4 out of 4 stars
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Hitler’s Basement: My Search for Truth, Light, and the Forgotten Executioners of Ukraine’s Kingdom of Death is an extensive investigation of the forgotten Holocaust in Transnistria, the region between the Bug and Dniester Rivers which the Nazis occupied from 1941 to 1944. A Fulbright scholar, Ron Vossler spent more than a decade of his life researching and writing this book. It all began with a dream that haunted Vossler of a procession of people, which included pregnant women and babies, guarded by men wearing white uniforms. A decade later, he interviewed an eyewitness of a massacre of Jews that took place in a village in Ukraine in 1942. To the author’s surprise, "Nimitzki colonistas," also known as Volksdeutsche or German colonists, from Lichtenfeld did the killings rather than the Nazis. What is more, they were wearing white uniforms. Problem is the author’s grandparents came from Lichtenfeld, meaning he is of Volksdeutsche origin. As a result, he meets with Helmut, a relative on his mother’s side of the family who came from the village of Hoffnungstal. Disturbingly, Helmut has a picture of his father with SS Officer Weingartner and argues that the Volksdeutsche suffered more than the Jews.
Vossler decides that he definitely needs to pursue his research and learn what happened in the Volksdeutsche villages during the Nazi occupation of Transnistria. Did the Volksdeutsche take part in the Holocaust? Why would they participate? Did the Nazis force them to murder Jews? What happened to the Volksdeutsche under the Soviet regime before and after the Nazi occupation of Transnistria? The author answers all of these questions and much more in Hitler’s Basement, which consists of four parts. In part one, he discusses what clues and historical facts made him start this monumental investigation. In part two, he investigates the Road of Death, which is a group of Volksdeutsche villages where the Jews were mass murdered. In part three, he discovers more about the involvement of the Volksdeutsche in the killings and demonstrates how the totalitarian Soviet and Nazi regimes terribly clashed in Transnistria. In part four, he brings the investigation to a full circle and gets closure by obtaining first hand evidence of his relatives participation in the Holocaust in Transnistria.
Without a doubt, Vossler did an outstanding investigation of the Holocaust in Transnistria. He went to the villages located in the Road of Death and found evidence in ravines, ovens, pits, wells, and buildings. He gathered invaluable oral history from elderly eyewitnesses and got hold of crucial primary documents. In addition to his extraordinary historical work, I was amazed by his determination and faith to complete his research. He mentions numerous times in the book how this grim investigation disturbed his mental health. He also felt guilty about his findings because these brought to light the participation of his people, the Volksdeutsche, in the Holocaust. The following line broke my heart: "I will proceed on this research, odyssey which is destined, I fear, to shatter my illusions and break my ethnic heart."
In addition to bringing out the truth about what happened in Transnistria during the Nazi occupation, Vossler masterfully demonstrates the complexity of history in Hitler’s Basement. A great lesson to take out from this book is that history is not black and white. The Volksdeutsche did participate in the Holocaust, but they also suffered immensely under the Soviet regime during the 1920s and 1930s. The author presents evidence of how the Soviets killed millions of people with executions, planned famines, forced labor, and exiles to Siberia. The survivors and the relatives of the victims were the ones who later welcomed the Nazis with open arms in 1941. More than that, they turned into killers for the Nazis. Are their actions justified? No, definitely not. However, this book serves as a historical warning of totalitarian world views that lead to macabre blindness.
Note that Hitler’s Basement is not for everyone to read. My master’s degree is in European History, which is part of the reason I decided to read this book. That being said, it took me a month to finish reading it. The eyewitnesses’ accounts, the documents, and the physical evidence presented in this non-fiction and historical book are quite difficult to internalize emotionally. I was particularly distressed by how children were killed, women were raped, and groups of people were killed in the ovens and ravines.
As for the author’s writing style, I appreciated how smart he was at alternating the vast amount of evidence he presented throughout the whole book and the historical account supported by such evidence. This method makes the reader feel like he or she is making discoveries along with him. My favorite aspect of his writing, though, was how it shows his vulnerability and humanity. Clearly, this was not an easy investigation for the author to complete because he unveiled how his people took part in atrocious historical events.
Unquestionably, I rate Hitler’s Basement 4 out of 4 stars because it is a significant contribution to the history of the Holocaust in Transnistria. Some people will always condemn what they do not want to hear, but the truth is the truth. Vossler also did something rare by telling the truth about what he found while not forgetting to show the other side of the coin. His balanced historical account demonstrates the intricacy of humanity. I recommend this book to historians, history aficionados, scholars of the subject of the Holocaust, and truth seekers. I do not recommend this book to young readers unless they are mentally and emotionally prepared to read about history’s atrocities.
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