Concentration Camps, Non-Fiction, World War II

Book Review – K.L. Reich

This book is part of the “Memory and Testimony Studies” series published by the Wilfrid Laurier University.  From what I can tell, this is the first book in the series.  This book was originally written by Joaquim Amat-Piniella in Catalan, shortly after his liberation from Mauthausen.  This edition is the first in English and was translated by Marta Marín-Dòmine and Robert Finley.  This was an e-book I received from NetGalley as an advance read; the book is due out June 25, 2014, but is available for pre-order.

Amat-Piniella was from Catalonia, and in 1936, he enrolled in the Republican Army to fight against fascism.  In 1939, he fled to France, in exile.  He was captured by the Germans and sent to Mauthausen on January 27, 1941.

Instead of a “classic” memoir of a concentration camp, the author chose to write his story as a novel.  To me, this liberated the author to be more honest about the inner machinations of the other inmates in the camp. As their names had been literally “changed to protect the innocence,” what you get is an almost raw understanding of how sometimes bad situations turn good people into bad.  It’s an issue that has been debated for years, about inmates in the camps – why did prisoners turn on their fellow prisoners?  Fear, hunger, anger, all of these play a role in the characters in this novel.  Emili is captured with his friend, who Emili later realizes, has been his rock throughout their experiences.  Emili and his friend face beatings, starvation, jealousies, discrimination, and recriminations, but Emili is somewhat saved when an SS officer realizes he can draw – and so he is assigned to the SS officer to draw pornography.

The book describes all the inner governments amongst the inmates: communism, anarchy, fascism, pacifism.  Each nationality has their own group and at times, these groups clash.  Emili really wants no part of it, but gets sucked in to the Spanish group nonetheless.  Also different from the classic camp telling, is that the author really gets more into some background of the Nazi regime.  He discusses (briefly) how some Germans were not Nazis, and some SS members were not Nazis.  The book highlights the Jews and how they were definitely the most maltreated of all the concentration camp victims – many who came into the camp never survived the first day.  Although Mauthausen was not really a camp for Jews, there were many who did get sent there – Mauthausen was “technically” a camp for “stateless” prisoners, although it was eventually classified as a “work to the death” camp.

When you read this book, do not gloss over the Biographical Note at the beginning.  This contains some pertinent information about the author, the camps, and the Nazis.  This was a very well written book, and it was translated exceptionally well.

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