Book Review: The Angel of Zin – A Holocaust Mystery by Clifford Irving

I got this book through a promotion and didn’t really think I was going to like it. The first couple of chapters were OK, but I thought the writing and characters were a little wooden. As I read though, it became more clear what an ambitious undertaking the book is and the writing grew on me so that I liked it much better as I went along.

 Captain Bach, a Berlin police officer, is sent to a Jewish death camp to investigate a murder and discovers an uprising among the inmates. According to a post note by the author this type of uprising actually occurred, although it’s difficult to imagine given the treatment of the people in the camp.

 As you might expect from any book about the holocaust parts of it are extremely difficult to read. The author is graphic about conditions in the camp and there are parts that I wanted to skip because they are hard to take. In my opinion though, this isn’t what really sets the book apart. What is different about it is the author’s attempt to deal with the moral ambiguity on both sides of the fence, Nazis and Jewish prisoners. In that sense it is like the movie Downfall, which in turn is based on the book Inside Hitler’s Bunker, which I haven’t read, but which describes the last ten days of Hitler’s life.

 What The Angel of Zin and Downfall recognize is that the truly frightening thing isn’t that the Nazis were monsters. It’s rather that they were people. There were certainly more than a few psychopaths mixed in, but on the whole they were people who went along for a number of reasons, for example for the power it gave them or because they were afraid not to. In one great part of the book, the camp commander commends his men because it’s easy to be on the Russian front and fight other armed men. What is hard is to do what they are doing in the death camp without losing their sense of decency. (I may have the actual phrase wrong but you get the idea.) When you come to grips with the fact that many people must have felt that way it is an almost breathtaking thing to read. Captain Bach, the hero, isn’t an idealistic, mankind loving ideal. He’s mildly anti-Semitic and his beloved ex-wife and two teenage children are Nazi believers. He just can’t come to grips with what he sees in the camp, which seems plausible to me.

The author also deals with this on the part of the Jewish prisoners. They know the camp’s secret but still fool newcomers into the showers and take their valuables. Like the Nazis they do this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the basic decision they all need to make between killing or dying. One of the most interesting characters is the Rabbi, who struggles to adhere to Talmudic values in the face of what his people are living through.

The message was summed up by Pogo. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” I’ve never read anything by Clifford Irving before, but I will certainly read more.

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