Everybody knows about Ruth Klüger or Primo Levi; Imre Kertész won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2002, and Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. These authors are famous for their autobiographical texts about the Shoah, which they wrote after having survived the Nazi extermination camps. Their books are well known, they became part of the literary canon and have led to a lot of scholarly research.
The Chadwyck-Healey Liberation Collection in Cambridge University Library offers a promising addition to that field of research, because the collection keeps very similar, though much lesser known books. As the Liberation Collection focuses on books published between the Liberation of Paris in August 1944 and the end of 1946, the collection’s accounts of the Holocaust rank among the earliest testimonies of Nazi crimes, deportation and mass murder during the Second World War. These testimonies range from written accounts to documents and even paintings and illustrations. Even for research focused on books about the extermination camp of Auschwitz, the Liberation Collection offers a diversity of genre, tone, biographical background and emphasis.
By entering “Chadwyck-Healey Liberation” combined with “Auschwitz” into the Cambridge University online catalogue iDiscover, 13 hits come up, and all of these differ greatly in how they present what the writers had to live through in Auschwitz. Though they all adhere to non-fictional forms of writing, some are more literary autobiographies, while others offer a rather documentary style of writing. For instance, in Souvenirs de la maison des morts. Le massacre des Juifs. Documents uniques inédits sur les camps d’extermination Auschwitz, Birkenau et Majdanek, Paris, 1945 (Liberation.c.97), L. Simon edited three accounts about the extermination camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek. Although the accounts start with a short introduction to the individual background of each testimony, the witnesses are not named and the reports do not feature personal narratives or experiences. Instead, these “rapports” offer quite dispassionate plain reports containing charts about the size of deportation transports, as well as ground plans of the camps or the crematories.
Another quite similar item is the book Témoignages sur Auschwitz, ed. Fédération nationale des déportés et internés, résistants et patriotes, Paris 1946 (Liberation.b.233), which also consists of several relatively short sections about different aspects of detention in Auschwitz. Each testimony is written by a different person, and in this case every text is attributed to its respective author: the descriptions range from a working day in Auschwitz to the camp’s hospital, the life of women, resistance in the camp or events on special dates.
Whether they are documentary or literary (as for example Olga Lengyel’s Souvenirs de l’au-delà, Paris, 1946, Liberation.c.760), these books have in common the history they try to put into words. They all testify to the millions of children, women and men – most of them Jewish by Nazi categories – that were murdered during the Shoah and who were not allowed to return from the camps. These books expose the dehumanisation caused by imprisonment and absolute deprivation. However, they also talk again and again about the strategies that helped a very small group of individuals to survive.
Olga Lengyel’s text, translated from Hungarian, might be the best known book the collection holds, but sadly, even her autobiography hasn’t received as much scholarly attention as it would deserve – even though in 1998 she also testified within the framework of an oral history project. Published in 1946 and better known under the title of its English translation, Five Chimneys, her book describes the procedures right after arriving in the camp. After the long train ride in a heavily overcrowded wagon without any privacy, sanitary facilities or even enough water and air, the train arrives at Auschwitz and the author asks, relatively relieved, “Pouvait-il y avoir quelque chose de plus terrible que cette pénombre accablante alourdie par les odeurs fétides, les gémissements, les lamentations?” (p. 29). Still, the narrator has to wait for the next morning to be allowed to leave the wagon – just to realise then that families are immediately separated and that the first so called ‘Selektion’ takes place. Children and the elderly are isolated from women and men who seem healthy. Only hours after arriving in Auschwitz, people are divided into two groups: fit for work (and useful to the Nazis) versus weak (and of no use for the Nazi regime). The recently imprisoned people are not treated like humans but more like commodities, as only their capacity for work seems to be of interest.
Olga, who embarked on the train with her husband, two sons and parents, finds herself alone after this first part of the arrival in the camp. After having lost her family, she enters the next stage of the arrival procedure, which means that she has to take off all her clothes and leave all her belongings behind. This is when she and her fellow inmates realise that
… on nous dépouillait sans scrupules de tout ce que nous possédions. Les Allemands nous arrachaient tout, jusqu’au moindre souvenir qui pouvait nous rappeler notre vie passée. En ce qui me concerne, c’est la perte des photos des miens qui me parut la plus douloureuse. (p. 39, 40).
The narrator struggles most with the fact that not only she has been separated from her family but that she now also has to lose any memorial object. She then suddenly decides to conceal the photographs in her jacket, so that no other gaze might ‘damage’ them, and to tear her clothing apart. What might seem impulsive and unnecessary is a consoling action for Olga: “… il était tout de même réconfortant de penser que mes vêtements ne serviraient pas à une de ces mégères qui nous surveillaient.” (p. 41, 42). The fact that in a situation of control by others she decides to act on her own behalf is meaningful, even if the text suggests on several occasions that this kind of taking action results in even worse situations (see pages 19, 33, 43).
What follows is an intimate physical examination watched by more or less drunken guards, and the shearing of her entire body hair, including the head. As Olga does not obey a guard, she is beaten, which doesn’t seem to bother her anymore (p. 43):
Having managed to keep the poison she brought to the camp, Olga now feels the possibility of self-determination. Again, she finds strength in the potential opportunity to take action.
To deprive the new prisoners of even the last bit of individuality, the dispossessed and secluded women with shaved heads received rags which did not fit them: “… nous devions lutter pour surmonter le dégout à l’égard de nos compagnes… et de nous-mêmes” (p. 46).
But what happens after the women and men imprisoned in the camps have lived a few weeks or even months in such horrid conditions, always hungry and forced to hard work? How to relate to a former life under existential threat? How can they believe that a different life outside the camps is even possible? Olga Lenyel emphasises the importance of collective spirit: it is vital to “soutenir le moral de tous” (p. 43). She managed to achieve that when she became part of the resistance in Auschwitz. She served as an intermediary, receiving letters or information, and forwarding these to the right recipients. But she was also assigned the task to survive, in order to testify to the events and murders in Auschwitz: “Désormais, j’eus une nouvelle raison de vivre” (p. 116).
Others, such as religious Jews or Christians, coped with the camp in quite different ways: Pelagia Lewinska tells in Vingt Mois à Auschwitz, Paris, 1945 (Liberation.c.294) how female prisoners were sent to useless, hard and dirty work during Easter 1944. Instead of giving in to that mockery, the women began to sing hallelujah (p. 186).
Even actions which might seem rather harmful, like abstaining from the little sleep they were allowed to get at all, sometimes turned out to be an amazing way of self-assertion. Pelagia Lewinska refers to some nights when the women in her barrack did not sleep but told stories to each other:
En ces moments, inspirées par l’esprit qui montait en nous de la masse de ces femmes misérables plongées dans la boue et pourtant assoiffées d’un peu de beauté et de savoir, nous oubliions nous-même notre propre misère matérielle et nous avions le sentiment de vaincre la terrible machine hitlérienne destinée à enlever au people tout désir de culture. Ces simples filles du peuple qui se privaient de quelques rares moments de sommeil pour écouter, cette jeune fille qui avait passé une partie de la nuit sur un tabouret, tremblant de froid pour ne pas s’endormir, c’était notre victoire sur l’ennemi. C’est ainsi que nous défendions l’esprit. Et voici comment nous nous défendions contre la destruction physique (p. 145).
Lewinska describes that the dehumanisation in the camps targets not only the bodies of the imprisoned people, but equally the minds which are deprived of any kind of hope. What may be of help are the stories they had heard in their former life, the religion they belonged to, or their political conviction. Whenever it was possible to remember or to retrieve these symbolic values in the horrific surroundings of the extermination camp, the notion of a human life became thinkable and seemed to be possible at all.
The Chadwyck-Healey Liberation Collection offers a lot more than the books mentioned in this blog post: on the topic of the Nazi camps, a quick keyword search in the Cambridge University Library online catalogue shows that there are 21 books about Buchenwald, 5 about Ravensbrück, 3 about Majdanek and 3 about Bergen-Belsen. As of today, about 2000 items have been catalogued, a 1000 more have been acquired, and the collection is still growing. If you are interested in knowing more about the collection do not hesitate to get in touch at email@example.com.
Barbara Heindl, Berlin State Library (Intern at Cambridge University Library)