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

Part IV

Klüger also writes about the consoling effect effect which her knowledge of the German classics had on her. Knowing the best of what German Classicism had produced helped give her the strength to survive the worst of what German Barbarism had produced. She poignantly describes the importance poetry had for the inmates' survival:

Ich erzählte nichts Ungewöhnliches, wenn ich sage, ich hätte überall, wo ich war, Gedichte aufgesagt und verfaßt. Viele KZ-Insassen haben Trost in den Versen gefunden, die sie auswendig wußten. . . . Meistens werden Gedichte von religiösem oder weltanschaulichem Inhalt erwähnt oder solche die einen besonderen emotionellen Stellenwert in der Kindheit des Gefangenen hatten. Mir scheint es indessen, daß der Inhalt der Verse erst in zweiter Linie von Bedeutung war und daß der uns in erster Linie die Form selbst, die gebundene Sprache, eine Stütze gab. [I am not telling anything unusual when I say I would have recited and composed poems anywhere where I would have been. Many concentration camp inmates found consolation in the verses they knew by heart. . . . Most of them mention poems with religious or philosophical themes or such poems that had a special emotional vlaue during their childhood. Incidentally, it appears to me that the theme of a poem was of secondary importance: the most important thing in giving us support was the form of the verse, the rhyme itself.]28

She writes about using verse and rhyme to convince herself that continued life was a worthwhile goal. Those people facing the worst scourges of humanity could increase their chances of survival by recalling the best that humanity had accomplished, because it had a consoling and benevolently animating effect. Literary scholar Andrea Reiter writes that withdrawal into art offered the detainees a welcome opportunity to temporarily forget the brutal reality of the concentration camps and thereby conquer their fears.29 It should be mentioned that literary activity seldom took the form of reading or writing, but took the form of reminiscing about favorite books, reciting memorized poems, or trying to create original poems within one's head, and then committing them to memory.

Another factor which had a rehumanizing effect on the victims and increased their chances of survival were small acts of defiance. Such an act is described by Lundholm. After the death of the privileged inmate Wanda, who served as a brothel madam for the SS, an organized group of inmates decided to confiscate her goods and distribute them to other inmates. A Kapo had custody of Wanda's goods, but during an air raid the inmates were able to break into the kapo's apartment and confiscate fruit preserves, bread, butter, salami, and chocolate. The women ate their fill and after realizing that they could not keep their stolen goods in secrecy, they decided to distribute them to women and children in different barracks where the presence of the stolen goods was less likely to arouse suspicion. This in turn had a rehumanizing impact on the women and led them to put forth a greater moral resistance to the forces threatening their survival.

The dialectic betweem dehumanization and preservation of human dignity is portrayed most vividly by Klüger in her account of the Nazi evacuation of the last concentration camp at which she was detained, Christianstadt. The Nazis, fearing an impending liberation by the allies, wished to erase all traces of the brutal concentration camp. When the Nazis knew that the allied liberation of the concentration camps was imminent, it was their policy not to abandon the detainees to the would-be liberators, but to forceably march them on foot to other concentration camps. Many prisoners perished as a result of these inhumane procedures intended to thwart their impending liberation. As Ruth and her mother were subjected to a death march, Ruth's mind turned toward escape while her mother was reticent to risk it. I would like to refer to Klüger's poignant decription of the events which led them to flee from the Nazi tyrants:

Dann war noch eine Verlockung, die von dem Land,von der Umgebung ausging. Anfang Februar 1945, und trotz der vorherrschenden Kälte lag schon etwas vom Vorfrühling in der Luft und der verführerische Sog dieser Jahrezeit. Da draußen war eine Heimlichkeit, die nicht bis zu uns drang, aber doch erreichbar schien. Man konnte sie spüren, nur Schritte von der Unnatürlichkeit unserer Existenz, von dem Elend des Lagers, das wir mit uns auf dem Rücken trugen, zusammen mit der Decke und dem Eßgeschirr. Ganz nah war eine Natur, schweigend, organisch. Weg, jetzt, sofort. Meine Mutter wollte auf die nächste Brotration warten. Ich widersprach erbittert und überzeugt. Soviel zu essen, wie die uns, besonders in letzter Zeit gegeben haben, würden wir immer noch finden. Jetzt oder nie, jetzt schaut keiner hin, die sind beschäftigt und wahrscheinlich selber müde. [There was a seductive feeling coming from the land. It was early February 1945, and despite the cold weather, the air had a feeling of early spring and the seductive draw of this season to it. There outside was a feeling of comfort that did not make its way toward us, but nonetheless seemed within reach. We could sense it, mere steps away from the unnaturalness of our existence, from the misery of the camp, that we bore on our back, together with our blanket and eating utensils. Very near to us was nature, silent, organic. Away, now, immediately. My mother wanted to wait for the next bread ration. I argued against her bitterly and with conviction. As much to eat as they were giving us, especially recently, could be easily found. Now or never, no one is looking, they are busy and are probably tired themselves.]30

During the early stages of the death march, Ruth finds herself healthy enough to feel spring fever which intensifies her desire to be free of her captors. Ruth Klüger, who was an avid reader of the 18th-century dramatist Friedrich Schiller and who credits her knowledge of Schiller with helping her to survive the camps was perhaps thinking of Schiller's phrase, "It is better to fall into God's hands than men's." Her mother's life, however, revolves around the bread rations and she is reluctant to surrender this vestigial tracing of security. Ruth's youthfulness prevails and the Klügers, along with four fellow inmates, make their dramatic escape from the snares of Hitler's apocalyptic henchmen.

One more point remains to be made about the significance of these Holocaust memoirs. The writing of these memoirs is itself an act of courage as well as an act of engagement against the conditions which produced fascism, conditions which continue to exist. In a personal conversation, Holocaust survivor Jack Mandelbaum, the President of the Midwest Holocaust Education Center in Overland Park, Kansas told me that he was psychologically unable to talk about his concentration camp experiences until 20 years after his liberation. Lucie Begov describes the similar difficulty she had in writing her memoirs:

Daß mir eine derart exakte Schilderung Jahrzehnte nach Auschwitz möglich war, verdanke ich einem umfangreichen Rohmanuskript, das ich gleich nach Kriegsende 1945/46 . . . niederschrieb . . . Ich dachte oft in den seither vergangenen Jahrzehnten oft daran, dieses Rohmaterial zu einem Buch zu verarbeiten, konnte aber die dazu erforderliche seelische Kraft nicht aufbringen. [That it was possible for me to write such an exact description decades after Auschwitz was due to a detailed rough draft that I wrote directly after the end of the war in 1945/46. I often thought of working this rough draft into a book during the past decades, but I could not gather up the necessary psychological power.]31

The courageous act of memoir-writing is examined by Andrea Reiter in her study of Holocaust literature, Auf daß sie entsteigen der Dunkelheit: Die literarische Bewältigung von KZ Erfahrung (1995). According to Reiter, the unique thing about these texts is the attempt to portray a life-threatening personal experience and attribute some meaning to this traumatic experience in such a way that the requisites for a satisfactory continuation of life can be guaranteed.32 In their autobiographies, the survivors emphasize the meaning their telling of the story has for them after the liberation. Although the fact that they are witnesses means they have something important to say to us, the writing also serves a therapeutic function for them. The psychological overcoming of their experiences constitutes a sort of catharsis.33 Survivors attempting to chronicle the Holocaust must experience a conflict between the internal pressure to express themselves and the psychological barriers of reliving traumatic experiences.34

These memoirs have a lesson for us, a lesson that is expressed by Harold Kaplan:

Be careful what doctrine you believe for it is certain that you will try to bring it to reality. Declare that you have an enemy, and he will become that enemy. Declare a person to be of inferior race, and you will soon write the scenarios that will fulfill your theory.35

According to Theodor Adorno, education has a meaningful role to play in the prevention of future Auschwitzes in that it leads to critical self-reflection. The true power against the principle of Auschwitz is the principle of autonomy: the power of reflection, of self-reflection, the ability to refuse participation.36 This gives individuals a defense against blind identification with the collective. Renewed nationalisms in our postmodern age where such social devices are outmoded create fresh ground for sadistic practices.37 Finally, these memoirs of dehumanization and subsequent rehumanization under impossible circumstances can have a rehumanizing impact upon us, their readership. The reading of the memoirs has the potential of instilling in its readership the power of reflection, of self-determination, and of non-cooperation with evil which is the only true antidote to the principle of Auschwitz.38 As we continue to be advocates of an ethically principled social order based on multi-ethnicity, multi-religiosity, inclusiveness for the disabled, multiculturalism, and tolerance of and appreciation for social diversity, these memoirs may be of use to us in engendering strong resistance to those who oppose such principles and advocate--subtly or overtly--a return to the politically and morally bereft philosophies advocated by Hitler and other Nazi leaders.

Subjective accounts of the Holocaust, such as memoirs and autobiographies, can have this effect. Therefore, it is in our collective interest to make these moving texts more widely known. These authors have revealed to us how anti-Semitic persecution threatens the very fabric of our civilization and in so doing they have redrawn the map of civilization itself to make it more just and more humane.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.