In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

‘Beyond Criticism’Eliane Glaser

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Under Two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler 
by Margarete Buber-Neumann, translated by Edward Fitzgerald.
Pimlico, 350 pp., £17.99, January 2008, 978 1 84595 102 3
Show More
Show More

Margarete Buber-Neumann had the double misfortune of being incarcerated both in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. Soon after her release at the end of the war, she wrote an account of her experiences that was published in German and Swedish, translated into English as Under Two Dictators in 1949, then published in more than ten other languages before being revised by the author in the 1960s. This new edition was instigated by Buber-Neumann’s daughter.

Margarete Thüring was born in 1901 in Potsdam. After the 1918-19 revolution, she moved to Berlin and joined the youth movement of the German Communist Party (KPD). She trained as a nursery-school teacher and married Rafael Buber, the son of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. After their marriage broke down, Margarete lost custody of her two daughters and immersed herself in politics, writing for a newspaper produced by the Comintern at the Berlin headquarters of the KPD. In 1929 she met and fell in love with Heinz Neumann, a well-known German Communist. But Neumann became a victim of Party infighting, and he and Margarete were forced into exile, at constant risk of arrest by the authorities in Spain, France and Switzerland. In 1937, as denunciations of ‘deviationists’ escalated, Neumann was arrested in Moscow and jailed in the Lubyanka; later that year, he was shot.

Margarete didn’t discover what had happened to him until 1961. Under Two Dictators begins with her search for him in the prisons of Moscow in 1937; by the time she found out where he was being held, her own position as the partner of a ‘traitor’ had grown precarious. The German Embassy in Moscow was in Nazi hands, and Margarete was given leave to remain in the country for only five days at a time, making it impossible for her to work. Eventually, in June 1938, she too was arrested and imprisoned in the Lubyanka.

From this moment on, Under Two Dictators becomes, for the most part, a detailed account of imprisonment in appalling conditions. Buber-Neumann was held in a tiny cell called a sobachnik, or ‘dog kennel’. From the Lubyanka, she was taken to another prison, the Butirka, where she found herself in a cell so overcrowded that all the inmates had to sleep on their sides and turn over at the same time. The bright lights were never switched off and at 4.30 in the morning, 110 inmates had to fight for the use of ten water taps and five filthy holes in the ground. A defiant community spirit emerged, and the inmates would play chess with pieces carved out of stale black bread (the white pieces were dusted with tooth-powder), and embroider dresses with wool painstakingly unravelled from worn-out sweaters.

In 1939, she was charged with ‘counter-revolutionary agitation’ and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in Karaganda forced labour camp, a sprawling agricultural complex in a remote Kazakh steppe. Arriving in winter after a journey lasting several weeks, she was quarantined in a clay hut, where she attempted to keep warm at a broken stove. The washing facilities amounted to a bucket of thawed snow. Buber-Neumann was eventually assigned to a flea-infested barracks where she had only an old wooden door to sleep on, and was given the job of keeping a statistical record of the daily performance of tractors. When she asked for her case to be reopened, she was sent to the punishment block, where ‘beds’ were piles of twigs. The inmates were woken at three in the morning, had to queue for a breakfast of watery millet soup, and then spent the day weeding vast sunflower fields.

In 1940, perhaps as a result of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Buber-Neumann was abruptly handed over to the Nazis. On a bridge at Brest-Litovsk, the border between Russia and occupied Poland, she and about 350 other prisoners were crammed into cattle trucks and sent via Berlin to Ravensbrück, an SS camp for women. Most of the inmates were ‘asocials’: prostitutes, vagrants and criminals; the remainder were Jews, Poles and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The camp was organised with what Buber-Neumann calls ‘Prussian thoroughness’: there were authoritarian guards, twice-daily roll-calls and neurotically enforced cleaning routines. On Sundays the women were allowed a special meal of goulash, red cabbage and potatoes, and a concert was broadcast from Berlin: ‘A thousand women in striped dresses, all wearing the same white headdress in exactly the same way, showing just the same amount of hair, promenaded up and down the street singly or in twos and threes to the strains of the music. It was an uncanny parade.’

Buber-Neumann was soon given the job of ‘hut senior’ in the asocials’ block, and her first task was to distribute the midday meal. She was immediately mobbed by a mass of women, and saved only by a ‘sadistic’ prostitute from Düsseldorf who climbed onto a stool and ordered the crowd to line up properly. Relieved to be transferred to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ block, she let the inmates hide their bibles in buckets and floor-cloths – and found her generosity rewarded with incessant proselytising.

As the war went on, conditions in the camp became grimmer. Ravensbrück expanded first into an industrial complex (inmates were used as slave labour: the electrical company Siemens-Halske built workshops nearby and a camp for men was constructed) and was then transformed into a death camp, eventually with its own gas chamber. In 1942, Buber-Neumann heard about the mass exterminations at Auschwitz for the first time, and transports of Jews began to be sent there from Ravensbrück. In February 1945, four thousand women were gassed at Ravensbrück: Buber-Neumann watched the trucks returning with the victims’ meagre possessions, artificial limbs and false teeth. As well as Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses, older women were at particular risk, and those who had grey hair began to dye it with a paste made from water and soot. The SS doctor Rolf Rosenthal forced pregnant women who had been arrested for ‘intercourse with foreigners’ to have abortions, some in their seventh or eighth month of pregnancy; and the notorious Professor Gebhardt carried out experimental transplants of bone and muscle on young women, leaving them badly injured. Babies who were born in the camp soon starved to death, their mothers too undernourished to feed them. By the end of the war, more than 25,000 women had died in Ravensbrück of starvation or illness, or had been executed.

Buber-Neumann was treated comparatively well: she was made ‘block senior’ and given a job as secretary to one of the camp administrators (together they managed to prevent many prisoners from being punished for minor crimes). But the illness and death of her friend Milena Jesenská affected her a great deal. Jesenská was a Czech writer and journalist who saved many lives at Ravensbrück by falsifying documents; Buber-Neumann wrote a book about her life, published in 1963. Close female friendships feature prominently in Under Two Dictators: as well as Jesenská, there is ‘Olga’, a German concert pianist sentenced to five years’ hard labour in the gulag; Grete Sonntag, her closest companion in Karaganda; and Carola Neher, an anti-Nazi German actress who had worked with Brecht and Weil.

In April 1945, Buber-Neumann was released from Ravensbrück, just days before most of the remaining prisoners were forced to leave the camp on a death-march. As the Russians advanced from the east she raced towards the American lines (she thought that she might be executed by Russian soldiers if they worked out who she was) and on into Bavaria to look for her family. On the way, she fought off an American auxiliary policeman who tried to rape her, argued with Communists who still kept the faith, and listened to the stories of Jews who had survived the camps. Eventually, she was reunited with her mother, her sister and her sister’s family; her own children had settled in Palestine. She spent most of the rest of her life in Frankfurt, where she wrote several other books, became a prominent critic of Communism and died, after a long illness, days before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Dozens of concentration camp memoirs are published every year. As the last generation of Holocaust survivors dies out, efforts to preserve their memories have intensified. The World Jewish Congress, funded in part by Random House in the US, is running a Holocaust Memoirs Project to help publish survivor testimonies. ‘I want eventually to establish a principle that every manuscript should be published,’ Elie Wiesel, the founder of the project, has said. Under Two Dictators is being reissued now after being out of print for fifty years.

It is a significant account for historians because it was written so soon after the war, because it describes imprisonment under both Hitler and Stalin, and because it pays particular attention to the experience of women prisoners. The writing is very plain. There is only one moment when Buber-Neumann attempts to lift the prose above the functional: ‘It was a typical spring morning,’ she writes, recalling the death of her friend Jesenská, ‘and a warm rain was falling when two prisoners lifted the coffin onto the cart. Somewhere in the rushes of Furstenberg Lake a bird was singing a melancholy little song. Perhaps the guard at the gate thought it was the rain that trickled down my cheeks.’ This new edition has not been retranslated, apart from the final section added by Buber-Neumann in the 1960s, which has been translated by her daughter. The language is often old-fashioned and awkward. ‘Hang it all, do finally stop talking politics,’ an ex-soldier is quoted as saying, ‘the old pig-head doesn’t understand a word of it anyway. We must have quiet at last.’

For some critics, the quality of the writing isn’t an issue. When Al Alvarez reviewed Elie Wiesel’s Night, a memoir of his time in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, for Commentary, he wrote that ‘as a human document, Night is almost unbearably painful, and certainly beyond criticism.’ But no published writing should be ‘beyond criticism’, especially since some of these memoirs – most obviously those of Primo Levi – are so good. It isn’t clear how we are supposed to respond to these books: dutifully, as unimpeachable records of a catastrophe, or critically, as we might any other piece of writing. Reviewers tend to sidestep the problem by summarising what the author went through, then praising the book as an inspiring account of human survival and a salutary reminder of the horrors of the Third Reich.

The vast amount of scholarship about Holocaust memoirs, meanwhile, still gets stuck on the question of whether it is possible to represent the Holocaust at all. Modish language is borrowed from literary theory: there is much talk of ‘gaps’ and ‘silences’, and books are given such titles as The Shriek of Silence: A Phenomenology of the Holocaust Novel and Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction. For those who believe that representation is impossible, or at least extremely difficult, the next best thing is full disclosure, the idea that every detail of each victim’s day should be itemised with atomic comprehensiveness. It is as if the distractions and distortions of literary style can be stripped away, leaving the gulf between experience and the representation of experience as narrow as possible.

It is for this reason, too, that Holocaust museums and memorials employ an ‘experiential’ curating style. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC has had more than 25 million visitors since it opened in 1993, including eight million schoolchildren and 85 heads of state; 90 per cent of these visitors are not Jewish. Visitors go on a ‘journey’, interacting with exhibits, witnessing survivors’ testimonies and becoming emotional. ‘I don’t believe that you could ever understand the Holocaust with the mind,’ the Holocaust Museum’s architect, James Ingo Freed, has said. ‘You have to feel it.’ Such museums represent the Holocaust in exhaustive detail even as they insist that any true representation of it is impossible. Visitors are given a stern message: you must try to experience the Holocaust, but don’t think you can ever succeed.

The proliferation of published survivor memoirs is a product of this economy of duty and unsatisfiable desire. They don’t have to be well written, because the pleasures they offer are masochistic rather than literary. Although Buber-Neumann was not Jewish, Under Two Dictators has a lot in common with Holocaust memoirs. There is a very clear template. They describe the moment of capture; journeys in overcrowded trains without water or toilets; the shock of arrival at the camp; the rudimentary sleeping arrangements; infestations; rituals around food; rituals of survival; moments when adversity is transcended; the process of becoming inured to adversity; the increasingly chaotic and violent treatment of inmates towards the end of the war; the unbelieving moment of release; and the (often difficult) journey to freedom. Originality is not a concern; readers are supposed to respond with reverence, to identify with the author’s ordeal and to share in their act of witnessing.

When Elie Wiesel was scheduled to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s book club to talk about Night, shortly after James Frey, whose memoir about recovering from drug addiction, A Million Little Pieces, had just been revealed as a fake, Amazon and Barnes and Noble swiftly reclassified Wiesel’s ‘autobiographical novel’ as ‘non-fiction’. Gary Weissman observes in Fantasies of Witnessing that Night has also been called a ‘novel/ autobiography’, a ‘non-fictional novel’, a ‘semi-fictional memoir’, a ‘fictional-autobiographical memoir’, a ‘fictionalised autobiographical memoir’ and a ‘memoir-novel’. Wiesel himself described it as a ‘deposition’. His use of the term would have seemed quite natural to Buber-Neumann. A few years after the end of the war, she had the opportunity to give her testimony as legal evidence. In 1946 Victor Kravchenko, a Soviet defector, published I Chose Freedom, a highly critical account of Communism. Kravchenko was vilified by the Soviet Union and Communist Parties around the world, and when the French Communist weekly Lettres Françaises accused him of being a liar and a Western spy, he sued for libel. During the long trial that followed, Kravchenko called Buber-Neumann as a witness (Under Two Dictators had recently been published). Her account of her ordeal in the gulag was highly influential, and Kravchenko won the case.

Yet one consequence of the way in which ‘authenticity’ is taken to be the hallmark of the Holocaust memoir is that people make them up. Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years is the story of a Jewish girl who walked across Europe during the Second World War, living for a time in the company of wolves. It’s been translated into 18 languages, made into a film in France and has inspired an Italian opera. In February, the author admitted that her name was not Misha Defonseca but Monique De Wael; that she was not Jewish; and that her story was false. A few years ago, Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments was also revealed to be a fake, and the veracity of The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski has been questioned by many, including Eliot Weinberger.

The reaction to these discoveries has been oddly mixed. When doubts began to circulate about Fragments, Deborah Lipstadt wrote in the Forward that if the story told there were untrue it ‘might complicate matters somewhat’, but that it was ‘still powerful’. A spokeswoman for Véra Belmont, the French film director who adapted Misha, said: ‘No matter if it’s true or not . . . she just thinks it’s a beautiful story.’ There is a paradox here. On one hand, Holocaust memoirs are seen as unique and precious documents that our culture has an obligation to preserve; on the other, even fake memoirs are praised for their underlying authenticity, as if the genre itself carried its own truth irrespective of whether or not a particular memoir is ‘true’. This is what happens when the sanctification of victimhood collides with a desire for escapism: we want true stories, but we also want stories that are too good to be true.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.