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In 1971, journalist Gitta Sereny interviewed Franz Stangl, who had been the commandant of the death camp at Sobibór and, later, the camp at Treblinka. 

“Would it be true to say that you were used to the liquidations?”
He thought for a moment. “To tell the truth,” he then said, slowly and thoughtfully, “one did become used to it.”

“In days? Weeks? Months?”
“Months. It was months before I could look one of them in the eye. I repressed it all by trying to create a special place: gardens, new barracks, new kitchens, new everything: barbers, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters. There were hundreds of ways to take one’s mind off it; I used them all.”

“Even so, if you felt that strongly, there had to be times, perhaps at night, in the dark, when you couldn’t avoid thinking about it.”
“In the end, the only way to deal with it was to drink. I took a large glass of brandy to bed with me each night and I drank.”

“I think you are evading my question.”
“No, I don’t mean to; of course, thoughts came. But I forced them away. I made myself concentrate on work, work, and again work.”

“Would it be true to say that you finally felt they weren’t really human beings?”
“When I was on a trip once, years later in Brazil,” he said, his face deeply concentrated and obviously reliving the experience, “my train stopped next to a slaughterhouse. The cattle in the pens, hearing the noise of the train, trotted up to the fence and stared at the train. They were very close to my window, one crowding the other, looking at me through that fence. I thought then, ‘Look at this; this reminds me of Poland; that’s just how the people looked, trustingly, just before they went into the tins . . . ’”

“You said tins,” I interrupted. “What do you mean?” But he went on without hearing, or answering me.
“ . . . I couldn’t eat tinned meat after that. Those big eyes . . . which looked at me . . . not knowing that in no time at all they’d all be dead.” He paused. His face was drawn. At this moment he looked old and worn and sad.

"So you didn’t feel they were human beings?"
“Cargo,” he said tonelessly. “They were cargo.” He raised and dropped his hand in a gesture of despair. Both our voices had dropped. It was one of the few times in those weeks of talks that he made no effort to cloak his despair, and his hopeless grief allowed a moment of sympathy.

“When do you think you began to think of them as cargo? The way you spoke earlier, of the day when you first came to Treblinka, the horror you felt seeing the dead bodies everywhere—they weren’t ‘cargo’ to you then, were they?”
“I think it started the day I first saw the Totenlager [death camp] in Treblinka. I remember [Christian Wirth, the man who set up the death camps] standing there next to the pits full of blue-black corpses. It had nothing to do with humanity—it couldn’t have; it was a mass—a mass of rotting flesh. Wirth said, ‘What shall we do with this garbage?’ I think unconsciously that started me thinking of them as cargo.”

“There were so many children; did they ever make you think of your children, of how you would feel in the position of those parents?”
“No,” he said slowly, “I can’t say I ever thought that way.” He paused. “You see,” he then continued, still speaking with this extreme seriousness and obviously intent on finding a new truth within himself, “I rarely saw them as individuals. It was always a huge mass. I sometimes stood on the wall and saw them in the tube. But—how can I explain it—they were naked, packed together, running, being driven with whips like . . . ” The sentence trailed off.

. . . “Could you not have changed that?” I asked. “In your position, could you not have stopped the nakedness, the whips, the horror of the cattle pens?”
“No, no, no. This was the system. . . . It worked. And because it worked, it was irreversible.”1

Citations

  • 1 : Gitta Sereny, Into that Darkness: An Examination of Conscience (London: Pan Books, 1977), 200–02. Reproduced by permission of the Estate of Gitta Sereny and The Sayle Literary Agency.

Perspectiva de un Comandante

En 1971, la periodista Gitta Sereny entrevistó a Franz Stangl, quien había sido el comandante del campo de exterminio de Sobibór y, después, del campo de Treblinka.

“¿Sería cierto decir que ustedes se acostumbraron a los asesinatos?”.
Él pensó por un momento: “A decir verdad”, dijo luego, lenta y cuidadosamente, “uno se acostumbraba”.

“¿En días? ¿Semanas? ¿Meses?”.
“En meses; pasaron meses antes de que pudiera mirar a uno de ellos a los ojos. Lo reprimía todo tratando de crear un lugar especial: jardines, nuevas barracas, nuevas cocinas, todo nuevo: barberos, sastres, zapateros, carpinteros. Había cientos de maneras para apartar la mente de eso; las usé todas”.

“Aun así, si sus sentimientos eran tan fuertes, tuvo que haber momentos, quizás por la noche, en la oscuridad, en que no podía evitar pensar al respecto”.
“Finalmente, la única manera de lidiar con eso era bebiendo licor; cada noche llevaba una copa grande de brandy a la cama y la bebía”.

“Creo que está evadiendo mi pregunta”.
“No, no es esa mi intención; por supuesto, los pensamientos venían, pero los alejaba. Me obligaba a concentrarme en el trabajo, trabajo y, nuevamente, trabajo”.

“¿Sería cierto decir que finalmente sintió que ellos en verdad no eran seres humanos?”.
“Cuando estaba en un viaje, años más tarde, en Brasil”, dijo, su rostro se concentró y obviamente revivió la experiencia, “el tren se detuvo cerca de un matadero. El ganado en los corrales, al oír el ruido del tren, trotó hasta la reja y se quedaron mirando al tren. Estaban muy cerca de mi ventana, empujándose entre sí, mirándome a través de la reja. En ese momento pensé: ‘Mira esto; esto me recuerda a Polonia; así es como miraba la gente, confiadamente, justo antes de pasar a las latas…’”.

“Usted dijo latas”, interrumpí. “¿A qué se refiere?”. Pero siguió sin oírme, o responderme.
“… No pude comer carne enlatada después de eso. Esos grandes ojos… que me miraban… sin saber que en cuestión de segundos todos estarían muertos”. Hizo una pausa. su rostro estaba demacrado. En ese momento se veía viejo, agotado y triste.

“Entonces, ¿no sentía que fueran seres humanos?”
“Cargamento”, dijo con voz monótona. “Eran cargamento”. Levantó y dejó caer su mano en un gesto de desesperación. Las voces de los dos se habían acallado. Fue una de las pocas veces en esas semanas en que no hizo ningún esfuerzo para ocultar su desesperación, y su aflicción desesperada me produjo un momento de compasión.

“¿Cuándo cree que empezó a pensar en ellos como un cargamento? La forma en que habló antes, sobre el día en que vino por primera vez a Treblinka, el horror que sintió al ver cadáveres en todas partes; no eran 'cargamento’ para usted en ese momento, ¿verdad?”.
“Creo que empezó el día que vi por primera vez el Totenlager [campo de exterminio] en Treblinka. Recuerdo a [Christian Wirth, el hombre que estableció los campos de exterminio] de pie junto a las zanjas llenas de cadáveres de color negro azulado. No tenía nada que ver con la humanidad, no podía ser así, era una masa, una masa de carne en descomposición. Wirth dijo: ‘¿Qué hacemos con esta basura?’. Creo que inconscientemente eso me hizo pensar en ellos como un cargamento”.

“Había muchos niños; ¿en algún momento lo hicieron pensar en sus hijos, en cómo se sentiría usted si fuera uno de esos padres?”.
“No”, dijo lentamente, “no puedo decir que haya pensado así alguna vez”. Hizo una pausa. “Verá”, continuó, hablando con su extrema seriedad y evidentemente intentando encontrar una nueva verdad en su interior, “rara vez los vi como personas. Siempre fueron una masa gigante. A veces me paraba junto a la pared y los veía en la cámara de gas. Pero –cómo explicarlo– estaban desnudos, en manada, corriendo, conducidos a punta de latigazos, como… La oración se fue apagando.

… “¿No podía cambiar esa situación?”, pregunté. “En su posición, ¿no podía haber impedido la desnudez, los látigos, el horror de los corrales de ganado?”.
“No, no, no. Ese era el sistema… Así funcionaba. Y, como funcionaba, era irreversible”.1

Citations

  • 1 : Gitta Sereny, Into that Darkness: An Examination of Conscience (Londres: Pan Books, 1977), 200–02. Reproducido con autorización de los herederos de Gitta Sereny y The Sayle Literary Agency.

Audio Version

In 1971 British journalist Gitta Sereny interviewed former SS officer Franz Stangl — the commandant of the death camp Sobibor and later Treblinka. The responses to the questions Sereny posed are excerpted in this audio reading. Stangl was arrested in Brazil in 1967, tried and found guilty in West Germany in 1970. His sentence was life imprisonment and he died of heart failure six months into his term in the Düsseldorf prison.

Connection Questions

  1. What was Franz Stangl’s role in the death camps? What impact did his role have on him? Why does he say that “the only way to deal with it was to drink”?
  2. What words and phrases from Stangl’s interview describe how he saw his victims? 
  3. After the war, Stangl escaped to Brazil. He was captured in 1970, tried in Germany, and convicted. He was interviewed by Sereny after his trial, while he waited in prison for the results of his appeal. How might the passage of time have influenced the way he answered her questions? Might he have answered those questions differently during the war, as the events he describes were taking place?
  4. What information does this reading add to help us understand how the Holocaust was possible?
  5. How do you respond to Stangl’s account? What other questions might you have asked him?

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