Although published thirty years ago, this book is at least as relevant today as it was when it first appeared. As the survivors of concentration camps grow old and die it is more important than ever today to have their memories and first-hand accounts on record.
These in-depth conversations were held with individuals who experienced one or more of the Nazis’ concentration camps. Although the author is not a trained psychologist,. he has managed to gain the survivors’ confidence and elicited from them detailed accounts of the mental and physical ordeals they underwent, giving them in their own words, without unnecessary embellishment or analysis. As we read these accounts we feel that we are hearing their genuine voices as they speak openly and honestly about their experiences in the camps. These accounts are often preceded by descriptions of life in the ghettos or in hiding before capture and transport ‘east.’ In many cases the concentration camp experience is rounded off with a forced march, the infamous ‘death march’ (of which there were many) to another camp or undefined destination, as the Germans sought to escape the advancing Allied forces.
The first third of the book comprises a detailed historical account of the circumstances around the establishment of the concentration camps, the way they were built, and the method of their functioning, in all their horrific and inhuman detail. The research that has obviously gone into this section of the book is impressive in its attention to the specifics of the running of the camps as well as the results of psychological studies of survivors.
Several hundred individuals were interviewed, mainly in the UK, the USA and Israel, and each and every one had a unique tale to tell, even though certain elements of their ordeal remained consistent between them. All in all, it makes one wonder at the capacity of the human being to endure suffering, both physical and psychological, and adapt to the most monstrous conditions.
Almost all the survivors attribute their survival to sheer luck – having been in the right place at the right time, or not having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many, if not all of them, saw close relatives being taken away or abused, and then comes the laconic phrase “I never saw them again.” In only one case is an interviewee reported as having burst into tears. The brutality and dehumanizing processes endemic in the camps, with senseless forced labour as well as work on behalf of the German war effort, beatings, endless roll-calls and systematic starvation meant that in many cases people were unable to grieve or express any emotion at the time. Some people said that they were able to grieve only after liberation, and one person says how pleased he was to find himself crying at a funeral some time afterwards. Another described being amazed to the point of laughing at the sight of a funeral for a single person, with a casket, flowers and somber music, after having seen piles of bodies cast aside like so much trash.
Not all the interviewees were Jews. Members of the French, Polish and even Italian resistance movements who had been incarcerated in camps were also asked to share their memories. Their experiences may have been slightly less horrendous than those of the Jews, but they were still subjected to forced labour and starvation diets. They were less likely to be sent to the gas chambers, however. Nonetheless, they did not escape the emotional and physical scars of their time in the concentration camps.
Family ties or those of friendship often helped people to endure and to simply stay alive in the camps rather than just giving up, becoming a ‘mussulman,’ and losing the will to live. In many cases the association with others from similar backgrounds or who came from the same country and shared the same language formed a bond of fellowship, which helped them survive the ordeal. The sense of a shared past has also caused many after the war to seek out the companionship of others who have undergone the camps, attesting to their sense of alienation from anyone who ‘wasn’t there.’
Some survivors found religion, while others rejected it. In the final event, what seems to have got them through the terrible ordeal was a combination of chance, physical and mental fortitude and small lapses in the efficiency of the Germans’ dreaded killing machine.