The rotting soul of an SS guard lies bare in this harrowing odyssey through a concentration camp.
In the waning days of World War II, Peter, a 19-year-old German soldier of the Eastern Front, is relieved when his uncle wangles him a safer berth as a guard at a small “labor camp” in occupied Poland. He’s seen and caused plenty of carnage fighting Russians, but nothing prepares him for the camp, where trainloads of Jews, Poles and Gypsies—“material” to the Nazis—are shipped in ostensibly to quarry granite, but really for extermination. Through his eyes, Watkins sees a panorama of barbarism: the train platform where incoming families are beaten, shot and shredded by dogs for any infraction or none; the “showers” where most new arrivals are immediately gassed; the quarry where inmates collapse moving stones back and forth; the camp brothel where female prisoners eke out a few extra weeks of existence by servicing their tormentors. Watkin’s meticulously researched depiction of these horrors is matter-of-fact but grimly evocative. “There was a shrieking inside the shower that sounded like wind in a tunnel,” he writes. Unbearable scenes of cruelty, mothers mourning or abandoning their children, prisoners killing each other over scraps of food or a last gasp of air: The blunt account of a death camp—of unbridled savagery made routine—is heavy. Over the camp, like crematorium smoke, hangs the despair in knowing that every kindly human impulse amounts to nothing. As Peter struggles to retain a shred of decency, he becomes a revealing study in moral corruption. Although he considers himself better than his sadistic comrades—he beats and kills prisoners only when ordered—Peter flounders in ghastly ironies: When he tries to help a prisoner with whom he has fallen in love, he does so by inflicting casual brutality on another woman. With chilling realism and shrewd psychological insight, Watkins captures the hellish glow of inhumanity willingly kept aflame by normalized evil.
A shocking, disturbingly believable portrait of the Final Solution and the depravity that enabled it.