Whatever her other literary achievements, Gitta Sereny, who has died at the age of 91, ought to be remembered above all for her outstanding book on Franz Stangl, the former commandant of Treblinka, based on interviews she did with him while he was in prison, as well as with his wife and others. Into That Darkness is a masterpiece of both journalism and social and moral analysis: Sereny's skill in navigating the evasions and self-deceptions of perpetrators, accomplices and bystanders gives the book its weight. If I had to make a list of just ten or twelve books that anyone wanting to educate themselves about the Holocaust should read, this would certainly be one of them.
Beyond its analytical merits, however, there is also the dramatic quality of the story Sereny unfolds. Two episodes that have stuck in my mind concern Stangl's wife. Sereny managed to elicit from her a description of how horrified she was when she first visited her husband at the death camp Sobibor and discovered what he was involved in, what was going on there:
We walked back to the house, me crying and arguing and begging him over and over to tell me how he could be in such a place, how he could have allowed himself to get into such a situation. I am sure I made no sense - I hardly knew any more what I was saying. All he did, over and over, was reassure me - or try. That night, I couldn't bear him to touch me... [I]t was several days before I... let him again... I finally allowed myself to be convinced that his role in this camp was purely administrative. [Second ellipsis in the original.]
Sereny also asked Frau Stangl what she thought would have happened had she confronted Stangl with the choice of either giving up his role at Treblinka or losing her and the children. Frau Stangl's answer was that he would have chosen her. Later she sent Sereny a note retracting this answer.