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The International School for Holocaust Studies

Eine Lebensreise durch Konzentrationslager
(A Journey of Life through a Concentration Camp)

Featured Book

Reviewed by Dr. Gideon Greif

A Journey of Life through a Concentration Camp

Dagmar Ostermann
Edited by Martin Krist
Verlag Turia & Kant, 2005
222 pages

The appearance of every new biography connected with Auschwitz is of huge importance for our ability to understand this extermination center which has become a synonym for the Shoah. Holocaust survivors' memoirs enable those born after the war to identify with the innocent victims of Auschwitz and to gain a deeper insight into the events. The story of Dagmar Ostermann is unique since the hero of this story was Christian, whereas her father was Jewish. For this reason she lived in much better conditions in the camp and her chances for survival were greater.

Dagmar's personal story reflects the complexities connected with the category of mixed marriages. For the Nazis, it was an unresolved issue on how to treat people who were not one hundred percent Jewish.

Dagmar Ostermann was deported to Auschwitz from Ravensbrueck on October 5, 1942. She arrived in Auschwitz on October 6. Two months before, at the beginning of August, 1942, the women's camp BIa was established. Until the beginning of November, 1944, Dagmar worked at the "Stammlager" – the main camp of Auschwitz – as a typist-secretary in the civil registry office ("Standesamt") in the "Politische Abteilung" – the political department. This position gave her the rare opportunity to observe important events in the SS secretariat where the fates of so many people were decided. The majority of the secretaries in Auschwitz were Jewish; Jewish women were better educated and knew more languages than other female prisoners. In addition, they knew how to type. Therefore, the SS-officers preferred Jewish secretaries. The atmosphere prevailing in the Politische Abteilung's offices was "cultivated" and "dignified". The relations between the "bosses" and their secretaries were almost as normal as in other working places in the prewar period. The "bosses" behaved well, spoke politely, and did not use any violence. This pattern of behavior was, of course, unusual and did not reflect the general patterns used by the SS in other parts of the camp, where they were brutal, evil, aggressive, and sadistic.

The rather pleasant atmosphere in the offices encouraged the young women to do courageous acts and change prisoners' work cards. They used the card collection to save the lives of prisoners in danger by changing the personal number of the prisoners who were about to die of exhaustion. Many of them received important information which was used to help save lives. This is exactly what makes Ostermann's book so unique. She is able to describe Auschwitz both as a prisoner with a tattooed number on her forearm, and as an "outsider".

The girls working in the offices often had more self-esteem and self-confidence because they were less humiliated by the SS and felt more secure. They were allowed to dress differently from other female prisoners and were not as miserable. Dagmar Ostermann was a young woman, and the Politische Abteilung Office provided her with much better conditions than the majority of other prisoners. The fact that a monster can sometimes be "human" – when he decides to be – is one of the surprising facts which can be learned from Dagmar Ostermann's book.

Although the period she spent in Auschwitz is very central in the book, Dagmar wanted to emphasize all the stations in her life, including her childhood in Vienna, her family members, and her life after the war.

Martin Krist, the editor of this book, first met Dagmar in 1990. He lives in Vienna and works as a lecturer at the University of Vienna, the Institute for Contemporary History, and as a history teacher at a high school. He is intensively involved in historical projects connected with Holocaust teaching. After meeting Dagmar for the first time, he invited her several times to speak to his students and to accompany them on a study tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

This book was created from a series of interviews with Martin Krist during the years 2001 to 2004. Krist invested a lot of effort and time to produce a different biography of a survivor – more personal, and with an emphasis on a woman's interpretation of the events. Indeed the text is vivid and fluent, as the following passage shows:

"I open my eyes, and observe the familiar landscape of my apartment. I close my eyes again, and compare this with Auschwitz-Birkenau. This does not happen daily but often. I put my shoes on and always think how difficult it was to remove the wooden clogs in Auschwitz. And then, the waking up and climbing down from the upper bunk of the so-called 'bed'. There is always something which forces me to make comparisons with Auschwitz. It becomes a daily habit. When I go to sleep, I think: 'My God, such a pleasant bed, but how could you sleep there, on that sack of straw, which pierced you everywhere, without any blanket to cover you.' Also the consciousness of calmly falling asleep knowing that nothing can happen to you. You never knew if during the night there would be a roll-call. Such memories do not appear everyday, but nevertheless they accompany me always."

Mrs. Ostermann became famous in Austria and was invited to many high schools and universities. She appeared before thousands of listeners until she suffered a heart attack and had to stop her public activities.

This book sheds light on a unique group of prisoners in Auschwitz. In one passage, she insists on reminding us that although she was sitting in her office typing all day long, and free from physical suffering, she could nevertheless not forget where she was:

"We constantly thought that we would not survive. We knew very well how many people went to the gas chamber. And we said: 'As long as we live, that much we have survived!' But this reality was not a method of survival for us. We hoped nevertheless to survive, but did not think about it. As long as man can breathe, so long does he pursue his hopes. And so we used each and every minute to laugh or to celebrate... We lived from early morning to evening and from evening to morning. Who knows what can happen tomorrow. Several of our friends who were not needed anymore, were sent to Birkenau, like my friend Susan Czermyak-Spatz, or Lilly Toffler, and other girls. Our biggest fear was precisely this – to be sent to Birkenau – since Birkenau meant death – we lived from today till tomorrow. That's all."