This is a book to make you think and to reassess yourself. It is not a comfortable read. How would you have created in the circumstances? Set in and near the Nazi concentrations camps and gulags, Todorov illustrates the book with testimony, insightful analysis and always questions as to what we can and what we need to learn to prevent the atrocities acted out then from being repeated. And testimony from many different perspectives – the Commandants of Auschwitz, Treblinka and from the victims, famous like Primo Levi and many others less well known.
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Despite the appalling condition where merely to survive was an achievement clothed in guilt, there were many small acts of heroism and generosity often at huge or even fatal cost to the giver. Moral life within the camps as a vital force for the acknowledgment that we are human. Caring for others seems to have been a vital ingredient for surviving. “Ordinary virtues” continued to exist in the most extreme circumstances.
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The stories of the guards and those taken from the war crime trials give us some idea of what went on in the mind of the perpetrators – their possible loving and kind family treatment and their cruel and even sadistic treatment of inmates in the camps. How did the survivors react – did they forgive or did they hate and want only revenge? What moral beliefs can we take from this – how would you respond?
The book is long, full of terror yet also full of humanity. How do we remember it? What lessons do we need to learn to prevent these things happening again? How is it relevant to our world today?
This is a book for humanity to read – and reread and take in the thoughts and values set out within.
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