‘Into That Dark­ness’ by Gitta Sereny (1974)

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - JULIE PAR­SONS

Tre­blinka ex­ter­mi­na­tion camp. Some 700,000-900,000 Jews and 2,000 gyp­sies mur­dered there. Franz Stangl, Kom­man­dant, de­scribed his first im­pres­sions: “I stepped knee-deep into money. . . I waded in notes, cur­rency, pre­cious stones, jew­ellery . . . The smell was in­de­scrib­able; . . . thou­sands of bod­ies every­where.” Un­der his com­mand it would be­come an ef­fi­cient oper­a­tion. “I’d be work­ing in my of­fice . . . till about eleven. Then I made my next round, start­ing up at the Toten­lager. By that time they were well ahead of the work up there.”

Gitta Sereny who spent 70 hours in­ter­view­ing Stangl, elu­ci­dates: “By this time the 5,000 to 6,000 peo­ple who had ar­rived that morn­ing were dead: the ‘work’ was the dis­posal of the bod­ies which took most of the rest of the day.” Stangl con­tin­ues: “A trans­port was nor­mally dealt with in two or three hours. At twelve, I had lunch . . . we usu­ally had meat, pota­toes, some fresh veg­eta­bles.”

Sereny met Stangl in 1971. He was in prison in Dus­sel­dorf, ap­peal­ing against a life sen­tence; she was look­ing for an­swers. “Whether evil is cre­ated by cir­cum­stances or by birth, and to what ex­tent it is de­ter­mined by the in­di­vid­ual him­self, or by his en­vi­ron­ment.” Stangl dis­sem­bled, lied, ex­cused, jus­ti­fied. But Sereny would not give up. She ques­tioned him, hour after hour. “My con­science is clear about what I did, my­self,” he said. As he al­ways said. “But I was there . . . So yes,” he said, fi­nally “in re­al­ity I share the guilt.”

Nine­teen hours later, Stangl was dead from heart fail­ure. Sereny spec­u­lated; he died, “be­cause he had fi­nally, how­ever briefly, faced him­self and told the truth”.

Into That Dark­ness tells a sav­age truth. It’s a “look away” kind of book. But look away at your peril. Sereny looked Stangl in the eye. And in do­ing so she chal­lenges us to look at our­selves. To ask: who am I? What would I do? What is my truth?

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