From our positions within comfortable lives, we have difficulty understanding that for those who have come through terrifyingly dangerous ordeals “mere survival” is not so “mere”; for them “survival” equals existence, without qualifications, without the cultural trappings that for individuals in more normal circumstances elevate life to pleasurable levels. In The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, Terrence Des Pres examines existence in the state of extended extremity to clarify our understanding of how groups and individuals have responded and what the implications of their responses might be.
He begins by discussing the concept of survival as it appears in the literature of such writers as Camus, Malamud, and Solzhenitsyn. In doing so, he delineates a significant difference between the main figure in survival literature and our traditional concept of the hero:If by heroism we mean the dramatic defiance of superior individuals, then the age of heroism is gone. If we have in mind glory and grand gesture, the survivor is not a hero. He or she is anyone who manages to stay alive in body and spirit, enduring dread and hopelessness without the loss of will to carry on in human ways.
Another important difference separates the two types: survivors would choose another fate from that of living in an imperiled condition; they do not actively choose to place their lives on the line. However, unlike traditional heroes, that is where they remain until forces beyond their control release them.
Sustaining many survivors is what Des Pres calls the “will to bear witness.” As a result, a wealth of literature documenting experiences in Nazi and Soviet concentration camps is available. To this Des Pres turns from the “ideal lucidity of fiction” in order to represent the nature of the survivors’ testimony and to place this testimony in a proper perspective. He quotes often from numerous personal accounts, finding at every turn that when “confronting radical evil, men and women instinctively feel the desire to call, to warn, to communicate their shock.” Survivors feel compelled to make the truth known, to dispel the pervading illusion that man is humane enough to forego atrocity, and to a very great extent, this can be understood as a survival technique or mission generating purpose in victims with no other hope or direction.
The documentary results are seen by Des Pres as “group portraits, in which the writer’s personal experience is representative and used to provide perspective on the common plight.” Des Pres reacts strongly to the idea that the survivor feels required to “justify his own survival in the face of others’ deaths,” an idea referred to as “survival guilt.” He maintains such an idea is entirely negative and would have to develop after the experience, when in reality most survivors began their accounting long before release from the camps, many during the early stages of imprisonment. Further, account after account underscores the survivors’ desire to speak for their fellow prisoners and impress upon a basically skeptical world “objective conditions of evil” which dominated the entire population of the camps in insistent ways. The survivors’ point is to involve us directly: “in the literature of survival we find an image of things so grim, so heartbreaking, so starkly unbearable, that inevitably the survivor’s scream begins to be our own.”
Reading the numerous excerpts from these books, we can hardly fail to react in horror, aghast at the filth and degradation to which human beings were systematically subjected. Des Pres argues convincingly against a pervasive view that prisoners reverted to “infantile behavior” in the Nazi death camps. He says, “Here, as in general from the psychoanalytical point of view, context is not considered. The fact that the survivor’s situation was itself abnormal is simply ignored.” Bruno Bettelheim, in particular, comes under fire for advancing the case for “infantilism.” Clearly the record as compiled by the bulk of camp survivors creates the most abnormal of contexts, and we must agree with Des Pres that prisoners “were the deliberate targets of excremental assault. Defilement was a constant threat, a condition of life from day to day, and at any moment it was liable to take abruptly vicious and sometimes fatal forms.” For killing souls, humiliation and debasement were effective tools employed by the SS because resulting disgust and self-loathing among the prisoners could have only negative effects on their ability to endure; excremental assault aimed at depressing morale, destroying self-esteem, eliminating respect for one another. In addition, Des Pres suggests that when the prisoners appeared less human it was easier for the SS to do their job: killing bodies.
To counter this methodical assault, prisoners sought fundamental ways to maintain dignity: “washing, if only in a ritual sense—and quite apart from reasons of health—was something prisoners needed to do. They found it necessary to survival, odd as that may seem, and those who stopped soon died.” Within the exceedingly abnormal conditions of the extermination camps, where essential bodily functions were denied or made nearly impossible to perform, the seeming fixation with maintaining some...
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