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MISTRESS OF LIFE AND DEATH:The Dark Journey of Maria Mandl, Head Overseer of the Women's Camp

Susan Eischeid, out December 26

To be honest, I approached Susan J. Eischeid’s upcoming book Mistress of Life and Death: The Dark Journey of Maria Mandl, Head Overseer of the Women’s Camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau with a chip on my shoulder.

I have an issue with the ways in which publishers and other media outlets (I’m looking at you, History Channel) try to capitalize on the human suffering of the holocaust by making Nazis the s

ubjects of books, films, and documentaries. Most of these are written from the perspective that there is something fascinating about the phenomenon of Naziism: that learning about Nazis can help humanity better understand the nature of human evil and perhaps even “solve” it somehow.

This is the angle that Eischeid takes in her biography of Maria Mendl, a Nazi who oversaw female prisoners at multiple death camps, primarily Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrük. Over 112 chapters (yes, you read that correctly – 112 chapters), the author narrates Mendl’s life from birth to her execution for crimes against humanity in 1948. Eischeid argues: “Ultimately, Maria’s life journey encompasses the eternal questions of right versus wrong, good versus evil, and the paradox of how cruelty and compassion can exist in the same person.” Like many books within this genre, the narrative is driven by the quest to determine when, how, and why, Mendl transformed from a nice farm girl to a homicidal monster. Eischeid points to psychological triggers, like getting dumped by her fiancé and not having kids of her own, alongside chance events (she needed a job and was able to get one as a prison guard through a relative), and the simple fact that she loved the power that came with the Nazi uniform.

Readers hoping for an “aha!” moment that unlocks the secrets of good and evil will be disappointed. In the end, Mandl is represented as a regular person who was put in an extreme circumstance and learned that she loved the power that came with it: a tale as old as time itself. (The fact that she was indoctrinated to hate Jews is never explicitly mentioned, but feels relevant to add).

For me the real problem stems from two questions that Eischeid asks her readers at the beginning of the book: “Is it wrong to try and understand [Mendl’s] actions from some previously assumed mantle of empathy? And how does one tell Maria’s story with compassion without neglecting the very real suffering of the victims?”


Is it wrong to tell the story of a war criminal’s war crimes from a place of empathy? How can a war criminal’s story be told with compassion? While respecting the suffering of…her victims?

I have a few questions of my own for Eischeid and her editorial team. Why does Mandl deserve for her story to be treated with compassion? Why does it need to be told at all?

As the author makes clear, Mandl was responsible for thousands of murders, beatings, and other atrocities – many of which she carried out with her own hands. What about these actions, I’d be curious to know, makes Eischeid think that Mandl’s story needs to be told with compassion? Or with empathy?

It’s problem much bigger than this book. Narrating the lives of Nazis and other war criminals in a way that encourages “empathy” and “compassion” opens the floodgates to empathy with their causes. As I’ve written elsewhere, data shows how books that encourage understanding with Nazi characters contribute to Holocaust misinformation, much like the clusterfuck that is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. In a world where Jews are already so hated – and, to be clear, I’m talking about our own moment, not Nazi-era Europe – any narrative that encourages readers to empathize with Nazis can have dangerous real-world consequences.

The other major issue I have with Eischeid’s book is the way it erases Jews and Jewish suffering from the Holocaust. In the book’s 112 chapters (the print edition runs over 500 pages), the term “Jew” only shows up 34 times. On the other hand, “Jehovah” comes up ten times and “political prisoner” nineteen times; Jehovah’s Witnesses and political prisoners are discussed almost as frequently as Jews and there is no real discussion of the racial, anti-Jewish element of the Holocaust. For instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses and political prisoners were among the first populations of inmates over whom Mendl had power, but as the book progresses, most of the Jewish prisoners are described, not as Jews, but by their nationalities, such as “Polish,” “Greek,” or “German.” It takes a fairly in-depth knowledge of Holocaust history to know that the incoming “Greeks” and “Hungarians” the author references are waves of Jews from those countries. Their fate (immediate gassing) is not mentioned, nor is there any sense of the scale of Jewish life taken during the holocaust.

I’d even go so far to say that there are ways in which the book further dehumanizes Mandl’s victims. For instance, Mandl oversaw horrific medical experiments during her reign at Ravensbrük on “Lab Rabbits,” as Eischeid calls the victims, who – to be clear – were not rabbits but actual humans (Jewish ones, in fact, but readers won’t learn that from the book). It’s unclear where the term came from – if it’s what the Nazis called them or a term the author made up – but no matter the source, there is something so demeaning in the way the author continually refers to these human victims like this. At the very least, it seems wildly disrespectful to repeatedly use this term to describe actual people who were submitted to horrible medical experiments.

For a book that is so eager to force a sense of Mandl’s humanity onto readers, there doesn’t seem to be much of an effort to underline the humanity of her victims, especially the Jewish ones.

Also, I hope you enjoy the improvements I made to the book's cover. Now you don't have to look at Mendl's stupid Nazi face! You're welcome.

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