Holocaust| Concentration Camp

Tortuous Tales of the Holocaust

The Holocaust – a term that opens up a world of ruthlessness, dehumanization, barbarity and atrocity. In this blog, we will try to make sense of the torture that took place in the concentration camps.

Jean Améry

Our first Holocaust victim is Jean Améry. In his book, ‘At the Minds Limits’, Améry very painstakingly documents the torture he had to face in Breendonk- a concentration camp. For torture is not just a matter of physical pain, however, torture transcends bodily bruises and cuts. The ache of torture penetrates into the mind, where it defies all possibilities of hope and trust in this world. Améry deconstructs the conventional notion of torture for us. All of us equate torture with bodily pain, cuts and bruises. However, for Améry, physical torture leaves its unseen scares on the mind which can only be felt and seen by the tortured person. For the tortured, distrust in this world starts with the very first blow. A violent and unstoppable blow, enters into the body by tearing apart a protective layering of body- skin. This layering is invaded by the torturer without the consent of the one being tortured. Améry compares this to rape, where one is not in control of their own body, where force is celebrated by the torturer. When Améry’s body had been conquered by the blows of the Gestapo men, he had reached to the conclusion that now these torturers can do ‘whatever’ they wished to do with him. With this realization, Améry felt helpless and with nothing in his hands,  Améry felt like a nobody, who had lost everything, even his own self-worth. With the loss of human dignity, Améry lost his trust in the world. This trust was damaged by the torturer, who betrayed Améry’s belief in the written and unwritten rules of the social contract which said that the other person will certainly spare me. Améry was not spared, he was tortured in the vault of Breendonk. Améry writes: “The hook gripped into the shackle… held my hands together behind my back… I was raised with the chain until I hung about a meter over the floor” (Améry, ). For Améry, this bodily torture, tortured his mind even more. Améry felt as if his whole life had been contained in his unreactive, perishable body. He had been hung like a piece of meat, perfectly ready to be tortured. While hanging with his dislocated arms, some more force was celebrated upon Améry’s body. Like an animal, his body had been showered with some horsewhips. Améry felt empty from inside out. He writes: “I fell into a void and now hung by my dislocated arms, which had been torn high from behind and were now twisted over my head” (Améry, ). Améry argues that pain can never be communicated. Its beyond the scope of language to explain pain. Améry writes: “I have experienced the ineffable..” (). According to Améry, this ineffability comes from the transformation that a tortured person experiences. A tortured person is not the same, once he has experienced pain. He has transformed, he has lost an irreplaceable part of him in the torture. He has lost it all, “Frail in the face of violence, yelling out in pain, awaiting no help, capable of no resistance, the tortured person is only a body, and nothing else beside that” (Améry, ). When reduced to just a body, in short, the tortured has been destroyed. He has lost his ‘soul’, ‘mind’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘identity’, he is completely destroyed. The world is no longer a home: comforting, secure or a familiar place for the tortured. The tortured body walks in this world like an alien, with distrust and fear, only to be invaded and conquered by death. Améry believe that in the concentration camp, an individual’s human identity is destroyed. This destruction and annihilation of identity is visible in Primo Levi’s memoir, ‘If this is a man.’ It all starts from the moment, when Jews arrive at Auschwitz as prisoners. The Jewish prisoners are coerced to undress, their clothes and shoes are taken away. Their hair is shaved and they are subjected to group showers. For long hours, Jews stand naked in cold water, awaiting for further orders. These naked bodies symbolize emptiness that one feels after everything has been taken away from him. Jews are left with nothing except their cold bodies.

Améry and Levi

Furthermore, according to Levi, the destruction of human identity became inevitable, when Jews were tattooed with numbers, as their names. The question is, who were they beyond these numbers? They were no one. Levi was only ‘174517’, just a number who had no link with his language, family or traditions. After being assigned numbers, the Jews were made incapable to answer the most basic question, which is, Who am I? Here, Levi’s experience of the camp helps us to answer this question. Levi instinctively starts looking at this wrist to check time on his watch but soon realizes that his watch had been confiscated by the SS men. However, in place of his watch, Levi only finds a tattooed number, a reminder that he is only one meaningless cog in the great machinery of the Lager. In short, he is no one. Continuing, with the theme, the destruction of the human identity, Levi realizes that as a slave laborer, he does not feel ownership over his own body. Levi writes: “Already my body is not my own” (Levi, ). His body is being controlled by the SS men. Levi blindly follows their orders and indulges in the back-breaking labour of the camp in order to survive. According to Améry it was only slowly and gradually, Levi’s and his inmates,  identity was destroyed by subjecting them to the pain of living. The prisoners were provided with watery soup and bread which was not enough for them. Moreover, the prisoners were forced to squeeze into small, overcrowded bunks, in which they could not even freely stretch, adding more to their physical pain. They were not even given clean water to drink or to take bath. Due to this pain of living, the prisoners, began to loose their capacity to think. When the prisoners were unable to think, they were unable to resist as well. The acceptance of their brutal social reality, left them even more helpless and hopeless. According to Améry, destruction of human identity becomes inevitable when help is not expected. He writes: “The expectation of help… is indeed one of the fundamental experiences of human beings.” Specifically, in this context, we mean that help is offered to the one who is identified as a human. However, the Nazi’s identified the Jewish prisoners as nobodies. Levi clarifies, “they see us reduced to ignoble slavery, without hair, without honour and without names, beaten everyday…” (Levi, 141). The Jews are seen as something to be destroyed and obliterated, undeserving of the very right to exist. The tragic fate of the Jews was that far from being offered help, they were even discouraged to think. For instance, when Levi, did not have anything to drink for several days, he finds himself an icicle to drink from but immediately, the German guard takes the icicle and throws it away. Levi asks the guard, why did he throw the icicle. Upon which the guard replied “There is no why here,” suggesting that the conditions of the camp were made to destroy the very identity and conscience of Jews. This leaves us with no question like, why were the Jews not resisting?

Améry and Spiegelman

Furthermore Améry believes that the hell of the concentration camp leaves its visible scars on one’s personality. These scars were visible in Vladek’s (Holocaust victim) habits, after he had survived Auschwitz. Vladek became almost stubborn, irritable and comically stingy with money. Vladek is seen as obsessing over organization and order, counting pills and cleaning carpets. For example, Vladek in a middle of a conversation with his son abruptly stops speaking and says: “But look what you do, Artie!..You are dropping on the carpet cigarette ashes… clean it, yes? ” (Spiegelman, 52). After Auschwitz, he hoarded and saved even the smallest, unimportant things such as paper wrappers, telephone wires, plastic etc. Mala, Vladek’s wife annoyingly says: “He’s more attached to things than to people!” (Spiegelman, 86). It seems like Vladek cannot trust anyone, he still thinks that another Holocaust can happen so he should be prepared for anything. The irony is that apparently Vladek had left Auschwitz, but Auschwitz never left him. The terrorizing uncertainty of Auschwitz is visible in Vladek’s hoarding habits. The uncertainty of life in Auschwitz has stayed with Vladek. After Auschwitz, even the very thought of wasting money unsettles him. These peculiar changes in his personality can be attributed to his experience in Auschwitz. In Auschwitz, he survived largely because he possessed a remarkable intelligence and resourcefulness that had allowed him to acquire necessary food supplies, shelter, and protection. Unfortunately, Vladek never fully recovered from the horrors of the Holocaust. The hell of Auschwitz was still present in him. Vladek could do nothing but accept the very reality that he had survived the hell by being ‘extremely’ careful. The pain, uncertainty of this hell never left Vladek. The burnt scares of this hell can only fade but can never be eliminated completely. As Améry writes: “Whoever was tortured, stays tortured” (Améry, 34). There is no way out, pain and suffering will leave its scars.

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