Sunday, March 10, 2024

Q&A with Susan J. Eischeid



Susan J. Eischeid is the author of the new biography Mistress of Life and Death: The Dark Journey of Maria Mandl, Head Overseer of the Women's Camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Eischeid also has written the book The Truth About Fania Fénelon and the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz-Birkenau An oboist, she is Professor of Oboe at Valdosta State University. 


Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Nazi concentration camp overseer Maria Mandl?


A: I’m a professional musician (oboist) with a longstanding interest in music of the Holocaust. Mandl came to my attention when I discovered she had founded and supported the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz-Birkenau. For a woman known for her brutality, this love of music seemed incongruous and interesting. 


Although responsible for thousands of deaths, and although Mandl instigated the orchestra to bolster her professional standing in the oppressive male hierarchy of the SS, she - however inadvertently and unintentionally - saved the lives of the women in this orchestra.


Q: How did you research her life, and what surprised you in the course of your research?


A: I began my research in 2000 and spent the next 20 years of my life on this project. Eventually I was able to contact and interview dozens of persons with ties to Mandl including family and community members, several survivors of the Holocaust including women from her orchestra, and even, after some negotiation, two perpetrators.


I eventually worked in 32 archives in six different countries and at least eight different languages.


I increasingly became drawn to Mandl’s transformation from “a nice girl from a good family” to brutal killer, and was surprised by how quickly and easily this happened and how fragile the line is between good and evil.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from this book?


A: Barring a psychological disorder such as psychopathy, I do not believe people are intrinsically evil. I believe they can become evil through nature/nurture, the power of the community or the collective, societal pressures, the erosion of empathy, and influences like hate speech, propaganda and rhetoric, and outside “evil” influences.


Sadly, more often than not, we fall down on the side of evil.


We must speak out when we see injustice, we must denounce hate speech and rhetoric and racial and ethnic profiling. We must be eternally vigilant and fight for what is right.


Q: What was it like to write about someone who committed such evil acts? How did writing this book affect you?


A: For a long time I struggled to balance what I was discovering, working to dispassionately describe the most horrific acts while - at the same time - not allowing myself to become desensitized and lose sight of the terrible human suffering. 


It was especially difficult when I became close to some of the survivors, many of whom became very dear friends. In these cases I could not be dispassionate, since it became so personal. I will always be honored they trusted me with their stories and humbled by their courage.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have several books in the pipeline, mostly biographies of some of the extraordinary people I’ve met or learned of through my Holocaust research. No more perpetrators for now. 


Q:  Anything else we should know?


A: I have been so very privileged to work with this material over many decades. As a performer, having the ability to give a voice back to so many musicians who had their voices silenced so cruelly and prematurely silenced, is a true honor.


As a scholar and author, I cherish the opportunity to share the stories and testimonies of so many valiant people, who had the courage to speak. I always say, I receive much more back from this material than I can possibly give to it. I am very thankful.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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