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.
In fact, an escape was a difficult undertaking, and it was unlikely that the fugitive had no accomplices or that his preparations had not been noticed. His hut companions, or at times all the prisoners in the camp, were made to stand in the roll call clearing without any time limit, even for days, under snow, rain, or the hot sun, until the fugitive was found, alive or dead. If he was tracked down and captured alive, he was invariably punished with death by public hanging, but this hanging was preceded by a ceremony that varied from time to time but was always of an unheard-of ferocity, an occasion for the imaginative cruelty of the SS to run amok.
To illustrate how desperate an undertaking an escape was, but not only with this purpose in mind, I will here recall the exploit of Mala Zimetbaum. In fact, I would like the memory of it to survive. Mala’s escape from the women’s Lager at Auschwitz-Birkenau has been told by several persons, but the details jibe. Mala was a young Polish Jewess who was captured in Belgium and spoke many languages fluently, therefore in Birkenau she acted as an interpreter and messenger and as such enjoyed a certain freedom of movement. She was generous and courageous; she had helped many of her companions and was loved by all of them. In the summer of 1944 she decided to escape with Edek, a Polish political prisoner. She not only wanted to reconquer her own freedom: she was also planning to document the daily massacre at Birkenau. They were able to corrupt an SS and procure two uniforms. They left in disguise and got as far as the Slovak border, where they were stopped by the customs agents, who suspected they were dealing with two deserters and handed them over to the police. They were immediately recognized and taken back to Birkenau. Edek was hanged right away but refused to wait for his sentence to be read in obedience to the strict local ritual: he slipped his head into the noose and let himself drop from the stool.
Mala had also resolved to die her own death. While she was waiting in a cell to be interrogated, a companion was able to approach her and asked her, “How are things, Mala?” She answered: “Things are always fine with me.” She had managed to conceal a razor blade on her body. At the foot of the gallows, she cut the artery on one of her wrists, the SS who acted as executioners tried to snatch the blade from her, and Mala, under the eyes of all the women in the camp, slapped his face with her bloodied hand. Enraged, other guards immediately came running: a prisoner, a Jewess, a woman, had dared defy them! They trampled her to death; she expired, fortunately for her, on the cart taking her to the crematorium.
This was not “useless violence.” It was useful: it served very well to crush at its inception any idea of escaping. It was normal for new prisoners to think of escaping, unaware of these refined and tested techniques; it was extremely rare for such a thought to occur to older prisoners. In fact it was common for escape preparations to be denounced by the members of the “gray zone” or by third parties, afraid of the reprisals I have described.
I remember with a smile the adventure I had several years ago in a fifth-grade classroom, where I had been invited to comment on my book* and to answer the pupils’ questions. An alert-looking little boy, apparently at the head of the class, asked me the obligatory question: “But how come you didn’t escape?” I briefly explained to him what I have written here. Not quite convinced, he asked me to draw a sketch of the camp on the blackboard indicating the location of the watch towers, the gates, the barbed wire, and the power station. I did my best, watched by thirty pairs of intent eyes. My interlocutor studied the drawings for a few instants, asked me for a few further clarifications, then he presented to me the plan he had worked out: here, at night, cut the throat of the sentinel; then, put on his clothes; immediately after this, run over there to the power station and cut off the electricity, so the search lights would go out and the high tension fence would be deactivated; after that I could leave without any trouble. He added seriously: “If it should happen to you again, do as I told you. You’ll see that you’ll be able to do it.”
Within its limits, it seems to me that this episode illustrates quite well the gap that exists and grows wider every year between things as they were “down there” and things as they are represented by the current imagination fed by books, films, and myths that only approximate the reality. It slides fatally toward simplification and stereotype, a trend against which I would like here to erect a dike. At the same time, however, I would like to point out that this phenomenon is not confined to the perception of the near past and historical tragedies; it is much more general, it is part of our difficulty or inability to perceive the experience of others, which is all the more pronounced the more distant these experiences are from ours in time, space, or quality. We are prone to assimilate them to “related” ones, as if the hunger in Auschwitz were the same as that of someone who has skipped a meal, or as if escape from Treblinka were similar to an escape from any ordinary jail. It is the task of the historian to bridge this gap, which widens as we get farther away from the events under examination.
With equal frequency, and an even harsher accusatory tone, we are asked: “Why didn’t you rebel?” This question is quantitatively different from the preceding one but similar in nature, and it too is based on a stereotype. It is advisable to answer it in two parts.
In the first place, it is not true that no rebellion ever took place in a Lager. The rebellions of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Birkenau have been described many times, with an abundance of details; others took place in minor camps. These were exploits of extreme audacity worthy of the deepest respect, but not one of them ended in victory, if by victory one means the liberation of the camp. It would have been senseless to aim at such a goal: the excessive power of the guarding troops was such as to cause its failure within minutes, since the insurgents were practically unarmed. Their actual aim was to damage or destroy the death installations and permit the escape of the small nucleus of insurgents, something which at times (for example, in Treblinka, even though only in part) succeeded. However, there was never the thought of a mass escape: that would have been an insane undertaking. What sense, what use would it have been to open the gates for thousands of individuals barely able to drag themselves around, and for others who would not have known where, in an enemy country, to look for refuge?
Nevertheless there were insurrections; they were prepared with intelligence and incredible courage by resolute, still physically able minorities. They cost a fearful price in human lives and the collective sufferings inflicted in reprisal but served and still serve to prove that it is false to say that the prisoners of the German Lagers never tried to rebel. In the intentions of the insurgents they were supposed to achieve another, more concrete result: to bring the terrifying secret of the massacre to the attention of the free world. Indeed, those few whose enterprise was successful, and who after many more depleting vicissitudes had access to the organs of information, did speak. But they were almost never listened to or believed. Uncomfortable truths travel with difficulty.
In the second place, like the nexus imprisonment-flight, the nexus oppression-rebellion is also a sterotype. I don’t mean to say that it is never valid: I’m saying that it is not always valid. The history of rebellions, that is, of insurgencies or revolts from below by the “many oppressed” against the few powerful, is as old as the history of humanity and just as varied and tragic. There were a few victorious rebellions, many were defeated, innumerable others were stifled at the start, so early as not to have left any trace in the chronicles. The variables at play are many: the numerical, military, and idealistic strength of the rebels and those of the challenged authority as well, the respective internal cohesions or splits, the external assistance available to one or the other, the ability, charisma, or demonic power of the leaders, and luck. Yet, in every case, one can see that it is never the most oppressed individuals who stand at the head of movements: usually, in fact, revolutions are led by bold, open-minded leaders who throw themselves into the fray out of generosity (or perhaps ambition), even though they personally could have a secure and tranquil, perhaps even privileged life. The image so often repeated in monuments of the slave who breaks his heavy chain is rhetorical; his chains are broken by comrades whose shackles are lighter and looser.
This fact is not surprising. A leader must be efficient: he must possess moral and physical strength, and oppression, if pushed beyond a certain very low level, deteriorates both. To arouse anger and indignation, which are the motor forces of all true rebellions (to be clear about it, those from below: certainly not the Putsches or “palace revolts”), oppression must certainly exist, but it must be of modest proportions, or enforced inefficiently.
In the Lagers oppression was of extreme proportions and enforced with the renowned and in other fields praise-worthy German efficiency. The typical prisoner, the one who represented the camp’s core, was at the limits of depletion: hungry, weakened, covered with sores (especially on the feet: he was an “impeded” man in the original sense of the word—not an unimportant detail!), and therefore profoundly downcast. He was a rag of a man, and, as Marx already knew, revolutions are not made with rags in the real world but only in the world of literary and cinematic rhetoric. All revolutions, those which have changed the direction of world history and those miniscule ones which we are dealing with here, have been led by persons who knew oppression well, but not on their own skin. The Birkenau revolt, which I have already mentioned, was unleashed by the special Kommando attached to the crematoria: these were desperate, exasperated men but well fed, clothed, and shod. The revolt in the Warsaw ghetto was an enterprise worthy of the most reverent admiration. It was the first European “resistance” and the only one conducted without the slightest hope of victory or salvation, but it was the work of a political elite which, rightly, had reserved for itself a number of basic privileges in order to preserve its strength.
I come now to the third variant of the question: Why didn’t you run away “before”? Before the borders were closed? Before the trap snapped shut? Here too I must point out that many persons threatened by Nazism and fascism did leave “before.” These were political exiles, or intellectuals disliked by the two regimes: thousands of names, many obscure, some illustrious, such as Togliatti, Nenni, Saragat, Salvemini, Fermi, Emilio Segré, Lise Meitner, Arnaldo Momigliano, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Arnold and Stefan Zweig, Brecht, and many others. Not all of them returned, and it was a hemorrhage that bled Europe irremediably. Their emigration (to England, to the United States, South America, and the Soviet Union, but also to Belgium, Holland, France, where the Nazi tide was to catch up with them a few years later: they were, as are we all, blind to the future) was neither flight nor desertion but a natural joining up with potential or real allies, in citadels from which they could resume their struggle and their creative activity.
Nevertheless, it is still true that for the greater part the threatened families (the Jews, above all) remained in Italy and Germany. To ask oneself and us why is once again the sign of a stereotyped and anachronistic conception of history, more simply put, of a widespread ignorance and forgetfulness, which tends to increase as the events recede further into the past. The Europe of the period 1930–1940 was not today’s Europe. To emigrate is always painful; at that time it was also more difficult and more costly than it is now. To emigrate one needed not only a lot of money but also a “bridgehead” in the country of destination: relatives or friends willing to offer sponsorship and/or hospitality. Many Italians, peasants above all, had emigrated during the previous decades, but they were driven by poverty and hunger and had a bridgehead, or thought they did. Often they were invited and well received because locally there was a scant supply of manual laborers. Nevertheless, for them and their families leaving their “fatherland” was also a traumatic decision.
But the Europe of the 1930s was very different indeed. Although industrialized, it was still profoundly agricultural, or permanently urbanized. “Abroad” for the great majority of the population was a remote and vague landscape, mainly for the middle class, less pressed by necessity. Confronted by the Hitlerian menace, the majority of indigenous Jews in Italy, France, Poland, and Germany itself chose to remain in what they felt was their patria for reasons that to a great extent they held in common, albeit with different nuances from place to place.
Common to all were the organizational difficulties of emigrating. Those were times of grave international tension: the frontiers of Europe, today almost nonexistent, were practically closed, and England and the Americas had extremely reduced immigration quotas. Yet greater than this difficulty was another of an inner, psychological nature. This village or town or region or nation is mine, I was born here, my ancestors are buried here. I speak its language, have adopted its customs and culture; and to this culture I may even have contributed. I paid its tributes, observed its laws. I fought its battles, not caring whether they were just or unjust. I risked my life for its borders, some of my friends or relations lie in the war cemeteries, I myself, in deference to the current rhetoric, have declared myself willing to die for the patria. I do not want to nor can I leave it: if I die I will die “in patria“; that will be my way of dying “for the patria.”
Obviously this sedentary and domestic rather than actively patriotic morality would not have stood up if European Judaism could have foreseen the future. It isn’t that the premonitory symptoms of the slaughter were lacking: from his very first books and speeches Hitler had spoken clearly. The Jews (not only the German Jews) were the parasites of humanity and must be eliminated as noxious insects are eliminated. But disquieting deductions have a difficult life: until the last moment, until the incursion of the Nazi (and Fascist) dervishes from house to house, one found a way to deny the signals, ignore the danger, manufacture those convenient truths of which I spoke earlier.
This happened to a greater extent in Germany than in Italy. The German Jews were almost all bourgeois and they were German. Like their “Aryan” quasi-compatriots they loved law and order, and not only did they not foresee but they were organically incapable of conceiving of a terrorism directed by the state, even when it was already all around them. There is a famous, extremely dense verse by Christian Morgenstern, a bizarre Bavarian poet (not Jewish, despite his surname), which is quite apposite here, even though it was written in 1910, in the clean, upright, and law-abiding Germany described by J.K. Jerome in Three Men on the Bummel. A verse so German and so pregnant that it has become a proverb and cannot be translated except by a clumsy paraphrase: “Nicht sein kann, was nicht sein darf” (“What may not be cannot be”).
This is the seal of a small emblematic poem: Palmström, an extremely law-abiding German citizen, is hit by a car in a street where traffic is forbidden. He gets up bruised and battered and thinks about it. If traffic is forbidden, vehicles may not circulate, that is, they do not circulate. Ergo he cannot have been hit: it is “an impossible reality,” an Unmögliche Tatsache (this is the title of the poem). He must have only dreamed it because, indeed, “things whose existence is not morally permissible cannot exist.”
One must beware of hindsight and stereotypes. More generally one must beware of the error that consists in judging distant epochs and places with the yardstick that prevails in the here and now, an error all the more difficult to avoid as the distance in space and time increases. This is the reason why, for us who are not specialists, comprehending biblical and Homeric texts or even the Greek and Latin classics is so arduous an undertaking. Many Europeans of that time—and not only Europeans and not only of that time—behaved and still behave like Palmström, denying the existence of things that ought not to exist. According to common sense, which Manzoni shrewdly distinguished from “good sense,” man when threatened provides, resists, or flees, but the threats of those days which today seem evident were at that time obfuscated by willed incredulity, mental blocks, generously exchanged and self-catalyzing consolatory truths.
Here rises the obligatory question, a counter-question: How securely do we live, we men of the century’s and millenium’s end? And, more specifically, we Europeans? We have been told, and there’s no reason to doubt it, that for every human being on the planet a quantity of nuclear explosive is stored equal to three or four tons of TNT. If even only 1 percent of it were used there would immediately be tens of millions dead, and frightening genetic damage to the entire human species, indeed to all life on earth, with the exception perhaps of the insects. Besides, it is at least probable that a third world war, even conventional, even partial, would be fought on our territory between the Atlantic and the Urals, between the Mediterranean and the Arctic. The threat is different from that of the 1930s: less close but vaster; linked, in the opinion of some, to a demonism of history, new, still indecipherable, but not linked (until now) to human demonism. It is aimed at everyone, and therefore especially “useless.”
So then? Are today’s fears more or less founded than the fears of that time? When it comes to the future, we are just as blind as our fathers. Swiss and Swedes have their antinuclear shelters, out what will they find when they come out into the open? There are Polynesia, New Zealand, Terra del Fuego, the Antarctic: perhaps they will remain unharmed. Obtaining a passport and entry visa is much easier than it was then, so why aren’t we going? Why aren’t we leaving our country? Why aren’t we fleeing “before”?
—translated by Raymond Rosenthal
December 17, 1987