Women Before Hell's Gate: Survivors of the Holocaust and their Memoirs
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Biography | Endnotes

Part III

As is well-known, the cruelest and most horrendously uninhibited machination of the Nazis was that of the gas chambers. The incredibility of these gas chambers cannot be overstressed. When the first word of the gas chambers came out, the inmates themselves did not want to believe it. Ruth Klüger recalls the first time she heard of the gas chambers:

Nach Theresienstadt kam im August 1943 eine Gruppe Kinder, die ich nicht gesehen habe, and fast niemand dort hat sie gesehen. Sie sollten in einen Spezialtransport ins Ausland, in die Schweiz, wurde behauptet. Sie wurden streng gesondert halten, und nur wenige Betreuer durften während der kurzen Zeit, die sie bei uns waren, an sie heran. Trotzdem hörte man: Diese Kinder wehrten sich verzweifelt, als sie sich duschen sollte. Und auch der Grund für diese Weigerung sprach sich herum. Die Erwachsenen hielten die Geschichte von den Duschen, aus denen statt Wasser Giftgas strömte für ein Phantasieprodukt der Kinder, während Kinder wie ich, sie zumindest in Erwägung zogen. [A group of children came to Theresienstadt in 1943 whom I never saw and almost nobody there saw them. They were to be sent away in a special transport abroad, to Switzerland it was said. They were separated from the rest of us by all necessary means, and only a few advisors [from the Jewish community] could visit them. Nonetheless, we heard that these children desperately refused to shower. And everybody was talking about the reason for this refusal. The adults held the stories of showers out of which poison gas streamed instead of water, for a fantasy product of the children. In the meantime, children such as myself, pondered this issue seriously.]25

In addition to pointing out how difficult it was for the concentration camp inmates to believe the reality of the gas chambers, this passage points out that children in the concentration camps had to grow up fast. Between Ruth and her mother, who were imprisoned together, there was almost a reversal of the parent/child relationship. Ruth took a more realistic and more accurate view of the dangers confronting them.

After the horrible truth of the gas chambers became known to the inmates, most like Ruth Klüger's mother did not want to believe it. They reacted to it with a kind of defensive amnesia, which according to Lucie Begov, amounted to a defense of their murderers and an unwarranted belief that their captors were acting according to some conventional standard of morality. Begov describes her own inability to believe reports of the gas chambers:

Wie es dann herauskam, weiß ich nicht, doch plötzlich hatte es alle gehört: So wie es denen ergangen war, die wir im Familienlager glaubten, erging es auch allen, die ins Revier kamen. Sie wurden getötet und zwar "vergast" und im "Kamin" verbrannt. Auch in der Quarantäne--und Arbeitsblocks--war man vor dem "Kamin" nicht sicher und auch wir würden nach und nach "selektiert" und "vergast" werden. Am gefährlichsten war der Aufenthalt im Revier. . . . Ich . . . glaubte das vermeintliche Gerücht mit einem "logischen" Argument widerlegen zu können: Wenn sie uns töten wollen, wozu bringen sie uns in ein Lager, fragte ich. So weit waren wir noch davon entfernt, die durchgesickerte Wahrheit zu glauben, die Wirklichkeit, in der wir lebten, zu erkennen, zu erfassen. [I do not know how the word got out, but suddenly everybody had heard it: what happened to those whom we believed to be in the family camp happened as well to everyone who came into the infirmary. They were killed and indeed "gassed" and then burned in the "chimney." Even we would be "selected" and then "gassed." The most dangerous place for such a "selection" was the infirmary. . . .I . . .believed I could refute the seeming rumor with a "logical" argument: if they wanted to kill us, why would they bring us to a camp first? We were indeed so far from believing the proven truth and recognizing and understanding the reality in which we lived.]26

Unfortunately Lucie Begov's defensive amnesia had fatal consequences which went quite contrary to her expectations and intentions. She encouraged her ailing sister to visit the infirmary, and the sister was sent straight to the gas chambers.

The ultimate act of dehumanization was the transformation of inmates into "Muselmänner," which is reflected on in one of Ruth Klüger's poems entitled "Kamin" ("Chimney"):

Mancher lebte einst vor Grauen/Von der drohenden Gefahr./Heute kann er gelassen schauen,/Bietet ruhig sein Leben dar./Jetzt ist er zermürbt von Leiden,/Keine Schönheit, keine Freuden/Leben, Sonne, sie sind hin./Und es lodert der Kamin./Auschwitz liegt in seiner Hand,/Alles, alles wird verbrannt. [After living full of horror/Of the danger threatening him/Today he can calmly look at it/He peacefully offers his own life/Everyone is worn out from sufferings/No beauty,no joy/Life, sunshine are over/The chimney blazes/Auschwitz lies in its hand/Everything, everything will be burned.]27

The "Muselmänner" were those inmates who had lost the will to survive and who withdrew from the surrounding world in a manner resembling autism. This poem is Klüger's tribute to those who were unable to survive, who were forced to succumb to the inevitable because the depravity that surrounded them became unbearable. After their withdrawal from reality made them nonfunctional as workers, the Muselmänner were consigned to death in the gas chambers during the "selections." Ruth relects that she never gave up hope--out of a combination of childhood blindness and fear of death. Yet surviving was as improbable as winning the lottery. She empathizes with the Muselmänner who gave up their will to live, because she recognizes the tribulations confronting them. She thereby validates their experience and their perspective--a withdrawal from real life, which made their deaths more inevitable, but which also ended their suffering. The last line "Everything will be burned" is a reflection of the near inevitability of death in the concentration camps, a situation that the inmates were never allowed to forget.

Despite these cruel and efficacious methods of dehumanization, many inmates attempted to rehumanize themselves in order to maintain their will to live. It is necessary to examine the ways in which concentration camp inmates tried to maintain their humanity in order to hold on to that quintessential recognition of their dignity without which survival was impossible. Such means included religion, literature, semi-organized instruction, and acts of defiance.

Ruth Klüger recollects seeing the famous rabbi Leo Baeck preaching from the roofs of Theresienstadt, trying to console the inmates. He gave theological sermons on the fact that God's time is not man's time and that humankind must have patience with God's calendar, implying, in a subtle way, that the Nazis would not last forever. Ruth felt personally inspired by the sermon, and she also remembers being inspired by Zionist discussions among her Jewish coreligionists in Theresienstadt. Her conscious thoughts were saturated with Zionism, because it was the philosophy that made the most sense to her. She recalls singing Zionist songs with companions her own age.

Semi-organized instruction was also a vehicle for rehumanization. Although organized instruction for the children of Theresienstadt was forbidden, there were clandestine attempts to calm the children's fears by imparting knowledge of art and literature to them. This was forbidden because the Jewish intellect was viewed by the Nazis as being a danger even in a concentration camp situation due to its power to revitalize the victims they wanted to destroy. The ban on learning made the children value learning all the more. Theresienstadt contained people of a variety of intellectual endeavors and ideological leanings who were capable of providing instruction. Teachers, professors, rabbis, and museum curators would lead discussion groups of eager children, groups which learned to break up quickly when a German inspection was imminent.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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