George Eisen A Summer of Mass Murder: 1941 Rehearsal for the Hungarian Holocaust, West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2022, 408 p. ISBN: 9781612497761.
Professor George Eisen, the author of the book, as a Holocaust survivor himself experienced the horrors as an infant, with his mother and brother. It is probably not a coincidence that he burst onto the Holocaust literature with a special book titled: Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games among the Shadows (Eisen 1998) in the 1990s. Eisen is a unique researcher and an unconventional scholar. He was born and raised in a poor family in an industrial working-class district of Budapest. As an adventurous young man, he immigrated to Israel, where he served and fought as a soldier; he then settled in the United States, where he pursued a career as a university researcher. Eisen has been awarded honorary doctorates, received numerous prizes, and organized international conferences in several countries. His newly published book, A Summer of Mass Murder explores his research subject from a new perspective, this time scrutinizing the Kam’yanets-Podilskyy Massacre.
Kam’yanets-Podilskyy was one of the first large-scale massacre acts of the Holocaust: on August 27-28, 1941, in the German-occupied western part of the Soviet Union, what is now Ukraine, some 23,600 Jews were killed (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum n.d.). The Hungarian police and gendarmes deported the – mostly Hungarian – victims, and handed them over to the SS. The SS and the German military police eventually murdered the Jews. The mass killings were led by the notorious SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln (Braham 1981). In this large-scale massacre, Jews were killed by bullets, and shot into pits and bombed-out craters. The book recounts that, according to an official exhumation report, the majority of the people, a staggering 65%, were still alive in the mass graves when they were buried. Consequently, the book features disturbing details, only suggested for readers with strong nerves.
Although, there have been other valuable studies on the Kam’yanets-Podilskyy massacre (Gellért and Gellért 2015; Schweitzer 2014), the event is still somewhat neglected in academic discourse and memory politics, not only in Hungary, but also internationally. Eisen’s remarkable book perhaps will succeed in bringing this notable topic into academic and public debate.
Eisen’s book is important for understanding the Holocaust in its process and context, as well as for scientific exploration. Kam’yanets-Podilskyy, in Eisen’s vision, is not just an event in the history of the Holocaust, but bears much greater significance: through this book, the author not only formulates historical and moral questions, but Eisen also reaches some conclusions in his analysis.
The book has an important evidence-based layer using a wealth of archives, literature, research, and documents. It also attempts to understand the full historical context of the Kam’yanets-Podilskyy massacre, as well as the local historical significance of Galicia. Eisen also explores what the ethos of Jews from this geographical region meant at the time. The author describes the contemporary people’s disdain and prejudice towards these deeply religious, spiritual, yet poor and simple Jews. By traveling several times to what is now Ukraine, Eisen carried out his own research on location in order to gain deeper knowledge. On these occasions, he also managed to conduct interviews with living witnesses there.
The book features riveting, never-before-seen or published images Eisen collected from the period. These illustrations are so powerful in visualizing, presenting, and symbolizing the topic that alone for those the book is worth to look at. One of the most striking images is a series of three pictures depicting women with children, stripped naked, and lined up in a row; the last picture shows only the naked dead bodies as a soldier takes aim at one of the victims.
The book also explores the aspects of family and personal stories, which I find the most astounding part of the book. Two of Eisen’s uncles were murdered in Kam’yanets-Podilskyy. The Eisen family often remembered these two brothers and cherished their memory. Eisen’s family is a witness to the atrocities at Kam’yanets-Podilskyy. According to the family’s story, one of the Hungarian soldiers passing through Kam’yanets-Podilskyy recognizes Eisen’s two uncles. He attempts to rescue one of them, but the two brothers would not separate, therefore they die together. The soldier visits Eisen’s family after the war and tells them what happened. Eisen has been unable to forget this story since his childhood. Thus, the book is a precise historiography, enriched by human stories and personal family narratives.
Apart from the scientific, historical, and personal categories, I would also mention the moral, philosophical, and socio-ethical angles of the book. The author seeks to answer the questions: How and why did this cold-blooded murder happen? Who is responsible? In order to attempt to find an explanation, the author describes the historical context of the killings with anatomical precision, yet we may never understand how people could have become so despicable. Apparently, there was no serious external German pressure on the Hungarian authorities to deport the almost 20,000 people to Kam’yanets-Podilskyy who perished there. Why did they do it then, despite the indignation and protests of some of the Hungarian elite? It is a depressing fact and incomprehensible why murderers, in a drunken stupor, threw babies alive into mass graves to save bullets. Eisen cannot answer but poses further questions for contemplation.
The book is rare in that it provides the human dimension of personal experiences in the face of genocide, which often is missing from major historical works. The writing entices readers to ponder about culpability, morality, in addition to the ethical responsibility of the perpetrators, and the reflections of the victims on their personal stories surviving the Holocaust. Eisen’s special focus on such neglected topics as sexual exploitation, sexualized murder, and the role of the “desk-murderers” invites the reader to engage in an analytical exercise about the levels of guilt in perpetrating the crime against humanity.
This work is perhaps the most in-depth and thorough analysis of the Kam’yanets-Podilskyy massacre to date. It attempts to place an undeservedly forgotten event, which is less prominent in the context of the Holocaust, at the center of academic discourse. In addition, the book places an emphasis on female victims and the sexual violence committed against them. I would add that the book stresses the role of people (especially women) who tried to save the victims and spoke out against the deportations. These female figures certainly deserve more credit. The book honors the exemplary resistance of the wonderful female figures: Margit Slachta, Edit Weiss, and Erzsébet Sapáry; as well as Hansi Brand, whose relatives were also deported. Brand, together with her husband Joel Brand, tried to rescue people from death.
In Eastern Europe, in the countries of the former Soviet sphere of interest, the memory and the narratives of the Holocaust have evolved analogously. The topic is laden with forgetting, distortion, and cultural appropriation. The Summer of Mass Murder contributes to gaining insight and a deeper understanding of the Holocaust. It is rare to find such historically accurate research that is, at the same time, a personal and palatable work not only for historians.
Braham, R. L. 1981. The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, Vol. 1 and 2. New York: Columbia Univerisity Press.Search in Google Scholar
Eisen, G. 1998. Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games among the Shadows. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.Search in Google Scholar
Gellért, Á., and J. Gellért. 2015. “Egy tömeggyilkosság anatómiája – Kamenyec-Podolszkij, 1941. augusztus.” BETEKINTŐ 9 (4).Search in Google Scholar
Schweitzer, A. 2014. “Kőrösmező: The First Deportation of the Hungarian Holocaust.” The Hungarian Quarterly 54 (209): 43–53.Search in Google Scholar
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. n.d. Kamenets-Podolsk. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/kamenets-podolsk (accessed 17 April 2023).Search in Google Scholar
© 2023 the author(s), published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston
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