Goldhagen on sack

How might a book of “history” from a tabloid publishing house be made? It
would have a suggestive title that conjures up, and appeals to, old
prejudices: An Eye For An Eye, say, since it echoes an anti-Semitic cliche
that contrasts the wrathful Jewish God to the merciful Christian God. It would
have an explanatory subtitle that promises a shock, the revelation of
something suppressed, the story of a crime or some other malfeasance on a
grand scale: The Untold Story of Jewish Revenge Against Germans in 1945 would
do very well.

The jacket copy of the book would offer a teaser of developments so astounding
that no browser could pass it up. “The worst thing that happened to some
Holocaust survivors was that they became like Nazis” would do the trick. It
would have a sensational set of stories inside, riddled with exaggerations and
misportrayals, and fundamentally misleading in their overall effect, but based
on a nugget or two of truth. It would have an ostentatiously presented pseudo-
scholarly apparatus of dense and bewildering endnotes, calculated to persuade
most readers of the seriousness of the enterprise before them, and of the
weight of the material behind the book’s indictments. Fifty pages of notes,
say, and fifteen pages listing sources, appended to 160 pages of text. To
protect the author against the (truthful) charge of misrepresentation, our
tabloid publisher’s product would have to include, tucked away in the
voluminous endnotes, scarcely noticeable disclaimers that contain some of the
truth that the book’s narrative systematically and colossally exaggerates and
distorts. It would adorn itself, on its back cover, with a testimonial from a
reputable historian (for example, Antony Polonsky) from a reputable university
(for example, Brandeis University): “I am satisfied that the author is a
serious researcher…. The book is in fact a major contribution to our
understanding…. I certainly recommend publication.” It would undoubtedly
contain pronouncements from the author to the effect that his book is heroic,
that it would have amounted to moral turpitude on his part to have sat on the
unpleasant truths that he alone, the humble servant of the truth, has
indefatigably unearthed. And finally it would have a lurid picture on its
cover, a cleverly designed hook for a calumnious book dressed up as history.

The only one of all these twisting and vulgarizing elements that is missing
from John Sack’s book is the picture on the cover. All of the examples cited
above are from his book, which strings together facts and pseudo-facts about
individual Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust with the effect of creating
a sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle indictment of Jews in general.
The book fails disgracefully in much of what it does present–misshapen
stories and wild innuendo–and in all of what it does not present, namely a
serious consideration of the context and the meaning of the events that it
describes, and the analytical and moral concepts that it employs. Oh, and the
tabloid publisher in question is Basic Books.

Sack’s book tells us something about the sufferings of Germans during the
months that followed the end of World War ii. This suffering needs to be
acknowledged. After the war, in the eastern parts of Germany that were
occupied by Poland and eventually ceded to it, Poles set up internment camps
for tens of thousands of Germans suspected of having committed crimes during
the war. They also expelled several million Germans from these territories, so
that the land could be settled by Poles and become securely Polish. Drawing on
the testimony of perpetrators, victims and bystanders, including more than 300
hours of interviews, Sack describes the horrible treatment that Germans
suffered, the murders of Germans and the typhus epidemics that claimed
thousands of German lives. Again, the torments were great, and they deserve to
be documented.

It is also true that some of the people serving in these postwar Polish
institutions were Jews, and that some of these Jews committed crimes against
Germans. The commander of the internment camp in Gleiwitz, Lola Potok
Ackerfeld, on whom Sack concentrates a large part of his attention, was a 24-
year-old Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. In Sack’s account, which is based, he
says, on extensive interviews with her and with those who knew her and served
with her, the agony and the anger of this young woman led her to beat Germans
and to allow her underlings to brutalize them further. Some of the treatment
that Jews meted out to Germans, as described in the book, was blood-curdling
and ought to have been severely punished. Some Jews, in sum, became murderers.

If Sack had told the story of German suffering, and of the small number of
Jews who participated in its infliction, and also the story of how those Jews
eventually decided to stop their participation, if he had told this story
faithfully and without exaggeration or embellishment, then he would have
produced a historical monograph that would have contributed, in a minor but
real way, to our understanding of those terrible years. But a monograph would
have been little noticed and little read. And so instead we have this book.
There is nothing sober or learned about it. In no sense does its empirical
basis justify its packaging; or the recent segment on “60 Minutes” about one
of the book’s characters, Solomon Morel, the former commander of the camp at
Schwientochlowitz, which allowed Sack to air some of his more outrageous
claims; or its sensational portrait of Jews dominating Poland after the war
and employing their allegedly vast power in a conspiratorial way to take
revenge for their own recent sufferings by torturing and murdering innocent
German men, women and children.

Sack calls this the “untold story of Jewish revenge against Germans in 1945.”
“Jewish” wrath, not the wrath of some individual Jews, is the central agent of
his story. In Sack’s overheated and stylized world, it was Jews who were
greatly responsible for the crimes committed against these Germans, most of
whom were innocent civilians. It was Jewish survivors of Auschwitz and other
Nazi camps who formed the backbone of the Polish Office of State Security, the
institution likened by Sack to the Gestapo, which masterminded and implemented
this “Holocaust” of Germans. (Sack takes the word approvingly from an expelled
woman from Gleiwitz.) Burning with hatred for things German, these Holocaust
survivors, to quote the astounding first words of the book’s jacket, “became
like Nazis.”

One of the many telling sections of Sack’s book concerns the camp at Lamsdorf.
He introduces the camp by telling us that its commander lost his parents and
his siblings during the war and was himself a survivor of Auschwitz, where he
contracted tuberculosis. According to Sack, this camp was set up as part of a
program to remove Germans living in the surrounding region, which was to be
resettled by Poles. The guards in Lamsdorf murdered in the most brutal ways,
according to Sack, about 6,500 of the 8,000 Germans admitted into the camp.
One of the book’s most vivid and horrific descriptions applies to this camp.
In Sack’s account, the commander of the camp ordered the German women from the
town of Gruben to dig up the bodies of hundreds of Poles whom the s.s. had
killed during the war:

The women did, and they started to suffer nausea as the bodies, black as the
stuff in a gutter, appeared. The faces were rotten, the flesh was glue, but
the guards–who had often seemed psychopathic, making a German woman drink
urine, drink blood and eat a man’s excrement, inserting an oily five-mark bill
in a woman’s vagina, putting a match to it–shouted at the women of Gruben,
“Lie down with them!” “Make love with them!” and, with their rifles, pushed on
the backs of the women’s heads until their eyes, noses and mouths were deep in
the Polish faces’ slime. The women who clamped their lips couldn’t scream, and
the women who screamed had to taste something vile. Spitting, retching, the
women at last stood up, the wet tendrils still on their chins, fingers,
clothes, the wet seeping into the fibers, the stink like a mist around them as
they marched back to Lamsdorf. There were no showers there, and the corpses
had all had typhus, apparently, and sixty-four women of Gruben died.
This is as gruesome a story as one will find in the annals of the Holocaust.
There is one problem with it, and with Sack’s larger account of the camp: its
protagonists were not Jewish.

Sack’s narrative implies, about this camp and about many other places, that
the deeds he discusses are to be inscribed in a ledger of “Jewish” revenge. By
telling us that the commander was an Auschwitz survivor, Sack assures that
most readers will assume that he was Jewish. By not discussing the identities
of the guards of this camp (except to say suggestively that they had “Polish-
sounding names”), he can rely on the reader to make the same false inference
about them, especially in light of his frequent emphasis in the preceding
pages on the grievous crimes of so many putatively Jewish guards. It is only
in the notes, eighty pages away, at the end of an unnumbered paragraph that
consists of a half-page list of meaningless names of witnesses with archival
notations, that the unusually diligent reader will discover the identity of
the commander at Lamsdorf: he was a Polish Catholic. And it is only in the
middle of the previous paragraph of the endnotes that Sack himself admits that
“I don’t know if any guards at Lamsdorf were Jews.” There is no reason to
believe, in other words, that they were Jews. And there is no reason,
therefore, to incorporate this story into this book, at least without a
careful identification of the culprits and a consequent justification of this
camp’s inclusion in a book on “Jewish” revenge.

This technique, employed again and again, of suggesting in the main text that
certain crimes were committed by Jews and burying a disclaimer in the notes,
is just one of the many devices that are repeatedly used to paint a wildly out
of focus and exaggerated portrait of “Jewish revenge.” It should be noted that
whenever a Jew was involved in some brutality, no matter how irrelevant to the
deed this single aspect of his identity (and frequently Sack knows nothing
more of the person than that he was a Jew, nothing of his life or motives),
Sack leaps to identify him as a “Jewish guard,” or simply as a “Jew.” Yet he
repeatedly leaves vague the identity of non-Jewish actors. Sack’s account of
the Lamsdorf camp should itself suffice to warrant the conclusion that his
book aims more at myth than at history, more at defamation than at truth.

An Eye For An Eye contains one demonstrably misleading episode after another,
written in the spirit of the one just discussed. Indeed, virtually every
significant example of Sack’s “Jewish revenge” deserves to be subjected to the
severest sort of criticism. I cannot accomplish that in this space. Instead I
must make do with an inventory of the major techniques of misrepresentation
that Sack uses to create the image of “Jewish revenge.”

There is, for a start, Sack’s tricky way of identifying every Jew involved in
a beating or killing and highlighting his or her behavior, which cumulatively
suggests that Jews were more prominent, and more numerously involved, and more
central to the terrible deeds, than they were. Then there is the imputation of
Jewishness to actors who were not Jews, the example of Lamsdorf being only
among the most blatant. Describing the initial arrival of Germans at the camp
under Lola’s command, a scene in which the guards abuse the Germans, the
narrative tells us that there were fifty guards, “some Jews, some not” and
mentions only three members of the camp’s staff individually (Lola, her
adjutant and one guard). These three were all Jews, giving the impression of a
heavy Jewish representation; but the endnotes inform us that of the fifty
guards, Sack knows the religion of eight, only three of whom were Jews. (This
camp, misrepresented in this way, is the major focus of Sack’s tale.)

Then there is Sack’s skill in making the least relevant into the most
relevant. For surely the Jewishness of most of these Jews is not pertinent to
the description of their deeds. Some Jews–and many more non-Jews–worked in
the Polish internment camps, prisons and security forces. With the exception
of a very few individuals, this book presents no evidence whatsoever that
these Jews were moved by motives different from those of non-Jews, or that
there was anything “Jewish” about their behavior. Neither Sack nor any
reputable historian speaks of the brutalities perpetrated on Germans by
Catholic Poles or Orthodox Russians incensed by the German killings of priests
as “Catholic,” “Orthodox” or “Christian” revenge. Jews were Polish democrats,
Polish Socialists and Polish Communists, just as non-Jews were. And non-Jews
harbored a hatred for Germans as a consequence of German crimes, just as Jews
did. The harping on a single aspect of a person’s identity as an explanation
of his behavior, the reducing of complicated thoughts and deeds to a single
racial or ethnic or religious essence, is a classic method of bigotry. This
method has characterized anti-Semitic literature through the ages.

Excising deeds from their context is another of Sack’s favorite procedures.
Only toward the end of the narrative does the reader come across information
indicating that the horrible deeds imputed to Jews were done under the
auspices of the Polish government and its agencies, which set up the camps,
ordered the internments and coordinated the brutal policies. The discussion of
the book’s Jewish actors is not accompanied by an explicit discussion of the
deeds of non-Jewish actors. Since direct comparisons between the quantity and
the quality of the crimes of Jews and of non-Jews are not offered, the reader
gets no inkling that the horrific behavior of the few Jews described was not
at all exceptional in the context of what non-Jewish Poles or, for that
matter, Czechs and Russians, did to Germans in the aftermath of the war.

And Sack’s outright omission or virtual concealment of relevant numbers must
also not go unmentioned. You would think that such a book would provide a
breakdown of how many Jews were involved, what percentage they were of the
population of perpetrators, how significant they were in the crimes against
the Germans. Not Sack’s book. And I understand why not. To have provided such
information would have undermined the entire thrust of the book. In an endnote
to the preface, with virtually no evidence, Sack tells us: “Hundreds of Jews
joined the organization that ran the prisons and camps for German civilians in
Poland and Poland-administered Germany.” Later in the notes, based on highly
impressionistic estimates with no documentary evidence, we are instructed that
the Jewish percentage of certain selected city police forces was high.
Hundreds of Jews. Sounds like a lot. Yet we learn still elsewhere in the text
that, according to Sack’s generous figures, there were 1,255 internment camps
for Germans, that the Poles incarcerated 200,000 Germans in them and expelled
10 million. How many non-Jews were involved? The book fails to tell us. The
obvious conclusion from these figures spread haphazardly around the book–a
conclusion that the book neglects to mention–is that Jews formed a trivial
percentage of those carrying out the Polish government’s policies against
Germans, and that these policies were in no sense Jewish policies, the
Jewishness of these Jews being utterly irrelevant to them.

Of all of Sack’s methodological failings, his insouciance about hard evidence
is perhaps the worst. In the last few years a large historiographical
literature has been published, in Polish and in English, on precisely these
subjects, but Sack ignores it, relying for his information on accounts, some
of them demonstrably false, of first- and second-hand witnesses. (Needless to
say, the book comes with no serious investigation of the methodological
problems posed by such testimony.) But the facts are that Jews did not run the
Polish Office of State Security and Jews did not engineer the deeds that Sack
recounts. Sack’s assertion to the contrary, and his claim that 75 percent of
those in the Office of State Security in Silesia were Jews (which he and Basic
Books have repeated in an awkward and defensive “News Release”), are sheer

For we know how many Jews were in the Office of State Security. According to a
tabulation of November 21, 1945, by Boleslaw Bierut, then President of Poland,
the Office of State Security had 25,600 members, of whom 438 were Jews. 438!
Not Sack’s 75 percent, but 1.7 percent of its members were Jewish. There were
sixty-seven Jews among the 500 people in leading positions. Moreover, the
Polish historiographical literature shows that those Jews who were in the
Office of State Security did not act as Jews but as Polish Communists (many of
them had scarcely any attachment to their Jewishness), and did not act in a
manner different from the 25,000 non-Jewish Polish Security officers. Finally,
the Office of State Security was not ultimately run by Jewish Poles or non-
Jewish Poles. It was run by the Soviets.

These are the most salient facts about the extent of Jewish involvement and
responsibility for whatever privations Germans in Poland actually suffered;
but none of these facts is to be found anywhere in Sack’s book. Instead he
proceeds with an indictment by means of false comparisons. Thus the accounts
of the deeds attributed to Jews are repeatedly accompanied by irrelevant or
unilluminating references to the crimes of Nazis. At one point the book
compares all of the German deaths in 1,255 Polish internment camps to the
number of Jews who died in Buchenwald alone, to the number who died in Bergen-
Belsen alone, and who died in each of a thousand other places, saying that the
number of German dead was greater. The comparison is perverse, but it suits
Sack’s purpose of suggesting that Jews were like Nazis. (He does acknowledge
that more Jews died in Auschwitz.)

Sack is not beneath resorting to outright fictionalization. Again and again,
he presents highly choreographed scenes of “Jewish” crimes, though the scenes
did not happen as they are related. In the endnotes, one finds the following
sentences and variants of them: “Some incidents [described in the narrative to
have occurred] at the Germans’ arrival may have taken place later on,” and
“some of the conversation at the interrogation [as presented in the narrative]
may have happened at later interrogations” and “I have `reconstructed’ the
conversation,” and so on. How on earth could a serious publisher put out a
book on such a sensitive subject, that makes such startling and damaging
historical claims, when important sections of it are obviously fictionalized?
No wonder Sack’s story of Jewish revenge has gone “untold.”

Sack’s penchant for invention provides one of the “historical” and rhetorical
linchpins of the entire book. Stalin is presented by Sack as a friend–indeed,
a sort of soulmate–of the Jews. He is described in this book twice as the
“Good Fairy” of the Jews, who knew that the loyal Jews would serve him
faithfully: “Stalin’s fondness for Jews wasn’t strange to the Jews, who
assumed that he wanted the Germans pursued by the hounds of hell: themselves.”
Thus Stalin decides as early as 1943 to place the Jews in charge of Poland, so
that they can do his bidding. (On page 53, the book makes a passing mention of
some Catholic Poles, though Sack says no more about them.) This, we are
supposed to believe, is how Jews became so powerful in Poland after the war
and, by implication, why we should lay the crimes at their feet. Of course,
the book presents not a shred of evidence to support this fantasy. Sack gives
not an inkling of Stalin’s well-known and rather spectacular anti-Semitism, of
his destruction of Jewish life in the Soviet Union, of his persecution of
Jews, of his plan to deport the Jews to Siberia. Instead he enlists Stalin in
a myth of Jewish conspiracy of the kind that the paranoid Stalin himself liked
to imagine.

Imust end this abridged inventory of methodological miscreancy here, except to
note that Sack also employs a host of minor methods of misrepresenting the
truth and misleading the reader. German words shouted from the mouths of
brutal Jewish interrogators are presented without translation, as in cheap
fiction, as if the content does not matter, because the sound of the language
is itself supposed to be sufficiently suggestive of an analogy between Jews
and Nazis; and the narrative is frequently ambiguous on the authorship of
words and thoughts. Thus, after recounting a brutal interrogation, which
concludes with the German being dragged away from Lola by her underlings, and
with Lola hearing his screams for mercy, Sack writes, without quotation marks
and with no explanation of whose words these are or where these words
originate, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew passions? If you wrong the
Jews, will they not take revenge?” Is this Sack or Lola? Many readers will not
know. In fact, this passage is Sack at his crudest, a purposely imprecise use
of Shylock’s great speech.

There are many forms of intellectual tawdriness. The ones I have listed so far
have to do with historiographical matters, with the scruples of historical
research. Not least in a time of “Holocaust revisionism,” a violation of these
scruples is worth exposing; and John Sack’s and Basic Books’s violation of
these scruples is a scandal. (As is Sack’s grotesque insistence on presenting
the book as an expression of his own Jewishness, even invoking the Torah’s
injunction to “bear honest witness.”) But the scandal is greater still. For
Sack is as sloppy morally as he is methodologically. The moral categories upon
which he bases his analysis are seriously flawed, and the most flawed one of
them all is the central concept of his book, I mean the concept of “Jewish

Imagine that 6 million Americans–or, speaking proportionately, tens of
millions of Americans today–were systematically slaughtered. Imagine that a
few hundred Americans lived in another country under a foreign government, a
government to which they gave their allegiance, and that these few hundred
were members of that government’s institutions. Imagine that those
institutions employed tens of thousands of people who killed thousands of
people from the country that had initially slaughtered the millions of
Americans, and also killed many people of the country now exacting
retribution. Imagine that the remaining scores of millions of Americans took
absolutely no part in the deeds, and did not even know about them. Would we
call this “American revenge”? Would a reputable publisher publish the “untold
story” of “American revenge”?

But this is what has been done with Jews. Not surprisingly, there is a
disclaimer deep in Sack’s endnotes, in what appears to be a random location, a
place to which no reader would think of turning for information of such
importance, and it reads: “They hadn’t mobilized all the Jews and the Jewish
state: there was no Jewish state [emphasis in original].” In the same
paragraph Sack also acknowledges that there are vast differences between what
these Jews did to Germans and what the Germans did to Jews, since the Jews did
not plan to exterminate the entire German people “and, in the end, didn’t kill
even 2 percent of what the Germans did.” So, even if Sack here wrongly
attributes all of the German deaths to the Jews, he does seem to know that the
Holocaust was incommensurate with the subsequent atrocities. Why, then, does
he not state all of these points clearly and prominently in the body of his
text, to prevent the grievous misunderstandings? But then he might have robbed
himself of a sensation.

And even in this disclaimer, Sack makes matters worse. He suggests, the
numbers of dead aside, that the Jews were in some ways worse than the Germans,
because they acted willfully, while most Germans in his view did not act
willfully, since they were obeying orders from the Nazi leadership. This
misunderstands a great deal. For the routine brutality of so many German
killers, and the zeal with which they killed, can be described only as
willful. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that the Jews whom Sack is
indicting were any less working under orders. Sack’s whitewashing of the
responsibility of the German perpetrators is extraordinary. And the Jews, Sack
astonishingly continues, were worse also because they, unlike the Germans,
knew that what they were doing was wrong.

In another note Sack gives himself away still more unequivocally. After
writing that German prisoners of war were beaten in American camps, he
discusses (not surprisingly) only a single instance, namely, that of an
American Army interrogator who was Jewish (and whom he refers to,
characteristically, as “the Jew”) kicking an s.s. general. Discussing what
might be motivating the interrogator to kick the s.s man (he delivered only
one kick, which Sack obscures), Sack writes, with absolutely no evidence:
“More likely, the Jew was doing some heavy-handed status-seeking, as though he
were saying to [George] Orwell [who was present, and wrote about the incident
in the Tribune in November 1945], the s.s general and particularly himself,
`I’m doing what the s.s. did, so I’m as good as the s.s.'” With this, Sack
unwittingly reveals one of his primary methods, namely the projection of his
own fanciful thinking into the mind of “the Jew.” Jews, Sack imagines, want to
emulate the s.s.!

Sack does acknowledge that the harsh treatment of these Germans by these Jews
was not without “provocation.” Still, he cannot be bothered to explore
seriously the sources and the meanings of revenge, or the differences between
the behavior of a few Jews “taking revenge” (however criminally) and the
systematic, willful, unprovoked and unimaginably cruel slaughter of European
Jewry by tens of thousands of Germans. The reality of Jewish “revenge” against
Germans after the war is never actually discussed in this book. For the
reality is that there was virtually none. It is astounding how little the
survivors of the Holocaust, and those who identified with them, sought to take
vengeance upon Germans. Indeed, the absence of the avenging impulse was almost

Jews in Western occupation forces, soldiers and administrators alike,
inflicted no punishment upon Germans. The many survivors of the Holocaust who
ended up in Germany after the war did not exact retribution on their former
tormentors. And not least for this reason, thousands of German mass murderers,
who manned the mobile killing squads and the concentration camps, have lived
during the postwar period unmolested in Germany and elsewhere. Jews have not
tried to kill them. The only significant “revenge” (and one could hardly call
it that) was symbolic. Wagner was banned from Israeli national radio; many
individual Jews (though not the state of Israel) decided not to buy German
goods or to travel to Germany; and Jews have accepted reparations from the
government of the Federal Republic and called for the trials of German mass

The full story of the Jewish response to Germans after the war, in sum, would
have shown that the deeds described in Sack’s book (those deeds, that is, that
were actually committed by Jews) are only a small footnote to the story. When
one strips away the book’s sixty pages that precede the period of “revenge”
and the fifteen self-congratulatory pages that tell us of its author’s
tireless detective work, one is left with a thin eighty pages of narrative of
the sort that I have exposed here. The book is only a congeries of anecdotes–
many of them dubious and farfetched, and also uncheckable, since they are
based almost completely on personal interviews–about the deeds of merely a
handful of people. (It is important to note that neither Lola, the book’s main
protagonist, nor her guards, however much they beat prisoners, ever killed.
The deaths in Lola’s camp, like most of the German deaths, and the deaths of
Germans that occurred in American internment camps after the war, were due to
outbreaks of typhus and other diseases.)

Some untold story! How satisfying Sack’s analogy between Jews and Nazis will
be to anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and the deniers of the Holocaust, here and in
Germany. What a relief from guilt, what an opportunity for spurious
vindication and wild hatred, his book will give them. I have no personal
knowledge of John Sack. I know nothing of his motives. I am not saying that he
is an anti-Semite. For a student of anti-Semitism, however, the methods of
John Sack’s book ring a bell. Or more precisely, an alarm.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, assistant professor of government and social studies
at Harvard University, is completing a book on the perpetrators of the

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Magazine: The New Republic
Issue: December 27, 1993
Author: Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

False Witness
By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
An Eye For An Eye: The Untold Story
of Jewish Revenge Against Germans in 1945
by John Sack
(Basic Books, 252 pp., $23)