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Book Review: Cold Crematorium: Reporting from the Land of Auschwitz, by József Debreczeni

Review: Cold Crematorium: Reporting from the Land of Auschwitz by József Debreczeni

The cold crematorium of the book’s title is a “hospital” at the Nazi “work” camp Dörnhau, where the author was sent after a brief stint in Auschwitz in 1944. As the scare quotes should indicate, there was no healing done in the “hospital,” a freezing cold, abandoned factory where Jews who were too sick or weak to work were sent to die. (I also hate the terms “concentration” and “work” camps, since the official Nazi policy was to work Jews to death, making all of their “camps” death camps). Debreczeni, a Hungarian-Jewish newspaper reporter, relates his experience in a matter-of-fact tone that forces readers to witness suffering on a level many can’t imagine.

There has been a steady trickle of holocaust memoirs and war-time journals (like Rywka’s Diary) that present firsthand, unfiltered accounts that are very different from many of the commercially-successful holocaust novels popular among readers, many of which seek to mythologize the suffering of Jews, whitewashing it and framing it with life-affirming lessons that allow the reader to walk away feeling hopeful about the state of the world.

There is no hope for the Jews Debreczeni met during the time he’s imprisoned by the Nazis. It is a hard memoir to read, but one that, I think, portrays a more true-to-life (and death) depiction of the Shoah than most readers will be accustomed to. Jonathan Freedland (whose recent book The Escape Artist, is amazing) apparently wrote a foreword for it, but the uncorrected proofs I received from NetGalley didn’t include it for some reason, and I think that a foreword – or even better, a detailed Introduction -- is really necessary to help contextualize some of the things Debreczeni says in the book, including derogatory comments about female Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz (generalizations that are factually incorrect) and some really racist things he says about Greek Jews he encounters. The European Jewish experience has never been a uniform one, and some help understanding contemporary attitudes toward gender and race seem crucial here. Presumably, Freedland’s foreword provides some facts about Dörnhau camp and the many facets of the Nazi’s attempt at genocide, because this was information I really wanted as a reader, too.

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