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The Story of Willy Berler: Durch die Hölle. Monowitz, Auschwitz, Groß-Rosen, Buchenwald (2003)

More than 55 years after he was liberated, Willy Berler tells the story of his imprisonment in the concentration camps of the Nazi regime. With this book (published in English as Journey Through Darkness: Monowitz, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald), he wants to bear witness to the “unbearable injustice”[1] done to the concentration camp inmates and denounce their tormentors, as well as those who attempt today to relativize and deny the Holocaust.


In collaboration with the historian Ruth Fivaz-Silvermann, Willy Berler has written a book that consists in large part of autobiographical elements. Ruth Fivaz-Silvermann has composed short, separately displayed texts with background information about various topics and keywords, and supplemented Willy Berler’s account with annotations and source references.


Overall, the book is couched in unpretentious language that is well suited to its purpose: to report. This enables the reader “to understand the system of the Nazi concentration camps in exemplary fashion–except for the fact of his [Willy Berler’s] survival,”[2] as Simon Wiesenthal writes in the preface. Willy Berler describes what he experienced from a first-person perspective, albeit using the present tense, which is quite unusual. This time perspective makes what is being described quite concrete and vivid, though the prosaic, unadorned language and choice of words preclude an emotional interpretation. An example of this is Willy Berler’s account of his “transfer” from the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp to Auschwitz. After forced labor for I.G. Farben, he is not far from being a “Muselmann” and is waiting for the SS doctor so he can be admitted to the camp infirmary:


“After the shower, I know that I will have to wait, naked, in the hall for the doctor who does not want to get too close to the inmates’ germs and the foul smells from their putrid bodies. The hospital is not meant to treat and cure people; it is not a safe place to be. The SS doctor does not behave like a normal doctor, either. Actually, this world is not the world, either, even though we are living in it, or at least, are trying not to die in it.”[3]


The passage is a good reflection of the style, describing and analyzing at the same time, and sometimes able to unsettle the reader. This effect may be due to the use of the present tense, which brings readers close to what is happening, whereas the author describes it all from a great temporal and emotional distance. Thus suffering and feelings such as hatred and fear become part of what is under examination; they are not felt during the reading.


Berler’s story offers a highly detailed description of the daily routine of an inmate, the solidarity among the prisoners, the behavior of the SS and the prisoner functionaries, and to some extent the “bureaucratic measure[s]”[4] in the concentration camps. It is the description of a young man who has, to his benefit, quickly and soberly realized his predicament, this situation of  “loss of dignity in death,” in which his “neighbor in the next bed who dies in the night” and his “work companion who is beaten to a pulp by a bad-tempered kapo” are no longer men, but “just bodies, rigid as heating fuel and piled up along the lane leading to the crematorium.”[5] “Everything is programmed in the Auschwitz principality; everything ends up in the crematorium chimney.”[6] This reference to the determinate nature of life as a prisoner illustrates a way of reasoning that surely was shared by many inmates.


The austerity of the description stands in contrast to many other survivor accounts, and it may strike readers as unusual; however, it provides access to a (another, perhaps one should say) way of looking at what is reported in its historical context. Simon Wiesenthal sees nothing less than a pedagogical quality in this–and he is surely right.

(LG; transl. KL)


Berler, Willy: Durch die Hölle. Monowitz, Auschwitz, Groß-Rosen, Buchenwald. Augsburg: Ölbaum, 2003.

Berler, Willy: Journey Through Darkness: Monowitz, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald. Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004.

[1] Willy Berler: Durch die Hölle. Monowitz, Auschwitz, Groß-Rosen, Buchenwald (Augsburg: Ölbaum, 2003), p. 26. (Translated by KL) Owing to differences between the German version and the English translation (from French), all citations refer to the German text.

[2] Simon Wiesenthal: Preface. In: Berler: Hölle, p. 7.

[3] Berler: Hölle, p. 84.

[4] Berler: Hölle, p. 91.

[5] Berler: Hölle, p. 55.

[6] Berler: Hölle, p. 55.