The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, by Terrence Des Pres

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

 

 

Terrence Des Pres, in his book The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, approaches the survivor’s memoirs to not further describe the horrific events, but rather, as a study of human nature. Essentially, Des Pres’ focus is on man’s endurance and adaptability while living through such shocking times. The author wants his readers to have a clearer understanding of how a single person, or a group of people, responds to cruelty against their person and their honor. He believes that survival equated existence in the death camps. Des Pres is straightforward in his approach, and writes that he is “…not directly concerned with the concentration camps, but with the people who suffered those places, who endured that evil and returned to bear witness.” (p. v)

In 1962 Terrence Des Pres graduated from Southeast Missouri State College. He received his graduate degree in philosophy from Washington University in St. Louis. While at Harvard University he served as a Harvard Junior Fellow and met, and became close friends with, John Nathan, who is currently the Takashima Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. At Colgate University, Des Pres taught Literature of the Holocaust and held the William Henry Crawshaw Chair in Literature. His most well-known work is The Survivor, but he also wrote Praises and Dispraises that discussed the importance of poetry for survival, which was published posthumously in 1988. Sadly, the author hung himself on November 16, 1987.

There is much praise for The Survivor. “An important, tormented, tormenting book,” wrote Elie Wiesel. E. O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology wrote that it was “A brilliant and beautifully written book about one of the ultimate human experiences.” “A horrifying, well-written, moving account of how men and women come to survive in the worst of all possible worlds,” a direct quote from the Washington Post. Finally, Nobel Prize winner, Wassily Leontief, fully agrees with Des Pres’ analysis of human nature. Leontief understood what the author wanted his readers to realize, and it is that “…neither cruelty and suffering nor morality and immorality but morale, the indomitable will to maintain human dignity and preserve the spark of life under hardly imaginable conditions…”

Des Pres elucidates how survivors have been portrayed in fictional works and how this has affected how people think of them based on what they have read. It is through fiction, Des Pres feels, that an understanding can be made with “…some framework fixed which mediates the difference between that world and ours.” (p. 6) He uses an example by Albert Camus in The Plague. “But once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that all…were…in the same boat, and each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life.” (p. 7) Des Pres continues in this vein, successfully using fiction as a tool to illustrate the pre-conceived notions of the populace.

From fiction to documents, Des Pres says, is to move from “…an ideal lucidity to the dense anguish of men and women…telling…the story of what they saw and endured in their passage through the concentration camps.” (p. 29) The documents have been written solely because there was a survivor to write them. Des Pres is passionate when he writes that the books and memoirs are proof that heroism is possible. (p. 50) It is ordinary people that were able to go through such hell and then “…take upon themselves the pain of living through it again, in order to fix its detail and make it known.” (p. 50)

An entire chapter, aptly names ‘Excremental Assault,’ centers on the filth and torture endured by the internees. A subjection to filth was borne during the train rides to the camps and once inside, all realized that the dirt and excrement covering them was to become a permanent condition. Typhus and dysentery were endured by all. Excrement surrounded them and became part of everyday reality. What is truly amazing, Des Pres adds, is not that so many died, but that any survived at all.

Discussed at great lengths was how the survivors, in fact, survived. The survivors describe two ways that internees chose in an attempt to say alive. Des Pres includes excerpts from Elie Wiesel who spoke of the “two prescriptions for survival.” An “old” prisoner told Elie that they were all brothers suffering the same fate. “Help one another. It is the only way to survive.” (p. 97) However, another inmate’s advice was quite opposite. “Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else. Even of his father. Here, there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.” (p. 97) This, Des Pres explains, was the plight of the prisoners. The agony of their choice colored each day thereafter and continued into freedom with their written words.

Des Pres found through research that survival is actually an experience, having a “…definite structure, neither random nor regressive nor amoral.” (p. v) His goal with The Survivor was to make the structure visible. The Survivor is not a typical Holocaust monograph, but rather more philosophical in approach. It is apparent, especially as he credits men like Tolstoy and Hemingway for influencing his style of writing. Both writers believed that to write about appalling things with a neutral tone was to “…generate an irony so virulent as to end in either cynicism or despair.” (p. vi)

Des Pres is confident using the survivor’s own perspective because, as he states, when survivors, men or women, from different camps or nationalities and cultures, report events exactly the same way, then the validity is assured. (p. vi) This book is basically a compilation of actual testimony with Des Pres dissecting the relevance and meaning behind the stories.

The author makes a valid point about the definition of a true survivor. He argues strongly, and convincingly. That the survivors who walk away from a concentration camp were affected greatly by the struggles created from different “fixed activities,” (p. vii) Des Pres spends much time expounding on the various struggles that colored much of the survivor’s life while incarcerated. Such fixed activities included forms of social bonding and interchange, on collective resistance, and, in some cases, the most important hinged on keeping dignity and a moral sense. (p. vii) Keeping a sense of oneself, as a human being, rather than that of a beaten mongrel, was perhaps the hardest to hold onto. Des Pres writes about survivors who had come from all over Europe and the Soviet Union, but his focus stays zeroed in on the Jews specifically, because, as he writes, their fate was always far worse in both German and Russian camps.

Des Pres does well in supporting his thesis of how man adapts, and why, in the midst of extreme or hostile situations. Nevertheless, The Survivor may surprise some readers with the style of writing. This is not a traditional monograph, in which a study of a single, specialized subject is explored. Instead, one gets an almost Sigmund Freud vibe. At times Des Pres’ focus on the psychoanalysis of the concentration camp victims can become tedious when paired with sweeping prose that reflects philosophers of old. He has, nevertheless, masterfully used sources in a meaningful and educational way. He draws from many different areas, including fiction, survivor testimony, and even tacks on a bit of scientific study. Des Pres writes eloquently throughout and ends with equally profound words. He believes that when the value of life has been reduced to zero, a survivor is born, and “…are now strong enough, mature enough, awake enough, to face death without mediation, and therefore to embrace life without reserve.” (p. 207)

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