Factors Influencing Survival during the Holocaust Was survival for Jews during the Holocaust purely a matter of chance? Viewpoint: Yes. Chance alone determined who survived and who perished during the Holocaust

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Factors Influencing Survival during the Holocaust

Was survival for Jews during the Holocaust purely a matter of chance?

Viewpoint: Yes. Chance alone determined who survived and who perished during the Holocaust.

Viewpoint: No. Even though chance played some role in survival, a wide variety of other factors, such as national origin, race, class, gender, and family, proved much more important.

Source Database: History in Dispute

Table of Contents
Introduction | Viewpoint 1 | Viewpoint 2 | Further Readings | Source Citation

Convinced that world history was determined by the competition of races, adherents of National Socialist doctrine were obsessed with the concept of survival. Perpetual survival was deemed to be both the right and the duty of the superior Germanic (or Aryan) race. In order to assure this longevity and the racial purity essential to sustain it, any and all actions were justified--including the elimination of those judged "inferior." In the strictest sense, survival of the master race could be guaranteed only if its racial competitors did not themselves survive. Consequently, the Nazis' "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" was the Judenvernichtung (annihilation of the Jews); there was to be no surviving remnant of the Jewish people.

The fact that the essays in this section can be written is a testimony to the utter failure of this murderous Final Solution. Despite the often successful efforts of the Nazis and their collaborators to round up and execute millions of Jews, several hundred thousand survived to bear witness to the terrible reality of the Holocaust. Members of this group (as well as later generations of scholars) testify to wonder and surprise at how they managed to outlive a regime that actively sought to destroy them. This problem was of personal interest to writer and poet Primo Levi, whose efforts to answer the question of his survival at Auschwitz inform both sides of the discussion presented below.
"Small causes," Levi wrote in Moments of Reprieve (1979), "can have a determining effect on individual histories, just as moving the pointer of a railroad switch by a few inches can shunt a thousand-ton train with two thousand passengers aboard to Madrid instead of Hamburg." The "small cause" that altered his own life was a case of scarlet fever that placed him in the camp infirmary just when the Nazis marched his healthier comrades off to their deaths. Levi believed his infection was the result of a combination of two things: a chance encounter a few days before the Nazis abandoned Auschwitz and the fortunate fact that he had not had scarlet fever as a child. Yet, it can be argued that this "small cause" for his survival (illness at a critical moment) grew out of opportunities he enjoyed because of where he came from, who he was, and what he was trained to do. As an Italian Jew, Levi came to Auschwitz comparatively late in the war; as a young man he was selected for slave labor; and as a professional chemist, he was particularly valuable to his Nazi captors. Was he thus in a better position to survive the Holocaust than his fellow inmates, or was it, as he maintained, mere chance?

Viewpoint: Yes. Chance alone determined who survived and who perished during the Holocaust.

Virtually everyone who survived the Holocaust asked themselves the same basic question: "Why did I survive when so many others did not?" A few survivors told their stories of escape from the "valley of the shadow of death" with a powerful narrative voice, with poetry, with--one might even say--a terrible beauty. These people, however, were the exceptions. The vast majority of survivors, like most of humanity, had little knack for storytelling. They had their own memories, their own losses, and their own individual obligations demanding they build new lives. If they told their stories at all, it was with reluctance, to family, friends, or the occasional historian with a microphone.

The results, predictably, have been that the most compelling and gifted voices--those of writers such as Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, and Viktor E. Frankl--have overshadowed the voices of those less talented. This selectivity reflects neither conspiracy nor indifference but the realities of the marketplace of ideas. The powerful message of one articulate voice carries farther than the halting phrases of a million less-articulate survivors. This situation would not be cause for concern if one could be sure that this "survivor intelligentsia" was simply giving voice to the feelings, perceptions, and experiences of the majority of less-articulate but equally important survivors. One cannot. It is the nature of literature and of those who produce it that powerfully written, forcefully spoken words create new meanings. When these words give an account of so terrible and impenetrable an event as the Holocaust, they tend to impose these meanings on perceptions of what has happened. Not only are less-talented voices drowned out, they come to be heard only within the context of what the intelligentsia has already written and said. Indeed, survivors of more-ordinary literary talent often come to speak in terms whose meanings have been determined by the survivor intelligentsia. Yet, intellectual gifts did not predispose anyone to survival; nor did the hunger or fear of a member of the intelligentsia differ from those of a laborer. Indeed, one must be exceedingly careful not to suppose that the voice of the intellectual always reflects the feelings and experiences of all survivors.

Still, it was the intelligentsia who spoke first. They framed the discussion and provided a vocabulary for other survivors and a lexicon for those who hear and read their stories. It was this small, articulate, and supremely gifted survivor intelligentsia who first attempted to answer the question: "Why did we survive when so many others, often better people than we are, lost hope and surrendered to their sufferings?" The answers tended to follow one of two directions: either reflecting Frankl's discovery of a "will to meaning" that made (and continues to make) survival possible in the most extreme situations, or echoing the indifference that Levi summarized in the statement of a nameless camp guard: Heir ist kein warum (Here there is no "why").

For both Frankl and Levi, and virtually every other survivor, survival was largely a matter of chance. Being assigned to a dangerous work detail, finding oneself under the command of a brutal Kapo, getting sick right before the SS decided to empty the hospitals and gas the patients, or a million other chances almost always were fatal. Both Frankl and Levi also reported that some inmates seemed to lose interest in their own survival. Such inmates became, in the vocabulary of Auschwitz, Muselmanner, or "moslems." Frankl believed that not becoming a "moslem" required a special internal reason to survive, however absurd that reason might be. Based upon this observation, Frankl developed a complex theory of psychotherapy (variously known as "logotherapy" and "existential therapy") that identified this drive to continue living as a "will to meaning." Levi was less sure of the virtue of survivors. For him, the distinction was simple: there were those who perished and those who were saved.

Frankl was a psychiatrist, trained in the psychoanalytic tradition. He built his understanding of the Holocaust experience on the assumptions that the human psyche is a product of submerged strengths and anxieties and that the conscious mind is only the tip of a vast emotional iceberg. Survival, in the concentration camp as in ordinary life, has less to do with rational choice than with an inner purpose (a "will to meaning") that is not necessarily rational. Some inmates, Frankl and almost every other survivor noticed, lost heart almost as soon as they found themselves imprisoned, facing torture, exhaustion, hunger, and filth. They became "moslems" almost immediately. They stopped washing, eating, struggling for life--and they were dead within a week. Other inmates held out with unexpected tenacity against despair. Even in the face of certain death, they never surrendered to it.

Frankl identified this condition of "existential despair," different from resignation to one's fate, as a cause of death equally as lethal as a bullet or Zyklon-B gas. He did not, as is often assumed, assign to it a moral quality:

On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who came back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles--whatever one may choose to call them--we know: The best of us did not return.

Thus, for Frankl, random chance and the "will to meaning" were in a constant dance. Most of those who died in the camps were selected for extermination as soon as they got off the train. Among those chosen for immediate execution, the sole benefit of possessing some internal strength was the ability to die with courage. Once one survived the initial "selection," Frankl believed, survival depended on having something to live for--a cause; a loved one who might, by some miracle, still be alive; or a task unfinished (for Frankl, it was a scientific paper that became the beginnings of Man's Search for Meaning and logotherapy). Thus, the ideologically committed (whether communists, Zionists, Jehovah's Witnesses, or Catholic activists) had better resources for survival than inmates without an external cause for which to live and fight. Having a cause was more important than the nature of the cause, for by providing order in an otherwise bewildering situation, it was the critical catalyst energizing the will to survive.

Levi, a chemist by training and a poet by vocation, was less inclined to attribute survival to an act of will. For Levi, the camps brought to light a fundamental polarity in human existence, a simple division between the "saved and the drowned." "Other pairs of opposites (the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the cowards and the courageous, the unlucky and the fortunate) are considerably less distinct." Levi believed that no one survived in Auschwitz for more than a few months unless he or she exhibited a brutal commitment to live at all costs--whatever inhumanity that commitment demanded--and, simultaneously, was able to benefit from blind chance. There were no rational decisions, no inner "will to meaning," only an animal drive to get enough food, rest, and clothing for another day. One could not choose a survival strategy other than to eat, sleep, and "try to look," as Wiesel reported, "healthy enough to work."

Levi and Frankl, pessimistic poet and optimistic psychiatrist, represent between them the conventional explanation offered by the "survivor intelligentsia." Although they employ the different vocabularies of the artist and the scientist in order to articulate their stories, these two divergent voices describe the same basic reality: a world in which survival seemed to depend on chance. The testimony of lesser-known survivors also tends to support this conviction.

A few years ago an elderly couple, survivors of different camps and different Holocaust experiences, addressed a classroom full of high-school teachers gathered to learn how to teach more effectively about the Holocaust. The husband forcefully talked about his months in a work camp. He had told the story often. Answering a question, he said, "we became like animals to survive." His wife, practiced in this disagreement but not keen on speaking in public, shook her head. "No," she objected, "we did not become like animals. We survived because we kept our humanity."

Their disagreement was less profound than customary and probably based on dissimilar but effective responses to the extremity of survival in the camps. It also reflected the semantic differences between Frankl and Levi. They had suffered from different conditions. They had found within themselves differing psychological resources and had employed differing strategies in order to survive. They expressed these differences with a vocabulary they could not share: "We became like animals" and "we retained our humanity in spite of everything" reflect a shared reality. Whether they identified their commitment to survival as a result of human will or of inhuman instinct, they knew their survival depended on what they had done and, equally, on what they had been fortunate enough to avoid. Neither one claimed a "right" to survive.

Scores of other survivor narratives and testimonies reinforce the conclusion: maintaining physical life and holding onto one's psychological strength was dependent on one's health, an adequate diet, enough sleep, and--last, but not least--on a realistic chance of survival. Levi's "drowned" did not actually die of despair, though they might have despaired of life long before the end. They died of gas, bullets, disease, exposure, or exhaustion. To suggest otherwise is to blame the dead for their own moral failure. The dead might have surrendered well before they died, they might have become "moslems"; the survivors might have had something for which to live; but neither answer offers a complete explanation. When one seeks to understand why some survived and some did not, one must not overlook the fundamental point that Frankl, Levi, and most survivors--whether intelligentsia or illiterate--are trying to make: the Holocaust was not a random catastrophe. It was not a psychological attack. It was a targeted act of violence. The dead were like victims of a sniper attack. They got in the way of death. They were, as a group, neither more nor less than survivors; they were simply dead.

-- Tandy McConnell, Columbia College

Viewpoint: No. Even though chance played some role in survival, a wide variety of other factors, such as national origin, race, class, gender, and family, proved much more important.

Survival during the Holocaust was a matter of origin, age, class, gender, and family status. As recent scholarship has looked more carefully at the composition of Jewish camp survivors, many formerly overlooked factors have come into play. For instance, most east European and Russian Jews were sent directly to extermination camps in Poland (Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno, and others), while most west European Jews arrived at concentration camps (Auschwitz, Bergen- Belsen, Dachau, and others). All people arriving at extermination camps were gassed immediately, meaning that most eastern European and Russian Jews were not even given a chance to survive. Some historians have noted, however, that a larger number of Jews survived in countries where the nominally pro-Nazi government refused to expel Jews (such as Bulgaria or Old Romania) or in cities where the German police could not mobilize sufficient transports for deportation (such as Budapest or Paris).

In the concentration camps, chances of survival were not much higher, as Jews were literally worked to death: the life expectancy of a working Jew in Auschwitz was a few months. Hunger, thirst, cold, heavy labor, disease, and torture were such severe threats to one's life that chances of survival were best for those who spent a minimal amount of time in the camps. In other words, those who arrived at the camps at a relatively late date were most likely to survive until the camp was abandoned or liberated. Once again origin, class, and family status were significant, since persecution hit certain disadvantaged groups earlier and more severely while arriving at other, advantaged groups more slowly or in milder forms.

Although absolutely nothing could protect a Jew from death in the camps, historian Raul Hilberg maintains that "survival was not altogether random," and he enumerates advantages that, particularly in the early stages of the war, could prolong lives and lessen maltreatment. According to Hilberg, these advantages included some special status, such as foreign nationality, marriage to a non-Jew, or military service in World War I (all of which were reasons for transfer to the "model" camp at Theresienstadt); public position, such as a seat on a Jewish Council; occupation (physicians, carpenters, shoemakers, and policemen were needed in the ghettos as well as in the concentration camps); and money, which could enable emigration in the 1930s or improve one's standard of living within the ghettos. While these advantages were in no way a guarantee for survival, they effectively counter the perception that survival was solely a matter of luck.

Nowhere are the characteristics requisite for survival more apparent than in those camps that combined extermination facilities with war industries employing vast amounts of slave labor. For most arriving Jews, the infamous "selection" remained the first and last impression of the camps. Without consideration for friends and families, the guards first separated men from women and then those deemed capable of hard work from those "unfit to work." The old or weak, women with small children, and older children and adolescents--80 to 90 percent of the arriving Jews--were immediately sent to their deaths. Survival chances for women were considerably less than those for men: although the Nazis considered most women capable of work, they chose not to separate mothers from their young children, fearing that such separations would cause too much of a disturbance. Thus, motherhood was directly linked to extermination in a way not equally true of fatherhood. For Jewish children, survival chances in the camps were minimal. Even if they were able to escape the initial selection, they consistently ran the chance of being discovered and killed.

From these bleak statistics, one can conclude that luck or any internal characteristic had little to do with one's chance of survival. But what about the small percentage of prisoners initially selected to work in a camp such as Auschwitz? Were some of those inmates "lucky" to survive? Not quite. In Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (1961), Primo Levi argues that in this ruthless environment, survival was possible only because of special advantages:

There remained only the doctors, tailors, shoemakers, musicians, cooks, young attractive homosexuals, friends or compatriots of some authority in the camp; or they were particularly pitiless, vigorous and inhuman individuals, installed . . . in the posts of Kapos, Blockultester, etc.; or finally, those who, without fulfilling particular functions, had always succeeded through their astuteness.

Levi's identification of certain privileged professions has been confirmed by the extensive research of Hilberg, among others. In fact, Levi himself survived by working as a chemist at I. G. Farben's Buna rubber factory, purposefully constructed next to Auschwitz to exploit Jewish labor. Levi's second hypothesis, that only the most ferocious survived, has been the subject of much discussion. Were survivors "better" or "worse" than other inmates, or not any different from their peers? This question is misleading because it reduces survival to a moral issue. Instead of focusing on moral categories, one needs to discover and emphasize the different and complex factors that influenced survival.

As Hilberg contends, youth, health, and physical strength were necessary conditions for survival:

In sheer physical terms, the veterans of camps, hideouts, and partisan units had two attributes. They were relatively young, concentrated in the age group from the teens to the thirties, and that is to say that those who were middle-aged were even fewer. They also had to be in good health at the start of the ordeal.

Those physically healthy and strong were simply much better equipped to endure the hardships of camp life. Aside from sheer physical attributes, another crucial factor for survival was a will to survive, a mental attitude that Hilberg defines as a "psychological profile." Hilberg suggests that three psychological traits--realism, rapid decision making, and a determination to live--let inmates adapt to pain, cold, heat, hunger, and thirst. Survivor Viktor E. Frankl seems to agree when remarking that the prisoners' fate was not solely decided by external circumstances but also "the result of an inner decision."

A careful examination of various testimonies indicates those attitudes, skills, and ways of thinking that the survivors believe contributed to their survival. The importance of care of the body, regular human interactions with others, and mental engagement stand out as particularly important in this context. While there is a great deal of truth in the simple explanation of one former inmate, that "surviving was just day by day--there was no long-term 'survival strategy,'" even the "day by day" activities exhibit some common patterns in the lives of the survivors. Although no single strategy, skill, or mind-set could guarantee survival, the testimonies reveal that inmates played an active role in using some or all of these behaviors to aid their survival.

The day-to-day effort of prisoners to care for their bodies is but one such behavior. The use of the word care in the context of the camps is misleading since prisoners--if they had the opportunity at all--could only wash in filthy water, without soap. But in spite of the horrendous sanitary conditions, several survivors identify cleansing as a crucial factor in self-determination and survival. Levi claimed to have lost the "instinct for cleanliness" after only one week at Auschwitz, but a friend (a fifty-year-old former sergeant honored with the Iron Cross) washed himself busily and lectured Levi on the importance of washing. The younger man, although not fully convinced by this kind of military discipline, must agree: In that place it was practically pointless to wash every day in the turbid water of the filthy washbasin for purposes of cleanliness and health, but it was most important as a symptom of maintaining vitality and necessary as an instrument of moral survival.

Likewise, Charlotte Delbo, a political prisoner who arrived at Auschwitz in 1943 in a convoy of 230 French women, described her first opportunity to wash since the shower she received upon her arrival at Auschwitz sixty-seven days earlier. When the Kapo of her column surprisingly allowed the women to wash in a nearby icy stream, Delbo examined her soiled body with detached curiosity and found her toenails sticking to her stockings. Instead of remaining shocked, a desire for cleanliness took over and led her to scrub her body to the point of bleeding. To contemporary readers, this concern for cleanliness may seem irrelevant, if not strange. Washing and caring for one's body helped self-preservation for several reasons. In the camps, sickness most often meant death; at Auschwitz, for example, a prisoner was allowed to remain in the infirmary only up to six days. Anyone not recovered within that time was sent to the gas chambers. Not only obvious sickness but also appearance played a crucial role in survival. Outer characteristics such as gray hair or sunken cheeks made selection as a death candidate more likely. Testimonies describe how women pinched their cheeks to give them more color before "selections" that the guards periodically executed to separate the sick and weak from the healthy.

Prisoners sought to maintain physical appearance not only to escape selection for death but also to maintain inner resistance. Hindered from washing themselves and their clothes, inmates were forced to confirm Adolf Hitler's stereotype of "the filthy Jew," a theme Terrence Des Pres illuminates in his testimony The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (1976). In the ghettos as well as in the camps Nazi officials made conscious use of this strategy: they first removed any means of hygiene and health and then complained about Jews being dirty and having diseases. The act of cleaning one's body defied this strategy and demonstrated self-determination, a will to survive, and thus a will to resist. Any sign of caring for mind or body necessarily attested to the failure of the purpose of the camps: to kill the prisoner's spirit and body and erode the will to live.

Individuals who consistently sought out human interaction with their family, friends, or fellow prisoners were also resisting the dehumanizing effects of the concentration camps. The separation of men and women--husbands and wives, siblings, parents, and children--was aimed at destroying existing bonds between families and friends as well as eliminating a means of communication. Surely, the Nazis realized that these ties would embody a source of strength to the inmates. Interactions among the segregated family members with old and newfound friends and with other prisoners played a crucial role in survival for men and women alike. To Hungarian Judith Magyar Isaacson, the most important focus in the camps became staying with her mother and aunt Magda. Two of the women even risked death when they switched from a line to which they had been assigned upon spotting the third in another line. Since family members felt they needed to stay united at all costs, familial ties not only motivated but also pressured one to stay alive. Elie Wiesel eloquently describes this pressure as an obligation to another family member:

My father's presence was the only thing that stopped me. . . . He was running at my side, out of breath, at the end of his strength, at his wit's end. I had no right to let myself die. What would he do without me? I was his only support.

For Delbo, national ties among the French formed the most important support system. Communication focused on personal, immediate needs: "To talk meant that we could make plans about going home, because to trust we would return was a way of forcing luck's hand. The women who had stopped believing they would return were as good as dead." Other interactions among the prisoners included singing and the exchange of recipes, rituals that became sources of self-esteem and outlets for creativity, as Isaacson remembers:

The pessimists predicted our stay would end in death, but we told them to keep it to themselves. A group of us huddled together in a corner, some in rags, some in prisoners' garb, trying to amuse ourselves. Mostly we sang or exchanged recipes. I recall a lengthy discussion about retes, the incredibly flaky Hungarian strudel.

Obviously, constant hunger in the camps motivated the sharing of recipes. Since one typically thinks of food when enduring hunger, imagining culinary feasts offered a mutual outlet from these conditions. In addition, it provided inmates with an imaginary world that offered an escape from daily life. One's familiar food symbolized one's national and spiritual home in perhaps the most accessible, yet nonthreatening, way. Whereas thinking of one's family and friends, even of one's house and belongings, could evoke fear and despair, thinking of one's food at home was easier and more neutral. Like singing, sharing and exchanging recipes also created a sense of community and sustained former religious, family, or national ties. To remember songs and recipes meant to return to one's roots and traditions, links that the Nazis had tried to eradicate. Such ties helped maintain an identity within the identityless world of the camp.

Whereas singing and exchanging recipes were elements of daily camp life according to women's testimonies, men's testimonies rarely mention these practices. If mentioned at all, such rituals do not have a positive connotation; for instance, to Levi it is simply meaningless to dwell on food that is beyond reach. It seems that men and women made use of different socialized behavior. Cooking in prewar times was reserved primarily for women, which may explain men's prevailing lack of interest in customs that women formed into a survival tool. It is to be expected that female inmates used those behaviors society had taught them to use, behaviors that in the camps surprisingly emerged as an advantage and helped them to survive. But Levi, too, emphasizes social contact as a means of survival, maintaining that his friendship with Lorenzo, "an Italian civilian worker who brought me a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months," made survival possible:

I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own for which it was worth surviving.

Lorenzo's generosity, as well as the women's sharing of recipes, serves as a reminder of a healthy world outside the camps and sparks hope that such a world still exists.

Remaining mentally engaged in the world, whether the greater one beyond the physical barriers imposed by the Nazis or the lesser one inside the camps, was another significant aid to survival. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, a political prisoner in Dachau, studied mass behavior in extreme situations and reported how his "research" helped him to survive. Bettelheim argued that prisoners had to stay actively involved in order to survive. In a similar vein Frankl reveals that his attempt to understand the psychology of victims and perpetrators became a coping mechanism. For instance, when facing attacks of delirium, Frankl attempted to reconstruct the manuscript for his book that had been lost at Auschwitz. By trying to search for meaning in his precarious position, he was able to transcend his situation. Not only research served as a survival tool; many testimonies mention literature in this context. Like songs, recipes, and former family/friends, literature offered a link to the past, to the language, culture, values, and customs of the former world.

Recalling this literature, especially poems, helped to occupy the mind during the endless hours of the daily Appell (roll call). Although camp inmates were most often busy with hard work, they also experienced many hours of senseless waiting. In the early mornings and late afternoons inmates had to stand motionless for several hours at roll call, often in cold, rain, snow, or searing heat. A slight movement or stumble could lead to immediate death. Sometimes the SS guards awoke all prisoners at night and forced them to endure yet another Appell. Since prisoners could not communicate during roll call, those who survived were able to protect themselves from destructive thoughts by engaging in some sort of mental activity, such as practicing one's memory and reciting poetry. One survivor recalled:

Since Auschwitz, I always feared losing my memory. To lose one's memory is to lose oneself, to no longer be oneself. I had invented all kinds of exercises to put my memory to work: memorize all the telephone numbers I used to know, all the metro stations along one line, all the boutiques along the rue Caumartin between the Athènèe theater and the Havre-Caumartin metro station. I had succeeded, at the price of infinite efforts, in recalling fifty-seven poems. I was so afraid they might escape my mind that I recited them to myself every day, all of them, one after the other, during roll call.

Ruth Klüger also used poetry to endure the roll call, revealing that forcing herself to remember provided desperately needed "mental exercise" in a camp with no mental stimulation, no schooling, and no friends of similar age. During roll call and at other times, engaging the mind also distracted inmates from bodily deprivations caused by hunger, thirst, cold, or torture. Poems provided a structure, focus, and time line in an otherwise limitless and timeless world. During the endless waiting, marching, or work, poems divided the time into smaller segments and revealed how much time had passed. The use of recalled literature extends far beyond escapism; rather, survivors were strengthened through evoking cultural ideals and thus employed literature as a tool of resistance.

The prisoners' treatment in the concentration camps was aimed at, and in most cases succeeded in, destroying their core personalities, including any former characteristics and behavior. Survival depended on many tangible and intangible factors (physical and mental stamina, the presence of family, friends, or other supporting groups) as well as upon the various coping strategies adopted by individual inmates. If survivors had pondered their survival chances and allowed themselves to be fully aware of their hopeless situation, they might not have found the strength to stay alive. Realistically, their chances of survival were nil, and no one could survive by keeping this fact in mind. Activities such as singing, culinary discussions, or reciting poetry distracted prisoners from oppressive thoughts and were used specifically to aid survival. Each testimony poses a specific set of contingencies that finally leads to survival; there existed no single uniformly successful survival strategy. Yet, Holocaust testimonies by men and women reveal that inmates played active roles in their own survival. Hilberg argues "in the final tally, women were most probably more than half of the dead, but men died more rapidly." Lacking evidence for the concentration camps, Hilberg uses statistics from the Jewish ghettos in Poland, noting that "in the age group twenty to twenty-five the death rate of the Lodz Ghetto men was three and a half times that of the women." Likewise, Myrna Goldenberg claims that the mortality rate of women was substantially lower once they had passed the initial selection. The question of why women survived both ghettos and camps longer and in greater numbers than men has startled researchers and has led to an animated debate. Some researchers have claimed that quintessential "feminine" qualities facilitated survival, a statement that has been criticized by others as valorizing and thus essentializing women. Unfortunately, the discussion of whether women had superior survival skills has drawn much attention and led to many generalizing statements. Rather than positing members of one sex as "better" survivors, the debate only underscores the need for further studies on this topic. Luck played an additional but not an exclusive role.

-- Caroline Schaumann, Emory University


A prisoner at Dachau recalls his efforts to save his father and himself:

You stood Appel in the morning and then you went up to the kitchen to pick up your so-called lunch which was soup. One day I'm standing on Appel and somebody's asking if I am around. This guy says your father is here in Barrack 30, a different section of the camp. Dachau had 31 barracks. On the right hand side were six or seven hospital barracks. You weren't allowed in there. Barrack 13 was the whorehouse. That was for the Germans only. Barrack 27-30 was isolation. People were just left there to starve. 30 was the worst one.

It was like the fickle finger of fate. My father stayed at Auschwitz. It was evacuated and he went on the march to Gross Rosen. From there he was shipped to Dachau. That night I met him through the fence. It was quite an experience. He sneaked up to the fence and kissed me and I kissed him. We talked. How are you? When did you eat last? He looked very bad--very bad--very bad. At this point I got into trading.

I was able to feed my father plus a couple of his buddies. But sometime in the month of March, around March 15th I came down with typhus. I went on sick call and they put me in the hospital barracks. The beds had sheets on them. They gave me an injection once a day, something in the vein. I don't know what it was, but it made my heart beat awful fast. I crapped blood for a couple of weeks and I finally got better. They shipped me out to the recovery barracks. There was a Dutch fellow there, a hospital orderly, fatter than hell. He had Red Cross packages and he fed me every day. I said to him I want to get out of here. I want to go back to work. But I said not only I'm going to starve, but my father's going to starve. So a couple of days later he signed me out. When I left he told me he expected me to get him some food--not for himself--but for all those people there. And I did whatever I could. One day he asked me for a knife and that's how the knife came in.

I was carrying bread, coal and a knife through the main gate at Dachau. The bread I carried inside my pants, this was civilian bread, not the two pound loaf, the long loaf. The knife I had inside the bread. And I had a bucket full of coal. I was going to get it in camp in the soup kettle. The SOB SS corporal took the coal off me for his own use. Then he said, "What else have you got?" I said, "One loaf of bread." He said, "Let's have it." I said, "Please let me keep some of the bread." He didn't find the one with the knife. I gave him the other loaf. If he had found that one that would have been it. I could have been killed right there. So he beat me up and chased me back and that was the end of that.

Source: Saul S. Friedman, Amcha: An Oral Testament of the Holocaust (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979), pp. 296-297.



  • Bruno Bettelheim, Surviving and Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1979).

  • Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After, translated by Rosette C. Lamont (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

  • Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

  • Debórah Dwork, Children with a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).

  • Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (Boston: Beacon, 1959); revised edition of From Death-Camp to Existentialism: A Psychiatrist's Path to a New Therapy, translated by Ilse Lasch (Boston: Beacon, 1959).

  • Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 (New York: Aaron Asher, 1992).

  • Judith Magyar Isaacson, Seed of Sarah: Memoirs of a Survivor (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990).

  • Ruth Klüger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (New York: Feminist Press, City University of New York, 2001).

  • Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, translated by Stuart Woolf (New York: Collier, 1961).

  • Elie Wiesel, Night, translated by Stella Rodway (New York: Hill & Wang, 1960).

Source Citation: "Factors Influencing Survival during the Holocaust." History in Dispute, Vol. 11: The Holocaust, 1933-1945. Benjamin Frankel, ed. St. James Press, 1999. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale. http://galenet.galegroup.com.ez.sccd.ctc.edu:3048/servlet/History/

Document Number: BT2306200397

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