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Book Cover Image: A Small Town Near Auschwitz by Mary FulbrookTitle: A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust
Author: Mary Fulbrook
ISBN: 9780199603305
No. of Pages: 464
Genre: Nonfiction

”Historian Mary Fulbrook tells the story of Udo Klausa, a civilian administrator in the small town of Bedzin, an ordinary functionary who helped implement the Nazis’ inhumane policies towards the Jews. Using a wealth of personal letters, memoirs, testimonies, interviews, and other sources, Fulbrook pieces together Klausa’s role in the unfolding destruction of the Jews under his authority, as well as the heroic attempts at resistance on the part of some of the victims of Nazi racial policies in this area. She also offers fascinating insight into the inner conflicts of a Nazi bureaucrat who, throughout, considered himself ‘a decent man.’

Udo Klausa’s case is so important because it is in many ways so typical. Behind Klausa’s story is the larger story of how countless local functionaries across the Third Reich facilitated the murderous plans of a relatively small number among the Nazi elite–plans that could never have been realized, on the same scale, without the diligent cooperation of these very ordinary men. As Fulbrook shows, men like Klausa ‘knew’ and yet mostly suppressed this knowledge, performing their day jobs without apparent recognition of their own role in the carnage, or any sense of personal wrongdoing or remorse–either before or after 1945.

For Fulbrook, an eminent historian, the story of Udo Klausa hits very close to home, because Fulbrook’s mother was both a refugee from Nazi Germany and a close friend of Klausa’s wife. Fulbrook has known the Klausa family all her life, but had no inkling of Udo’s true role in the Third Reich until a few years ago, a stunning discovery that led directly to this deeply personal history of life in Nazi Germany.”

Thoughts: Back when I was a naïve bright-eyed college student thinking of becoming a school teacher and minoring in German, I briefly flirted with the idea of incorporating my love of history and my German degree by trying to solve the unsolvable while obtaining my Ph.D. What was that unsolvable question? Why did an entire population ignore/remain in the dark/allow the horrors that befell anyone who was not of Aryan decent in Germany and its controlled countries during the 1930s and 1940s? Mary Fulbrook explores a similar unsolvable question in A Small Town Near Auschwitz, as she explores one man’s experiences as a lower-level bureaucrat in a Nazi-dominated area roughly twenty miles from the infamous Auschwitz death camp.

A Small Town Near Auschwitz is a fascinating story that unfortunately reads like a poorly-written dissertation. Seriously, if one had a dissertation checklist as to formatting and necessary requirements, one could go down said checklist and mark off each item as one reads the book. In addition, it is filled with details, big and small, that contribute to a vivid portrayal of Bedjzin before and during the war but that also bog down the narrative. The details are in and of themselves very interesting, but they force a reader to dwell on terrifying and extremely emotional experiences that make it difficult to read. One has to take a break from the emotional trauma that Ms. Fulbrook’s words create. In other words, it is very slow and cumbersome reading.

Another issue found with A Small Town Near Auschwitz is Ms. Fulbrook’s close association with her subject matter. While she makes no attempts to hide her connections to Udo Klausa and his wife, there are times in the narrative where it is obvious that Ms. Fulbrook is not quite as objective as she is trying to be or as she perhaps should be as a historian. Her conclusions are tainted, at times, with a sense of guilt that she was either drawing such negative conclusions about a long-time family friend or that she was trying to find a more positive explanation for behaviors or attitudes that probably should not be positively explained. This sense of shame weakens her conclusions as she allows her personal history to impact them.

That being said, without the close relationship between Mrs. Klausa and Ms. Fulbrook’s mother and personal correspondence this relationship created, her insights into the bureaucratic layers of the Nazi regime would not be as intimate and revealing. This correspondence provided a glimpse into the Klausa family’s true thoughts about Hitler, the Nazi regime, and what was occurring in Bedjzin, something the revisionist history of the post-Hitler era would never have allowed to occur. Her familial relationship with the Klausa family is a very sharp double-edged sword that allows for brilliant moments of clarity in an era where everyone was obfuscating the truth while shading the entire work in elements of gray as Ms. Fulbrook allows her personal feelings to interfere with her conclusions.

Ms. Fulbrook’s research in A Small Town Near Auschwitz is extremely thorough and, as such, extremely upsetting. The stories of atrocity towards the Jewish and the Polish population are straightforwardly presented, but it does not make it any less emotional a reading experience. What makes the scenes truly horrific is that Ms. Fulbrook goes beyond descriptions of what occurred and delves into the political machinations behind such actions, as well as depicting the thought processes of those in charge of carrying out such heinous acts. The unemotional attitudes of the oppressors over the oppressed is truly terrifying and caused more than one disturbing dream in the course of reading the book.

Ms. Fulbrook presents her answers to the unsolvable question about the general population involvement in the Final Solution as fully as she can, drawing on the private correspondence between her own mother and Udo Klausa’s wife as well as the unique perspective of having met and known her chosen subject. The conclusions she draws are chilling in that they show how easily anyone can justify his or her own behavior and ignore the impact of one’s actions on others. Not only that but she showcases how simple it is to retell one’s own personal history to avoid appearing guilty in the eyes of others. A Small Town Near Auschwitz, if one can get through the tedium of reading such dense and emotionally-charged material, is an unnerving reminder of what happened to an entire population and a subtle warning of how easily it could again occur.

Acknowledgments: Thank you to NetGalley and to Oxford University Press for my review copy.

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