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by Arthur Shostak
What do you recall having learned about the experience of Jewish prisoners in the concentration camps, other than horrific tales of suffering and unnatural death, along with defeated heroic efforts at revolt? What have you learned about high-risk, shared caring in the camps; about forbidden aid, based in compassion; about clandestine exchanges of mutual support?
All such altruistic behavior was strictly banned by an enemy that sought to remain firmly convinced that Untermenschen were incapable of harboring higher values and were therefore suitable objects for mass extermination. Nevertheless, covert care was shared by Jewish prisoners in every camp for which we have survivor memories.
You have likely not learned this from the memorials of Holocaust officialdom. For nearly seventy years, what was done to the victims has been emphasized, with little attention to what victims dared to do for themselves. This narrow focus has given us an incomplete and misleading account — at great cost to us who are, as artist Elsa Wachs describes it, the “spiritual survivors” of the Holocaust.
Searching through one hundred and twenty intensely personal memoirs by camp survivors, I have found evidence in all but two of altruistic aid in defiance of deadly S.S. opposition. These books often exhort readers, as Alvin H. Rosenfeld writes in The End of the Holocaust (2011),“to learn and apply what are frequently called the ‘lessons of the Holocaust,’ and to do so ‘now before it is too late.’” Yet in my study visits to twenty-eight Holocaust museums worldwide, and to another nine concentration camp museums in Austria, Croatia, Germany, and Poland, I could find no display material saluting this behavior — only display cases filled with prisoner patches, guard uniforms, tools of torture, and grainy photos of unspeakable matters. There is loads of “done-to” material, but no evidence of “do-for” agency on the part of prisoners.
We thus take away a searing image of unforgettable and unforgivable crimes. As Rachel Korazom, a staffer at the Jewish Agency in Israel, told Charles Silberman (A Certain People, 1985) with exasperation years ago: “[W]e’ve managed to place images like barbed wire and crematoria as central Jewish images. This is not Jewish history, this is Nazi history.”
RECENT RESEARCH SUGGESTS THAT YOUNG AMERICAN JEWS, as Rabbi Eric Yoffie recently wrote in Reform Judaism magazine,“are not going to hold their lives hostage to a Jewish identity predicated on fear and defensiveness.” They want “a Jewish world constructed on positives, not negatives... a vibrant, hopeful Judaism.” A narrative that equates the Holocaust only with suffering and loss, neglecting the story of Jews who dared to care for one another in the most dangerous and desperate circumstances, is a narrative that fails to build that hoped-for Jewish world.
Both stories, of horror and of help, belong in an honest and mature Holocaust narrative. Camps had gas chambers, but also “camp sister” alliances that shared scarce food with one another. Camps had torture chambers, but also smuggling systems that brought in life-saving medicines. Camps had sadistic, murderous guards, but also secret groups, usually composed of political prisoners, that could and did kill such beasts. Livia Bitton-Jackson, a survivor of Auschwitz and Plaszow, gently yet firmly explains (in I Have Lived a Thousand Years: Growing Up in the Holocaust, 1997) that her stories are “of gas chambers, shootings, electrified fences, torture, scorching sun, mental abuse, and constant threat of death. But they are also stories of faith, hope, triumph, and love. They are stories of perseverance, loyalty, courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and of never giving up.”
COVERT CARE INCLUDED SUCH LOW-KEY ACTS as subtle nods of recognition and the whispered use of a prisoner’s name (the S.S. permitted only reference to a prisoner’s assigned number). These carefully hidden gestures helped reinforce the morale-boosting notion of personhood. Their detection by a zealous camp guard could result in a crippling beating (equivalent to a delayed death sentence, as the infirm were sent to the gas).
Survivor memoirs also tell of life-saving advice, as when long-time veteran prisoners would discreetly whisper to those just arriving at a Death Camp, “16 to 45, and claim a trade.” This meant that the newcomers, regardless of their age, should insist to the examining S.S. officers they were at least 16 years old or less than 45, and that they knew a useful trade. Only by giving these desired answers might one avoid being sent immediately to the gas. Again, the whisperer, if overheard by a lurking S.S. officer, could be severely punished.
At the other end of the sharing-caring continuum were acts of greater public exposure, with far greater risk of severe punishment. Helen Farkas recalls (in Remember the Holocaust: A Memoir of Survival, 1995) that in the winter of 1945, “we [women in a slave labor camp] had to constantly keep a watchful eye on everyone, especially the very young and old... Many had reached a point of lost hope... They simply stopped working [digging anti-tank ditches in the frozen soil], sat down on the ground, and froze to death... We continuously attempted to provide encouragement and strengthen spirits.”
Arnost Lustig, interviewed by Harry Cargas in Voices from the Holocaust (1993), recalls a time when, as a 17-year-old, he began to freeze to death in an open area of Auschwitz. To his utter surprise, a small group of hardened older prisoners called him over. They put him in the middle, and “pressed me for five minutes with their own bodies because they didn’t have anything else. They warmed me up... It was a human touch you can dream about. Once you get such a lesson about friendship and solidarity you know that friendship and solidarity exist.”
MALE PRISONERS IN BIRKENAU DEVISED HIGH-RISK SYSTEMS to gain forbidden entrance to the females’ sections of the camp. They smuggled in items left behind by those recently gassed on arrival — bread, margarine, medicines, even silk stockings and French perfume — items that gave the women prisoners “some little solace and comfort in their daily struggle with a very harsh life” (Filip Muller, Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers, 1979). A participant recalled decades later that “the main motive... was not so much sexual, but simply the need to have someone to care for; all family ties had been forcibly and abruptly severed, and it was this feeling of desolation, of being utterly alone in the world, which awoke in almost everyone the longing to have somebody to care for.”
In Auschwitz, those prisoners who were responsible for keeping records of who had died in the medical barracks also secretly manipulated the task to help some others stay alive. The record-keepers let a high mortality rate lead to a persistent backlog in clerical accounting: “Not all deaths could be registered in the very day they occurred. And as long as a death was not registered, the inmate kitchen would still bring a ration of food to the medical barracks... where the extra food could be divided among the [starving medical] workers... [prisoners who], as long as they were not morally broken, were constantly reminded of their duty to assist ill fellow inmates as much as possible” (Danuta Czech, Auschwitz Chronicles 1939-1945, 1990;see also the interview with Katya Singer in the Spring, 2011 issue of Jewish Currents).
My collection of such cases of covert care grows with almost every memoir I read, with almost every survivor I talk with, and with nearly all of the new academic volumes I study. There are cases of prisoners covertly propping up sick colleagues at endless roll-calls, stealthily aiding sick workers in completing work tasks, sharing the day’s one slice of bread with others verging on collapse, and so on.
How common was such behavior? There is no way to assess its frequency save for the suggestive presence of it in almost all the memoirs and oral histories I and other researchers have reviewed. Other academics, such as survivor/scholar Nechama Tec, have made similar observations. One reason to believe that covert care made a significant difference in the survival of certain caregivers and receivers (not all of whom beat the odds and made it through to liberation) is that many involved have said so.
TO RECTIFY THE IMBALANCE IN THE HORROR/HELP NARRATIVE, we could begin by urging Holocaust museums to focus on developing overdue exhibit material that highlights the help story. In addition, the unbalanced curriculum now employed in state-mandated Holocaust K-12 courses could be revised, and the content of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) events could be altered to include a new appreciation for the part agency played in the lives of certain camp prisoners.
I fear that we risk a paralysis of curiosity and empathy if we continue to tell only the horror story of the Holocaust, for as Anne Frank noted at the close of her diary, we “simply can’t build up [our] hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.” Jews have always kept the prime stories of our identity relevant — witness our ever-updated haggadahs. Our narrative of the Holocaust now warrants comparable adaptation, with a focus on help as well as horror, on covert care as well as overt cruelty. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said of the Torah — “every generation is expected to bring forth new understanding and new realization” (God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, 1955) — so must we now say of the Holocaust.
Arthur Shostak is an emeritus professor of sociology at Drexel University in Philadelphia. The author or editor of thirty-four books dealing with social problems and reforms, he is working on his first Holocaust book, tentatively entitled Covert Care: Jews Helping Jews in Nazi Hells. He welcomes dialogue, and can be reached via email.