Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans & the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps, by Robert H. Abzug

My Copy: 9780195042368 (image credit to abebooks.com)

“We had known. The world had vaguely heard. But until now no one of us had looked on this. Even this morning we had not imagined we would look on this. It was as though we had penetrated at last to the center of the black heart, to the very crawling inside of the vicious heart.”

–Meyer Levin (pg 19)

This is the 2nd time I’ve read this book. Since it’s a book on the Holocaust, naturally it’s going to be a tough read. It’s also a relatively short read (about 180 pages not counting the notes and index). I found that length to be just right, because it’d would’ve been a tougher read–emotionally–had it been longer.

Inside the Vicious Heart takes its title from the Meyer Levin quote above, which I’d heard before and actually prompted me to read this book. It’s the perfect title and quote for this work, about the not-as-well-known story of American liberators going to the camps the first time, some initial impressions and how some camps were found.

It’s also a work of sociology, giving readers explanations and impressions for what was going through the minds of many soldiers (much of it in their own words) as to how they reacted and how it changed as time went on.

I’ve read some reviews concerning this book and it’s repetition, that it doesn’t offer much new ground on a re-tread subject. However, this book was written in the mid-1980s, so it’s likely it became a resource for scholars over the years (hence the “no new ground” claim). To me, this book is interesting because while other books (because of time and the change of scholarship) tend to make little asides to American liberators and what they’ve found, this book goes completely into it, an introductory view.

Also, probably because of its publication date and the sources involved, some of these Holocaust scenes could be considered “tamer” (which sounds REALLY bad, I know, but I can’t think of a better word). But in our 21st century society, we seem to crave realism in our books and films, like it’s a gory story just for us. We have to remember it wasn’t so in the 80s, and for many, the typical shot of mass graves would’ve been disturbing enough, let alone the living.

Also, let’s consider the sources…

The photographs are–even today–mostly ones I haven’t seen in other Holocaust texts that I can remember (and no, I haven’t read them all yet). But these pictures are different: most of them are taken by the American army and journalists that happened to be with them in the initial few weeks after they first entered the camps. The pictures only elaborate on what Mr. Abzug is saying and quoting–they’re punctuating what’s there. Some of these camps Mr. Abzug describes I don’t think I’ve even heard of before, but then again, there were camps and sub-camps and sub-sub-camps, so that’s not unheard of, I imagine.

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“Editors, including Julius Ochs Adler of the New York Times, at Buchenwald”–pg 134 in book (image used actually from google images for clarity)

Inside the Vicious Heart is not just about the photos (and it does have plenty of them), it’s about the American army that liberated them and how differently the scenario played out in some instances.

(And not to give too much away, but let’s just say I had a little less respect for General Patton and more for Eisenhower after reading this book–you’ll probably figure out why.)

It’s a difficult read in that as we read about the soldiers’ initial shock, we also get some insight into how many of them shut down and went numb, like they were dismissing it just enough so they wouldn’t start screaming. I think it was a moment where they understood at a base level what had gone through the minds and bodies of the camp prisoners. It’s eerie, but there’s this psychological thing in the works that’s hard to describe. I’m sure there was lots of PTSD after all the madness.

And then there were the Displaced Persons camps and the problems with keeping them under control and the troops discovering the troubling sociology that’s developed between prisoners and authority, and prisoners and each other after years of exposure to death and suffering.

The book is blunt, doesn’t get flowery, and gives some basic examples of what happened when servicemen tried to tell loved ones in America what had happened, and tell the American public…and the disbelief and shunning. There’s a lengthy criticism of the camp photographs and newsreels by a journalist that refused to even look at them, but considered them “propaganda” anyway. One can only wonder what he’d think if he did.

Then, there are some possible rationalizations for what happened, but the author acknowledges that they’re feeble compared to basic psychology: we can see the proof and deny it if our very universe depends on it. This American disbelief is echoed in other books about the Holocaust, denial, psychology, etc. I’m sure this served as a resource in many of them.

I definitely recommend this book, but this we’d put it under “Viewer Reader Discretion Advised.” Inside the Vicious Heart is a good resource for those wanting to know more about PTSD, sociology, physical endurance and psychological endurance. More specifically, if you want to get more from Europe 1945 (beyond V-E day), the American servicemen, civilian population, and survivors, then this is a start.

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General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Troy Middleton, commanding general of the XVIII Corps, Third US Army, tour the newly liberated Ohrdruf concentration camp. Ohrdruf, Germany, April 12, 1945. (from USHMM)

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