Cold Cre­ma­to­ri­um: Report­ing from the Land of Auschwitz

  • Review
By – March 15, 2024

In 1944, József Debreczeni was among the hun­dreds of thou­sands of Hun­gar­i­an Jews whom Nazis round­ed up and sent to Auschwitz-Birke­nau, where about eighty per­cent were killed imme­di­ate­ly upon arrival. In this post­war mem­oir, pub­lished in Eng­lish almost fifty years after his death, Debreczeni chron­i­cles his expe­ri­ences as one of the twen­ty per­cent who were con­demned not to the gas cham­bers, but to slow death by hard labor. In high­ly detailed, infor­ma­tive, and emo­tive prose, Debreczeni — a news­pa­per reporter — recounts his expe­ri­ences across numer­ous hard-labor and death camps with­in the Reich, includ­ing Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and even­tu­al­ly Dörn­hau, the so-called hos­pi­tal of the Gross-Rosen system. 

Cold Cre­ma­to­ri­um is an espe­cial­ly wel­come addi­tion to the canon of Holo­caust mem­oirs because it expos­es read­ers to a num­ber of camps, sub­camps, and labor camps beyond Auschwitz-Birke­nau. While it’s true that Auschwitz-Birke­nau was the major killing cen­ter for most of the war, the avail­able lit­er­a­ture does not always demon­strate the sheer num­ber of camps that exist­ed through­out the Reich. Even read­ers with deep knowl­edge of the Shoah have much to learn from Debreczeni’s mem­oir. Dörn­hau, the cold cre­ma­to­ri­um of the memoir’s title, was lit­tle more than an emp­ty ware­house retro­fit­ted with bunks, where those too ill to work await­ed trans­port to a death camp. In the final weeks of the war, Jews from all over the globe were aban­doned there to die of expo­sure, star­va­tion, or typhus.

This book is a hard read, but one that is time­ly, impor­tant, and exact­ly what a Holo­caust mem­oir should be. Debreczeni’s reporter’s mind helped him cat­a­log minute details of his cap­tiv­i­ty, pro­vid­ing read­ers with an inti­mate — if painful — win­dow into the life of a Jew dur­ing the Shoah. Recall­ing his time at Dörn­hau, for instance, Debreczeni writes, The blue­bird of hope that’s been wink­ing at our bunks has flown away again. The elec­tric­i­ty of the instinct for life is grad­u­al­ly fad­ing from Block A. Dis­en­chant­ed, we turn our atten­tion back to pick­ing lice off our­selves.” Paul Olchváry’s mas­ter­ful trans­la­tion dev­as­tat­ing­ly cap­tures the bleak mood at Dörn­hau when the pris­on­ers real­ized that Sovi­et troops, who were close enough to hear, ulti­mate­ly stalled.

As Jonathan Freed­land explains in his excel­lent fore­word, Cold Cre­ma­to­ri­um can’t be cat­e­go­rized as one of the many uplift­ing sto­ries of sur­vival that tes­ti­fy to the resilience of the human spir­it” — an unre­al­is­tic trope in which too many com­mer­cial­ly suc­cess­ful Holo­caust nar­ra­tives indulge. Instead, Cold Cre­ma­to­ri­um unapolo­get­i­cal­ly cap­tures the lived expe­ri­ences of dead Jews, from the per­spec­tive of a per­son who knew that the out­side would nev­er believe the hor­rors to which he and his fel­low Jews were subjected.

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