The Dead Man in the Bunker
- Peter Sichrovsky, Born Guilty: Children of Nazi Families (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 66.
- The author would like to thank Karen Franklin, Noa Mkayton and Martin Pollack for their comments on this review.
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The Dead Man in the Bunker
The Dead Man in the Bunker
London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2006
Translated by William Hobson
This book focuses on the author’s personal journey to uncover the history of his biological father’s family, the Basts. The word "bast" comes from a Germanic origin, referring to "fibrous material obtained from the phloem of jute, hemp, and or flax to make rope." Ironically, Gerhard Bast, Martin Pollack’s father, may have been hanged by a rope made out of bast for his war crimes as a Gestapo officer – had he been incarcerated after the war.
Pollack, an Austrian journalist and writer, never knew his father. As Pollack was growing up, his paternal grandmother used to say that his father was “always honorable and decent” (p. 217).
In teaching about the perpetrators during the National Socialist period, our students often ask, “How did human beings willingly participate in the mass murder of millions of Jewish men, women and children. How was it humanly possible?” This open-ended query usually triggers additional questions about the complexities and “gray zones” of human behavior. The author also ponders this matter towards the end of his well-researched account,
“...how it could have happened that it was my father, of all people, who had ordered these things ‘by his power of authority’ and perhaps pulled the trigger himself. My father, the Sturmbannführer, who decades afterwards that ex-sergeant said had always acted humanely. What did ‘humanely’ mean in the language of these people?" (p. 188).
Pollack’s contemporary and colleague, Peter Sichrovsky – an Austrian-Jewish journalist – interviewed children of Nazi families about their relationships with their parents as well as about their reflections on the earlier generation’s family legacy. For example, one of the interviewees states in Sichrovsky’s book, Born Guilty: Children of Nazi Families, “Neither of us has it easy, I know that. We more than most others come from a family who lost the war, because ours helped start it. …And it is not all that simple to pull oneself up from this nothingness, this abyss. We were vanquished, and like a defeated fighter we drag ourselves to the locker room and try, slowly to regain our strength. The scars of that fight are visible and in us. Some healed and some will never heal, and perhaps will even be handed on to our children. But that’s our fate, a hard fate for us, the children of those who caused and started it all. But perhaps it’s also an opportunity.”12
Pollack’s book is most definitely an opportunity – not only for the son's personal exploration of the past but also for his readers. The author provides a window into the history of one nationalistic German-speaking family, who lived side-by-side with Slovenians for several generations before moving to Lower Austria. Although they lived amongst Slovenians, most of Pollack's Protestant family was vehemently anti-Slavic. In the words of the author, "All the family's hopes rested on Germany: the German Reich and the Iron Chancellor, Bismarck" (pp, 24-5). Later on, the Bast family would support the platform of the Nazi party from early on. Gerhard Bast loved to hike in the mountains, fence and ski, especially in the company of friends. He studied law and became a practicing attorney. However, he ultimately decided to give up the legal profession for a career in the Gestapo. Pollack's father became a highly decorated officer - responsible for deporting German-Jewish people from Münster to the East in 1941 as well as rounding up and killing Jews in Slovakia towards the end of the Shoah among other various actions.
Although this is not an academic book, without footnotes or an index, it is very well researched and remains a seminal book for teachers though it was originally published over a decade ago. Pollack undertook extensive archival investigation to document the fate of his father – who ultimately was murdered not by a victim seeking revenge, but rather by someone who simply wanted to rob him for money. He pieced his family’s story by gathering primary source documents and witness testimony. He does not write with pathos nor does he aim to seek reconciliation and forgiveness for his father’s actions from his readers. Pollack presents his family’s story in a sober way, and this is to his credit. This book is highly recommended reading, especially for educators who are interested in reading about everyday life between Germans and Slovenes before the First World War.
This English-language book, originally published in German, has also been translated into the following European languages: Czech, Polish, Spanish and Ukrainian. In light of the Pollack's family's history, it is hoped that this book might eventually be translated into languages of the Former Yugoslav Republic.
An excellent presentation by Pollack, who reflected on the writing of this book, may also be found at: http://www.europeanremembrance.enrs.eu/edition2015/videos/code/mkzAk6OgWWE
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