Primo Levi’s Reflection on Humanity in Crisis: Survival in Auschwitz

SurvivalinAushwitz

Primo Levi’s Reflection on Humanity in Crisis: Survival in Auschwitz

Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, translated by Giulio Einaudi), depicts not only the author’s survival in the notorious Nazi concentration camp, but also the survival of his humanity after enduring such a grueling process of dehumanization. Published in 1947 under the Italian title If This is a Man (Se questo e un uomo), Levi doesn’t claim to offer new information about the Holocaust in this autobiographical book. Nor does he wish to level fresh accusations against the Nazis. Writing in an introspective manner, Levi sets out “to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind” (9).

Pensive and thought provoking, Survival in Auschwitz constitutes a reflection on the power—and limits—of forgiveness. In an interview published by the New Republic on February 16, 1986, Levi announces that he did not harbor any feelings of hatred towards the Germans. He explains: “I regard hatred as bestial and crude, and prefer that my actions and thoughts be the product, as far as possible, of reason. Much less do I accept hatred directed collectively at an ethnic group, for example at all the Germans.” Levi views the Holocaust not as a reflection of the German nation, but rather as a broader crisis of humanity. Nation after nation fell under the spell of Fascism as countless individuals engaged in horrific acts of cruelty.

Does this mean that the author absolves the Nazis of moral responsibility for their actions? No. During the same interview, Levi qualifies: “All the same, I would not want my abstaining from explicit judgment to be confused with an indiscriminate pardon.” He explains that he can only forgive those who show–through actions, not just words–that they take responsibility and feel guilty for their crimes against humanity. He is speaking, above all, of the crimes perpetrated by ordinary men and women.

In Survival in Auschwitz Levi describes how inflicting harm upon others became a matter of routine during the Holocaust. Sometimes, even without harboring any particular hatred, many Nazi officers conducted the selection process and sent hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths in the gas chambers. Two of the main questions that continue to haunt Levi throughout his life are: how mass murder could have become so commonplace and how much did the German population know about the Holocaust.

In his 1986 interview with the New Republic, Levi offers lucid and reasonable answers. Because totalitarian regimes function very differently from democracies, he argues, it’s not possible to have a dissemination of truthful information and open criticism of despicable actions in totalitarian regimes that we have in democratic societies. Yet, by the same token, Levi remarks, “it was not possible to hide the existence of the enormous concentration camp apparatus from the German people. What’s more, that was not (from the Nazi point of view) even desirable. Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of undefined terror in the country was one of the aims of Nazism.”

Perhaps one of the most astute observations in Survival in Auschwitz is the statement that just as absolute happiness is impossible, so is absolute unhappiness. Even in the hellish conditions of the Nazi concentration camps, prisoners gradually adapt to each phase of the process of dehumanization: starting with the isolation from the rest of the population in Jewish ghettos; to the order to gather by the train station to be transported in cattle trains to concentration camps; to the brutal conditions of the camps themselves. It is rarely a planned acquiescence to humiliation and abuse. Rather, at each phase of their oppression, victims tend to focus on the moment-to-moment struggle for survival. Heroism in such adverse conditions becomes almost impossible. By way of contrast, as Levi observes, “to sink is the easiest of matters; it is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp” (Survival in Auschwitz, 90). In such a context, the quest for survival assumes heroic dimensions itself, as does the ability to endure extreme hardship while remaining dignified and humane. Few are able to achieve this. Among them is Levi’s friend, Lorenzo, a man whom the author remembers fondly for the rest of his life.

When asked, in the New Republic interview, why a grander, more ambitious heroism didn’t occur in the camps—“How is it that there were no large-scale revolts?”—Levi reminds readers that in such closely monitored environments, “Escape was difficult and extremely dangerous. The prisoners were debilitated, besides being demoralized, by hunger and ill treatment. Their heads were shaved, their striped clothing was immediately recognizable, and their wooden clogs made silent and rapid walking impossible.” Furthermore, most of the inmates found themselves imprisoned in foreign countries whose inhabitants spoke a different language. Many of the natives were hostile to Jews and most were indifferent to their plight. As for revolts, as Levi points out, they existed: in Treblinka, Sobibor and Birkenau. However, “They did not have much numerical weight. Like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, they represented, rather, examples of extraordinary moral force. In every instance they were planned and led by prisoners who were privileged in some way, and consequently in better physical and spiritual condition than the average camp prisoner.”

Although, philosophically speaking, Levi remained a humanist and rationalist throughout his life despite the severe trauma he endured at Auschwitz, he eventually succumbed to its effects. Depression and nightmares haunted him throughout his life. In April 1987, Levi died after falling from his third-story apartment in Turin, which many close to him considered a suicide. Yet he did not write, suffer and die in vain. Through his memoirs, books and interviews, Primo Levi left behind an invaluable intellectual legacy that helps us recall, commemorate and better comprehend the worst humanitarian crisis in history.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memories

Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

 

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

 

Book Review of Survivors Club

Survivors Club: A Family’s Legendary Tale

 

Michael Bornstein’s Holocaust survival story is the stuff that legends are made of. A few years ago, Bornstein ran across a photo of footage taken by Soviet troops of the recently liberated child survivors of Auschwitz. The documentary wasn’t actually from the day of liberation of the concentration camp. It was filmed as a reenactment a few days later. The children were asked to put on for one last time the striped, threadbare dingy clothes they wore in the concentration camp. Only this time, they wore them on top of the regular clothes they found in the “Canada” warehouse at Auschwitz, where the Nazis deposited the belongings of prisoners upon arrival. To his own surprise, Michael Bornstein, by now a grandfather, recognized himself in that photograph. He is the gaunt four-year-old boy with wispy, short hair standing in the front. It was miraculous that he had survived since the odds were heavily stacked against him.

Out of the millions of inmates at Auschwitz, fewer than 3000 were liberated by the Soviets and only 52 of them were children under the age of eight. Seeing this picture stirred something in Michael: not so much full-fledged memories, since he had been too young to remember the horrors of the Holocaust, as the desire to record his family’s incredible survival story. With the help of archival research, his father’s documents and interviews with neighbors and surviving relatives, Michael Bornstein and his daughter, NBC and MSNBC News producer Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, co-wrote his Holocaust memoir, aptly calling it Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). Although the title alludes primarily to the handful of children who survived Auschwitz, it also refers to Michael’s family. Out of the 3,200 Jews living in Zarki at the time of the Nazi invasion in September 1939, only about 30 survived the war. Most of them were members of the Bornstein family.

Historically, Michael Bornstein’s family and their neighbors experienced first-hand almost every stage of the Nazi atrocities in Poland. Upon invading their little town, Zarki, the Wehrmacht burned it to the ground. They rounded up hundreds of Jews and shot them in nearby forests, in the streets and even in their own homes. Soon thereafter, the Nazis set up a Jewish Ghetto. Unlike larger ghettos throughout Poland, however, for most of its existence, the one in Zarki remained open, allowing some life-sustaining trade and interaction with the local Polish population. Michael’s father, Israel Bornstein, was elected Jewish Council President, a heavy responsibility that he reluctantly accepted. He and his resilient and courageous wife, Sophie, did their best to protect not only their own nuclear family—their older son Samuel and the younger son Michael, who was still a baby—but also the entire Jewish community of their town.

As in the case of the other Jewish ghettos in Poland, life for Jews in Zarki was a constant struggle to ward off hunger, forced labor and the relentless waves of deportations to death camps. For awhile, Israel Bornstein managed to round up the resources to bribe the local Gestapo chief, Officer Schmitt, into giving their community more food and occasionally diminishing their burden. Schmitt, though a callous man and a true Nazi believer, was fortunately also venal. But small-scale bribery proved to be no match for the immense Nazi killing machine. By the end of September 1942, most of the Jewish inhabitants of Zarki were sent to die at Treblinka. Perhaps wishing to demonstrate his “humanity,” Schmitt made one exception. He spared Israel Bornstein and his nuclear family from death. They, along with Israel’s mother (Dora), were sent to a more lenient labor camp until they, too, were eventually dispatched to Auschwitz. As Michael was to find out later, his father and older brother both perished there.

Michael, by now a toddler, was placed in a children’s section of the concentration camp. Had his mother not managed to sneak him into the women’s camp after a few weeks, he most likely wouldn’t have made it. The older children, themselves starving, were constantly stealing most of his meager portions of daily gruel. Under the wing of his mother and grandmother, Michael managed to live in hiding from day to day. When his mother was reassigned to another labor camp, the little boy was left under the sole protection of his paternal grandmother. Ironically, it was illness that ultimately saved his life. Suffering from a high fever, he was placed in the infirmary around the time the Nazis began to force the Auschwitz prisoners on the fatal death marches. From the infirmary window, Michael watched the beleaguered, freezing prisoners file away from the camp under the blows of the Nazi guards. His liberation by the Allies a few days later is captured by the Soviet footage. But the inspiring story of his survival—Survivors Club–has only now been told.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memories

Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

 

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

 

 

Review of After the Holocaust the bells still ring

RabbiJosephPolak

Review of Rabbi Joseph Polak’s memoir, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring

by Claudia Moscovici

Early childhood development specialists emphasize the importance of having a nurturing and stable environment for infants and toddlers. That’s when the foundations of a child’s personality are formed and influence the rest of their life. For instance, studies have shown that many of the children who grew up in the Communist Romanian orphanages during the 1980’s, living in deplorable conditions and deprived of love, attention, adequate sanitary facilities and healthy food, developed personality deficiencies. Many felt emotionally detached from others and could barely communicate.

What about the youngest children of the Holocaust, growing up in the most hellish circumstances imaginable? We know that most of them perished in the fires of the crematoria, being the first to be selected for immediate death. The few so-called “lucky” child survivors recall bits and pieces of what might have been an even worse fate. Rabbi Joseph Polak’s memoir, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring (New York, Urim Publications, 2015), winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award, depicts surviving as a toddler in environments whose only certainties were suffering, squalor, misery and death.

Joseph Polak was born on October 16, 1942, in a Jewish family in German-occupied Netherlands. The Dutch Nazis were ready to snatch him from normal life and send his entire family to the transit camp Westerbork before he was even born. His mother recalled the loud pounding on the door in the middle of the night by “the Police” when she was nine months pregnant with Joseph. She courageously warded off the Dutch Nazis by pointing out the advanced state of her pregnancy. Unfortunately, they didn’t stay away for long. A year later, on September 29, 1943, the Nazis returned. The Polak family was sent to Westerbork for about four months, joining 100,000 other Jews who would be deported to “the East”.

Being so young, Joseph retained only hazy traces of memory of the transit camp, enhanced by his mother’s subsequent descriptions: its crowded, sweaty, uncomfortable conditions; the state of anxiety of so many uprooted, displaced people deprived of their roots, assets, professions, families and identities while awaiting to be sent to what they rightly suspected would be a miserable place. The Dutch government set up Camp Westerbork in the fall of 1939 for Jewish refugees who were not Dutch citizens and had entered the country illegally. Following the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, the camp grew and became, between 1942 to 1944, a transit camp for all Dutch Jews on their way to the Nazi concentration camps. While the camp organizers, who were also Jewish, attempted to create some semblance of normalcy through various routines and activities—which included entertaining diversions such as plays and musical shows—inmates were obsessed with the weekly lists of candidates for deportation to the East. Staying versus leaving Westerbork could mean the difference between life and death. Eventually almost everyone was deported.

Joseph and his parents were sent to Bergen-Belsen on February 1, 1944, when the camp was known for its relatively good conditions. Those didn’t last long, however. In December 1944, the camp began receiving a large intake of prisoners from Eastern camps evacuated by the Germans faced with the advance of the Soviet army. Grossly overcrowded and without sufficient food and medical supplies or sanitation facilities for its growing population, during its last few months, Bergen-Belsen became a breeding ground for typhus, dysentery, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and death. Starving and deprived of adequate care, with a mother who had become a shadow of her former self and weighed only 50 pounds, little Joseph wandered around hungry and in rags, playing among the miles of corpses lined up at Bergen-Belsen. The narrator depicts, vividly, the overpowering stench of feces and decomposing bodies. Ultimately, his family was “lucky” again. On April 9, 1945 they were sent along with 2500 other Jews to Theresienstadt. On the way, they were liberated by the Soviet Army in Tröbitz, a little village of 700 people in East Germany. Unfortunately, by then his parents had lost their health and stamina. His father passed away in May, while his mother fell gravely ill. Joseph was taken by the Dutch authorities and placed in the care of another Dutch-Jewish family.

Joseph doesn’t have many memories of this brief period. He only recalls the fleeting impression of security offered by his adoptive father. The young boy held on tightly to the man’s jacket as they rode together on a scooter, enjoying the sights and the breeze. Their destination, however, would be a new shock for little Joseph: a white hospital bed where he’s reunited with a mother that he can no longer bond with or even recognize. It takes time for mother and child to begin to heal and grow together again in the more livable conditions offered by a center for Jewish survivors in The Hague. They spend there the next three years, from 1945 to 1948. Later, his mother tells Joseph how she managed to put the atrocious conditions of the concentration camp momentarily out of her mind by imagining that she was at her favorite department store, far removed from the squalor of Bergen-Belsen. Then she takes him to that store again. Flashes of memory spark in the child’s mind, as he perceives, with a sense of wonder and incomprehensible nostalgia for the sordid yet familiar past, the contrast between the luxurious goods in front of his eyes and the misery of his first years of life. In December 1948, mother and child sail to New York together. Later, they end up living with her family in Montreal.

It took Rabbi Joseph Polak decades to return to his early childhood past, which he only vaguely recalls in bits and pieces, and which, for a long time, he wanted to forget. When he was fifty years old, ten years after his mother had passed away, he returned to Bergen-Belsen after a trip to Paris, where he lectured on Jewish law. He was ready, by then, not only to recollect his family’s experiences of the Holocaust, but also to preserve and share them with others. It occurred to him that, as even the youngest child survivors of the Holocaust age and pass away, there is a risk that their memories will disappear along with them. Reading After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring accomplishes more than remind readers of the Holocaust. It also helps us empathize with the victims by placing readers in those circumstances through different narrative means.

Above all, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring is a beautifully written, evocative memoir. In parts, it’s also a theosophical dialogue, staging discussions between the narrator and the Angel of Death on the timeless question of theodicy: namely, how can an omnipotent and omniscient God allow the horrific suffering of children, of innocents? I’m not sure that this question is answered in any definitive manner by the text, but readers can find some solace in the evolution of the author’s own life. Rabbi Joseph Polak used his good fortune of being one of the few very young child Holocaust survivors to fill the void of nihilism left by the trauma of his past and make something worthwhile and redeeming of his life. Instead of turning his back upon humanity for what so many did to their fellow human beings, he reached out to help and heal others, both as a religious figure and as a writer.

His narrative is also an educational text. It makes pedagogical bridges with new generations of readers. Where relevant, Rabbi Polak offers helpful historical background and places the Dutch Holocaust in proper perspective. Middle school and high school students, exposed to Anne Frank’s diary and little else about the Holocaust in the Netherlands, may perceive the Dutch citizens of the era as heroes who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis. While many courageous individuals certainly did, as Polak points out, the Netherlands was at the same time a country that rounded up Jews with remarkable zeal and efficiency. Between the summer of 1942 and the fall of 1944, the Dutch collaborators sent over 100,000 Jews, or 75 percent of the country’s Jewish citizens, to concentration camps. Only 5,200 among them survived. The odds were better for those who went into hiding with the aid of the Dutch underground or of their non-Jewish friends. Of the 30,000 Jews who hid from the Nazis, two thirds survived.

Last but not least, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring has a beautiful, authentic and lyrical style. At times, it reminded me of Marguerite Duras’ writing: vivid yet also vaguely suggestive; drawing out the philosophical implications of sensory descriptions; versatile in the way it reaches out to readers. Memoir, philosophical and religious treatise, oratory, history lesson and literary text: you will find all this and more in Joseph Polak’s After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memories

Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

 

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

 

Bergen-Belsen and Four Perfect Pebbles

Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

Bergen-Belsen and Four Perfect Pebbles

Review by Claudia Moscovici

In a child’s imagination, there’s a fine line between hope and superstition. For Marion Blumenthal, a nine-year-old Jewish girl imprisoned with her family in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, hope means psychological survival in dire conditions, in which death is a near certainty. Holding four pebbles in her hand, the young girl tells her older brother, Albert: “Look closely. I have these three pebbles, exactly matching. Today I will find the fourth. I suppose you think I’m silly’” (Four Perfect Pebbles co-written by Lila Perl and Marion Blumenthal Lazan, New York: Scholastic, 1996, 7). Although Albert humors his emotional and imaginative sister, for Marion finding the fourth pebble represents the survival of each of her family members: her mother, her father, herself and her brother.

The memoir Four Perfect Pebbles tells the story of the Blumenthal family’s survival against all odds. Of German Jewish origin, the Blumenthals flee the anti-Semitic measures adopted by the Nazis in Germany. They believe that they have escaped to relative safety in Holland. As the Nazi empire expands to Holland, however, in 1944 they arrange to be part of a group immigrating to Palestine (in exchange for the release of German POW’s). However, to their misfortune, their ship is delayed for three months. Instead of finding their way to Israel, the Blumenthals are sent off first to the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork and later to the “Family Camp” in Bergen-Belsen.

Four Perfect Pebbles offers invaluable historical information about the Holocaust, targeting a young adult audience. The book describes an exceptional story of survival in what became, during the final months of the war, one of the most lethal Nazi camps: the same one, in fact, where the sisters Frank perished. Initially intended as a prisoner of war camp, in 1943 Bergen-Belsen became a full-fledged concentration camp. Located in Northern Germany, it operated between 1940 and 1945. In June 1943, Bergen-Belsen was designated as a “holding camp” for Jews who were supposed to be exchanged for German prisoners in other countries. Initially, the conditions were relatively good, but with overcrowding they deteriorated. The SS divided the camp into several sections, including the “Hungarian camp”, the “Special camp” for Polish Jews and the “Star camp” for Dutch Jews, where Marion Blumenthal and her family were interned.

Aside from being deprived of sufficient food, water, adequate medical treatment and basic hygiene facilities, the inmates of Bergen-Belsen were forced to work all day long. Approximately 50,000 people perished there. Bergen-Belsen imprisoned Jews, Poles, Russians, Dutch, Czech, German and Austrian inmates. In August 1944, the Nazis created a new section, the “Women’s Camp”, which held about 9,000 women and girls at any given time. In general, the concentration camp became dangerously overcrowded. Over 80,000 people were brought there in cattle trains from camps in Poland and other areas overtaken by the Soviet army.

Unlike Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen had no gas chambers. Yet as death surrounded her and dozens of corpses were laid out on top of one another outside her barracks each day, Marion lived in constant fear of extermination: “Even though we had been told that there were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, how could we ever be sure? … The soap that the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen were given before entering the showers did not guarantee their harmlessness. For it was common practice at Auschwitz to provide victims some soap—and also promise them hot coffee or warm soup afterward—in order to maintain calm and to deceive those about to be gassed” (66-67).

Conditions at Bergen-Belsen deteriorated rapidly towards the end of the war, even by Nazi concentration camp standards. As Marion Blumenthal recalls, “By early 1945 the food at Bergen-Belsen consisted mainly of cabbage-flavored water and moldy bread. This ration was far less than the six hundred calories a day per inmate that the camp had formerly provided… The death toll was now mounting rapidly as the result of exposure, hunger, severe diarrhea, and fevers” (70). Anne and Marion Frank perished there from typhus in February 1945, only weeks before the camp’s liberation by the Allies.

When the British and Canadians entered the camp on April 15, 1945, they found thousands of corpses and 60,000 prisoners. Fortunately, Marion and her family were not among them. After having been starved, forced into slave labor, infested by fleas and ill with typhus, the Nazis transported them in cattle trains away from the approaching Soviet army. They were nevertheless found and freed by the Soviets, ending up in a refugee camp in Tröbitz. As she had grasped the four perfect pebbles, Marion continued to hold on to the hope of her family’s survival. Unfortunately, her father didn’t make it. He succumbed to typhus in May 1945. His death came as a blow to their tight-knit nuclear family. As Marion wistfully notes, “We had come so far, through flight, imprisonment, evacuation, the Nazis’ final attempt to destroy us, liberation at last, and now this—freedom and sorrow”(99). Her memoir, Four Perfect Pebbles, keeps his memory—and that of countless other Holocaust victims–alive. This book offers a moving testimony of the paradoxical “freedom and sorrow” of being liberated after having suffered so much trauma and the inconsolable loss of loved ones who perished in the Holocaust.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memories

Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

 

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

 

 

The Psychopaths of the Holocaust: Lovefraud.com Review of Holocaust Memories

Holocaust Memories by Claudia Moscovici

Book Review: The psychopaths of the Holocaust

Holocaust Memories: A survey of Holocaust memoirs, histories, novels, and films, by Claudia Moscovici

Review by Donna Andersen on Lovefraud.com

Most of us have some knowledge of the Holocaust. We’ve heard about the concentration camps and gas chambers. We know one of Adolf Hitler’s objectives during World War II was the “Final Solution” — an attempt to wipe out the Jewish population of Europe. We know that six million Jews were murdered, plus millions more Communists, prisoners of war, gypsies, intellectuals, handicapped people and others.

We may have seen movies like Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice. Maybe we read The Diary of Anne Frank. But it’s doubtful that we understand the true brutality of the killings, and the depravity of the people who committed them.

Claudia Moscovici’s book, Holocaust Memories, captures the scope of the horror.

The book is a collection of 70 essays by the author, each one a summary or review of a classic book or film about the Holocaust. Some are well known, such as Night by Elie Weisel, and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil, by Hannah Arendt. Because each of Moscovici’s essays is short — usually only two pages — the painful history comes in small doses.

Many of the works were new to me, depicting particular aspects of the Holocaust that I didn’t know. The author Leni Yahil described what happened in Hungary: In less than two months, from May 15 to July 9, 1944, 440,000 Jews, more than half of the country’s Jewish population, were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Most of them died in the gas chambers.

How can people do this?

Moscovici knows about psychopaths — she is author of the Psychopathy Awareness blog. In some essays, she analyzes the perpetrators’ disorder. For example, she talks about Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi lieutenant colonel who was one of the main organizers of the mass deportation of Jews. Eichmann escaped after the war and fled to Argentina. He was eventually captured and tried for his crimes in Jerusalem.

Hannah Arendt, who covered the trial, was surprised that Eichmann seemed so normal and felt no moral responsibility for his crimes. As Moscovici points out, the reason for this is simple — the man was a psychopath. Failure to take responsibility for anything is one of the key characteristics of a psychopath.

Holocaust Memories is an exceptional work of scholarship about one of the darkest chapters of human history. For all those people who now say the Holocaust never happened — well, there are plenty of eyewitnesses who know that it did, because they lived it.

Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

 

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

 

 

Elie Wiesel’s Night: Shedding Light upon the Darkness

 

Elie Wiesel’s Night: Shedding Light upon the Darkness

 by Claudia Moscovici

Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night (New York, Hill and Wang, 2006, translated by Marion Wiesel), is one of the best-known and most highly acclaimed works about the Holocaust. The New York Times called the 2006 edition “a slim volume of terrifying power”. Yet its power wasn’t immediately appreciated. In fact, the book may have never been written had Wiesel not approached his friend, the novelist Francois Mauriac, for an introduction to the French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes France, whom he wanted to interview. When Mauriac, a devout Catholic, mentioned that Mendes stated that France was suffering like Jesus, Elie Wiesel responded that ten years earlier he had seen hundreds of Jewish children suffer more than Jesus did on the cross yet nobody spoke about it. Mauriac appeared moved and suggested that Wiesel himself write about this difficult subject.

The young man followed his advice. He began writing in Yiddish an 862-page manuscript about his experiences of the Holocaust. The Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina published an abbreviated version of his book, under the title And the World Remained Silent. Wiesel later translated the text into French. He called it, more simply and symbolically, Night (La Nuit) and sent it to Mauriac, who helped Wiesel find a publisher (the small and prestigious publishing house Les Editions de Minuit) and wrote its Preface. The English version, published in 1960 by Arthur Wang of Hill and Wang, received strong critical acclaim despite initially modest sales. Over the years, Elie Wiesel’s eloquent books and informative interviews helped bring the difficult subject of the Holocaust to the center of public attention. In 2006, Oprah Winfrey selected Night for her high-profile book club, increasing its public exposure.

This work is autobiographical—an eloquent memoir documenting Wiesel’s family sufferings during the Holocaust—yet, due to its literary qualities, the text has also been read as a novel or fictionalized autobiography. The brevity, poignant dialogue, lyrical descriptions of human degradation and suffering, and historical accuracy of this multifaceted work render Night one of the most powerful Holocaust narratives ever written.

Elie (Eliezer) Wiesel was only 15 years old when the Nazis entered Sighet in March of 1944, a Romanian town in Northern Transylvania that had been annexed to Hungary in 1940. At the directives of Adolf Eichmann, who took it upon himself to “cleanse” Hungary of its Jews, the situation deteriorated very quickly for the Jewish population of Sighet and other provincial towns. Within a few months, between May and July 1944, approximately 440,000 Hungarian Jews, mostly those living outside of Budapest, were deported to Auschwitz aboard 147 trains.

Wiesel’s entire family—his father Shlomo, mother Sarah, and sisters Tzipora, Hilda and Beatrice—suffered this fate. Among them, only Elie and two of his sisters, Hilda and Beatrice, survived the Holocaust. However, since women and men were separated at Auschwitz upon arrival, Elie lost track of what happened to his sisters until they reunited after the end of the war. In the concentration camp, father and son clung to each other as the only family they had left.

Night recounts their horrific experiences, which included starvation, forced labor and a death march to Buchenwald. Being older and weaker, Shlomo becomes the target of punishment and humiliation. He’s abused by SS officers as well as by other prisoners who steal his food. Weakened by hunger and fatigue, he dies after a savage beating in January 1945, only a few weeks before the Americans liberate the concentration camp. Throughout their tribulations, the son oscillates between a filial sense of responsibility towards his increasingly debilitated father and regarding his father as a burden that might cost him his own life. Elie doesn’t dare intervene when the SS officer beats Shlomo, fearing that he himself would become the next victim if he tries to help his father.

In the darkness and despair of Night, the instinct of self-preservation from day to day and moment to moment counteracts a lifetime of familial love. Even when Elie discovers the death of his father in the morning, he experiences a sense of hollowness: not only his father’s absence, as his bunk is now occupied by another inmate, but also the lack of his own human response: “I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!” (112)

Night offers a stark psychological account of the process of human degradation in inhumane conditions. Even the relatively few and fortunate survivors of the Nazi atrocities, such as Elie Wiesel, became doubly victimized. They are the victims of what they suffered at the hands of their oppressors as well as the victims of what they witnessed others suffer and were unable (or unwilling) to help. Although Night focuses on the loss of human dignity in the Nazi concentration camps, the author’s life would become a quest for regaining it by writing and talking about the Holocaust. As Wiesel explains to his audience on December 10, 1986 during his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize in Oslo, his message to his son–and to the world at large—is about the empathy required to perpetuate Holocaust memories. He declares, “I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. … We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” (118).

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memories

Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

 

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

 

 

Review of The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank by Willy Lindwer

The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank by Willy Lindwer

The Diary of Anne Frank constitutes one of the most important legacies of the Holocaust. The journal documents the experiences of a young Jewish girl, her family and acquaintances while they hid for years in concealed rooms behind a bookcase, called “the Secret Annex”, in Nazi occupied Netherlands. Anne Frank’s father, mother and sister moved into the Secret Annex in July 1942. Shortly thereafter they were joined there by the Van Pels family and Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist. Their non-Jewish friends and employees, Victor Kugler, Johannes Keliman, Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl, provided them with food supplies as well as with invaluable information about current events, risking the death penalty for harboring and aiding Jews.

In her journal, Anne documents the daily difficulties of living in hiding as well as the family dynamics and challenges of becoming an adolescent in such difficult and dangerous circumstances. However, we know much less about what happened to Anne and her family once the Dutch Nazis caught them. On August 4, 1944, the Secret Annex was stormed by the Grune Polizei, led by the SS officer Karl Silberbauer. The Jewish families were interrogated, then imprisoned in Weteringschans and sent to the punishment barracks for having “illicitly” hid from the Nazis. A few days later, the Frank family and their friends were transferred to Westerbork, a transit camp for Dutch and German Jewish prisoners. On September 3, 1944 they were deported to Auschwitz. The train journey to the concentration camp took three days. There the Franks encountered Anne and Margot’s friend from the Jewish Lyceum, Bloeme Evers-Emden. Bloeme was later interviewed about the Frank family by a Dutch filmmaker, Willy Lindwer, for a documentary that would later be published as a book, The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank (Doubleday Publishing, New York, 1988).

This book contains several interviews of eyewitnesses and friends who encountered the Frank family at Auschwitz. According to their testimonials, after the men were separated, upon arrival, from the women, Edith Frank and her daughters, Anne and Margot, were sent to Barrack 29. The Frank sisters spent almost two months at Auschwitz in the hospital after they contracted scabies. Their mother stayed there as well to take care of them until Anne and Margot were sent to Bergen-Belsen, probably on October 28, 1944. They were part of a large group of Jewish prisoners who were led on death marches to various concentration camps throughout Germany, as the Russians reoccupied Poland and approached Auschwitz. Within a few months, in January, their mother, Edith Frank, died from sorrow, malnutrition and exhaustion. Their father, Otto Frank, survived the Holocaust and devoted the rest of his life to preserving his family’s legacy—as well as the memory of the Holocaust–by disseminating Anne’s diary worldwide.

Although Bergen-Belsen was originally an exchange camp that had better conditions than the concentration and death camps, as previously mentioned, by 1945 it became dangerously overcrowded and disease-ridden as the Germans packed countless prisoners into it. Between July 1943 and the end of 1944, over 9000 Jews were imprisoned there from countries all over Europe. As more and more Jews were channeled into Bergen-Belsen from other, evacuated labor and concentration camps, by March 1945, the now heavily overcrowded camp reached around 41,000 inmates. The camp was initially run by Commander Adolf Haas, then by Siegfried Seidke and, in its final days, by the sadistic Commander Josef Kramer.

Lindwer states that the conditions became so bad in Bergen-Belsen during the last months of the war that “although there were no gas chambers, ten thousand people died… There was almost nothing to eat, it was winter, and sickness and disease were everywhere… As a result, in the last months before the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and in the first weeks thereafter, most of the inmates perished. Among them were Margot and Anne Frank, who died of typhus within days of each other. The camp was liberated by the British shortly thereafter, on April 15, 1945” (6-7). We still don’t know for sure when the Frank sisters passed away. Although Lindwer’s book states that they died in March 1945, the Anne Frank Foundation indicates that it probably happened in February.

In a genocide in which millions of people were shot and buried in mass graves or incinerated anonymously in crematoria, Anne Frank’s diary, as well as books like Lindwer’s, continue to remind us that each life was important and that each death in the Holocaust is worth commemorating.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memories

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