interview of a single survivor available in the Visual History Archive of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute. The survivor in the film was Mordecai Topel from Poland.
Due to the length of the interview, we will focus upon the first 30-60 minutes of the interview, specifically to analyze the initial foundational issues of Polish anti-semitism, the initial German occupation of Poland and life in the ghetto and slave labor in a steel factory under guard of the Ukrainian guards in and out of Ostrowiec, Poland. However, we will flip to the end of the interview where he relates details of his family before the war where we get a look at the Polish Jewish world that the Nazis destroyed in World War 2.Certainly, Mr. Topel's experiences in the Auschwitz were quite typical of the time in the history of the Shoah, so much so that he brushes off describing the dogs and the beatings as being so much insignificant detail.
Mr. Topel gives many interesting anecdotes that give an indication of the rising tempo of the antisemitism of the German, the Poles and the Ukrainian guards. It is interesting that he relates that his grandmother died on the day of the start of the invasion by the Germans and the family spent the next week sitting shiva for her. It is ironic that the old woman died on the very day that the Germans invaded, seemingly as a sign that symbolized the end of the community of the Jews of Poland.
Mr. Topel worked in the Glavotsky steel mill as a slave laborer doing various different types of jobs in the plant. His work outside the ghetto helped him to survive when most of the Jewish people were rounded up and taken away, although he was finally taken away in March of 1943 (due to his work as a builder and skilled laborer). His ability to work, though hard and exhausting, allowed him to get food and to survive.
Mr. Topel was exiled from the ghetto and sent to a work camp in the Bli-yn. This place is no more than 30 km or so from? Ostrowiec, Poland. The work camp was brutal in the extreme and the prisoners were slowly starving to death. Every tenth prisoner often that was in the roll call was summarily shot. Particularly horrifying were the stories of the people who were shot by the Nazi guards. They had been sold bread at horribly high prices by the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians then told on the Jews who were shot on the spot for having bought the bread. Also, there were frequent applications of 25 lashes for the smallest infraction or mistake.
Mr. Topel remarks that the conditions in the Bli-yn camp got better when the commandant Heller took over. Things were still very difficult. He produced clothes for the German Army. If something was stolen (such as a pair of socks to exchange for bread), the people would be immediately executed for the infraction.
The narrative the author has analyzed differs from the material that we have studied in class in the sense that it was much more detailed. Really, the details of the experience are significant in that they make relating to the situation much easier. This was especially the case in the part of the interview dealing with the experience in Auschwitz. It is very difficult to relate to something as banal as a number such as 6 million casualties.
It is much easier to relate to the experiences of a single person that got a number and remembers it after more than 50 years. It is easier to relate to Mr. Topel's prayer and deliverance from the gas chamber when the showers came on instead of gas coming out than to an amorphous number.
The interview process itself is very interesting. The survivor himself had a very calm and dignified demeanor, only once showing emotion when he relates the last time he saw his father alive when his father told him to eat whatever food the Germans gave him, kosher or not so he could survive. Again, the details that he is remembering are the mundane details that gives a person a minute look into the totality of the Nazi persecution and its support from the Ukrainians and the Poles. The details were particularly horrifying and one relates to the continuing horror of a person not knowing what would happen to them next.
Ms Horowitz, the interviewer was very methodical, although respectful. The interviewer did not ask have to ask many questions beyond basic ones that set the tone and the boundaries of the interview. Mr. Topel was very prepared, reading an article that he had prepared for a paper in the Teaneck, NJ area about the death march from his work group to Oranienberg concentration camp in Germany along with the retreating German soldiers as they were fleeing the Russians 13 days of hell all told). The full details come out about the starvation, freezing and other sufferings that the survivors faced on their retreat, including their dismay as they were loaded into a coal train just miles away from the liberating Russians.
There were of course questions that the interviewer did not ask, such as prying for more details. It was proper for Mrs. Horowitz not to do so, because it is better for the survivor themselves to say this. The description of eating snow to survive on the way to Prague to survive is incredible. He describes the kindness of the Czechs who threw food into the cars to help the poor survivors. Also, he speaks about the intervention of God to save him and help him through the trying days and the cruelty of the Germans who gave them saltwater to drink at Oranienberg.
Mr. Topel also speaks about the horror of making it to the Flossenberg camp. Again, his work experience as a laborer saved his life as he cut wood for the SS soldiers in their barracks to keep the captors warm. Also, it was interesting to note seemingly fleeting details, such as how his nice handwriting got him work recording the wooden bundles.
Perhaps the most heartrending of the stories was about the Kapos (Jewish Police) who were just as bad as the Nazis or the Ukrainians. Amazingly, he describes police who were humane and who took lashes or refused to give punishment to prisoners, even if they were punished themselves. However, as he describes, the majority of the Jewish police did not act like human beings, including the fact that many of them were criminals in the German society before the war.
The horrors of the war continued until the end for Mr. Topel, as he was transferred out of the Flossenberg camp. Horrifyingly, the Polish prisoners told on Jewish prisoners who were trying to escape. This is a testimony to how dehumanizing the experience was and its twisted nature, even making people cruel who were in the conditions themselves, even in the face of imminent liberation by the Americans. This certainly gives testimony to the fact that while the main perpetrators were the Germans, cruelty is a sad legacy seemingly of all of humanity.
To sum up, the interview goes on even further into looking at the lost world he left. In this way, he memorializes his family in an effort to make sure that they will not be forgotten. This is very touching and takes the edge off the suffering (and of seeing the video). It makes it easier to bear knowing that ultimately the Nazis lost because new generations of Jews came out the Topel line and that Mr. Topel was able to rebuild his life after the World War 2.