The litany of institutionalized cruelty since Auschwitz proves the world’s memory is short.
Newscaster Edward R. Murrow, covering the Allied troops’ liberation of Germany, accompanied one of the first contingents to overtake a German concentration camp. No American was prepared for the horrible scene within the gates: emaciated, bony corpses stacked like cordwood and the awful stench of burning flesh. Worst of all were the living corpses, the Muselmänner, or walking dead. One man, a human skeleton with skin draped over him like loose-fitting leather, stared at Murrow with haunting, empty eyes. Finally he spoke in a raspy, wheezing voice: “Mr. Murrow, Mr. Murrow … do you remember me?”
Edward R. Murrow glanced at the man and quickly shook his head. But the man persisted. He grabbed Murrow’s arm in his clawlike fingers and said, “Don’t you remember? You interviewed me in Prague. I was the mayor then, of Prague, Czechoslovakia.”
Six years after that liberation, thousands of miles away in the desolate Siberian wasteland, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was serving out his term for making a disparaging reference to Stalin in a letter. After six gloomy years he suddenly discovered the joy of writing. “Sometimes in a sullen work party with Tommygunners barking about me, lines and images crowded in so urgently that I felt myself borne through the air, overleaping the column in my hurry to reach the work site and find a corner to write. At such moments I was both free and happy” (Gulag III, p. 99).
But how could he write? Any scrap of paper would be confiscated and cause suspicion against him, no matter how innocent the writings were. After all, the lines could be in code or perhaps contain the membership list of some organization. Solzhenitsyn learned that a prisoner’s memory, cleansed of superfluous knowledge, was surprisingly capacious. He would write snatches of 12–20 lines at a time, polish them, learn them by heart and burn them. Every fiftieth and hundredth line Solzhenitsyn memorized with special care, to help him keep count. Once a month he recited everything he had written. If the fiftieth or hundredth lines came out wrong he would painstakingly go over and over the lines until he had them right.
Later, observing Lithuanian Catholics with their rosaries, Solzhenitsyn decided their counting technique would be very practical. He made a rosary of 100 colored pieces of hardened bread, every tenth piece cubic not spherical. Amazing the Lithuanians with his religious zeal (devout ones possessed only forty beads) he happily fingered and counted beads inside his wide mittens—at line-ups, marching to work, at all waiting times. Warders who discovered the beads assumed they were for praying and let him keep the necklace.
By the end of his sentence Solzhenitsyn had accumulated 12,000 lines, which upon release he eagerly committed to paper.
As does every generation, ours is haltingly trying to come to terms with its recent past. The concentration camps, notably those erected by Hitler and Stalin (little moustache and big moustache, as Solzhenitsyn calls them) caused such a moral crater in the history of humanity that only now are we beginning to absorb and assess their impact. In recent years events such as the television series “The Holocaust” and the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s monumental three-volume work The Gulag Archipelago have stirred the consciousness of the general public.
The psychic effect of German concentration camps has been well documented by psychologist-survivors Viktor Frankl, Bruno Bettelheim, and Elie Cohen and powerfully retold by such novelists as Elie Wiesel and John Hersey. Because of strict censorship, accounts of Soviet camps have been more sporadic and deficient, and until Solzhenitsyn no one had been able to compile any kind of a thorough history. If Germany’s genocidal camps left a scar across the body of all humanity, Stalin’s camps inflicted a near-fatal wound stretching across the breadth of the Soviet Union. Besides the 20 million who died in World War II, best estimates are that 60 million more were killed or incarcerated by Stalin. Of these, fifteen million died in the great plague of enforced starvation and disease in the Ukraine. That means one in three Soviet citizens lost a family member to the terror of Stalin’s reign.
Why spotlight attention on concentration camps? Though it may cause discomfort and even anguish, such attention serves several useful functions. The primary function is chiseled into stone at the Dachau memorial, as articulated by philosopher Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We who have been reared in a climate of existential despair cannot fathom the optimistic belief in human progress that crescendoed before World War I and was finally put to death with the Jews in Germany. The two great fonts of culture and civilization (Christian civilization) gave birth to demonic forces. The camps became the central metaphor of evil in all history, so much so that George Bernard Shaw reluctantly concluded, “there is only one empirically verifiable doctrine of theology—original sin.”
There is no way to exaggerate the impact of the camps on the modern view of man. Deliberate cruelty had become institutionalized as official state policy. Anyone who has been sheltered from such horrors need only visit one of the preserved death camps, such as Auschwitz. There, at an open field one can see flowers and grasses growing with unusual lushness. Bending down, one notices the fine, white character of the soil that allows such fecund growth. The top twelve inches of that soil is fine bone loam—the remains of 60,000 humans destroyed in the ovens of a single camp.
Jewish groups who worked for the preservation of such camps adopted the slogan “Never Again.” Today the camps, cleaned up, well-planted, almost like state parks to the modern visitor, stand as an ineradicable testimony to the basic tragic flaw in humanity, and a terrifying warning to all of us who may underestimate the evil bent of power.
That memory and the iron commitment of “Never Again” is the primary function of looking at the camps. They should have seared all humanity against the promises of totalitarianism. The long litany of evil regimes which followed has proved the world’s memory is short indeed.
Caricatures: Victor And Victim
Yet the memory of the camps and the men who created them is not the only lesson for us to learn. There are also the survivors. Solzhenitsyn, methodically laying his bricks through Siberian winters while thousands of lines danced in his head, the mayor of Prague, the perceptive psychologists Bettelheim and Frankl, the concert violinists—of the millions, a few have endured to tell us about ourselves. Their voices are sometimes loud and screechy, strident even. Flannery O’Connor was once asked why she chose to write about odd, abnormal characters. Her reply: “To the near blind I write large. To the deaf I shout.” Similarly, the survivors are caricatures of humanity forced to live in unbearable conditions; yet in such circumstances they reveal much about our ground of being. For there, in the camps, all distinguishing marks between prisoners were obliterated. Solzhenitsyn was just one more zek (Russian word for prisoner)—head shaven, number painted across his chest; … to all the rest he was merely a competitor for food and space.
Taken together, the prisoners, stripped of their individual identities, teach us about the nature of humanity. At first glance, the lesson from the survivors seems predictable. On one side of the fence was an indistinguishable herd of prisoners, thrown together like animals in pens, every detail of their lives determined for them. On the other side were the guards, individuals free to attend concerts, work at their hobbies, practice their sports, read books, develop their characters. As Terence Des Pres has pointed out, the aim of the camps was “to reduce inmates to mindless creatures whose behavior could be predicted and controlled absolutely. The camps have so far been the closest thing on earth to a perfect [B.F.] Skinner box. They were a closed, completely regulated environment, a ‘total’ world in the strict sense. Pain and death were the ‘negative reinforcers,’ food and life the ‘positive reinforcers,’ and all these forces were pulling and shoving twenty-four hours a day at the deepest stratum of human need.”
The experiment failed. A “rehabilitated” Solzhenitsyn cried out so loudly he was expelled from his homeland. Many men and women who survived the German camps resumed their normal lives, scarred and bruised by the experience, yes, but far from becoming the mindless robots wished for by their captors. If you visit a dinner held by survivors of the camps in memory of their experience, you will find doctors, lawyers, businessmen—nearly a cross-section of humanity in general. Among them are those who were children raised under a regime that approached absolute evil. Yet even within them one often finds a highly developed morality and compassion for humanity.
Writings of the survivors sing with fully-developed character studies of individuals. A simple, brief book like Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which limits its scope to one sixteen-hour period in one camp, contains a wealth of three-dimensional portraits of inmates.
In one sense the camps reduce men to purely materialistic beings. The only things that matter, really, are the bowl of warm soup with the greasy fishbones floating in it, and the pair of felt boots and warm mittens. Eight ounces of bread is the minimum—there is more to those who work hard. However, it soon becomes obvious to anyone who reads the survivors’ accounts that they are not the accounts of materialistic beings. Though every vestige of food for the human spirit has been carefully removed, still, the spirit surges up. Within the malnourished bodies of the inmates there is a highly developed sense of morality, art, and hope. None of those qualities are to be expected in such a place—yet they spring up like fountains out of granite.
(I should note here that by necessity I must generalize from a variety of accounts by the survivors. Of course there was crude violence, inhumanity, conniving, and cruelty among the inmates. There was also mindless obedience, in many cases. These are to be expected. What is remarkable, however, is that in an environment designed to breed such responses, other, more lofty signs of humanity appeared at all. I should also note that I am mostly talking of concentration camps, not death camps. The death camps, where each new entrant knew he had only days to live, produced an extraordinary set of pressures. As Elie Wiesel tragically describes in his remembrances, death camps included such scenes as sons beating their fathers to death for a piece of bread. Even there, however, glimpses of compassion and self-sacrifice existed, as Wiesel himself showed in his loving concern for his father.)
If the victims reveal a surprising degree of individuality and resiliency, their captors in almost all accounts blur together into an amorphous, indistinguishable clot. Solzhenitsyn realized this when he arose to address a special committee inquiring into certain prisoners’ complaints. “All that is written in these pages, all that we had gone through, all that we had brooded over in all those years and all those days on hunger strike—I might as well try telling it to orangutans as to them. They were still in some formal sense Russians, still more or less capable of understanding fairly simple Russian phrases, such as ‘Permission to enter!’ ‘Permission to speak, sir!’ But as they sat there all in a row at the long table, exhibiting their sleek, white, complacent, uniformly blank physiognomies, it was plain they had long ago degenerated into a distinct biological type, that verbal communication between us had broken down beyond repair, and that we could exchange only … bullets.” (Gulag III, p. 267)
Among the prisoners, a sense of morality persisted even in an environment of near absolute evil. It is true, some survivors lost their faith in God. Jews, especially, were susceptible: raised to believe they had been chosen people, they suddenly discovered that, as one Jew poignantly expressed, “Hitler is the only one who has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.”
Elie Wiesel records a true and profoundly moving episode which occurred while he, at age fifteen, was imprisoned at Buna. It expresses the horror of the camps perhaps more potently than all the camp statistics ever published.
A cache of arms had been discovered at the camp, belonging to a Dutchman, who was promptly shipped away to Auschwitz. But the Dutchman had a young boy who served him, a pipel as they were called, a child with a refined and beautiful face, unheard of in the camps. He had the face of a sad angel.
The little servant, like his Dutch master, was cruelly tortured, but would not reveal any information. So the SS sentenced him to death, along with two other prisoners who had been discovered with arms. “One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call, SS all around us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains—and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.
“The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter.
“The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.
“This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.
“The three victims mounted together onto the chairs.
“The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.
“ ‘Long live liberty!’ cried the two adults.
“But the child was silent.
“ ‘Where is God? Where is He?’ someone behind me asked.
“At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.
“Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
“ ‘Bare your heads!’ yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.
“ ‘Cover your heads!’
“Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive …
“For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed.
“Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘Where is God now?’
“And I heard a voice within me answer him ‘Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows …’
“That night the soup tasted of corpses.” (Night, pp. 75–76)
Wiesel lost his faith in God at that concentration camp. But not because he lost belief in morality—for the opposite reason. He believed in morality so deeply that he could no longer worship a God who would allow children to be strung up at the gallows and tossed into the ovens.
The lesson intended by the SS guards at Buna was to reinforce their imposed justice: cooperate, and you may live; resist, and you will surely die. But the effect on the prisoners was just the opposite. Hardened as they were by viewing thousands of deaths, the prisoners were convulsed by this one. The object lesson did nothing to break the spirit of resistance; it merely stiffened the will of those who were determined somehow to strike out against their tormenters.
Psychologists who have studied concentration camp survivors universally affirm that guilt is one of the chief residual effects. Guilt over why they, and not others, survived. Guilt over whether they did enough to protest. As Bettelheim confesses, “The survivor as a thinking being knows very well that he is not guilty, as I, for one, know about myself, but that this does not change the fact that the humanity of such a person, as a feeling being, requires that he feel guilty, and he does. This is a most significant aspect of survivorship.” Elie Wiesel wrote, “I live and therefore I am guilty. I am still here, because a friend, a comrade, an unknown died in my place.”
It is perhaps the ultimate irony that German after German calmly marched to the stand at Nuremburg to report that no, he felt no guilt about what had been done to the Jews, he was “just following orders.” Meanwhile scores of thousands of innocent people inherited an intolerable burden of guilt because their sense of morality did not dissolve inside the camps.
From his experience in the camps, Solzhenitsyn did not conclude that all inmates were pure and just, or even that all guards are viciously evil. But, as he records in volume two of the Gulag, his view of man was profoundly altered by what he saw in the camps: “It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes, not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. So, bless you, prison, for having been in my life.”
The Psalmist cried out:
“Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Ps. 139:8, NIV).
God has stamped his image so indelibly upon us that we can also add: the image of God in man is inescapable. In the depths of depraved human hell, in the presence of absolute evil, even there glimpses of it can be found. The concentration camps teach us the depravity of man, surely. But they also hint at his immortality.
Although nearly every element of what is generally known as art or culture had been dismantled within the camps, this human expression too kept asserting itself. There were fewer reminders of art, to be sure—no concerts or ballets, and few books allowed. But the inmates carried within them memories and a highly developed aesthetic sense. Even when life was reduced to its raw basics, when art required an exertion which might rob from the more pressing needs of survival, it surfaced.
Eugenia Ginzberg, a Communist Party activist who fell into disfavor and spent two decades in one of the worst Gulag camps, remembered it this way: “During those years I experienced many conflicting feelings, but the dominant one was that of amazement. I took pleasure in the fugitive mists of morning, the violet sunsets that blazed over us as we returned from the quarry, the proximity of ocean-going ships which we felt by some sixth sense—and in poetry, which we still repeated to one another at night.… I felt instinctively that as long as I could be stirred to emotion by the sea breeze, by the brilliance of the stars, and by poetry, I would still be alive, however much my legs might tremble and my back bend under the load of burning stones.”
For Solzhenitsyn, as has been mentioned, writing became the single force which allowed him to leap over the walls of the camp. His body, still stuffed into a zek uniform, went through the exhausting daily regimen of wake-up calls, hard labor, food lines. But in the pause between wheelbarrowloads of mortar, in the winter warming-up shack, on the scaffolding, he would furtively scribble down new verses which filled his head.
“I lived in a dream,” he says, “I sat in the mess hall over the ritual gruel sometimes not even noticing its taste, deaf to those around me—feeling my way about my verses and trimming them to fit like bricks in a wall. I was searched, and counted, and herded over the steppe—and all the time I saw the sets for my play, the color of the curtains, the placing of the furniture, the spotlights, every movement of the actors across the stage.
“Some of the lads broke through the wire in a lorry, others crawled under it, others walked up a snowdrift and over it—but for me the wire might not have existed; all this time I was making my own long and distant escape journey, and this was something the warders could not discover when they counted heads.” (Gulag III, p. 104)
Across the Gulag, and in the camps in Germany, how many countless others were stirred like Solzhenitsyn? How many invented their own secret codes and elaborate techniques for hiding their writings from the guards, and took those codes to the grave with them, silently?
The prisoners, cramped into unimaginably small spaces, given barely enough calories a day to subsist, even under such conditions found the energy for writing, for music, for art.
Sometimes books were available, and the prisoners paged through those precious objects as if each one was made of priceless parchment. Eugen Kogon, an author and survivor of Buchenwald, found a rare opportunity for quiet reading. In the winter of 1942 a series of bread thefts at Buchenwald made it necessary to establish a night watch. For months he volunteered for the extra shift, sitting alone from three to six o’clock in the morning. The only sounds were the snores of sleeping comrades. “What an experience it was,” he reports, “to sit quietly by a shaded lamp, delving into the pages of Plato’s Dialogues, Galsworthy’s Swan Song, or the works of Heine, Klabund, Mehring!”
Elie Wiesel records a poignant scene that occurred when he and hundreds of other Jews were barracked for three days at Gleiwitz, pressed into a room so tightly that many smothered by the sheer mass of human bodies cutting off sources of air. Twisted among the bodies was an emaciated young Warsaw Jew named Juliek. Somehow, incredibly, Juliek had clutched his violin during the forced death march through snowstorms to Gliewitz. That night, crammed among the hundreds of dead and nearly suffocating humans, Juliek struggled free and began to play a fragment from Beethoven’s concerto. The sounds were pure, eerie, out of place in such a setting.
Wiesel recalls, “It was pitch dark. I could hear only the violin, and it was as though Juliek’s soul were the bow. He was playing his life. The whole of his life was gliding on the strings—his lost hopes, his charred past, his extinguished future. He played as he would never play again … To this day, whenever I hear Beethoven played my eyes close and out of the dark rises the sad, pale face of my Polish friend, as he said a farewell on his violin to an audience of dying men.
“I do not know for how long he played. I was overcome by sleep. When I awoke, in the daylight, I could see Juliek, opposite me, slumped over, dead. Near him lay his violin, smashed, trampled, a strange overwhelming little corpse” (Night, pp. 107–108).
To me, the scene Wiesel describes is a parable of the role of art in the camps. There, death rules. All that is beautiful, joyful, and worthy is removed. Yet the camps contain men, not animals. And amid the shoving and scratching for existence, there emerges a rumor of transcendence: the pure, other-worldly tone of a Beethoven violin concerto.
From a pragmatic viewpoint, music, art, and poetry seem almost a mockery of the black despair that weighs so heavily on the camps. Yet they prove that the human spirit dies as stubbornly as does the body.
The most unexpectedly powerful lesson from the camps is the immortality they reveal. The candle of the image of God implanted within us cannot be snuffed out—not even in the cold, dreadful vacuum of evil where God himself seemed absent.
G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.
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