Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Every so often we discover a book to meditate upon, marvel at, and in the end, bow our heads in homage before. For me, one such book is The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (1976). The author, Terrence Des Pres (1939-1987), was an American writer, Holocaust scholar and professor at Colgate University.

The work took over four years, “years of reading through vast amounts of eyewitness testimony, of cutting through accepted notions of camp experience, of informal talk with survivors, and finally, before getting firmly underway, a time of search for a way to set myself in relation to them.” In chapters, among others, entitled “Excremental Assault,” “Nightmare and Waking,” and “Radical Nakedness,” Des Pres describes the horror endured by the inmates of Soviet and Nazi death camps.

The cattle cars in which prisoners were transported opened upon a living hell: bodies strung up on barbed wire, whips, guns, truncheons, smoke from the crematoriums. Upon arrival, every inmate underwent an almost complete disintegration of personality, followed by a one- to two-week walking nightmare state, very dangerous, during which the prisoners didn’t much care whether they lived or died.

Those who survived that period often experienced a slow rebuilding of personality, came to accept that their situation was real, that they were in fact awake and not dreaming, and adopted as their task—their mission—to figure out how to continue living for the next minute, hour, day. “With the return to consciousness came a feeling of intense decision.”

This “intense decision” was well-documented (many of the inmates were intellectuals, and a unique body of literature emerged from the camps). In Night of the Mist, survivor Eugene Heimler observed:

"There were things I had to do, words I had to speak, moments which I had to dissect in order to show the world what I had seen and lived through, on behalf of the millions who had seen it also—but could no longer speak. Of their dead, burnt, bodies I would be the voice."

About his collection of camp sketches, Alfred Kantor wrote:

"My commitment to drawing came out of a deep instinct of self-preservation and undoubtedly helped me to deny the unimaginable horrors of life at that time. By taking on the role of an ‘observer’ I could at least for a few moments detach myself from what was going on in Auschwitz and was therefore better able to hold together the threads of sanity."

And if one could not write, one could at least scream. Nadezhda Mandelstam, widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam, noted in Hope Against Hope:

"This pitiful sound, which sometimes, goodness knows how, reaches into the remotest prison cell, is a concentrated expression of the last vestige of human dignity...If nothing else is left, one must scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity."

Lone wolves, just as in “real life,” didn’t make it. The inmates instinctively formed alliances, communities, friendships. They exchanged gifts—a piece of string, a bite of potato. They found creative ways to circumvent the system. Krystyna Zywulska, a survivor of Maidanek, was charged with “card-filing” the incoming prisoners.

In I Came Back, she wrote:

"I thought of my arrival and my first impressions of the camp. I knew that a person coming to a camp was afraid of everything and everybody, that she was distracted and terrified. The first word was so important. I decided to be patient, to answer all questions, to calm them and give them courage. My life began to hold meaning."

On starvation rations, brutalized by beatings, lack of sleep, and cold, many of the inmates still made a conscious effort to help one another as best they could. A Treblinka survivor observed: “In our group we shared everything; and the moment one of the group ate something without sharing it we knew it was the beginning of the end for them.”

Many vicious, cold-hearted inmates survived as well: Des Pres never stoops to sentimentality. Self-pity had no place in the camps. Everyone had been brutalized. Everyone had watched at least one family member or friend go off to the crematorium or the gas chamber or the starvation bunker. Once people died, they were not spoken of again. Moral dilemmas that in the outside world would be unthinkable were the inmates’ daily lot. Almost every survivor did things in the camps that he or she was ashamed to speak of later.

Still, though, flamed that uncanny, unquenchable, almost perverse will to live.

In Twenty Months at Auschwitz, Pelagia Lewinska wrote:

"[F]rom the instant when I grasped the motivating principle…it was as if I had been awakened from a dream…I felt under orders to live…And if I did die in Auschwitz, it would be as a human being. I would hold on to my dignity. I was not going to become the contemptible, disgusting brute my enemy wished me to be…And a terrible struggle began which went on day and night."

Again and again, Des Pres emphasizes that those who survived did so by the skin of their teeth, by a fragile web of connections, by the going right of a series of thousands of details, any one of which could at any second go wrong and mean instant death, or worse, death by torture or starvation. Personal hygiene was out of the question, but many inmates grasped that their very lives depended upon at least making the gesture. They tore a tiny swatch from their coarse striped uniform, dipped it in the filthy water, and went through the motions of grooming themselves—after which the “washcloth” was rinsed out and secreted away for the next day.

In Smoke Over Birkenau, survivor Seweryna Szmaglewska asks: “[W]hen there is no help, no care, no medicine—whence comes this magic will to live?”

In perhaps the most beautiful passage in the book, Des Pres responds:

"There is a power at the center of our being, at the heart of all things living. But only in man does it assume a spiritual character. And only through spirit does life continue by decision…But this answer only points to a deeper question. Perhaps we shall not fathom the wonder of life at its roots, or discern how strength can rest on such frail foundations. Only within the last hundred years have the biological sciences begun to formulate objectively what might be meant by ‘life in itself’…but already we can grasp some part, at least, of what the survivor’s experience reveals: that whether felt as a power, or observed as a system of activities, life is existence laboring to sustain itself, repairing, defending, healing."

Like so many, and so understandably, Des Pres took it for granted that God, if there is a God, was absent from the camps. Where were you in the torture chamber, the crematoriums, Dr. Mengele’s clinic? he asks in so many words, as we all should, as we all must. Why did you not save us from ourselves?

A Treblinka survivor, quoted by journalist Gitta Sereny in Into that Darkness, provides one kind of answer:

"I have read more or less everything that has been written about this subject. But somehow no one appears to have understood: it wasn’t ruthlessness that enabled an individual to survive—it was an intangible quality, not particular to educated or sophisticated individuals. Anyone might have it. It is perhaps best described as an overriding thirst—perhaps, too, a talent for life, and a faith in life."

I mulled over this deeply human work for weeks. I copied out excerpts. I reserved several books from the bibliography at the library.

One night I woke with a start and thought: “The light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” [John 1:5]. I noticed the wording. Not, “The light has overcome the darkness.” Not even, “The darkness has diminished.” No, the darkness continues unabated but the light—a guttering match, a pinprick—shines, and the darkness has not overcome it. The light—a shared morsel of bread, a scream—shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Survivor could only have been written by a man of profound intelligence, conscience, and heart. Des Pres was also movie-star handsome. When I googled his name and learned that he had committed suicide several years after the book was published, I laid my head on my desk and wept.

The whole way through—the bruised reed that would not break, the unearthly courage, the uncanny, almost insane will to live, I’d thought: Christ. Des Pres, however, took the death camps as the death, among other things, of Christianity. He concluded:

"And as for an ethic based on selfless love, that dream cost two thousand years of misery, and like ‘faith in humanity,’ came to its end in Auschwitz, in Hiroshima, in the forest of Vorkuta…

One thinks of the statues of Classical Greece, the Periclean perfection of their grace and poise, their integral strength meant to symbolize the spirit of man. One thinks of the great painting and sculpture of the Renaissance, the incredible beauty of that faith in humanness “larger than life.” And one thinks now of the survivor, not as an emblem or a symbol, but as he is, in rags and dirt, his face the face of anyone, his eyes just barely bright. His soul lives in his flesh, and what his body says is that the human spirit can sink this low, can bear this torment, can suffer defilement and fear and unspeakable hardship and still exist."

The notion that Christianity died in the camps is the one place Des Pres and I part ways. It seems to me that Christianity, far from dying, was lived out to its farthest reaches in the camps; was in fact with wrenching, anguished, tears of blood, re-born. For Christianity has never been based on success, the cataclysmic triumph, lording it over, the pumped fist, the boot on the neck. Christianity is based on the shared meal. What else is it but love—what can it mean but that life is synonymous with love?—when even one human being had the will, the drive, the urge, the passion to survive such unspeakable suffering, such systematically inhuman horror?

What can it mean that even one such person shared with another his or her last morsel of bread?

That emaciated human being in rags and dirt, that stricken, sunken face that is the face of anyone, is not proof that God was absent: that face is the light that shines in darkness.

The eyes that are not quite yet dead, that refuse to die, that are just barely, barely bright—that is not the proof that two thousand years have gone for nought.

That is the Resurrection.



  1. Does he explore the Priests and Rabbis of the camps? - oh how I wish he had ...Maximilian Kolbe is the camps for me.

    Priestblock 25487 Fr Jean Bernard is another must read : Then came the great occasion , the day I had been eagerly awaiting: my first Mass in the concentration camp!

    Immediately on returning from the head count we – we meaning all the inmates of the three clergy barracks (*750-800 men) – proceed to room 1 of barrack 26. Here the wall that otherwise divides the day room from the bunk room has been removed, creating a room measuring roughly 30 X 60 feet, with windows on the long sides. Against the wall at the end of the barrack is an altar, made of two tables pushed together and covered with a bed sheet. Behind the altar a cross is painted on the wall. There are real candles on blocks of wood, and a crucifix.

    These arrangements are completed before our eyes as the room quickly fills. Near the door is a small plate with tiny pieces of Host, a fraction of an inch in size, and each man takes one as he enters, We keep squeezing together until finally we are standing packed like street car passengers on a rainy day.

    Mass is always celebrated by the same priest, a former chaplain in the Polish army, the only one who has been given permission. The essential vestments, hosts and wine are gifts from the parish priests in the town of Dachau.The sacred rite commences. It proceeds in haste, and the gathering is uneasy and nervous.Everyone knows that Mass is tolerated rather than really allowed, and each time it could be disrupted.

    The head prisoner of the barrack stands at the rear, his cap on his head; we sense he is just looking for a pretext to create a disturbance.

    The celebrant speaks the prayers of the Mass in a loud voice, and the others whisper them in accompaniment. At the offering we raise our hands with the tiny bit of Host.Before the transubstantiation someone plucks at my sleeve. “Prosze,” he says in Polish, “please.” Then he puts his particle of Host in my hand, next to my own. I gather he is not a priest , perhaps only a seminarian or monk, for the celebrants intention is to consecrate all the pieces of Host that are being held by priests.

    “Hoc est corpus meum.” I look at the two bits of Host in my hand, and as the One for Whom we are suffering all this comes into our midst, as in their hearts hundreds of priests join their offering with that of their Savior, tears roll down my cheeks. It becomes a single offering that certainly creates new ties between heaven and earth.

    For Holy Communion the priests gather the pieces together : the communicants are the non – priests who entrusted the small bit of Host to them.

    It is a sea of comfort that pours out over the gathering. Comfort and hope and strength for new suffering joyfully accepted.

    “Lice inspection!” shouts the barrack head as we give thanks. Hastily things are cleared away , and everyone surges towards the exit.”

    excerpt (pgs 39-41) Priestblock 25487 Fr Jean Bernard(this has been adapted into he film The Ninth Day)

  2. Nadezhda Mandelstam's "Silence is the real crime against humanity and Eugene Heimler's "There were things I had to do, words I had to speak, moments which I had to dissect in order to show the world what I had seen and lived through, on behalf of the millions who had seen it also - but could no longer speak. Of their dead, burnt, bodies I would be the voice." is unimaginable to me - to almost relive the experience and trauma all over again through story in order to give voice, justice, and respect to those who've had all that and more stripped from them! Wow! This weighs heavily upon me and forces me to face the truth that I've remained silent many a times when a voice would have benefitted another. What selflessness and what obedience to Proberbs 31:8.

  3. Stunning essay. It is the perfect response to those who say there can't be a loving God if He allows something like the Holocaust to happen. As a Jewish believer, I have heard comments like that from family/friends over and over. I'm sure we all have.

    "Christianity is based on the shared meal...What can it mean that even one such person shared with another his or her last morsel of bread?"
    I so appreciate the clarity and depth of your understanding of the cross... of suffering and the dignity of suffering and the love of Christ. And here is John 1:5... light not being overcome by darkness... in the camps... in your life... in mine.

  4. Stunning is right.

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  6. Sad:

    "Suicide rates rise significantly when the Holocaust survivors grow old...The majority of World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors still define their war experiences as being the 'most significant stressors' of their lives. Aging of survivors is frequently associated with reactivation of traumatic syndromes, physical disorders, loss and psychological distress."

    To have made it through that horror, only to have it all come back with a vengeance in the throes of old age.

  7. I have this adolescent fantasy that suggests that my personality would not be broken down in a camp. But instead I found myself overwhelmed by Monday.

  8. Wow, thanks for the further reading tips etc.--that is so sad about the suicides of older survivors of the camps. Yes, St. Maximilian Kolbe is beyond. And Fred, I'm so with you. I was interviewed recently and was asked if in the course of my day I spoke out against relativism. I thought Relativism! I am just trying not to have a psychotic break in the dried-fruit-and-nut aisle of Trader Joe's...Truly, these people who do survive the horror mystify and humble me...


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