Of all the books and material that covers the Holocaust very few are as graphic or as thought provoking as Eyewitness: Auschwitz. Not only has it been a valuable historical account of one of the most gruesome events at any point of humanity, it also serves as a grim, heartbreaking autobiography of an everyday person who found himself in one of the darkest places in the world.
The author of the book, Filip Muller, was a Slovakian Jewish man who was amongst one of the first transports to Auschwitz. He arrived in April 1942 and by chance was assigned to the Sonderkommando, the name given to the work details who worked in the gas chambers and crematoria in the Nazi concentration camps. Like his inception into the Sonderkommando, Muller’s survival until the liberation of Auschwitz in November 1944 was by a combination of chance and desperation.
Of all the prisoners who worked in the Sonderkommando, indeed, of the 1.1 million people believed to have perished in the crematoria of Auschwitz(1), Muller was one of the very few who survived, and the only one to survive long enough to write an account of it. The book describes his recollection of handling the corpses of his countrymen, people he recognized, and then his own family. The hardest part to comprehend in this entire book is that it isn’t a work of fiction, nor is it an exaggerated version of a real-life event; it all actually happened.
The book is written in a first person perspective, which is essential to the book having as much an emotional effect on the reader as possible. It helps the reader visualize the sights and the sounds with greater clarity – It helps the reader get a greater understanding of what actually happened during the Holocaust. The level of depravity and cruelness found within the pages of Eyewitness: Auschwitz compels the reader to constantly question their own morals and understanding of the world.
This book does not portray its author to be a hero; Muller speaks openly of the atrocities he was forced to commit in order to spare his life. Muller’s hopes of survival faded quickly and he often found himself wondering not only if he would survive, but if the horrors around him would ever cease. Muller acknowledges correctly so that, like other Sonderkommando members who wrote what they saw, he felt it prudent to write what became Eyewitness because he felt without his testimony, the world would never have known of the carnage, or at least the extent of it, within Auschwitz. At several points in the book Muller questions how humankind could ever degrade itself so much. He questions how easy it was for impressionable German citizens to become ruthless killers during the services in the war, and how easy it was for a man to be manipulated into doing so without hesitation.
This is, perhaps, the single greatest tragedy that occurs in Eyewitness: Auschwitz, and indeed, it’s possibly the single greatest tragedy to befall mankind during any conflict.
Muller describes the liberation of the camp, the day the U.S Army entered the camp and officially freed the prisoners. He doesn’t describe an overwhelming feeling of wholeness again, or as if his old life is once more. Instead he provides a simple description;
‘…I simply stretched out on a woodland ground and fell fast asleep. I awoke to the monotonous noise of vehicles rumbling past. Walking across to the nearby road I saw a long column of American tanks…As I stared after the convoy of steel giants I realized that the hideous Nazi terror had ended at last.’ (2)
Eyewitness: Auschwitz represents one of the darkest chapters in humanity. The fact that despite the murderous mayhem and all the depravity the author survived to tell the tale is a miracle. From reading this book the reader feels helpless to the plight of millions of people, but empowered to ensure that the horrors Muller experienced will never be horrors that they themselves may live. The world changed after the Second World War, but it was in an obscure region in a previously unnoticed part of Europe during 1942-1945 that the darkest memories were made, and, with help to the testimony of the humble Filip Muller, will hopefully never become reality again.
This review is dedicated to the 1.1 million who perished in Auschwitz, and also to the estimated 55 million people killed in total during the war. We can only pray that when the last person who survived Auschwitz departs this life, the world will not forget that our freedom came at the cost of so very many.
The first book in this list of references is a book by BBC-endorsed historian Laurence Rees. This is an excellent book which provides a detailed history on the Final Solution as well as a very complete study on the history of Auschwitz. The book is full of eyewitness testimonies from all parties involved; members of the Sonderkommando, survivors of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau, as well as interviews with a lot of ex Nazi Party or ex-SS members who partook in the killings. Like Eyewitness: Auschwitz, This is a very thought provoking book and is highly recommended for anyone wishing to study Auschwitz or the Final Solution, moreso the former.
- Auschwitz: The Nazis & the Final Solution, L. Rees, Ebury Publishing 2005
- Eyewitness Auschwitz, F. Muller 1979 (Original Publisher unknown) pg 171
All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945, M. Hastings, HarperPress, 2012.
Dachau Liberated : The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army (Edited by Michael W. Perry)
Originally published May 1945, republished 2000.