Those who experienced imprisonment (and, more generally, all who have gone through harsh experiences) are divided into two distinct categories, with rare intermediate shadings: those who remain silent and those who speak. Both have valid reasons: those remain silent who feel more deeply that sense of malaise which I for simplicity’s sake call “shame,” those who do not feel at peace with themselves, or whose wounds still burn. The others speak, and often speak a lot, obeying different impulses. They speak because, at varied levels of consciousness, they perceive in their (even though by now distant) imprisonment the center of their life, the event that for good or evil has marked their entire existence. They speak because they know they are witnesses in a trial of planetary and epochal dimensions. They speak because (as a Yiddish saying goes) “troubles overcome are good to tell.” Francesca tells Dante that there is “no greater sorrow / than to recall happy times / in misery,” but the contrary is also true, as all those who have returned know: it is good to sit surrounded by warmth, before food and wine, and remind oneself and others of the fatigue, the cold and hunger. It is in this manner that Ulysses immediately yields to the urgent need to tell his story, before the table laden with food, at the court of the king of the Phaeacians. They speak, perhaps even exaggerating, as “bragging soldiers,” describing fear and courage, ruses, injuries, defeats, and some victories, and by so doing they differentiate themselves from the “others,” consolidate their identity by belonging to a corporation, and feel their prestige increased.
But they speak, in fact (I can use the first person plural: I am not one of the taciturn) we speak also because we are invited to do so. Years ago, Norberto Bobbio wrote that the Nazi extermination camps were “not one of the events, but the monstrous, perhaps unrepeatable event of human history.” The others, the listeners, friends, children, readers, or even strangers, sense this, beyond their indignation and commiseration; they understand the uniqueness of our experience, or at least make an effort to understand it. So they urge us to speak and ask us questions, at times embarrassing us: it is not always easy to answer certain whys. We are neither historians nor philosophers but witnesses, and anyway, who can say that the history of human events obeys rigorous logic, patterns. One cannot say that each turn follows from a single why: simplifications are proper only for textbooks; the whys can be many, entangled with one another or unknowable, if not actually nonexistent. No historian or epistemologist has yet proven that human history is a deterministic process.
Among the questions that are put to us, one is never absent; indeed, as the years go by, it is formulated with ever increasing persistence, and with an ever less hidden accent of accusation. More than a single question, it is a family of questions. Why did you not escape? Why did you not rebel? Why did you not avoid capture “beforehand”? Precisely because of their inevitability, and their increase in time, these questions deserve attention.
The first comment on these questions, and their first interpretation, are optimistic. There exist countries in which freedom was never known, because the need man naturally feels for it comes after other much more pressing needs: to resist cold, hunger, illnesses, parasites, animal and human aggressions. But in countries in which the elementary needs are satisfied, today’s young people experience freedom as a good that one must in no case renounce: one cannot do without it, it is a natural and obvious right, and furthermore, it is gratuitous, like health and the air one breathes. The times and places where this congenital right is denied are perceived as distant, foreign, and strange. Therefore, for them the idea of imprisonment is firmly linked to the idea of flight or revolt. The prisoner’s condition is perceived as illegitimate, abnormal: in short, as a disease which must be healed by escape or rebellion. In any case, the concept of escape as a moral obligation has strong roots; according to the military code of many countries, the prisoner of war is under an obligation to free himself at all costs, to resume his place as a combatant, and according to the Hague Convention, the attempt to escape must not be punished. In the common consciousness, escape cleanses and wipes out the shame of imprisonment.
Let it be said in passing: in Stalin’s Soviet Union the practice, if not the law, was different and much more dramatic. For the repatriated Soviet prisoner of war there was neither healing nor redemption. If he managed to escape and rejoin the fighting army he was considered irremediably guilty; he should have died instead of surrendering, and besides having been (perhaps only for a few hours) in the hands of the enemy, he was automatically suspected of collusion. On their incautious return home, many military personnel who had been captured by the Germans, dragged into occupied territory, and who managed to escape and join the Partisan bands active against the Germans in Italy, France, or even behind the Russian lines were deported to Siberia or even killed. In wartime Japan as well, the soldier who surrendered was regarded with great contempt; hence the extremely harsh treatment inflicted upon Allied military personnel taken prisoner by the Japanese. They were not only enemies, they were also cowardly enemies, degraded by having surrendered.
More: the concept of escape as a moral duty and the obligatory consequence of captivity are constantly reinforced by romantic (The Count of Monte Cristo!) and popular literature (remember the extraordinary success of the memoirs of Papillon). In the universe of the cinema the unjustly (or even justly) incarcerated hero is always a positive character, always tries to escape, even under the least credible circumstances, and the attempt is invariably crowned by success. Among the thousand films buried in oblivion, I Am an Escaped Convict and Hurricane remain in our memory. The typical prisoner is seen as a man of integrity, in full possession of his physical and moral vigor, who, with the strength that is born of despair and ingenuity sharpened by necessity, flings himself against all barriers and overcomes or shatters them.
Now, this schematic image of prison and escape bears little resemblance to the situation in the concentration camps. Using this term in its broadest sense (that is, besides the extermination camps whose names are universally known, also the many camps of military prisoners and internees), there existed in Germany several million foreigners in a condition of slavery, overworked, despised, undernourished, badly clothed, and badly cared for, cut off from all contact with their native land. They were not “typical prisoners,” they did not have integrity, on the contrary they were demoralized and depleted. An exception should be made for the Allied prisoners of war (American and those belonging to the British Commonwealth), who received foodstuffs and clothing through the International Red Cross, had good military training, strong motivations, and a firm esprit de corps, and had preserved a solid enough internal hierarchy. With a few exceptions, they could trust one another. They also knew that, should they be recaptured, they would be treated in accordance with international conventions. In fact, they attempted many escapes, some successfully.
For everyone else, the pariahs of the Nazi universe (among whom must be included gypsies and Soviet prisoners, both military and civilian, who racially were considered not much superior to the Jews), the situation was quite different. For them escape was quite different and extremely dangerous; besides being demoralized, they had been weakened by hunger and maltreatment; they were and knew they were considered worth less than beasts of burden. Their heads were shaved, their filthy clothes were immediately recognizable, their wooden clogs made a swift and silent step impossible. If they were foreigners, they had neither acquaintances nor places of refuge in the surrounding region; if they were German, they knew they were under careful surveillance and included in the files of the sharp-eyed secret police, and that very few among their countrymen would risk freedom or life to shelter them.
The particular (but numerically imposing) case of the Jews was the most tragic. Even admitting that they managed to get across the barbed wire barrier and the electrified grill, elude the patrols, the surveillance of the sentinels armed with machine guns in the guard towers, the dogs trained for manhunts: In what direction could they flee? To whom could they turn for shelter? They were outside the world, men and women made of air. They no longer had a country (they had been deprived of their original citizenship or a home, confiscated for the benefit of citizens in good standing). But for a few exceptions, they no longer had a family, or if some relative of theirs was still alive they did not know where to find him or where to write to him without putting the police on his tracks. Goebbels and Streicher’s anti-Semitic propaganda had borne fruit: the great majority of Germans, young people in particular, hated Jews, despised them, and considered them the enemies of the people; the rest, with very few heroic exceptions, abstained from any form of help out of fear of the Gestapo. Whoever sheltered or even simply assisted a Jew risked terrifying punishment. In this regard it is only right to remember that a few thousand Jews survived through the entire Hitlerian period, hidden in Germany and Poland in convents, cellars, and attics by citizens who were courageous, compassionate, and above all sufficiently intelligent to observe for years the strictest discretion.
What’s more, in all the Lagers the flight of even a single prisoner was considered the most grievous fault on the part of all surveillance personnel, beginning with the functionary-prisoners and ending with the camp commander, who risked discharge. In Nazi logic, this was an intolerable event: the escape of a slave, especially a slave belonging to races “of inferior biological value,” seemed to be charged with symbolic value, representing a victory by one who is defeated by definition, a shattering of the myth. Also, more realistically, it was an objective damage since every prisoner had seen things that the world must not know. Consequently, when a prisoner was absent or did not respond at roll call (a not very rare event: often it was simply a matter of a mistake in counting, or a prisoner who had fainted from exhaustion) apocalypse was unleashed. The entire camp was put in a state of alarm. Besides the SS in charge of surveillance, Gestapo patrols intervened; the Lager and its work sites, farmhouses, and houses in the camp’s environs were searched. The camp commander arbitrarily ordered emergency measures. The co-nationals or known friends or pallet neighbors of the fugitive were interrogated under torture and then killed.
Copyright © 1986 by Guilio Einaudi editore s.p.a., Torino. Translation copyright © 1988 by Simon and Schuster, Inc.