Hilde O. Bluhm: "How Did They Survive? Mechanisms of Defense in Nazi Concentration Camps"

Article excerpt

In the fifty years since Hilde Bluhm wrote her article on survival in concentration camps, literally hundreds of books, articles, oral testimonies, photographs, and even some authentic film clips have been made available to us. All survivors had to wait for the right moment to tell the story. We have, therefore, become all too painfully familiar with the torments and agonies of life in those camps, and learned to distinguish extermination camps from labor-starvation camps and one labor camp from some other that have been described as worse than Auschwitz. But some survivors were immediately ready to bear witness to their experiences. They wrote the twelve books published between 1935 and 1947 that the author draws on for her analysis. She poses an important question: How does one survive in extremity? It is a question that I assume we have all asked ourselves.

These books are, by the author's own account, written from different perspectives, about different camps and, most importantly, at different stages of the Jewish solution. This was brought home to me when I read about harassments regarding a perfectly made bed or "polishing boots (p.18) when other accounts had made the very idea of sheets or boots preposterous. Then I realized, the report must have been about the early days at Dachau. Or, even more disconcerting, is the statement that "the prisoner's life expectation rose rapidly after he had survived half-a-year in the camp" (p.8) until we notice that it had been drawn from a book written in 1942, before the gas ovens went into full production. In spite of these limitations the variety of reports also had the advantage of alerting the author to some features of the camps that have only been fully highlighted in recent years. I refer here to the careful hierarchical structure of population groups the Nazis had introduced as one more insidious divisive element among the prisoners. It is, of course, well known that they went to the point of setting up some prisoners as guards (Kapos) who could be counted on to torment the lower classes. Indeed, it becomes obvious from these books that survival depended to some extent on one's place in the hierarchy and the population group to which one belonged.

The author is quick to acknowledge other physical factors, such as one's health, and the actual conditions of the camp, but her interest is in emotional survival. Still, her first answer is that survival was through the "anarchic power of accident" (p.5). Accidents, meaning unpredictability, senselessness, unexpectedness were an integral purposeful part of the enemy's plans of total demoralization. The fact that no one was meant to survive is confirmed over and over, in every autobiography I have read. Individual survivals were accidental oversights, they were miracles.

For further answers, Bluhm then turns to trauma theory, a pioneering move, at a time when the diagnosis of PTSD had not been clearly formulated. She points to a process of depersonalization, a deliberate killing of one's capacity to feel, replacing it with detached observation of self and other, or else absorption in some extraneous task or fantasy. She also comments on the possible lasting after-effects of unintegrated split-off feelings that might then erupt against the wrong person at the wrong moment.

Eventually, Bluhm draws on a more traditional ego-psychology framework to answer her question, an approach which, in my eyes, is not only unfortunate in this context but actually demonstrates the general weakness of that theory. …