This weekend watched Sophie's Choice again. I hadn't seen it since it was last in the theaters, 1982 or thereabouts. While I remembered the eponymous scene and it was just as raw and vivid and horrific as I remembered, I didn't believe it. I question whether this could have happened. I've read a great deal about the holocaust, and this scene just doesn't ring true to me anymore. While the behavior of the concentration camp guards was sadistic and cruel in the extreme, what point could offering such a choice have made? The doctor was based on Mengele, and he was a sadistic psychopath, but would he have engaged in any kind of discussion with any prisoner? Would the guards have allowed Sophie to speak to him? The only way the Holocaust could have happened (it seems to me) is for the prisoners to remain faceless, part of an indistinguishable mass. So this is a problem. Sophie's Choice is the crux of the book and the film. Is it realistic? I guess so--realistic enough. It certainly works as a metaphor for the character.
My research reveals that the Germans reassured the new arrivals that all would be well, that they would be reunited with their loved ones soon, right after a routine disinfecting shower.
The evil was banal. That's why it was so effective. For a factual description of the arrival at Auschwitz, I recommend "Man's Search for Meaning" by Dr. Victor Frankl. In it, Dr. Frankl says that there were decent guards, and indecent prisoners, and he was there. He describes Mengele as flicking a finger, or a pointer (I can't quite remember) very disinterested in the humanity of any of the prisoners before him. And the destination was either to the work camp, or to the gas and the ovens, and far more went to the latter than the former.
So what does this mean about fiction? What it tells me is that for an event as powerful as the holocaust, you have to have your facts straight. William Styron and Meryl Streep got away with it because the image was so powerful. But they couldn't get away with it on second thought. And that's a weakness.