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Book Report: Author's work serves as Holocaust reminder

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Forty years ago, my wife and I and toured the concentration camp at Dachau, just outside Augsburg, Germany.

It was a very antiseptic experience.

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There was an exhibition hall, a museum that traced the history of anti-Semitism. We also saw the spic and span ovens that the brochure said had never been used. The grounds were manicured.

And there was a newish building; a replica of the hundreds of barracks that once graced the camp. It smelled of new pine.

Years later, we toured Auschwitz, the notorious camp outside Krakow, Poland.

What a different experience.

The Polish government had put a fence around ALL of the barracks at Birkenau and let these barracks rot and fall into ruin. We weren't allowed to go in, but the remembrance of the site has never left us.

We were allowed to tour the administration buildings at Auschwitz, which had once served as Poland's West Point. There, we saw the torture chambers and huge rooms that were piled high with used shaving brushes and mugs, false teeth, old suitcases of former residents and an entire room full of Jewish hair, clipped from the prisoners for shipping to German textile manufacturers.

When we left there was little doubt about what the Holocaust was really like.

I was reminded again of our experience when I received a new book, "The Violin of Auschwitz" (Bantam, $20), translated by Martha Tennent from the Catalan, written in 1994 by Maria Angels Anglada.

What a gift Anglada, who died in 1999, has given us.

It's a work of fiction about an Auschwitz prisoner, Daniel, who in earlier days had been a violin maker. When the Nazi bosses find out, two of them make a bet that Daniel can't build a fine violin right at the camp. If he can, the commandant will win a fine case of burgundy wine. If he fails, the camp doctor will get to torture Daniel.

Anglada doesn't leave it at that, however. Each chapter is preceded by documents drawn from Auschwitz after the war.

One guard reported: "On December 1, 1941, I was on duty at guard post 4 from 14500 hrs. until 1600 hrs. Around 1500 hrs. I noticed a Jewish woman walking along the ghetto border. She stuck her head out between the bars and was trying to steal turnips from a parked cart. I fired my rifle. The Jewish woman was mortally wounded.

"Type of firearm: carbine 98

Ammunition used: two cartridges

"Signed:

"Naumann

"Reserve Guard

"1st Company, Ghetto Battalion."

Another document lays out the procedures for punishment in 1942:

"Number of lashes: 5, 10, 15, 20, 25

Instructions: Medical checkup required before administering punishment. A leather whip will be used to apply lashes without pauses; each lash will be counted. It is forbidden to strip or uncover any part of the body. The person is not to be tied up but will lie across a bench. Lashes will be applied to hips and buttocks only."

But it wasn't all bad for Daniel, as he built his violin. The Nazis actually paid salaries to their prisoners at Auschwitz.

Here's a document from the SS Economics and Administrative Department:

"Calculation of SS earnings based on the employment of camp prisoners:

Average salary 6 Reich marks

Deduction for food: 0, 60 Reich marks

Deduction for amortization of clothes: 0, 10 Reich marks

Average life of prisoner: 9 months=270 days

270 x 5.30 Reich marks=1.431 Reich marks."

So if you have any doubts about the Holocaust...

Dave Wood is a former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and former vice-president of the National Book Critic Circle. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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