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Prisoner Experience in the German Camps

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Our subject in this part of our lecture is the prisoners experience in the death camps. We’re going to focus, in particular, on the camp of Auschwitz for which we have the most information from survivors but not exclusively. The first thing we need to understand, if we want to look at what the prisoners encountered as they arrived at the extermination camps, and how they try to understand, and what they did understand of what was happening in the camp, what they were experiencing, first thing we need to understand is that the large majority of the people who arrived there can’t tell us a thing. Because most of them were killed within an hour or two of arrival.
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Many others were killed subsequently, even if not in the first hour or two of arrival. Therefore, for the large majority of people who experienced these camps, we just don’t know. What we know is what the survivors can tell us. We know that one of the first issues that they faced, of course, was the shock of what they saw when they got off the trains when they arrived in these camps and trying to figure out where they were and what this was all about. The extent of that shock and trying to find a place on earth for themselves is quite interesting.
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I’d like to read one quotation from Elie Wiesel, from his book “Night” describing that sensation, where he wrote, “But we had reached a station. Those who were next to the windows
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told us it’s name: ‘Auschwitz’. No one had ever heard that name.” Or Primo Levi, who even more pointedly wrote, “We had learnt of our destination with relief. ‘Auschwitz’: a name without significance for us at that time, but it at least implied someplace on this earth.” Arriving at a place that has a name already meant something which tells us just how little people actually understood of where they had arrived.
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What they had to cope with upon arrival at these camps was, first of all, the shock of where they were and then the shock of loss because immediately upon arrival, those who were not sent immediately to death were separated from those who were, and the large majority were taken off to be killed in the gas chambers, marched away, and those left behind are left wondering. In the case of Auschwitz, there was a selection with every arriving train full of Jews. The number of Jews, the percentage of each train left around to be forced laborers temporarily varied, but it might be a few percent. It might be as much as 30 percent of a train.
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But in the other camps, [inaudible] or the Operation Reinhard, camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, the overwhelming majority, nearly everybody of each transport was sent immediately to the gas chambers. The number of people working in the camp was actually very small, working as a maintenance crew and as sorting the belongings of the Jews who had been sent off to be killed. So only a few 100, at most 1,000 in each of those camps and only a few dozen in [inaudible] who had to deal with the belongings and with the dead bodies at the end. In terms of the conditions in the camp, particularly, in Auschwitz, the Jews found themselves dealing with constant terror, constant death all around.
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The smell of burning bodies nearly all the time. They found themselves dealing with intense starvation, where even water was a scarce commodity. The water table in that part of Poland where Auschwitz exists is actually very high, which means that when it rains heavily, the water rises to the surface. The prisoners were not permitted to drink whenever they wanted, only at assigned times during the day, in the morning and in the evening, but their hard work under the sun made them thirsty. But the water was brackish.
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If they spent down to scoop up some water, they would find themselves perhaps risking their lives for drinking when they’re not allowed to or perhaps risking their lives because the water might cause disease in their stomachs, and that too is part of the torture of that camp. They found themselves living with a prisoner hierarchy that set prisoners above prisoners. People in charge of each barrack called the block elder and his subordinates in the block or people in charge of work details or people who had other official positions.
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Some of those people weren’t even Jewish, and whether Jewish or not, some of those people might behave benevolently towards the other prisoners and some of them might not, and behave viciously as part of trying to protect themselves. Prisoners in Auschwitz found themselves going through a process, and psychologists and psychiatrists, some of them survivors themselves have analyzed the process that they went through from that initial shock, that initial sense of loss of their homes, and their families, and their ways of life, even of their hair, of their names where they became numbers as opposed to people with a name.
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The next step they found themselves dealing with, particularly in Auschwitz, is something that one scholar, Terrence Des Pres, referred to as excremental assault. They were being assaulted through their own excrement. The conditions in Auschwitz Birkenau cause not only starvation but widespread epidemic diseases such as dysentery, in particular, typhus and others, and people who suffer from dysentery need to go to the toilet constantly. But you’re not permitted to go to the toilet. If you go to the toilet when you’re not allowed to, you could be killed, which meant that if you need to go to the toilet because you have diarrhea, because you have dysentery, you were soiling yourself constantly and that’s part of the assault, living in your own excrement.
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Part of what happened there, facing these assaults on their personalities, on everything that held dear to them, and even on their most private aspects of life, many of the prisoners found themselves becoming numb in terms of their normal reactions to stimuli around them, and that numbing is a step on the way towards the prisoner not only acclimating himself or herself to the camp, but also could be a step on the way to the prisoners succumbing to that camp. Some have looked at this excremental assault and people soiling themselves as being a kind of retreat. Bruno Bettelheim calls it a retreat to an infantile state. Others call it a retreat to a primitive state. But in fact, it’s simply biological.
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They couldn’t control themselves. They had to become numb to that as well as to other things. But they became numb also to a degree to the pain they felt and to the pain that they saw. Even sometimes, the pain that they saw to the people closest to them. I want to illustrate that with one more quotation from Elie Wiesel’s “Night” a description of an experience of his father’s. There was a point where Elie Wiesel’s father was working and the Kapo, the person in charge of him named Idek was dissatisfied with Wiesel’s father’s work, and he began to beat Elie Wiesel’s father with an iron bar until his father collapsed. Wiesel writes, “I had watched the whole scene without moving.
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In fact, I was thinking of how to get farther away that I would not be hit myself. What’s more, any anger I felt at that moment was directed not against the Kapo, but against my father. I was angry at him for not knowing how to avoid Idek’s outbreak.” Now, how do people cope with things like this? While some we know ended up either succumbing physically and emotionally until they expired. Others even tried to commit suicide sometimes, unable to bear it, but very many tried to cope with these circumstances. Tried to figure out how to get by.
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Some such as the survivor Roman Frister, who writes about this very openly, very courageously in his memoirs and in his essays, talks about the need to look after yourself even at the expense of loved ones. That the only way to survive this assault of the camp on the person was to do everything you needed to do to preserve yourself even at the expense of everybody else. But most people who did that, we don’t know how many there were, what percentage they were, but people like that are people who tended not to write their memoirs.
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Some who did, or who were interviewed by the people doing the research about life in the camps, would often talk about other ways that they might preserve themselves such as the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who talked about surviving by finding meaning in life. He would imagine himself for example, giving a lecture in a medical school to a class on psychiatry. Analyzing the situation that he himself was living at the moment, and in picturing how he might research and present to a classroom of medical students what he was experiencing, he was able to get through the particular experience of the moment. Or others who talked about social bonding of one sort or another. People bonding together and relying on each other.
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Elie Wiesel and his father, Primo Levi and his friend Lorenzo, or many others. If you look at survivor accounts, they often talk about the people who relied on each other. Helping each other out, and that social bonding and reciprocity, helping each other is one of the important parts for at least some people who survive and others of course who did not survive, but we know this from some of the survivors. We also know some people who tried to survive by clinging to a belief. Their religious belief, or their ideological belief in some kind of political ideology or other ideology, and clinging to that higher ideal whether godly or otherwise, somehow would help them get by.
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Of course, there were others who lost their faith, and lost their ideology as a result of what they were experiencing. We don’t know what percentage of people in pursuing all of these routes that involved remaining human? What percentage succeeded in remaining human? We’ll never know. We tend sometimes to put such people on a pedestal as though everybody did everything they could to maintain their humanity, but the fact of the matter is that most of them never lived to tell us. We don’t really know, except for a small sampling of them.

In the second video, Dr. David Silberklang, whom we met at the beginning of the first lesson, will present aspects of the prisoner experience in the Nazi camp system.

Although he focuses on the largest of all the camps, Auschwitz, the various points he discusses are similar for the whole Nazi camp system.

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Poetry and the Holocaust

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