Commentary Magazine


The Other Kingdom, by David Rousset; Smoke Over Birkenau, by Seweryna Szmaglewska; and Beyond the Last Path, by Eugene Weinstock

Nightmare Come True

The Other Kingdom.
by David Rousset.
New York, Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947. 173 pp. $2.75.

Smoke Over Birkenau.
by Seweryna Szmaglewska.
New York, Henry Holt, 1947. 386 pp. $3.50.

Beyond the Last Path.
by Eugene Weinstock.
New York, Boni & Gaer, 1947. 281 pp. $2.75.

 

In one of his dialogues, Oscar Wilde set forth the thesis that literature anticipates life: “Schopenhauer has analyzed the pessimism that characterizes modem thought, but Hamlet invented it. . . . The Nihilist, that strange martyr who has no faith, who goes to the stake without enthusiasm, and dies for what he does not believe in, is a purely literary product. He was invented by Turgeniev, and completed by Dostoevsky. Robespierre came out of the pages of Rousseau. . .The 19th century as we know it is largely an invention of Balzac.”

What Wilde found amusing later generations have come to accept as a somber platitude. Thus David Rousset writes of Buchenwald that “the inmates of the Camp belong to a world by Celine with overtones of Kafka.” It is an unreal world, hideous and fantastic—yet a true world, even the true world. The boundary between fantasy and reality, erased by 20th century literature, has disappeared from 20th century life.

The following sentiments, quoted by Rousset from one of his fellow inmates, are only too familiar to our ears: “Unless you lived through it yourself, you could never understand. . . . For one thing, they were nowhere as bad as you think—and at the same time they were infinitely worse than anything you could ever imagine. . . . Even I, after more than a year there, cannot talk about it without feeling as if I were making it all up. Either that, or telling a dream that someone else has dreamed.” Who after this would deny that the 20th century is an invention of Kafka?

This “concentrationary universe” (Rousset) of our century has its unfathomable gods: the SS—the reflection of their shining boots glazes their figures until they are as monstrous, menacing, and Olympian as close-ups on the movie screen. The rule of these gods is absent-minded, whimsical, terrible beyond words. The mortals in this universe are haunted by a dead life—their life prior to internment. This life continues to lead a disembodied existence, extending itself in the minds of bureaucrats and in metal file-drawers, terminating abruptly, perhaps years afterwards, in a sentence against which there is no appeal. Each man is eternally on trial for an offense he is ignorant of; the evidence accumulates—he never sees it; witnesses testify—he does not hear them; new charges are preferred—he never learns of them; and out of this “desert of ignorance” comes the order for death, prescribing with calculating nicety the kind of death and the length of suffering that shall be inflicted.

This universe has its special brand of “witless irony” that is part of its normal atmosphere. (Max Brod reports that when Kafka read The Trial aloud to his friends, they all laughed—and Kafka joined them—at this grotesquely funny story.) The SS provided football fields, swimming pools, band concerts, and brothels for men half-dead and semi-conscious. At Dora, a subsidiary of Buchenwald, the SS presented the prisoners with a Christmas tree, which they were compelled to admire, standing half-naked in the snow and biting cold for hours on end. Suicide was strictly forbidden. The administration was an incredible mixture of Taylor rationalization and thoroughgoing anarchy. And Miss Szmaglewska quietly informs us that because of the forced labor and the struggle to keep alive, few prisoners at the Birkenau extermination camp succumbed to mental disorders.

It is a universe of metamorphosis. Writes Mr. Weinstock: “When the dogs finished their midday meal of one kilo of beef each, the prisoners often fought among themselves savagely, struggling for a bone on which to gnaw.”

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Of the three books, Miss Szmaglewska’s presents best the graphic details of camp life: the free hours utterly devoted to the search for lice, the acquiring of a canteen of water, of a spoon and bowl; how the living worked and how the sick died. The full impact of its narrative is only slightly weakened by too frequent overwriting with incongruous, romantic phrases. Mr. Weinstock tells the simple story of the experiences in Buchenwald of a Hungarian trade-unionist. Much of its interest derives from its almost casual suggestion of the moral issue involved in the behavior of each individual: to save one’s skin or the skin of one’s fellow inmates—often in the name of some high political ideal—at the cost of cooperating with the Nazis, or to go blindly, stubbornly, and uncompromisingly to one’s death? As a Communist sympathizer, for instance, he was faced with the unappealing fact of Communist tactics. Unfortunately, the problem is only too facilely resolved.

David Rousset’s The Other Kingdom, by a former professor of philosophy in a Paris lycée, is a book of another order. Rousset too seems to have Communist sympathies (though he is reported to be a Trotskyite). But in his case, the sympathies are the springboard from which one plunges into the complex morass of political and individual morality. It is a powerful book—subtle, provocative, and irritating; it sets itself to face the largest problems, as the title of the French original, L’Univers Concentrationnaire, was meant to indicate. It is typical, too, of the French intellectual elite of our day: sophisticated in method, sensitive to all shades of meaning, temporizing in its conclusions.

The camps were both a universe and a social order. The SS found it more satisfactory to give the prisoners a certain amount of “self-government,” both in the interests of efficiency and of their own indolence. There grew up class distinctions of a new kind between the mass of the prisoners and the block leaders, room orderlies, infirmary attendants, supply-room hands, etc. As Rousset says: “The existence of an aristocracy among the prisoners, enjoying power and privileges and wielding authority, made a unified opposition impossible. Finally, it constituted—and in the concentrationary universe this was its sufficient and definite justification—a marvelous instrument of corruption.”

Within this system, the struggle for life, and power, took place. It was individual against individual, national group against national group, and, most important of all, the “greens” (German common criminals) against the “reds” (German Communists). Originally, the SS favored the criminals and put them in charge. The Communists planned and organized; they took advantage of divisions within the criminals’ ranks; they truckled to the SS, proved themselves far superior as administrators and more useful as lackeys. Murder and terrorism were used by both criminal and Communist alike. By 1942, the Communists controlled the camp apparatus within Buchenwald.

The advantages of power were many and important. The Communists were in a position to give their adherents necessities (food, water, clothing, etc.) and even luxuries (especially tobacco). They could, within limits, decide the all-important question of who was to live and who was not; the blockleaders helped to draw up the lists of those destined for “transportation.” With these advantages went responsibilities. In 1943, the SS handed interior police work over to the Communists, who were formed into the Lagerschutz. It was their task to herd Jews on to transports, beating them with rubber truncheons.

It is this question of the struggle for power among the prisoners that obsesses Rousset. Yet his description of it is surprisingly barren of factual details. This is partly due to his impressionistic style, and partly, perhaps to the fact that he was saving his material for a much larger work (Les Jours de Notre Mort) not yet available in English. Those who wish more details may find them in a much neglected book, The Dungeon Democracy, by Christopher Burney (Duell, Sloan, & Pearce, 1946). They may read there of the case of Michelin, the French tire manufacturer, who was arrested for his resistance activities. A man over sixty, he would ordinarily have been exempt from “transport.” The Communists, seeing in him only a hated bourgeois, slipped him on to one of the lists—and to his death. They will also get an insight into the mentality of the Communists when they read that two weeks before the Americans liberated Buchenwald, the German Communist leaders held a meeting and formally resolved “that it is in the highest degree regrettable that the Anglo-American capitalists should liberate us. We will do all in our power, even under them, to retain the position which we have always held.”

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The problem that both Rousset and Weinstock raise is: were the Communists justified in their Realpolitik? Weinstock answers with a flat affirmative, Rousset with a troubled assent. Weinstock has a long description of Emil Korlbach, the Communist leader of the Jewish block. Korlbach entered Buchenwald in 1933 at the age of nineteen, and Weinstock’s admiring picture of him shows us something very much like the “new barbarians” of Koestler’s novels. He was cool, inflexible, dedicated; his policy was to save lives, preferably those lives that he deemed most useful to the world of the future; his method was one of ruthless discipline, brutality—and the sacrifice of lives. The SS had to have its periodic sacrifice; Korlbach’s mission was to arrange things so that this sacrifice was the least expensive under the circumstances. And, to be sure, least expensive from the Communist point of view.

This, fundamentally, is also Rousset’s argument. But Rousset finds it a little difficult to swallow. By what right did the Communists arrogate to themselves the power of life and death? Was it morally permissible for them to assist the SS in their running of the camp? Did they not become tarred with the same brush? His answer receives its clearest formulation in his article published in the July-August issue of Politics. It consists of two parts. First, the question cannot be posed abstractly. It was a question of Communist control versus unbridled criminal control, and the former was infinitely preferable. Second, “certain responsibilities are too heavy for individuals’ shoulders. We have got to assume them as a group.” Those who make use of corruption themselves become corrupted, but with the Communists the fact that they were responsible to a collective authority offered a check and balance.

It was not only for the Communists that this dilemma was posed during the last war. Those Jews who operated the gas chambers at Birkenau—what alternative did they have? Had they refused, they would have been summarily shot, and others found, perhaps non-Jews, to take their place. The Chief Rabbi of Salonika who had to submit a list of persons to the Gestapo for deportation and death—was his action reprehensible or not? Would it have been better if the Gestapo had shot him outright and sated itself indiscriminately? These were not ethical problems in the old sense of the word, and certainly not as found in text-books of morality—except as fanciful archetypes. Here, there was no genuine alternative except death. Every choice was urgent, crucial, and decisive. Morality was synonymous with suicide, and the fanciful had become the commonplace.

In a sense, this is becoming the morality problem of our epoch. Is it permissible to sacrifice one innocent person in order to save the world? That is the true dimension of the problem—and not only in its theoretical extreme but in its practical immediacy.

But how to answer? The thundering “No!” is easy and absolute, and many religious thinkers have given it for us to see. By fighting the SS on their own level, the Communists recreated themselves in the SS’s image. By debasing themselves, the Jews who operated the gas chambers fulfilled the intention of the SS, which was to persuade them that they were inherently evil and rejected from humanity. By showing to the world how weak a creature man is, how susceptible to torture and degradation, “the camps, by the simple fact of their existence, set up in society a destructive nightmare, eternally present and accessible” (Rousset).

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We wish that the men in Buchenwald had acted differently, that there had been more human cooperation and self-sacrifice. But how would we have acted? What would we have done in the face of the diabolical trap that forced the prisoners to stand roll-call in a space too constricted to hold them all, with the surplus summarily executed? Would we have fought, scratched, kicked, and killed to get into line—before the uproarious belly-laughs of the SS—when the very space our bodies occupied spelled an innocent man’s death?

It is only natural and human to be repelled by the Communists’ tactics, and to reject their justification. But no partisan verdict can supply an easy conscience. Until we can propose a genuinely felt and honestly conceived moral alternative, we are tarred with the same brush. We can only agree once again with Wilde:

The brotherhood of man is no mere poet’s dream; it is a most depressing and humiliating reality.

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