These folks who killed millions of Jews -- were they like us?

Monday Book Reviews

April 11, 1994|By Fay Lande

ORDINARY PEOPLE AND EXTRAORDINARY EVIL: A Report on the Beguilings of Evil. By Fred E. Katz. State University of New York Press. 154 pages. $12.95.

IT IS Hanukkah, the week of miracles. I've come to talk with Fred Katz about his book on the Holocaust. He greets me somewhat shyly from behind the louvered screen which hides the door to his Baltimore apartment.

"I'm trying to get beyond the memory for the sake of memory," he says, "beyond the myth that remembering horrors is going to produce a vaccine so that it won't happen again.

"Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, inventor of mechanized murder, really was appalled by what he was doing. But it didn't keep him from doing evil. If a person like that could be appalled and still do it, it raises horrible questions, namely, could we also . . .? That's what I tried to address in the book."

Were they ordinary, these men and women who created a world of cruelty so removed from everything we value that we can hardly bear to acknowledge it? Were they like us?

Fred Katz came from a small town in Bavaria. His father was a butcher, a scholarly man. But he, Fred, was an angstlich child, always frightened. Was it the anti-Semitism in school, in the village? From his book I remind him that village children broke his dog's leg because it was a "Jewish dog."

When the Nazis came to power, his parents, after years of failed attempts to leave the country, bought Fred a ticket on a children's train to England. They never saw him again.

I remembered the first time I put my own little daughter on the bus to school when we lived, briefly, in Vienna. There was a

moment when my heart failed me: the small face blurred, lingering behind the glass. What must Mr. Katz's parents have felt?

Memories are not enough, he says now, although clearly they fill the lonely spaces of his apartment. Cambodia, Bosnia, the killing fields are full. These killers knew all about the Holocaust. Their knowledge did not stop them.

Mr. Katz, now a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, pleads for dispassionate analysis, a theoretical framework, understanding. He insists: Do I understand the thesis of the book? Do I have it right? It is so critical: Once we know what causes seemingly ordinary people to do evil, then we can prevent it. And again he cites Hoess, one of the three case histories in the book. Hoess was a perfect

bureaucrat, imaginatively, creatively carrying out orders, making the system work. At home he was a good father and husband. His home, not far from the camp, was an island of peace.

Hoess wrote: "I had to appear cold and indifferent to events that must have wrung the heart of anyone possessed of human feeling . . . I had to watch coldly, while mothers with laughing or crying children went into the gas chambers."

And Kremer, a doctor at Auschwitz, the second of Fred Katz's case histories, wrote this entry in his diary:

"The patient was put on the dissecting table while he was still alive . . . I then approached the table and put several questions to the man as to such details which pertained to my researches. . . When I had collected my information the orderly approached the patient and killed him with an injection in the vicinity of the heart."

Was it his single-minded devotion to research that helped Kremer to cross the line between good and evil and accept the Nazi proviso that some human beings are unworthy of life? With this "rider" attached to his professional code -- that Jews didn't need to be among those whose lives he was sworn to save -- Kremer gained the unimaginable freedom to pursue science unhampered by feeling or humanity. The healer became the killer. Surely, they were not like us.

But Fred Katz believes that evil is "achieved" in increments, sliding toward darkness by means of small, daily decisions, using the coping mechanisms of ordinary life.

"One can be caught in a process of beguilement by evil . . . [when] the immediate circumstances dominate our entire field of moral vision," he says. To receive a good report, to be well thought of, Hoess, Kremer and the others would not step outside the culture of cruelty that made the most tragic circumstances "ordinary." For them and their victims, the precious dream of normal life was ripped apart and irretrievably lost.

"Of course, that doesn't happen here," says Mr. Katz. "Human experimentation, I mean." That was before the U.S. Department of Energy released new information about its radiation experiments on helpless and uninformed people.

Kremer, the devoted investigator, wrote: "Today an excellent Sunday dinner . . . Got soap flakes and two cakes of soap . . . In the evening, present at a special action." It was the evening 893 Jews arrived from Westerbork, Holland. All but 59 men and 52 women were immediately killed by gassing.

"The problem," says Fred Katz, "is how to go on living."

What about God? I ask.

"God is not a micro-manager!"

I think of my grandmother. I have her cheekbones and her name. I never knew her. She, her children and grandchildren -- those who were left in Poland -- perished in Janov or Treblinka. My mother said that when they came to take the children, my Aunt Fraydl insisted on going, too. Were they all gunned down in a trench or gassed?

I think of Elie Wiesel's remark that the ashes of Auschwitz are everywhere. Shreds of stories, a few photos, dear presences that resonate inside me and spill out into words. And for Fred Katz: reason, science, thoughtfulness -- and, yes, memory and faith. In this anguished, intelligent book, Mr. Katz has kept faith with his fathers.

Fay Lande is a Baltimore writer.

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