I had read Escape From Sobibor and appreciated the immense amount of work that had gone into it. It’s clear that Useful Enemies is no less of a labour of love. Beyond that, it is very difficult to compare the two books. They tell very different stories. Although both are biographical works surrounding time in the camps, the circumstances are so very different that I found it best, for the sake of clarity, to try not to think back to my reading of Escape From Sobibor.
The book tells of John Demjanjuk who, after moving to the United States, was accused of being ‘Iwan the Terrible’ who had caused immense suffering to those under his supervision. In reviewing this, and Demjanjuk’s subsequent experiences once it had been determined that he was not Iwan the Terrible, the book really covers three main areas:
1) Demjanjuk’s life, role in WWII and the Holocaust and the morality of his own actions. It also raises many questions about the strain that the allegations and trials had on Demjanjuk’s later years.
2) The psychology of false memory, needing someone to blame, needing a sense of closure. Clearly the horror of living through the Holocaust is something that is unimaginable but the book – very carefully and sensitively – questions how reliable witnesses could be after facing so much trauma and then so many years having elapsed.
3) The fallibility – or perhaps even corruption – of a US government that seemed to fail at every single turn to prosecute those they had clear and damning evidence against (providing those people could be of ‘use’ in some way) but also turned away a great number of Jewish people through cold and calculating policies, designed – if only subconsciously – to make it easier for a Nazi to enter the country than a Holocaust survivor.
As a Brit, I feel compelled to say that we in the UK were far from blameless and sadly, as a nation, even our current attitude towards immigrants in need can be extremely callous. That said, the focus of the book is largely on US practices and Demjanjuk’s trial in Israel.
Prior to reading this, I had seen an hour long documentary on Demjanjuk and after reading this, I realised it barely even touched the surface of the intricacies of this particular tale. You might initially wonder why this book is so much longer than Escape From Sobibor, when that told the story of so many. Upon reading, it becomes clear that Rashke is telling a different kind of victim’s tale. This one is so morally complicated that it is hard to know whether or not Demjanjuk was victim, persecutor, scapegoat or demon. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions.
Where Escape From Sobibor was almost black and white in its stark – and fully accurate – portrayal of innocent and evil, Useful Enemies paints a much more abstract picture. I believe you could ask 100 people about this book and every one would give you a different answer about the questions it left them with or the opinions they have. I am inclined to think that Rashke has brought some questions to the surface that really must be considered, if never fully answered.