Jerry Stahl’s Droll Prose Enlivens His Whistle-Stop Tour Of Death Camps

Jerry Stahl

There aren’t many authors today who are willing to revisit the Holocaust and write about it. But then again, most authors aren’t Jerry Stahl, who has the chutzpah to pull it off masterfully. The author of Permanent Midnight (1995), I, Fatty (2004), and OG Dad (2015), was feeling depressed in 2016, and he wanted to feed his unhappiness to quell his demons. So, he scheduled a trip to Poland and Germany to tour the Nazi death camps. His mode of travel – a charter bus replete with a tour guide who was well-versed on Hitler, Koch, Mengele, and other lunatics who found joy in torturing and killing Jews. Stahl chronicles his experience in Nein, Nien, Nein! One Man’s Tale of Depression, Psychic Torment, and a Bus Tour of the Holocaust. Throughout the book, released this week, Stahl writes exactly what he thinks, and some of his thoughts – such as “Hitler ripped the world apart like a child tearing the head off a doll” – reminds reader of just how horrific the events that occurred at the death camps were. The author’s witty prose is appreciated because without levity a trip around the concentration camp horn would make any man or woman beg for mercy. His ability to provide his readers with a seat on the bus to experience the tour is exceptional. There was only one man for this job, and that man is Jerry Stahl. 

Stahl delves deeper into his book and his trip through this five-question Q&A with Volume 1 Brooklyn: 

You write that in 2016 you were depressed, “so instead of trying to banish the bad feeling – why not feed it.  Give it a reason to live.” Can you expand on this passage? 

Listen. Just last week, the publishers of the US Nazis’ house organ, The Daily Stormer endorsed a candidate named Blake Masters fort the US Senate. This would mean little, were it not for the niggling fact that our once and future plate-smasher, Donald Trump, also endorsed Mr. Masters. Meaning (does it still even register?) that, for all intents and purposes, Hitler fans and Trump fans have stripped away whatever camouflage was left and embraced each other in a giant, public man-hug. A state of affairs that had begun to worm its way into own consciousness, to manifest as some inchoate dread as far back as 2016. So that, without even knowing, myself, where it would lead, I let the utter depresso pall and despair that gripped me in that moment guide me to the true North of Western fascism, the axis mundi of Jew-hating, nationalistic hell, to the bowels of Hitler Country. To the camps. 

Put differently, I knew, without knowing how, that the past I was drawn to visit was, in fact, a portal to the future – to our present. So that now, half a dozen years on, it would no longer be necessary to make a pilgrimage to Poland or Bavaria to see where right-wing anti-Semitic madness would take us. In fact, you need only take a Greyhound to Mar-a-Lago.

Your description of Ilse Koch, the wife of Karl-Otto Koch, the commandant of Buchenwald, is surreal and disturbing. You write that she would ride “through the camp on her horse in skimpy lingerie, daring any of the starving male inmates she passed to look at her. Those who did, the guards dragged off and shot. [She] ‘was also obsessed with tattoos … when she spotted a tattooed prisoner, she would have him skinned, then keep the skin.” I was also shocked when I read that her light switches were made from human thumbs. Looking back, how does this seem possible? 

It should be stated that these aren’t strictly my descriptions of Ilse Koch. These are details recorded by everyone from camp survivors to the Nuremberg Museum. As to how this seems possible, how is any human institutionalized sadism possible? Once humans start putting other humans – human “others” – in death camps and slave camps – it’s no longer a question of how, it’s a question of how much. For the racial purity-driven Reich-monsters, non-Aryans were insects, and whether it was a thumb joint light switch or tattoo skin wallets – the perfect Nazi stocking stuffer – none of it mattered because nothing, and no one mattered but the master race. 

In Voltaire’s immortal words, “Self-delusion is the key to happiness.” And no one has ever been more deluded than the Fuhrer’s acolytes. Unless, of course, it’s the acolytes of Q-backed steering wheel-grabber Donald Trump. Just ask Cassidy Hutchinson.

You got to know some of your fellow companions like Shlomo, “a round-faced, beaming, fireplug of a guy.” Why do you always come back to Shlomo in the book?

Shlomo was a sweet-natured Jewish octogenarian, a New Yorker, who also happened to be passionately pro-Trump. Not someone with whom I would, normally, cross paths. But one of the weirdly beautiful – and challenging – things about this book was getting to spend time with all kinds of characters, some complete strangers, to transcend the judgments that keep us all in our own little bubbles and find common ground. 

On the one hand, like many American evangelicals, Shlo was convinced Trump was “a rascal” predicted in the bible – google “King Cyrus” – and was “good for the Jews.” On the other hand, Shlo had incredible stories about staying in a DP (Displaced Persons) camp in Poland as a boy. Like my own father, he came from the Old Country to America, by himself, when he was ten years old. No doubt, on some level, I was transposing feelings about my own late father onto Shlomo.

Beyond this, perhaps, the lesson is, We are not our opinions. Even – or especially – if those opinions happen to be idiotic, misguided, and globally destructive. To paraphrase the great Jonathan Swift, “I loathe mankind, but love every Tom, Dick and Harry.”

In Dachau, you write vividly about the medical experiment: “Imagine, in the dead of Bavarian winter, a tub on the ground filled with freezing water, into which naked prisoners were submerged, forcibly held under, whereupon the ‘doctors’ on hand tried, with varying methods – and varying degrees of success – to revive them.” This sounds awful. When you were there, did this seem real to you and did the reason for this experiment (to save German pilots shot down over the Atlantic) seem plausible, or was it just another type of torture tactic? 

In Dachau, as at all the camps, and much of Germany and Poland themselves, there is a sense of operating on two levels at once. A kind of bifurcated reality. On one level – the present – you are here, walking where the crimes were perpetrated, and the sensation is so vivid, it’s like you can still see the prisoners lined up for count on the camp-ground, or cramped in the torture rooms, or in the case of Dachau, being plunged in vats of water in the freezing cold – by way of experimenting on a human’s ability to withstand the kind of temperatures suffered by Luftwaffe pilots unfortunate enough to bail out over the icy North Atlantic. Which would of course, be horrific enough. But fast forward half a century—up to 1988—and here is an American, Robert Pozos, director of the hypothermia research laboratory at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. And Dr. Pozos, incredibly enough, decides it might be worthwhile to dig up the old studies, and see if the long-dead torture-meisters had discovered anything applicable to modern studies in the field. 

Hard to believe, but true. It must be. It’s all there in the New York Times, May 12, 1988. Listen: “Because mammals differ widely in their physiological response to cold, hypothermia research is uniquely dependent on human test subjects.” Of the Dachau experiment, Pozos said, ‘It could advance my work in that it takes human subjects farther than we’re willing.’” 

And so, in answer to the question, not only was such behavior plausible. It has, in fact, been revisited, by “legitimate” researchers, here in the United States. Behavior – to continue the plausibility issue – as monstrous, in legitimatizing sadism, as the original SS “doctors” whose findings the University of Minnesota professor decided to disinter. 

To which, what can you say? Wheels within wheels, horror inside of horrors….

In Krakow you write “There’s an aura of heavy peace about the place I can’t put my finger on, but that persists throughout the journey. Something like: The worst that can happen here has already happened…” Is that peaceful feeling still with you? 

Perhaps peace is the wrong word. I had the sense, throughout Eastern Europe, of moving through space where the screams of the victims were echoing. Call it the intersection of politics and perversion.

This may not sound rational. But the deeper I went into Naziland, the deeper my sense that rationality, in the face of sheer, unfettered human depravity, is not necessarily the right response. I’m not sure what that response is – but, barring reason, we all live with the obligation to see that it does not happen again. Even, it pains to me to say, as we are absolutely watching it about to happen…


Freelance writer Wayne Catan is a former Brooklyn resident who lives and works in Phoenix, AZ.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.