Life & Culture

The details of concentration camp life are brought to terrifying life

David Herman pays homage to an unforgettable Holocaust memoir


Cold Crematorium:
Reporting from the
land of Auschwitz

By Joseph Debreczeni

Translation by Paul Olchvary

Jonathan Cape, £16.99

Reviewed by David Herman

In recent years a number of extraordinary Holocaust memoirs have been published: Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death by Otto Dov Kulka, I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz by Gisella Perl and now Cold Crematorium by József Debreczeni, first published in Yugoslavia in 1950, with an excellent foreword by JC columnist Jonathan Freedland.

Debreczeni (1905-78) was a Hungarian-language writer who lived in northern Serbia. He was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. He arrived after a two-day rail journey. Had he been selected to go “left”, he would have been lucky to survive an hour. Instead, he was sent to the “right”, which led to 14 months of slave labour in a series of work camps, ending in the “Cold Crematorium” at Dornhau where prisoners too weak to work were left to die.

His first impressions of Auschwitz are how thin the inmates are, “skeletons wobbling along in striped sackcloth uniforms”. Everything happens at disorienting speed. Life-changing choices have to be made in an instant: walk ten kilometres uphill or go by truck? Those who walk are fit enough to work. Those who go by truck are gassed. Other inmates tell the new arrivals to hand over their last food. “Morons, you’ll turn in everything at the showers, anyway.”

Debreczeni was only briefly in Auschwitz. He then worked in three separate subcamps in “the land of Auschwitz” where slave labourers were worked to death. Debreczeni brilliantly describes the brutality of this world. First, there’s the hierarchy among the inmates, those entitled to better soap, better clothes, the opportunity to steal, including gold teeth from corpses, which can be traded for food. They even get separate soup. “With meat. They get more bread; they get coffee; they get cigarettes. Clothes, shoes, money. They don’t work 14 hours a day.”

There isn’t just one kind of kapo. There are those working for the private companies who run the sub-camps, with the company name on their armbands. There are those like the commander of the potato peelers, “the first among equals”, because “potatoes were life itself”. Then there were the other kitchen workers and, of course, the doctors and healthcare workers who had the power over who lives and who dies.

It is hard to tell which is worse: the backbreaking labour, the ever-present threat of disease (typhus and dysentery are the worst killers), the hunger or the cruelty. One SS sergeant sentences a prisoner to be beaten 50 times, until there is just a “motionless mass”. Another officer, “Half Arm”, shoots a good worker just because he can. ‘”A little demonstration,” he says. “’An example of how even the best Jew must croak.”’ The details of camp life are terrifying. Soon, most prisoners “want nothing more than fewer lice, fewer beatings, and more swill”.

Lice and body fluids are everywhere. “Our blankets are swarming with silvery-glistening colonies of larvae.” There is no sanitation. “Bouts of diarrhea afflict some men 20 times a day.” “Everyone has diarrhea. Hence the horrid yellow streams along the rows of beds.” A young rabbi lies dying, desperate for a last piece of bread. “Bread… I… my insides… are bursting…” These are his last words.

Debreczeni has a journalist’s eye for the telling human detail, how quickly people are dehumanized. One inmate introduces himself: “My name was Farkas. Dr. Farkas.” “Was” is the crucial word. In the bathhouse they’re told to “Open your snouts.” “We understood all too well: not mouths, but snouts.”

Cold Crematorium is an unforgettable evocation of “the Land of Auschwitz”. As liberation approaches, the last survivors see Germans fleeing from the Russians. All they can think is that these people inhabited an unimaginably different world. “They are the Martians of the universe beyond the barbed wire.”

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