The Lottery of Death and Life
What determined whether a person lived or died—today, tomorrow? What should Jews and other victims do to escape the bullets of Nazi hunters and their collaborators?
In a very real sense, survival was often a matter of luck. As some of the stories in this section suggest, being born in the right place, being in a certain place at a certain time, running into a Nazi who might be “a decent human being” or who might be, for whatever reason, in a nonkilling mood—these things might have made a difference at one point for somebody.
Making the “right” choice in a crucial situation might seem an important factor in survival. But were Nazi victims ever actually able to choose what to do? The answer is that they frequently had to make choices, but these were totally blind choices since the chooser in this lottery had no way to predict what the outcome might be. To paraphrase one writer in this section: you took a chance; then you lived or died.
This theme of the impossibility of knowing how to choose what to do arises in several stories in this section. In “German Roulette, ” a man must make a lifeor-death guess about the intentions of his Nazi captors. “My Sister Rieke” tells of the heart-rending dilemma of making a moral choice, upon which depends someone else's life, without knowing the possible consequences. Among the series of stories in “The Concentration Camp Lottery” we find a girl who was “selected” for death seeming to choose death, when in fact she had no choice— and on the other hand, another girl, in “Happy Christmas, Sir, ” improbably choosing to confront a very cruel Nazi, risking death for the sake of some stale bread.
Given this atmosphere of total disorder and unpredictability, a few writers simply wonder at the inscrutability of fate. “A Definition of Survival, ” “An Unforgettable Passover Seder, ” and “Bread” (in “The Concentration Camp Lottery”) pose unanswerable questions about why or how someone survived—or, as in “The Skull With the Golden Braid, ” did not survive.
Thinking back upon the lottery of death and life, a few writers in this section point out the terrible irony of some events. In “Trying to Go Home, ” “The Filbert Nuts, ” “Taken to the Smoke, ” and “Fancsy” (the latter three, part of “The