The Long Arm of Auschwitz

Bravo for "How I Met the Holocaust" by Lawrence Henry, published last week in The American Spectator. It illustrates what I have long thought to be the single most important impact on Holocaust survivors: life in the camps dehumanized them and often warped their character in the process, leaving them scarred and potentially unstable for the rest of their lives. This is the clear point that Lawrence Henry is trying to make about his Auschwitz survivor in—laws.

To casual readers of Holocaust literature it would appear that the SS guards were responsible for most of the brutalities. Today most people want little more than the "executive summary" of history, so this suffices; the rest they think they can learn from (largely fictional) films like Schindler's List.  Yes, the SS were brutal Nazis, capable of the worst atrocities, and that's that. But digging a bit deeper into life in the camps reveals another and perhaps even darker aspect of the konzentrationlager (KZ), one so corrupting and dehumanizing as to leave its marks for life. Why? Because the system turned the prisoners against each other in the ultimate humiliation of civilization.

For most of the World War II period there were never sufficient SS guards to oversee all prisoner activities; there was simply too much of a demand for young men at the front. So a system of "prisoner leadership" (Häftlingsführung in German) was soon implemented to augment the uniformed guards. Thus compound leaders, barracks chiefs, cooks, infirmary orderlies and the like, along with the notably cruel Kapos who led the work details, were all drawn from the prisoner ranks as trusties, and were beholden to the SS guards for extracting maximum work from the rank—and—file and maintaining order. In daily prisoner life, their powers were virtually unlimited, and most of the frequent beatings were administered by the Kapos with their clubs and truncheons. Indeed the average KZ prisoner saw very little of the SS in his daily life. In return, these trusties were accorded additional food and clothing. Also, their elevated status enabled them to extract bribes of additional food from the prisoners in exchange for getting assigned a less stressful kommando (work detail).

In general, the prisoners were a mixed lot and spoke a Babel of languages. They were sent to the KZs for various reasons, these denoted on their striped uniforms by inverted triangles of different colors. Red stood for Communists, green for common criminals, black for Gypsies and other nonconformists, purple for Jehovah's Witnesses, pink for homosexuals, and yellow for Jews, who wore two triangles juxtaposed to form a hexagram. If a Jew were also a Communist, his "Star of David" was both red and yellow. And so on.  In many camps there was an ongoing rivalry between the Communists and the criminals, commonly referred to as "reds" and "greens" respectively. By 1945, the reds were virtually running Buchenwald on their own, and their brutality was said to have exceeded anything the SS ever did there.

The rank—and—file prisoners lived on the ragged edge, suffering from malnutrition, poor clothing, physical violence and recurrent bouts with the dread dysentery. Typhus outbreaks were also deadly, with a mortality rate of over 40%.  Conditions worsened as the war dragged on; the camps became overcrowded and food and medicine in increasingly short supply. Above all, the threat of the "selektsia" hung over their heads. When one became so debilitated as to be unable to work, perhaps unable even to eat, he was taken away to the gas.

For most people under this extreme duress, survival became their primary motivator, taking precedence over all forms of common human decency. If staying alive meant stealing a crust of bread from one's bunkmate, falsely denouncing a fellow prisoner in order to get his shoes, then these were easy decisions. To survive in an animalistic world, one often had to lower one's self to animal level. The system was corrupt, and thus ultimately corrupting of many who came in contact with it——and physically survived.  Surely the dehumanization of the KZ inmates was one of Hitler's greatest crimes, for if he did not take their lives he stole a part of their souls.

One can only wonder what an adult Anne Frank would have become had she not died of typhus in Bergen—Belsen in 1945. Would she have been as maniacal as Mr. Henry's mother—in—law Greta, hurriedly ripping open food containers as though the contents could have been her last meal? Might she have finally gone mad enough to risk her life on a foolish bet, as Stanley the father—in—law did?

Nowhere else is the long—term psychological damage better demonstrated than in the life of the Italian writer Primo Levi, whose first book Se Questo è un Uomo (If this is a Man) is probably the best description of concentration camp life, and has been widely acclaimed since it first appeared in 1959. Indeed it remains one of the very "eye witness" accounts which not even revisionists and Holocaust deniers have tried to pick apart.

Levi was a chemist by training when he was sent to Auschwitz in early 1944——specifically to Monowitz, where he was assigned to the I.G. Farben plant which made synthetic rubber from coal. Levi never claimed to have seen any gas chambers in operation, no open pits of burning bodies, and no crematoria up close. Above all, he cites no sensational numbers of deaths by any particular cause. His narrative is not interspersed with statistics which only a postwar historian could learn. His prose (even in translation) remains terse, almost laconic, as he lets his readers decide which expressions of horror to apply in each situation. But always lurking is the implied deduction: if this is a man, then surely he has become a beast.

After the war Levi became a successful writer, and for decades he seemed to remain relatively free from any palpable desire for revenge. But Auschwitz had left Levi with permanent scars, and a friend remarked that "Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured."  42 years after being liberated, and in the very building in Turin where he had been born and raised, he took his own life. He left no notes, his friends could offer no explanation, save for postulating that the cause of death was...Auschwitz.                                                                      

Bravo for "How I Met the Holocaust" by Lawrence Henry, published last week in The American Spectator. It illustrates what I have long thought to be the single most important impact on Holocaust survivors: life in the camps dehumanized them and often warped their character in the process, leaving them scarred and potentially unstable for the rest of their lives. This is the clear point that Lawrence Henry is trying to make about his Auschwitz survivor in—laws.

To casual readers of Holocaust literature it would appear that the SS guards were responsible for most of the brutalities. Today most people want little more than the "executive summary" of history, so this suffices; the rest they think they can learn from (largely fictional) films like Schindler's List.  Yes, the SS were brutal Nazis, capable of the worst atrocities, and that's that. But digging a bit deeper into life in the camps reveals another and perhaps even darker aspect of the konzentrationlager (KZ), one so corrupting and dehumanizing as to leave its marks for life. Why? Because the system turned the prisoners against each other in the ultimate humiliation of civilization.

For most of the World War II period there were never sufficient SS guards to oversee all prisoner activities; there was simply too much of a demand for young men at the front. So a system of "prisoner leadership" (Häftlingsführung in German) was soon implemented to augment the uniformed guards. Thus compound leaders, barracks chiefs, cooks, infirmary orderlies and the like, along with the notably cruel Kapos who led the work details, were all drawn from the prisoner ranks as trusties, and were beholden to the SS guards for extracting maximum work from the rank—and—file and maintaining order. In daily prisoner life, their powers were virtually unlimited, and most of the frequent beatings were administered by the Kapos with their clubs and truncheons. Indeed the average KZ prisoner saw very little of the SS in his daily life. In return, these trusties were accorded additional food and clothing. Also, their elevated status enabled them to extract bribes of additional food from the prisoners in exchange for getting assigned a less stressful kommando (work detail).

In general, the prisoners were a mixed lot and spoke a Babel of languages. They were sent to the KZs for various reasons, these denoted on their striped uniforms by inverted triangles of different colors. Red stood for Communists, green for common criminals, black for Gypsies and other nonconformists, purple for Jehovah's Witnesses, pink for homosexuals, and yellow for Jews, who wore two triangles juxtaposed to form a hexagram. If a Jew were also a Communist, his "Star of David" was both red and yellow. And so on.  In many camps there was an ongoing rivalry between the Communists and the criminals, commonly referred to as "reds" and "greens" respectively. By 1945, the reds were virtually running Buchenwald on their own, and their brutality was said to have exceeded anything the SS ever did there.

The rank—and—file prisoners lived on the ragged edge, suffering from malnutrition, poor clothing, physical violence and recurrent bouts with the dread dysentery. Typhus outbreaks were also deadly, with a mortality rate of over 40%.  Conditions worsened as the war dragged on; the camps became overcrowded and food and medicine in increasingly short supply. Above all, the threat of the "selektsia" hung over their heads. When one became so debilitated as to be unable to work, perhaps unable even to eat, he was taken away to the gas.

For most people under this extreme duress, survival became their primary motivator, taking precedence over all forms of common human decency. If staying alive meant stealing a crust of bread from one's bunkmate, falsely denouncing a fellow prisoner in order to get his shoes, then these were easy decisions. To survive in an animalistic world, one often had to lower one's self to animal level. The system was corrupt, and thus ultimately corrupting of many who came in contact with it——and physically survived.  Surely the dehumanization of the KZ inmates was one of Hitler's greatest crimes, for if he did not take their lives he stole a part of their souls.

One can only wonder what an adult Anne Frank would have become had she not died of typhus in Bergen—Belsen in 1945. Would she have been as maniacal as Mr. Henry's mother—in—law Greta, hurriedly ripping open food containers as though the contents could have been her last meal? Might she have finally gone mad enough to risk her life on a foolish bet, as Stanley the father—in—law did?

Nowhere else is the long—term psychological damage better demonstrated than in the life of the Italian writer Primo Levi, whose first book Se Questo è un Uomo (If this is a Man) is probably the best description of concentration camp life, and has been widely acclaimed since it first appeared in 1959. Indeed it remains one of the very "eye witness" accounts which not even revisionists and Holocaust deniers have tried to pick apart.

Levi was a chemist by training when he was sent to Auschwitz in early 1944——specifically to Monowitz, where he was assigned to the I.G. Farben plant which made synthetic rubber from coal. Levi never claimed to have seen any gas chambers in operation, no open pits of burning bodies, and no crematoria up close. Above all, he cites no sensational numbers of deaths by any particular cause. His narrative is not interspersed with statistics which only a postwar historian could learn. His prose (even in translation) remains terse, almost laconic, as he lets his readers decide which expressions of horror to apply in each situation. But always lurking is the implied deduction: if this is a man, then surely he has become a beast.

After the war Levi became a successful writer, and for decades he seemed to remain relatively free from any palpable desire for revenge. But Auschwitz had left Levi with permanent scars, and a friend remarked that "Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured."  42 years after being liberated, and in the very building in Turin where he had been born and raised, he took his own life. He left no notes, his friends could offer no explanation, save for postulating that the cause of death was...Auschwitz.