The Crime of My Very Exis­tence: Nazism and the Myth of Jew­ish Criminality

Michael Berkowitz
  • Review
By – March 9, 2012

Michael Berkowitz focus­es on how the Nazis invent­ed the myth of Jew­ish crim­i­nal­i­ty in order to strip the Jews of legal rights and respect, jus­ti­fy their own actions, and attempt mass decep­tion and rhetoric of law and order.” He dis­cuss­es Jew­ish stig­ma of crim­i­nal­i­ty and actu­al crim­i­nal­i­ty in the ghet­tos, the death camps, and after the war in DP camps and in the eyes of Ger­mans, Amer­i­cans, and the Jews them­selves. By cre­at­ing inhu­man con­di­tions for the Jews, prac­tic­ing decep­tion and dou­ble talk, redefin­ing crim­i­nal­i­ty, and putting Jews in charge of exe­cut­ing Nazi poli­cies in ghet­tos and camps, the Nazis cre­at­ed a cru­el hoax and a dis­tort­ed real­i­ty that impli­cat­ed the vic­tims. To prop­a­gate the myth of the con­cen­tra­tion camps as penal insti­tu­tions, the Nazi admin­is­tra­tion used penal meth­ods, pub­lic assem­blies, and foren­sic pho­tograph­ing. Mix­ing Jews with non-Jew­ish vio­lent crim­i­nals, they cre­at­ed an upside down ter­ror world where the law-abid­ing were penal­ized and the crim­i­nal reward­ed. They crim­i­nal­ized ide­olo­gies and polit­i­cal move­ments such as Com­mu­nism and Zion­ism and then pun­ished believers. 

The main prob­lem is that the work is not as inno­v­a­tive as Berkowitz claims and he tends to state the obvi­ous. He writes as if the sub­ject was nev­er touched before him, ignor­ing much of the mas­sive, method­i­cal exist­ing lit­er­a­ture and archival doc­u­ments about the crim­i­nal Nazi rou­tines and poli­cies since 1933. Berkowitz’s use of unver­i­fied inter­views, per­son­al com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and mem­oirs is ques­tion­able. For exam­ple, when dis­cussing Nazi hypocrisy, he relates an event that, he admits, was not scru­ti­nized by schol­ars, in which gassing, already in process, was halt­ed in order to pull out a Jew­ish woman who was on the wrong list that day. 

Hence, Berkowitz miss­es some good oppor­tu­ni­ties to devel­op sol­id argu­ments because he does not base his study on con­sis­tent log­ic and thor­ough research. An exam­ple is the prac­tice of mug-shot pho­tog­ra­phy of some Jews in Auschwitz before the Wannsee Con­fer­ence in Jan­u­ary 1942. In fact short­ly there­after, most Jews who were sent to the death camps were not even reg­is­tered in the camps and were sent direct­ly to the slaugh­ter hous­es. Berkowitz could have made a case that for a while, until the pol­i­cy of the final solu­tion became clear to the Nazi admin­is­tra­tion, they attempt­ed to clas­si­fy Jews as crim­i­nals for rea­sons men­tioned above. 

There is no bib­li­og­ra­phy, and there are some errors relat­ed to read­ing of the Pol­ish alpha­bet. For exam­ple, Berkowitz repeat­ed­ly refers to Bal´uty, the poor and run­down area of L´ ódz´ Ghet­to, as Batut,” and street names in L´ ódz´ and War­saw are often mis­spelled or mis­named. Illus­tra­tions, index, notes.

Bat­she­va Ben-Amos has two Ph.D.s, one in soci­ol­o­gy from the U. of Penn­syl­va­nia, the oth­er in clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy from Hah­ne­mann University/​Hospital. In 2007, she received a fel­low­ship for The Sum­mer Insti­tute on the Holo­caust and Jew­ish Civ­i­liza­tion at North­west­ern University.

Discussion Questions