The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps
Mr. Des Pres has examined with great attention and an eye for what is theoretically interesting accounts by survivors of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Under conditions of “extremity”—Auschwitz, Karaganda—ordinary patterns of behavior vanish and are replaced by other patterns that manifest, so Des Pres believes, certain fundamental truths about human nature. Such truths will certainly be of interest to social anthropologists and to psychologists and psychotherapists; even more, they will be of interest—a more than speculative interest—to all men who know themselves to be moral and political animals and wish to think reflectively about their condition.
There were heroes and saints, men of extraordinary courage and of singular purity of heart, in the camps. These did not for the most part survive. Virtues that in a peaceful society blaze out and enchant even those who have chosen mediocrity were in the society of the camps variations that worked against survival. Equally, treachery and greed were useless even when the motive was to propitiate the powers ruling the camps; the SS, to choose the German examples, for about these much more is known, were so saturated with monstrous longings (Republic 571-579) that small vices must have been to them quite undistinguishable; in any case, as so many accounts make plain, there was a discipline among the victims that restrained or punished the today and the thief. What, then, of those who almost in the teeth of possibility survived to be witnesses and spokesmen, small points of light in the darkness of the time?
Des Pres thinks he can pick out certain individual characteristics and certain features of communal life in the camps that made for survival. Of course, none of these could conceivably be sufficient conditions for survival; and even the idea that they were necessary conditions for survival is full of difficulties. The death-dealing regimes resembled natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions: those survive who survive, by, as it were, a grace of Fate. Certainly, in some cases we should be inclined to think we understand how it was possible for such and such a man or woman to have come through. This combination, we should be inclined to say, of physical strength, moral courage, intelligence, brightness of temperament, was in this case a condition without which survival would have been unlikely, but such a combination would never be a protection against the guns and whips of the camp guards.
A psychoanalytical account may give us insight into why a given man abuses his father; but if we generalize the account to the point where any behavior is compatible with the psychoanalytical account—and where it applies to all sons in relation to all fathers—we feel the explanation offered has come to pieces in our hands, though this doesn’t or shouldn’t bring us to doubt the original insight. It is always tempting to establish a microcosm-macrocosm relation, and one that goes both ways, between gross features and particular cases.
I am not…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.