like reading than the casual reader, and it’s worth it, in my opinion. It’s relatively short, which brought to my mind the question of whether the storytelling was not enough to push it to a longer page count and more relaxed narrative, or whether the publisher or author decided about 300 pages was all they were willing to venture into the subject. Either way, the book suffers for it.

There are numerous discussions of things built with wood versus metal, and a somewhat questionable (to me) passage about Amazonian deforestation, and into the modern time period, quite a bit of page count given over to metal – not what I was here for.

Overall, it isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great, for a book about a resource indispensable to humans ancient and modern, which I’d think is a fascinating topic.

Three out of five stars.

Thanks to Scribner and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: War of Shadows (Gershom Gorenberg)

If you’re interested in WWII, and specifically, the North African Theater battles between the Desert Fox himself and British forces, this is a book for you.,

Gorenberg helpfully provides a listing of all the players at the front of the book, so if you’re not intimately familiar with everything that was going on in the chaos of North Africa, you’ll find that handy, The story, at its heart. is about people: their victories, but also their great failures. Both are abundant here – it is a war, after all.

It’s a dense book, and requires attention. Here and there, it strays a little outside the lines (and it is clear the author is both very familiar with and very passionate about the period examined during these periods). However, it is a worthy read, an these occasional ramblings are worth it in the overall scheme of things.

Four and a half stars out of five, for the rambles, rounded up to five for a well-written and entertaining (as entertaining as war can be) book.

Thanks to Perseus Books/Public Affairs and NetGalley for the review copy.