Durlacher, Gerhard (Leopold)

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DURLACHER, Gerhard (Leopold)

Nationality: Dutch (originally German: immigrated to The Netherlands, 1937, granted Dutch citizenship, 1953). Born: Baden-Baden, 10 July 1928. Education: Koninklijke H.B.S., Apeldoorn, Netherlands, 1945-47; studied medicine at the University of Utrecht, 1948-54; University of Amsterdam, 1955-65, Ph.D. in Sociology 1965. Family: Married Anneke Sasburg in 1959; three daughters. Career: Wiardi Beckmann Foundation, 1962-63; professor, University of Amsterdam, 1965-83. Traveled to Yad Vashem to meet fellow survivors of Camp BIIB at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1983, to the United States to interview other survivors, 1986, and to the reunion of camp survivors, Beit Terezin, Israel, 1990. Awards: Anne Frank award, for Drenkeling, and AKO prize for literature, for Quarantaine, both in 1994. Honorary doctorate, University of Amsterdam. Died: July 1996.



Verzameld werk. 1997.


Strepen aus de hemel: Oorlogsherinneringen. 1985; as Stripes in the Sky: A Wartime Memoir, 1991.

Drenkeling kinderjaren in het derde rijk. 1987; as Drowning: Growing Up in the Third Reich, 1993.

De zoektocht. 1991; as The Search, 1998.

Quarantaine. 1993.

Niet verstaan. 1995.


Film Adaptations:

Laatste getuigen [Last Witness], 1991, from the work, De zoektocht.

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Gerhard Durlacher grew up in the German town of Baden-Baden and lived through the initial years of Nazi rule in that town. In his memoir Drowning: Growing Up in the Third Reich he describes 1 April 1933: "We push our way to the front through the crowd of onlookers. Some of them look at us with puzzlement, others passively or with consternation. But there are also those among them who grin as though the spectacle gives them pleasure. Mr. Kindler from the clothing store around the corner is among them. With legs apart and hands on hips, he stands in the front row, the red swastika badge gleaming on his leather jacket. Brawny men in brown uniforms are standing on both sides of the entrance with revolvers strapped to their shoulders and shining black boots on their legs, immovable as statues. Lanky youths, a good bit taller than I, yell out slogans, while older people in shabby clothes murmur either in agreement or shaking their heads. 'Don't buy from Jews, they are your misfortune,' and 'The Jews are dragging down the German people. Germans defend yourselves.' The big display windows are scribbled over with Stars of David in dripping chalk … "

Drowning is a small collection of various remembrances from Durlacher's childhood, before his family fled to what they hoped was safety in Holland. They were ultimately deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942. Drowning was published subsequent to Durlacher's first memoir, Stripes in the Sky, in which he described his experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1942 to the end of the war.

In spite of the scars of the concentration camp, Durlacher was able, in the final ten years of his life, to write about what had formerly been inexpressible to him. According to him his memories came back after reading two books in the early 1980s: Martin Gilbert's Auschwitz and the Allies and Walter Laqueur's The Terrible Secret. Both books attempt to investigate why the Allied forces ignored pleas for help after the true purpose of concentration camps became known. Durlacher agrees with Laqueur's conclusion, which focuses on the nature of belief and the way in which some horrifying atrocities are so numbing that they are impossible to accept. In Stripes in the Sky Durlacher attempts directly to discover why the fate of European Jews was so persistently ignored.

Durlacher was one of 89 boys at Auschwitz who were selected by Dr. Josef Mengele to postpone their entrance to the gas chamber. Mengele doubtlessly had plans for these boys; the war's end came before he could enact them. Durlacher was one of the camp's few survivors to be liberated, in critically ill condition, by the Russians. After the war he eventually made his way to Holland, went to university, married a non-Jew, and became a sociology professor. He had three daughters. His final book, The Search, chronicles his efforts to find the survivors of the original 89 "Birkenau boys" and to go back with them to the camp. He died in 1996.

—Martha Sutro

See the essays on Drowning: Growing Up in the Third Reich and Stripes in the Sky: A Wartime Memoir.