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

Peter R. Erspamer, Ph.D.
Author's Acknowledgments: This essay originally appeared in Literature and Ethnic Discrimination, edited by Michael J. Meyer (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1997). It is reprinted here by special arrangement with Rodopi Press and thanks are due to Fred van der See. I would also like to thank Paul Roberge, Ruth Klüger, and Elie Wiesel for their words of encouragement on the original publication of this essay. Some slight revisions and enlargements have been made to this essay for this reprinting. Special thanks to Judy Cohen for inviting me to present my work in her forum.

Part I

The horrors of Nazism were best described in 1986 by the German historian Eberhard Jäckel:

The Nazi extermination of the Jews was unique because never before had a state, under the responsible authority of its leader, decided and announced that a specific group of human beings, including the old, the women, the children and the infants would be killed to the very last one, and implemented this decision with every means at its disposal.1

Jäckel's statement eloquently explains why the Holocaust continues to horrify us 50 years after the end of World War II. The Holocaust has become emblematic as a symbol of the cruelty of inter-ethnic hatred and the means and motives of the Nazi tyrants continue to terrify and are the subject of continuing attention. The killing of European Jews in such Nazi concentration camps as Auschwitz, Theresienstadt (Terezin), Ravensbrück, and Oederan occurred not only through exposing the victims to physical privations, because that alone was not the quickest way to guarantee their destruction. Although the indomitability of the human spirit did not flourish in the camps, it did continue to survive, and in many cases, it prolonged the inmates' tenuous hold on life. It therefore became necessary to assault the detainees psychologically by divorcing them from any sense of their identity as human beings. The techniques of this dehumanization process are vividly described in various survivor memoirs. The goals of this essay are threefold: to examine the philosophy behind the dehumanization of Holocaust victims, to examine specific techniques of dehumanization as reflected in Holocaust literature, and finally to examine the ways in which some Holocaust survivors were able to resist these processes of dehumanization by rehumanizing themselves and maintaining their will to live.

In examining the philosophy behind these practices of dehumanization, it is profitable to turn to the analyses offered by Theodor W. Adorno, a major 20th-century philosopher. In his 1966 essay, "Erziehung nach Auschwitz," he declares the following: the most important task of education is the prevention of future Auschwitzes.2 Adorno then proceeds to indict the barbarism that constituted Auschwitz as the very antithesis of education and holds that Auschwitz was the result of powerful societal tendencies that continue to exist. The genocide had its roots in the resurrection of an aggressive nationalism that had its origins in the late 19th century.3 Indeed, the notion of a state based on religious, ethnic, and cultural homogeneity was a reactionary product of that time whose influence continues today.

Adorno rightly viewed the Nazi genocide as a major ethical issue of the twentieth century. On the other hand, the road that led to Auschwitz was mired in pseudo-ethical a prioris. The postulate that German National Socialism could be based upon any concept of ethics, no matter how far-flung, may seem incongruous at first glance. However, the French historian Léon Poliakov points out that Nazism possessed a perverse religiosity. He states that religion has three basic elements: "the perception of a higher power, the submission to that power, and the establishment of relations with it . . ."4 Hitler was the higher power and in order to mythologize that power he had to create a pseudo-dichotomy between good and evil by portraying the Jewish people as devils incarnate.

The ethical assumptions of Nazism have also been examined by the theologian Peter J. Haas in his 1988 book, Morality after Auschwitz. Haas maintains that there was a Nazi ethic, i.e., a codified system for differentiating between good and evil. The Nazi apparatus was the "governing norm" of the entire German "civilization."5 The Nazi ethic was, according to Haas, based upon the concept of a "just war."6 This Nazi pseudo-ethic demonized the Jews and relegated them to being viewed as a sub-species of humanity. The Nazi ethic stressed the importance of religious, ethnic, and cultural homogeneity, concepts borrowed from racist philosophies which flourished during the 19th century.

The historian Dominick LaCapra similarly speaks of the goals of fascism in terms of an "undifferentiated unity or even identity of the German people in a common will."7 He elaborates:

One has a narcissistic fusion of a Führer and a Volk in a spectacular relationship. . . . One's very identity as a German was to be generated through identification with this leader and this identity was solidified by a racial ideology that represented Germans as members of a superior people.8

Eliminationist anti-Semitism must therefore be seen as a sine qua non of Nazi ideology. Despite the fact that the Holocaust imposed great costs on the Nazi war program and severely compromised the functioning of the Nazi war-making apparatus, the Nazis continued their persecution due to their belief in the validity of Jewish inferiority. All this because of a belief that "a whole people, branded by genetic origin, and not by organized or unorganized political interest, had no right to live--not anywhere in Europe nor anywhere on the planet."9

This genocidal concept is elaborated on by Lawrence Langer in his 1995 book Admitting the Holocaust, where he described the Holocaust as a "rupture in human values."10 The barbaric Nazi system that led to the "Final Solution" was touted as a positive alternative to the perceived evils of a parliamentary democracy and a society that worked toward tolerance of a variety of viewpoints during the Weimar Republic. The system of values espoused by Weimar culture was turned upside down by a system that promised to replace the putative evils of a heterogeneous Weimar democracy with the unitary consciousness of a Nazi police state. This drive for unitary consciousness demanded the effacement of not only political, but also ethnic diversity and therefore led to the destruction of European Jewry.

In reflecting on the destructiveness of the Nazi system, Adorno remarks that Auschwitz has provided humankind with a new categorical imperative: For us to so conduct ourselves that the events of Auschwitz are never repeated.11 Survivors' memories of unbridled suffering may indeed take on not only a historical dimension but also an ethical significance: to the extent that the moving remembrances of Holocaust survivors can serve to make us more vigilant, more involved, and more humane world citizens. Considerable moral authority is possessed by those who have borne witness to the torment which constitutes the Holocaust, and who, at the same time, continue to win our admiration through their unabated humanity. In fact, survivors' memoirs have a strong advantage over objective accounts, because of the ability of eyewitnesses to engage the reader's sympathy and admiration.12

The detainees of Auschwitz were victims of a totally contorted ethical system. The Nazi ethic defined Jews as being subhuman, creating a dilemma for those Nazi potentates who dealt with the Jewish population. Their creed taught them that Jews were subhuman, but when they came into contact with Jewish people they found themselves confronted with human beings: ordinary men, women, and children. They dealt with this dilemma by trying to recreate Jews according to their pseudo-credal image of them: debasing and dehumanizing their race in an attempt to transform it into the subhuman creatures that the Nazi creed dictated that they were. What emerged was a brutal suppression of the inherent humanity of the Jewish people in order to support an incoherent ethical system that was not in harmony with reality because it tried to impose false divisions upon our species. While denying that Jews had any humanity in the first place, the Nazis tried to systematically strip that humanity away from them. That is proof that the Nazi ethic suffered from a severe internal contradiction and was based on irrational underpinnings.

The perpetrators of the Holocaust knew that for their victims to survive it was necessary for those victims to hold on to their identity as integral human beings. The Nazis therefore attempted to dehumanize the inmates in every way possible. The inmates, on the other hand, did everything they could to preserve a sense of human dignity. When reading these memoirs a dialectic between dehumanization and human dignity is clearly observable: a dialectic of the techniques of dehumanization of concentration camp detainees and the methods used by the concentration camp survivors to rehumanize themselves and thereby make themselves more resistant to the fate intended for them.

This dialectic will be examined in four books of Holocaust memoirs: Grete Salus's Niemand, nichts--ein Jude: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Oederan ("Nobody, Nothing--a Jew: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Oederan," 1958), Lucie Begov's Mit meinen Augen: Botschaft einer Auschwitz-Überlebenden ("With my own Eyes: The Message of an Auschwitz Survivor," 1983), Anja Lundholm's Das Höllentor: Bericht einer Überlebenden ("Hell's Gate: A Survivor's Report," 1988), and Ruth Klüger's weiter leben: Eine Jugend ("Continue living: My Youth," 1992). Women writers will be the focus of this study, because such prominent male Holocaust survivors as Elie Wiesel, Bruno Bettelheim, Viktor Frankl, Primo Levi, Jean Améry, and many others have already been the subject of extensive critical attention. Women's Holocaust memoirs have as of yet not gotten the gotten the scholarly attention they deserve, and by bridging this gap, a better understanding of the Holocaust may emerge. This study also aims to concentrate on chroniclers of the Holocaust who are relatively unknown to an English-speaking readership.13

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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