The Ugly Truth: An Exploration of Postwar Representations of the Holocaust Through The Obscene

By Brian Richards
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 2/2 |

In David Berger’s History of Hate, he intersperses his historical and factual narrative with bolded primary source excerpts of the experience. This is perhaps the best way to teach the Holocaust in terms of methodology; to give the reader the facts (with citations) and the perspective from those who were there—including the foulest of details from their experiences.

The book nearly jumps right into a survivor—Kessel’s—depiction of the locked boxcar on his way to a Polish camp: “There was no latrine, no provision... On top of everything else, a lot of people had vomited on the floor. We were to live for days on end breathing these foul smells, and soon we lived in the foulness itself” (Berger 53). Amidst his explanation of the conditions from a historical standpoint, Berger continues to insert survivors’ words into his work, quoting Weiss as writing: “Urine and excreta poured down the prisoners’ legs, and by nightfall the excrement, which had frozen to our limbs, gave off its stench. We were really no longer human beings in the accepted sense. Not even animals, but putrefying corpses moving on two legs” (57).

At first glance, these graphic discussions could seem unnecessary and void of the sort of historical analysis needed in attempting to represent the Holocaust. However, not only does it provide detail but it allows the survivor to speak to the psychological effects of such physical treatment, explaining the reduction of the Jew to even less than an animal in stature. Moreover, Berger subsequently explains that “Under such conditions, excretion does indeed become, as Bettelheim says, ‘an important daily event’” as prisoners were reduced to a pre-toilet-trained childhood (at best) level of treatment (55).

Such representations do not seem an abuse of memory, but rather a memory of abuse; it opens the reader’s eye to something that may make one want to wince upon reading let alone viewing. Berger’s book is one of the most memorable and therefore beneficial texts on the subject as it offers such inside insight mixed with facts and analysis from historians. It is the very personal and disgustingly graphic nature of the work that makes it so unforgettable—and being unforgettable should be the attempt (along with accuracy) of any Holocaust memorialization, teaching methodology, or representation.

As explained, these first-hand accounts, in brutal detail, may have been upsetting but it was this upset that has made the details have such an impact. This does not reveal an unsettling obsession in the modern human but may in fact be the opposite; these things are rather shocking as we are thankfully not confronted with them on a daily basis.

One of the major problems studying the Holocaust, and one reason Holocaust deniers are still so prevalent, was due to a lack of honesty regarding language and brutality in Nazi documents at the time. If history is merely what humankind has recorded (prehistoric times meaning that which has occurred but is undocumented) then it should come to no surprise that individuals, ranging from the man who raised the creator of The Passion of the Christ to the leader of Iran, still absurdly deny the details—or entire concept—of the Holocaust.

The language or lack thereof from Hitler and the Third Reich therefore play a huge role in this context, for it is what feeds into Holocaust denial and enhances the argument for more openness in discussing the graphic details of what occurred. Instead of being put in a gas chamber to rot in their own excrement, Jews were “processed”; instead of experimented on they were “treated”; instead of genocide it was “cleansing” and “racial hygiene” for Europe. If executive orders from the Fuhrer had been more open, more graphic, and as explanatory as those representations Bartov condemns, the learner would have a greater—albeit more disturbing—understanding of the history, while the denier would have even less credit to his or her claims.

For as stated in the introduction to Documents on the Holocaust, “Unfortunately, it is not possible to establish the exact date on which these genocidal decisions were made as the orders concerning them were considered so secret that they were conveyed orally, as indicated by Einsatzgruppen commanders at their Nuremberg trials” (Arad x). That said, it still reveals a nearly incomprehensible amount of ignorance to deny its existence; as Dawidowicz explains in the introduction to A Holocaust Reader, “the documentary sources—both official records and private papers—surpass in quantity and comprehensiveness the records of any other historical era” (Dawidowicz 1).

It is also significant to see the end results, as disgusting as they may be, because it accurately shows the gradual, centuries-long ascension and escalation of anti-Semitism. The book From Persecution to Destruction reveals in its very title the importance of such a timeline in one’s study of history and the Holocaust. The book spans the time from 1700 to 1933, the Holocaust being the culmination of what began as a theological assault on those who believed in the Old Testament. (Relatedly, the mere existence of the content within Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s War Against The Jews shows the length of the evolution and climax of anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world, as the book picks up where Katz’s book leaves off: from 1933 to 1945). In the beginning of the book, Katz explains that although the term anti-Semitism was coined in Germany in the late 1870’s “hostility towards Jews was hardly an unprecedented phenomenon in Germany or elsewhere” (Katz 1).

Yet these brutal instances illuminated and illustrated in films or in Arad’s book or by a college professor are indeed unprecedented. The unfortunately efficient technology—from Zyklon B to crematoriums—were so celebrated by the Nazis and so successful because of that unprecedented nature. Of course, when something is unprecedented, in crimes against humanity or efficiency of technology, it should be noted by historians and citizens alike. 

All of this is not to suggest that when one studies the Holocaust in the modern age he or she does not focus all attention on the graphic details of the atrocities. Although those facets should be studied intensely, this tragic time should be studied intensively. To do otherwise would ignore the larger, lengthier story regarding this terrible stain in world history. However, an interest in these issues are neither dangerous nor are they really related to fascism or reveal a dangerous interest in such a form of government.

There is nothing healthy about almost any obsession, but there is little evidence to suggest citizenry preoccupation with such heinous instances. Rather, this brutal methodology and focus serve as a way to grab the learner’s or viewer’s attention and engrain in them a memory and history that most would like to forget or even deny. Of course, to forget or deny its existence is what is truly amoral, dangerous, and should warrant our anxiety and discontent.


Arad, Yitzhak, Israel Gutman, and Abraham Margaliot. Documents on the Holocaust: Selected Sources on the Destruction of the Jews of Germany and Austria, Poland, and the Soviet Union (Eighth Edition). Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Print. 

Bartov, Omer. Intellectuals on Auschwitz: Memory, History and Truth. New York: Indiana University Press, 1993. Print.

 Berger, David. History and Hate. Romanville: Jewish Publications Society, 1997. Print.

Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945. United States and Canada: Bantam, 1986. Print.

Dawidowicz, Lucy. A Holocaust Reader (Library of Jewish Studies). New York: Behrman House Publishing, 1976. Print.

Katz, Jacob. From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006. Print.

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