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For the sake of those who say today that they didn’t know anything about it — a large part of the population did know about it.  Perhaps [they didn’t know] that it was quite as brutal as it was in reality.  But they knew that there were concentration camps.  They knew that Jews were kept there.  And later, word got around that they were gassed.  It wasn’t for nothing that it was said in those years, “Take care, otherwise you’ll go up the chimney.”  That was a familiar figure of speech.  It circulated everywhere in Germany.  [An expression like] “otherwise, you’ll go through the chimney” doesn’t come about by chance. 

(from What We Knew, page 259)

I have read a lot of fiction and non-fiction about the Holocaust, much of it from the point of view of the Jewish survivors.  But I’ve long been curious about what “ordinary” Germans had to say about life under the Third Reich, especially since my mother’s parents and her older brother were Germans living in Germany during that time.  When my daughter, knowing my desire to learn as much as I can about Europe during World War II, bought me this book for Christmas, I started it right away but have only just finished it.

In What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany, Eric Johnson, a history professor at Central Michigan University, and Karl-Heinz Reuband, a sociology professor at the University of Düsseldorf, conducted written surveys of German Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and non-Jews who lived in Nazi Germany beginning in 1993.  They also conducted in-depth interviews with nearly 200 of the survey respondents, 40 of which make up the bulk of the book.

The Jewish survivors’ testimonies are featured first, and Johnson and Reuband talked with Jews who fled Germany prior to Kristallnacht, or “night of broken glass,” in November 1938, Jews who left Germany after Kristallnahct, Jews who were deported from Germany during the war,  and Jews who went into hiding.  The second section features the testimonies of “ordinary” Germans and are divided into the following sections:  those who said they knew little about the mass murder of the Jews, those who heard about the mass murder, and those who witnessed or participated in some way in the mass murder.  The final chapters detail the survey results and attempt to determine how much Jews and non-Jews knew about the mass murder of the Jews during the war.

What We Knew is a fascinating, detailed analysis of how much people knew about the the Nazi regime’s supposedly top secret plans to exterminate the Jews, what life was like for Jews and non-Jews in the Third Reich, and whether fear played a major role in the actions of both groups of people.  I applaud Johnson and Reuband for undertaking such an extensive project and completing it while the survivors and the others they interviewed were still alive to detail their experiences.  Rather than just throw out the statistics, Johnson and Reuband first provide an oral history, allowing readers to hear what transpired directly from the mouths of those who lived it.

This is not the kind of book that you can read in one sitting — and not just because of the chapters where the survey data is analyzed in great details.  Even when the interviewees are giving just the facts about their experiences, whether Holocaust survivor or a non-Jew traumatized by witnessing the massacre of thousands of Jews, it is hard to understand that something like that actually happened and heartbreaking to imagine yourself in their shoes.  Johnson and Reuband include a variety of experiences to show how living in different cities or having the support of German neighbors, friends, or co-workers led to different outcomes.  What We Knew aims to show both sides of the story by including the experiences of Germans during the war and by focusing on “ordinary” Germans, not those considered “hard-core Nazis.”

Johnson and Reuband discuss how and when Jews and non-Jews learned about the mass murder, and point out that even if someone had heard about it, they might not have believed it.  Many Germans watched as Jews from their neighborhood were deported, but they may not have known that they were traveling to their deaths.  Many German Jews were very patriotic, and they did not want to believe that their country was turning against them.  Moreover, many Germans supported Hitler’s regime, not for its anti-Semitic policies, but because it ended the rampant unemployment after World War I, improved the highway system, and provided monetary support to struggling families.  Johnson and Reuband also used the surveys to determine whether Jews and non-Jews lived in fear of the Gestapo, what kinds of anti-Nazi activities the “ordinary” Germans were involved in, how the Jews viewed relationships with non-Jews before and during the war, and how all of these things differed by city, age, and for the Jews, whether they left Germany before the war or eventually were sent to concentration camps, among other things.

What We Knew doesn’t aim to point fingers or lay blame, but simply to compare and contrast the lives and experiences of Jews and non-Jews in Nazi Germany to better our understanding of life during the Third Reich, explain how National Socialism rose to popularity, and ensure that the survivors’ testimonies are forever etched into our minds.

Disclosure: I received my copy of What We Knew as a gift. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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