World, Life, etc

Gitta Sereny: Death of a journalistic iconoclast

By Kevin Bloom 20 June 2012

After Hannah Arendt, there was probably no other female writer who brought as insightful and astute a perspective on the Holocaust. Sereny, who died last week at 91, may have had her detractors, but the record on the atrocities of the last century would have been poorer without her. By KEVIN BLOOM

Biographers are well aware, in taking on a serious project, that they are about to learn more about another human being than that human being may have ever learnt about him- or herself. 

The months and years spent poring over personal correspondences, retrieving and decoding work files, interviewing family members, interviewing (if still alive) the central subject—all of these add up to a state of mind where, as many writers of the form have admitted, your own life happens deep in the background.

Then there’s the opposite problem: the frightening realisation that you can never really know someone else, the fact, as Mark Twain put it, that “biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man, because the biography of the man himself cannot be written.”

But what’s the result when that man is Franz Stangl? This Austrian, who joined the Nazi Party at the age of 23 and became a Gestapo agent, was eventually transferred, in 1940, to the Schloss Hartheim euthanasia institute, where he served as deputy to the commander of the entire Nazi euthanasia programme. 

An experimental and training centre for industrial murder, Hartheim was the place where Stangl and others took technical and psychological courses in the mass extermination of Jews. 

As a star pupil, Stangl qualified for a posting to the death camps and soon became pivotal in the “Final Solution”. He was put in charge of Sobibor and Treblinka, and won the “best commandant in Poland” citation for his sterling services—namely, the overseeing of the murder of approximately 900,000 people between 1941 and 1943. 

Again, how do you write the biography of such a person? How do you spend every day for years thinking about this person, thinking about his life, knowing that you cannot fully record his life and still remain sane?

Gitta Sereny, who died last week at the age of 91, did exactly that. In the early 1970s, she spent 70 hours interviewing Stangl, and another 18 months studying records and seeking out the men and women who were involved in some way or another with the story he told.

“Some were intimately involved,” she wrote in the preface to her classic work Into That Darkness, “like his family in Brazil who continue to love him; some appallingly, like the SS personnel who worked under him and who are now back in society after serving prison sentences, and like high Nazi officials, at one time his administrative superiors; some tragically, like the camp survivors who, after miraculously escaping, have now remade their lives in different places…”

There were many others that Sereny interviewed for the book, including diplomatic observers, and the priests who helped people like Stangl escape Europe after the Third Reich was no more. But the exchange with Stangl was the most engrossing aspect of her work—starting slowly and gently, she eventually got the commandant of Treblinka to reveal the intimate secrets of his life.

For example, what was initially difficult and arduous work—the “indescribable” smell of putrefying and decomposing bodies—eventually became routine, he said, where a morning’s transport of 5,000 Jews would be searched, stripped, shaved and gassed, before a break for lunch and half an hour’s rest. 

Sereny, a Protestant who was born in Vienna to aristocratic Hungarian parentage, was 15 when Hitler annexed Austria. In a collection of essays published in 2001 under the title The Healing Wound, we learn that she was one of the few Austrians who did not taunt the Jews that were scrubbing—on pain of death—the Viennese pavements with toothbrushes. Her mother was in fact engaged to a Jew, and the family was forced to flee to Switzerland.

From there she ran away to France, where at the age of 17 she found herself living under Nazi occupation. As a volunteer nurse, she did occasional work for the Resistance, and to avoid arrest she had to cross the Pyrenees on foot and get to the United States by boat. She returned to Europe after the war as a welfare worker for the United Nations—one of her tasks was to reunite with their original families children who had been kidnapped by the Nazis to augment the “Aryan” stock.

Given such a background, Sereny’s focus as a biographer and investigative journalist on the Holocaust and child abuse was fitting. Her doggedness as a reporter was likewise shaped by her early experiences—she came to be known as a person who would attack the most difficult of subjects from every angle. Her portrait of Leni Riefenstahl, Adolf Hitler’s favourite filmmaker, was a famous case in point.

As Gabriel Schoenfeld wrote in a review of The Healing Wound, where a reprint of the portrait appeared: “(Sereny) converses politely with the aging filmmaker, drawing her out about her childhood, her sexual escapades, her artistry, while never losing sight of her as a target. Then, at a natural moment in the conversation, Sereny quietly springs her trap, confronting Riefenstahl with documents that demonstrate something she has always denied: her own immersion in, and promotion of, murderous anti-Semitic hatred. The result is only more denial—but the exchange is dramatic all the same.” 

Which is not to say that Sereny was without her critics. She endured the censure of her peers in the British press for paying the subject of her first book, the child-killer Mary Bell (The Case of Mary Bell, 1972), half the publishing royalties for sitting for a second book (Cries Unheard, 1998). She was also accused of being a Nazi sympathiser when her third book, Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995), exhibited signs of her having befriended Hitler’s pet architect in order to study him.

The Speer book won Sereny the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Britain’s oldest literary award. But in the late 1970s, when her path first crossed Speer’s during her work as a journalist, she grew to “respect and like” him, according to the London Review of Books. While it took Sereny 14 years to finish the book after Speer’s death in 1981, and acknowledging that her biography of the man will probably remain without parallel in terms of breadth and access, it’s still a text that casts a pall over her legacy. 

In 2004, Sereny was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), an honour that in all likelihood had as much to do with her work as a journalist as with her successful legal battle with the Holocaust denier, David Irving. Sereny claimed that Irving deliberately falsified the historical record in order to prove that Hitler knew nothing about the Final Solution, and she provided the evidence to make the libel case brought by him go away. That said, the Guardian Media Group—Sereny’s piece was published in The Observer in 1996—paid in the region of £800,000 to mount their defence. 

Noted Tim Adams in The Observer in 2002: “In part, this animosity (from Irving) seems to be a result of her gender. It is no coincidence that the two major suits Irving has brought have both been against women, who he believes, have been put on earth to bear men’s children: ‘They haven’t got the capacity to produce something creative themselves…’” 

Sereny died on 14 June in Cambridge, England, after a long illness. DM

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Photo: Gitta Sereny


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