Purdue University Press spoke with author George Eisen about his new book, A Summer of Mass Murder: 1941 Rehearsal for the Hungarian Holocaust.
Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?
A Summer of Mass Murder opens a rather unfamiliar chapter in the history of the Holocaust. It examines the deportation of over twenty thousand Hungarian Jew across the border into Galicia, their consequent murder along with their Galician brethren, and its far-reaching ramifications on the evolution of the Holocaust. It shows that the 1941 deportation and mass murder should not be viewed as a mere part of Hungarian history. It is transnational. The book offers a unique vantage point from which to view the lurches and bumps on the road to the Final Solution. These events also stand out as a portentous milestone that points toward the final phase of the Hungarian Holocaust in 1944. To understand its roots and evolution toward the Final Solution, it requires psychology, cultural studies, and sociology as well as historical methodology. Equally important is the fact that in this case, the personal and the professional are somewhat interlocked.
Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?
The project started inadvertently during a journey to a faraway town in Ukraine, Kamenets Podolsk. It aimed to find out the fate of my two uncles who perished there in one of the most infamous mass-murder in the history of the Holocaust; commonly labeled as the massacre of Kamenets Podolsk. This visit evolved, almost immediately, into an in-depth scholarly exploration of this massacre, its political, psychological, and ideological underpinnings, and the subsequent waves of murders in Galicia. In other words, the book aims to shed light on an unexplored corner of the Holocaust as well as to put in context the story of my two family members who were murdered in this mass murder in the early phases of the Holocaust. It also provides a segue to the evolution of mass-murder into the Final Solution.
Q: This book combines scholarly research with personal narrative. How did the personal aspect change and influence the writing process and experience?
There is always a challenge in remaining scholarly, and being removed emotionally from a story, yet providing a balanced and objective account about atrocities—especially in the Holocaust. What surprised me was the steadily evolving story from the personal to the professional. Of course, the reader will be the final judge as to how one can remain “unemotional” when there is a personal stake in the enterprise. In this case, the personal story serves as a frame for the main narrative of mass murder of one-and-a-half million Jews in Eastern Europe. It was conducted in face-to-face lethal encounters of victims and perpetrators, while taking place before the launching of the Final Solution.
Q: Do you think personal connection and narrative is something that could/should be included in more scholarly research, particularly in the subject of history?
Again, the final arbitrator to this question should be the reader. However, there is a definite “cathartic” underpinning in writing a scholarly book and, at the same time, presenting a personal angle. It can also bring the reader much closer to understanding atrocity and recognizing human motivation for murder or survival at all costs.
Q: If so, what advice do you have for researchers, writers, and historians?
There should be a balance in presenting scientific or scholarly work that can be accessible to the general reader and not just a selected few in the proverbial “ivory tower.” Of course, for that we don’t need a “personal angle.” It’s a matter of writing style. A philosophy of the role of an educator as to whom we are writing for and what is the role of a writer. Again, it’s boiling down to a philosophical approach to writing.
Q: What are a few things that are being studied for the first time in this book?
Again, the book sheds light on a corner of the Holocaust which has not been explored. What surprised me in researching the topic at hand was how crucial role even the low-level SS officers played in the extermination process. They wielded absolute authority over life-and death. Indeed, they were responsible for the extermination campaign in Galicia. That brings in the question what was different in Galicia from other districts of the Nazi universe? Also, what was the role of women in the extermination in the ghettos? How did that evolve into “sexualized murder”? Finally, there is the question of responsibility. At the end of the story, not all mass murderers were brough to justice.
Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?
Again, how even low-level officers or administrators can kill; sometimes as faceless “desk-murderers” and sometimes as active executioners who were pulling the trigger. They were the proverbial executioners in Holocaust by Bullets, as Father Patrick Desbois termed it. But even more shocking was the realization that both “desk murderers” and the active executioners were able to reconcile their ideological philosophy for genocide with unbridled quest for plunder. Finally, the role of the proverbial “neighbors,” who shamelessly participated in the misappropriation of the property of the deportees as they were led away? These are hard to comprehend. Equally hard to explain that even well-seasoned political leaders were short-sighted in the Hungarian governmental hierarchy.
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