Author Gitta Sereny, a brilliant interviewer who brought three-dimensional insight into even the most sinister subjects, died at age 91 earlier this month in Cambridge, England, and it's worth pausing to honor her lifelong inquiry into the Holocaust -- and the question of how such monstrous acts were even possible.
As I wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in a 2001 review of her book The Healing Wound:
Sereny, a remarkable woman as well as a remarkable journalist, reminds us that the key to facing such vexing imponderables is to maintain a willingness to question your own assumptions constantly. Call it alertness or honesty or rigor, or something unnameable, but Sereny offers us an invaluable testament to its worth.
Finding books to read on the Holocaust is never an issue. Just this week, The New York Times Book Review features not one but two books on the subject: Hitler died 67 years ago, but it's news that, as the Times puts it, "A. N. Wilson's brief biography examines how a ludicrously run-of-the-mill man like Hitler rose to a position of such terrible power."
For how many years will Sunday papers continue to print sentences like this, from reviewer Dagmar Herzog: "The conclusion that Hitler 'was both very ordinary and completely extraordinary' is banal."
Personally, I find Herzog's sentence banal. If one cannot understand that Hitler was both quite ordinary and quite extraordinary, one cannot understand anything about Hitler or what happened in Europe in the '30s and '40s. Walk the streets of Berlin, as I will later today after writing this, and Hitler seems less a figment of reviewer's imaginations and more an actual person.
Sereny had a rare ability to bring out the humanity in the monstrous. In my review of The Healing Wound, I cited a story about Hitler singling out the young Albert Speer and inviting him to lunch.
"I thought I'd faint," Speer recalled to Sereny in an interview after his 20 years in prison. "I was immediately worried about my suit -- I'd got some plaster on my sleeve that morning. 'We'll fix that upstairs,' Hitler said, and took me into his private suite and told his valet to fetch his dark blue jacket.
"Before I knew it, here I was walking back into the dining-room behind him, wearing his jacket. 'What on earth are you doing?' asked Goebbels -- he had noticed right away Hitler's golden party badge, the only one of its kind. 'He's wearing my jacket,' said Hitler."
Perhaps to Dagmar Herzog such stories are also "banal." I'd submit that they are more useful than yet another quick walk-through of the high points of Hitler's life.
I've lived in Berlin for more than nine out of the last thirteen years. I worry more now than I did when I moved to Berlin in '99 about how the Holocaust will be remembered later. Sereny's work stands out for offering insights that few others can match. For the general reader, I strongly recommend ordering The Healing Wound and following Sereny on her very personal exploration of humanity's most monstrous crimes.