Living conditions

Short selections (numbered paragraphs) from The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps by Terrence Des Pres.

Living conditions

[1] “It began in the trains, in the locked boxcars–eighty to a hundred people per car–crossing Europe to the camps in Poland :

‘The temperature started to rise, as the freight car was enclosed and body heat had no outlet . . . . The only place to urinate was through a slot in the skylight, though whoever tried this usually missed, spilling urine on the floor . . . . When dawn finally rose . . . we were all quite ill and shattered, crushed not only by the weight of fatigue but by the stifling , moist atmosphere and the foul odor of excrement . . . . There was no latrine , no provision . . . . On top of everything else , a lot of people had vomited on the floor. We were to live for days on end breathing these foul smells, and soon we lived in the foulness itself.’

The importance of finding a purpose

[2] [One survivor 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” (Zywulska , 113 ).

Social support was essential to survival

[3] “Bettelheim has noted that ‘nonpolitical middle class prisoners’ were among the first who ‘disintegrated as autonomous persons.’  Another survivor sums it up this way: ‘survival . . . could only be a social achievement, not an individual accident'” (Weinstock, 74).

[4] “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 him.”

[5] “And all the time there was this awful fight for one’s bare existence. The essential thing of course, was not to lose the will to live, for this definitely meant death. I soon realized that alone one could not possibly survive. It was necessary therefore to form little families of  two or three. In this way we looked after one another” (Hart, 63).

[6] “The survivor is the figure who emerges from all those who fought for life in the concentration camps, and the most significant fact about their struggle is that it depended on fixed activities: on forms of social bonding and interchange, on collective resistance, on keeping dignity and moral sense active. That such thoroughly human kinds of behavior were typical in places like Buchenwald and Auschwitz amounts to a revelation reaching to the foundation of what man is. Facts such as these discredit the claims of nihilism and suggest, further, that when men and women must face months and years of death-threat they endure less through cultural than through biological imperatives.”

The human moral sense

[7] “For the majority of survivors, however, behavior was not based on reason and calculation.  Most survivors simply found themselves helping each other, as if by instinct, as if in answer to a need.”

[8] “Nature itself–by which I mean the system of living creatures–guards against dissolution and chaos; not through control by government . . . but through the emergence, during times of prolonged crisis, of structures of behavior whose purpose is to maintain the social basis of life.”

[9] “The depth and durability of man’s social nature may be gauged by the fact that conditions in the concentration camps were designed to turn prisoners against each other; but that in a multitude of ways, men and women persisted in social acts. Fear and privation increased irritability but did not keep inmates from joining in common cause. In fact protracted death-threat is the condition which brings social instincts to their strongest pitch. This is true of animals as well.”

[10] “Group formation in defense against predation is common from insects to primates, and protective strategies often depend on intricate systems of communication and mutual aid. Among many species of birds and other vertebrates, furthermore, the degree of social cohesion is proportionate to the degree of food scarcity or other negative features of the environment. The more pressure from without, the more “solidarity” from within. For animals as for man, return to community is an inborn reaction to danger and prolonged stress.”

[11] “There was in all the camps a significant drive toward decency, a persistent tendency to transcend the amorality of initial conditions and to establish modes of interchange which were life-supporting and a basis for relations truly social: Small cooperatives were formed.”

[12] “The elementary forms of social being remained active, dignity and care did not disappear. These facts argue an agency stronger than will or conscious decision, stronger even than the kind of practical intelligence which made the need for moral order and collective action obvious. Something innate–let us think of it as a sort of biological gyroscope–keeps men and  women steady in their humanness despite inhuman pressure.”  

[13] “We can pretend we owe nothing to anyone, but survivors know they need each other. Integral to survival at the social level–again in man as in other species–is some form of warning technique, and this is almost certainly the basis of the survivor’s obsessive need to ‘tell the world.’ The will to bear witness, as we have seen, is an involuntary reaction to extreme situations. Survivors do not so much decide to remember and record, as simply find themselves doing it . . .”

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