I just finished reading the book, Asylum, by Moriz Scheyer. Is it the best tale of a survivor of the Holocaust? Probably not. What makes it stand out is that he wrote much of this while still in hiding from the Nazis. He’d escaped from his home in Vienna and made his way to France. Ultimately he spent his last months of the war hiding in a convent, which is where he wrote most of the book.
Scheyer criticizes the French because while they did not start the war, did not start the persecution of Jews, early in the war they did nothing. They were too comfortable in their own world, disbelieving that the horrors could happen. Once Paris was occupied, they continued to go on about their business, refusing to believe that it was as horrible as it was for Jews. Even in the Vichy, Scheyer encounters people to him who seem intent upon minimizing what the Germans were doing.
He also meets people who risk their lives and the lives of their child for him. While there is terrible tragedy, there is also much bravery.
It is difficult to read a book on the Holocaust in 2016 and not reflect on parallels with what is happening in the world, as there is greater nationalism across the world and more fear from those who are in marginalized communities. I was most chilled not by the horrors, the big horrors, the big crimes against humanity that took place but the ability of so many to look the other way. Many worked very hard to “normalize” what was going on because it didn’t directly affect them.
Scheyer talks in many places of the stories told about the horrible things done by the Jews to make it seem as if the Nazis had reasons for rounding them up, despite all evidence to the contrary. He talks about the people saying it is not so bad and that those who speak out were overreacting. That was what was chilling because that sort of attitude of people continues on to this day. And it makes me a little sad that as humans our inclination is not to jump to help those who are in harms way but to normalize their situation or to say they must have deserved it. I think we’re better than that.
While Asylum is a book with flaws, it is one man’s experience of Nazi occupied France and it is well worth reading.