Interview Commentary

Boder described Jürgen Bassfreund as "a young man of twenty-two who looks much younger than his age due to undernourishment and somewhat stunted physical development caused by the concentration camp regime."1 Born into a middle-class Jewish family in northwestern Germany, Jürgen recalled his physician father breaking up Nazi meetings before 1933 by threatening Jewish boycotts of local farmers. This oversimplified complicated local conditions and exaggerated the economic power of Germany's Jews. It correctly pointed out, however, that they were not passive during Hitler's rise to power.

Like most small-town Jews, Jürgen's family reacted to Nazi persecution by moving to bigger towns and cities, seeking the shelter of large Jewish communities with their own schools and other social services. He and his mother were put to work at slave labor in a Berlin munitions factory during the war, and the importance of that labor to the German economy accounts for the fact that they were among the last Jews to be deported from the German capital to Poland in 1943. Since Jürgen had been removed from the ammunition factory to work on the rail lines, he and his mother were deported separately. He never learned exactly what happened to her. Jürgen's confidence in the Berlin Jewish Community Council, which organized the deportations for the Nazis, remained unshaken at the time of his interview. Although the question of just how much Jewish leaders knew about genocide at the time remains open, recent research suggests that German Jewish institutions probably did as much as was possible under the circumstances to make life bearable for the Jews.

Jürgen tells us that he saved his life in Auschwitz by playing a trick on the Germans. And so he did, although it could easily have backfired. What is most interesting about this episode is that it succeeded with the help of his capo, a non-Jew and, in fact, one of the professional criminals who as a group were notable for barbaric mistreatment of fellow inmates. Unfortunately Jürgen does not elaborate much on the capo's motives.

Like so many other survivors of Auschwitz, Jürgen recalls that the worst happened to him after he was evacuated from the giant concentration camp. He was sent to Dachau, near Munich, and then farmed out to work on a new airfield in southern Bavaria in the last months of the war. Jürgen was half dead with typhus when the Americans approached in April 1945, which may have saved him from the worse fate that befell some of his healthier fellow workers who were evacuated by the SS at the last minute.

Following his recovery in an American hospital, Jürgen moved to Fürth in northern Bavaria where he lived on his own in a German home, worked in a movie house, and learned English. When he gave his interview he was living in the "Funkenkasernen," a former German signal corps center near Munich, then a huge DP camp. One of the few refugees fortunate enough to have all his papers in perfect order and a relative in America prepared to sponsor him, he was just days away from his departure for New York.

1. A version of this interview appears in Boder's I Did Not Interview the Dead, under the pseudonym "Jorn Gastfreund."

From FRESH WOUNDS: EARLY NARRATIVES OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVAL by Donald L. Niewyk. Copyright (c) 1998 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.