Once again, it is with enormous gratitude that on Thursday, March 3, 2016 at California State University, Northridge, Dr. Henry Oster & co-author Dexter Ford, of The Kindness of the Hangman gave an extraordinary talk about the crafting of Oster's memoir. Thank you is simply not enough to show my utmost appreciation to these two amazing men for the gift they paid CSUN and my students for sharing the challenging journey they traversed in bringing Dr. Oster's story of survival to light.
My literature class was extremely honored to hear Dr. Oster and Dexter Ford discuss the process by which they created this amazing testament to survival, hope and courage. As one student notes:
Seeing Dr. Oster in person was such an incredible and humbling experience. When he was telling his tale it was like reading the book we knew everything he was telling us, but hearing it first hand from him made me realize and understand the importance of so many of the scenes especially [Kristallnacht] the "Night of the [Broken Glass]." It was so moving and powerful what he said and it was ironic that he became an optometrist to help people see clearly. I really appreciated when he said “if you have the guts to listen I’ve got the guts to talk.” When he was talking about how they never imagined things could get worse and after each setback and terrible obstacle there was another and another to the point when he was finally liberated he thought something was still going to go wrong and they would die. To live in that situation and hope and rumors to get you by seems so excruciatingly painful that Oster’s current outlook on life is inspiring in that he has this humorous and gracious attitude.---Nicole Lutes
The Kindness of the Hangman details Oster's witnessing of the decimation and murder of his fellow Jews from Cologne, Germany by the Nazis as well as the destruction of his own family. Oster "hid his mother from the SS in an attic in the Lodz, Poland Ghetto. He escaped a firing squad in Auschwitz. Endured a death march through the Polish winter. Formed a life-long friendship in the nightmare barracks of the Buchenwald concentration camp." At sixteen, Oster was liberated by General Patton's Third Army.
My Writing About Literature students were tasked with writing a comparative essay about
The Kindness of the Hangman and Maus II: A Survivor's Tale And Here My Troubles Began. The idea was to let them critically assess and analyze the differences between a primary source and a secondary source each a retelling of a similar horror and time in history, which continues to defy comprehension. And sadly, as Henry Oster noted, such horrors and inhumanity have not ceased in the past and more recent continuing global conflicts of today. As another student of mine notes:
As an Armenian-American, it’s especially difficult to live in a country that refuses to acknowledge the genocide of 1.5 million of your people. America deliberately refusing to accept our history, is essentially asking us to also deny it as a fact, and to forget what happened 100 years ago. What happened to the Armenian people 100 years ago was the first genocide of the 20th century. What Hitler did to the Jews during WWII was evidence of history repeating itself, of what the Ottoman Empire did to the Armenians in 1915. ---Aleen Arslanian
Below are some of my other students' essays in response to these chilling tales of heroism, suffering, and hope:
Out of Darkness by Rebecca Starkman
Of Maus and Man by Jake R. Rarick
The Burden of Survival: A Comparative Thematic Analysis of Maus vol. II (1991) and The Kindness of the Hangman (2014)by Antonio Manriquez
The graphic memoir Maus vol. II: And Here My Troubles Began (1991) by Art Spiegelman and the memoir The Kindness of the Hangman (2014) by Henry Oster and Dexter Ford share in common the accounts of male survivors of the Holocaust, along with the weight, burden, and obligations of its storytellers to accurately represent experiences that only a small percentage of those who suffered as victims survived. Both stories share specific detailed depictions of the brutality of the protagonists’ capturers, the relentless struggle for their survival, and their resolute ability to retain a sense of hope. Both texts are transparent about the source of the stories coming from survivors who have delivered their stories decades after the incidents have taken place. The reasons for and importance of these stories to be told are left either unspoken, subtly mentioned, or left to be deduced only by the fact that they exist.Spiegelman, in his graphic self-characterization, is asked by a reporter about what message he intended his audience to receive from the first volume. He answers, “a message? I dunno…” (Spiegelman 202.2A). Oster and Ford do not reveal any conflict of guilt with Dr. Oster’s survival or the purpose of the retelling of the story. Aside from the fact, learned from external sources, that he donates a great deal of time telling his story at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, California, a thematic element is made obvious through the use of historical context and comparative recent events. Dr. Oster and Mr. Ford have created their text to inform and educate readers of the catalyst of the human atrocities so that a continued effort to make the world more peaceful has another resource to support it. Their interest is not solely with the survival of the Jewish people, but with the tolerance and survival of all people, as argued in the statement,
by Dan Sellery
By the time Henry arrives at Auschwitz, he’d been under Nazi control for years and had mastered many of the smaller details, such as what he calls “the calculous of soup” (51). Henry gives an almost identical account to Vladek’s, but from the Lodz ghetto years earlier. He illustrates that, “you didn’t want to be at the front of the line, because all the good parts of the soup would settle to the bottom, and all you would get would be liquid. And you didn’t want to be at the end of the line, because there was no guarantee that if this can ran out, there would be another” (Oster and Ford 52). Of the many parallels in each text, this is the most similar. Above all, their accounts of the soup demonstrate the savviness of both survivors. They employ tremendous sensibilities for observation and strategy. The agony of slow starvation is incomprehensible for those of us that have never experienced it, but the necessity of every extra calorie is apparent through the fact that both men made it out of Auschwitz alive.
Another resource both Vladek and Henry use to their advantage is their knowledge of languages. Their simple ability to communicate with the right people at the right times saves them from certain extermination. Vladek, the older of the two, had developed a very astute business acumen as well. Combining those two skills, he manages to improve his overall conditions at Auschwitz on several occasions. The Polish capo of his bunk happened to want to learn English, and he is one of the few prisoners that speaks Polish and English. Seizing this chance to improve his situation proves extremely fruitful. Vladek describes these conditions noting that, “I had it still happy there. For me it was not yet the end. Newcomers were afraid from me. I looked like a big shot and the capo kept me close” (Spiegelman, 35.3). He was better fed and better dressed than the rest of the Jewish prisoners. Utilizing his knowledge of the English and Polish languages not only preserves his life, but improves it.
Likewise, Henry is in Birkenau wasting his days away with a looming death seeming inevitable. Yet, Henry evades the inevitable by uncharacteristically volunteering during a selection by yelling out that he speaks German. Though being a German-speaking Jew made Henry few friends among the Nazis or the Polish Jews, his ability to communicate with his evil captors curries enough favor with them to save him from Birkenau. After being selected to work in the stables at Auschwitz I, Henry describes that, “after all these days and nights sleeping with my fellow prisoners like rats, the warm smell of hay and horse urine and manure actually felt reassuring. It smelled rich. It smelled more like life than death” (82). Hay and horse droppings equate to life. As dire as that sounds, it means survival for Henry. At the very least, it’s an improvement upon the overpowering stench of burning bodies throughout the rest of the camp. For Henry, speaking German may very well have been the difference between life and death.
There’s no shortage of adjectives to describe Vladek and Henry’s survival of Auschwitz—miraculous, remarkable, incredible, unconscionable, unfathomable—the list goes on. As great a role as resourcefulness plays, much of their survival hinged on luck alone. Surrounded by indiscriminate killing, no amount of desperation or hard work can preserve life on its own. Henry notes of the Nazis on several occasions that “they will shoot first and ask questions later” (Oster and Ford 89). This is the most difficult part of either story for me to reconcile. In no way do I wish to diminish the accomplishment of survival that either man achieved. Their strength is something unquantifiable that I can never dream of, and hopefully never have to. That said, neither man makes it out of Auschwitz without ample luck on their side. Sometimes it was in conjunction with their abilities, and other times it was as simple as the SS pointing a stick to the left or the right.
The unquantifiable nature of luck and resourcefulness is the most difficult part of drawing conclusions from these two stories. Being lucky but not resourceful results in death. Being resourceful but not lucky results in death. Dealing with genocide on such a large scale leaves little room for anything beyond acknowledgment and heartbreak. Though I can point to Vladek and Henry as success stories—proof that the Nazi ideology lost—I struggle to cope with the utter devastation that surrounded them. Thanks to their good fortune and incredible resourcefulness, we have the good fortune of being able to know their stories and share them in the hope that what they endured never happens again. The sad truth, however, is that it has happened again. It’s happening right now and will continue to happen until we find a way to limit suffering and end hatred.