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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Survival in Auschwitz

Primo Levi's account of his time in Auschwitz might be the best known novel by a holocaust survivor. Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man), as the book is called in its more poetic original title, is horrifying book. Levi tells of his life in a death/work camp, of how he got there, of what happens to him once he is there it and of how he survives in the end. It is a strong book, I can only recommend it to anyone. Levi is not begging for your pity, he does not even look for an explanation, he simply makes a picture of reality, he gives us a glimpse of life in the camps.

I am young (well, more or less), interested in history and have a German passport, all my ancestors and relatives are German, how can I not be obsessed with the Holocaust? I feel my understanding (in the broadest terms I don't think the word understanding can truly be used in regard to the Shoah, see also the quote at the end) of the Third Reich in general and the attempted destruction of European Jews is still lacking and no matter what I read this knowledge does not disappear. Maybe it never will.

A few more observations from the text. No particular order, just some food for thought.

  • That curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command. I wonder whether this stereotype (reality?) existed before the 1930s, whether it is a perception of the German language that was created through the evils of the past or whether it had always been there. Is it a subconscious connection of the language to a deed thus or is it simply an objective observation?

  • The Nazis ran these camps with very few people, mostly it was self-organized through an internal hierarchy from criminals, over political prisoners (these first two being mainly of German nationality) to Jews. Interestingly enough, a Kapo makes [less] trouble, [when] he is not a Jew and has no fear of losing his part.

  • A KZ in some sense seems to have precursor to some of the international meeting points of today with up to 15-20 languages swirling around with Yiddish, Polish and German being the most important ones. Levi at some point claims that survival depended at least to some extent (luck of course being another big factor) on one's ability to speak German.

  • Life in these camps portrays to some extent the social origins Hobbes or Montesquieue talk about. There is no justice, there are no morals, just a survival of the fittest. At the same time there was a booming economy revolving around bread, tobacco and any kind of usable tool.

  • The Greeks (Saloniki Jews of Spanish heritage which apparently spoke a mixture of Greek and Spanish) stuck together more than any other group and kept their inner-group morals intact the most. Maybe this was the case because they were less integrated in their society as for example the Italian Jews? I have no idea whether this is true, but it sounds like a decent explanation.

  • Was it even possible to survive Auschwitz without becoming a criminal yourself? Without turning from an upstanding citizen into a 'bad', selfish person?

  • The Germans love order, systems bureaucracy. Funny how nothing ever really seems to change.

Leitmotif: Ne pas chercher à comprendre

So I guess this is my Christmas post. Frohe Weihnachten everyone. Whatever that may mean.

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