Winter 2012, #18



     by Mattias Freese

The most appalling defeat in the camps was the absence of beauty. Regimentation was all, an artist without a palette.

Animal life had fled. Occasionally an errant bird chirped its creed and flew away. Butterflies stayed away, no flora to cling to. If you think rats, vermin, maggots and roaches are beautiful, it was Eden. Uniformity in everything was the rule. Barracks laid out in grids, barbed wire in rectangular enclosures. Even the circle was barred from the camp, for it was elusive to the German mind. Everything was squared off, nothing rounded. We lined up for morning roll call, the Appell. The guttural voices of the German guards barked out the same repetitive orders. Geometry was god, diversity Satan’s whore, opinion a mother’s bastard, and questions a whore’s tease. Order above all. To my ears, the German gutturals obeyed in aural allegiance the mind set of their speakers. When I fill the ice cube tray, I pause, knowing how well the Germans viewed us, frozen cubes all lined up.

I remember well digging a two-foot-wide trench, supposedly as a latrine. The Germans had us constantly digging as if the work itself was useful, in some perverse way a contribution to hygiene. It was a lie. It took some time after being freed to grasp the subtle cruelty behind our orders.

As we dug we were sapped of energy. Many of us died on the spot, guards either flailing us with whips, kicking us, whipping their rifle butts about our backs. It was as if we had failed them, as if Jews couldn’t do hard labor. No use reminding them we were good at pyramid building or putting up the Coliseum in Rome. No Jew could speak to a German - ever.

Many of us viewed the trenches as a necessary evil. The intent was to work us to death, as the Germans weren’t concerned about our hygiene. The task was, in effect, to wear us out to a point that we evolved into Muselmanner, the stage before the ovens. We weren’t being harvested. We weren’t contributing to a greater Germany. We were expendable. In the very routinization of our efforts was the very plan for our extinction.

“Work makes you free” was the carrot and the stick, but no prisoner ever really believed that after a few weeks in the camp. After a while, none of us could think clearly, for we lacked the necessary proteins in our body to make tissues connect and channel clear thinking.
For some of us, the trench-digging became compartmentalized. We split ourselves right down the middle. Each shovel of dirt fed personal dreams or delusions - hopes and aspirations while the next shovelful served the Reich. If we were casual or slow in our efforts, we were beaten. The real task was to focus on another thought - perhaps feeling - as we slaved away.

I used to think about slavery in the trenches, of slaves throughout the centuries:  Greek and Roman slaves, Spartacus, and Jewish slaves in Egypt. How did they manage their daily sufferings? As I pondered all this in the trenches, I worked on being hyper-vigilant, for if I fell too deeply into reflection my pace might falter. I’d bear terrible risk. And so I lived on the razor’s edge.

I reached no great conclusion as the months went by. Digging in the trenches, leveling their earthen floors, patting down with shovel this side or another, taught me nothing of use - except  despair. What I concluded above slaves and slavery stayed with me during the nights in my barrack bed. . .

One reaches such levels of depression and despondency as a slave that death becomes an essential aspiration, an ambitious and greedy need. If one leans in this direction, a proclivity which may have been in one’s personality before enslavement, all is lost. One can crave death and yet one’s body refuses to yield and one just stumbles about, denied rest . This is a very cruel existence. I lived it.
A few heroically fight back inwardly, psychologically. And how rare these men were! We could tell them apart from us because as fellow slaves we detected nuances. When we went along with abuse and punishment, they went along, but in their eyes roared defiance. Rare, but in a way, holy and majestic, their liberation was before the camps fell. And, at times, without their knowledge, they provided inspiration - but mind you, just for a moment, and not for too long.

And there are exotic or strange feelings as a slave, for at times we fawned before our masters, merged with them, craved their attention, wished them personal happiness. And I know of one prisoner who desired to be beaten to death by one particular guard, as if his choice might please this guard, give him one less prisoner to watch over. And so this inmate directed his limited existence toward that end.

The “affairs” between slave and enslaver are notoriously complex, riddling. I couldn’t grasp that then, nor do I now. I understand that under peculiar circumstances. We enslave ourselves in repeatedly different instances, giving up ourselves to be slaves is just the surface of things. It was not for nothing that slavery in this country was called the “peculiar institution.”

In our slavery is the wish to please the taskmaster, encouraging him in his brutality for we take him away from the good things of his life, for instance. As we move more profoundly into our slavery, freedom becomes irrelevant, or a whimsy. There is for some of us the perverse charm of enslavement for within we discover levels of personal pleasure, in fact, the most enslaved of us all, the ones who gave over to the taskmaster their complete selves, find in that surrender a kind of desperate freedom.

No longer do they have to care or tend to themselves, they are back in their cribs. No anxiety befalls them. All needs are met. Freedom from the unknown soothes them - the sad fools! But I should not judge. Humans are like children’s marbles, all sizes and colors, pure, dark and variegated, heavy, lightweight - it is a matter of taste, of what is suitable for playing this or that marble game. It’s what you want as a personal collectible.

The wandering of the Jews after Egypt for forty years is the Bible’s brilliant insight into the need to have the slave mentality extinguished, for only those free of internal slavery could enter Canaan. The critical conflict in my life as an “ex-slave” is whether or not my dark nature was there before or did camp life stamp that indelibly upon my brow.

In any case, it is my dark nature that determines how I feel and think. At moments I’m perforated as if essential pieces are missing. I still don’t know if I am still a slave. The camp mothered me in my adolescence, breastfed its malignant metallic tasting milk in more powerful ways than my own mother. What evil proteins passed by my lips from that witch’s teat?

I know my life after the camp has been, in a fashion, a second slavery. I have struggled to be free of the horrific icons placed inside me, emotionally and psychologically. The cruel realization is that I have to work once more on staying free. I’ve lived an appalling existence. I know. I live it still. I’m left with the stale choices only an old man has as I function day to day. My youth is gone. It was chiseled away. I am mere cloying chunks of being, trying to reclaim myself once more - and at such a late time in life. Life has been unfair is a cavalier statement for me. Life has not been for me. So what is to be done? The Jew in me has been taught to ask. Oh, reason, the Jew’s sweet river Jordan.