The first sight that awaited batches of prisoners arriving at the concentration camp just outside Zgoda, in southwestern Poland, in 1945 was bodies hanging on the high-voltage electric fence. For the new inmates, this was a taste of what they could henceforth expect. They were crammed in their thousands into Zgoda’s lice-ridden barrack blocks, and day-to-day existence was a series of degrading and sometimes lethal torments. Camp routine was organised around their physical and mental degradation. Washing and sanitation facilities were non-existent, food rations meagre and often deliberately withheld. The sick were forced to linger among the general camp population, spreading typhus and other contagious diseases. Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured. Those attempting to escape were singled out for special treatment: immersion in freezing chest-deep water for hours at a time, and mauling by uniformed thugs wielding rubber truncheons and iron bars. ‘Just shoot me, just shoot me!’ begged one fourteen-year-old, unable to stand the repeated assaults of the guards. Somehow he survived; many did not. At one point, twenty inmates were dying each day. One-third of all those who entered the camp never left.
Most of us today feel that we know this story well. The Holocaust has become central to the public memory of the twentieth century. Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau are familiar names. The spectre of gaunt, hollow-cheeked inmates in their striped prison garb, stumbling towards the gas chambers, is now so